Historians and Journalists

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I get a lot of calls from journalists.  They have increased significantly since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency.   When journalists call I am happy to oblige.  I see this as an important part of my identity as a public scholar.  It is always nice to get acknowledged in an article, but sometimes a reporter wants to talk to a historian for background information that may or may not make it into the story.  Other times I just don’t say anything profound enough to make the final cut.

Over the years I have had my work–books, articles (scholarly and popular), and blog posts–used without citation.  It comes with the territory.  I have been noticing this of late with my use of the phrase “court evangelicals” to describe the evangelical leaders who support Donald Trump.  (I am grateful for journalists such as Nancy LeTourneau who always gives me credit for coining the term.  Michael Gerson–not so much).

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fernanda Zamudio-Suarez writes about the relationship between historical scholarship and the media.  Here is a taste:

It was getting late, and the 2018 Golden Globe Awards were dragging on. But Danielle L. McGuire, a Detroit-based historian, was still waiting. She was staying up for something much more important than the year’s entertainment honors. She was waiting for Oprah Winfrey.

That night, Winfrey’s speech accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement, in which she presented a passionate argument for the #MeToo movement, electrified viewers and prompted questions about a presidential run.

For McGuire, the speech prompted a different question: How had Winfrey found out about Recy Taylor, one of the women at the center of her speech?

In September 1944, Taylor, a 24-year-old African-American sharecropper, was abducted and raped by six white men while she walked home from church in Abbeville, Ala. Decades before the civil-rights movement reached its climax the NAACP sent Rosa Parks to investigate the situation, and the seeds of the movement for racial equality were sewn, she said.

McGuire’s 2010 bookAt the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — a New History of the Civil Rights Movement From Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (Penguin Random House) brought attention to a figure who had been largely absent from mainstream history. McGuire had connected the dots between the activists who called for Taylor’s rapists to be prosecuted and the rise of the civil-rights movement years later.

The speech introduced Taylor but didn’t go full circle to the civil-rights movement, And it lacked a reference to McGuire’s work.

Not that the historian was upset. At first she was just surprised that Winfrey was speaking about Taylor. “I was genuinely shocked, like, in a good way,” she said.

McGuire had just returned from Taylor’s funeral. She spent time with Taylor’s family, and helped The New York Times write her obituary. To hear Winfrey tell the story was an extraordinary moment, she said. “You couldn’t ask for a better bookend to somebody’s home-going than have Oprah Winfrey tell your story in front of millions of people and praise your courage,” McGuire said. “And single you out as first, right, a leader. And so it was amazing. I was so grateful.”

She held out hope that Winfrey would mention her book in the speech, but that night she could do without it. “I mean, look, it’s Oprah Winfrey.”

Read the rest here.

Mary Beard

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I recently read Charlotte Higgins‘s long form essay at The Guardian on Mary Beard, the Cambridge University classicist, public intellectual, and blogger.  The piece is worth your time.  Beard is a model of a publicly-engaged scholar.

Here is a small taste of the piece:

One reason Beard is so widely beloved is that her interventions in public life – whether one agrees with her or not – offer an alternative mode of discourse, one that people are hungry for: a position that is serious and tough in argument, but friendly and humorous in manner, and one that, at a time when disagreements quickly become shrill or abusive, insists on dialogue. Still, it is these precise qualities that can, equally, land her in deep water. The point of her notorious 9/11 article was that one could simultaneously deplore the terrorists’ murderous violence, and try to understand their position. After the deluge of angry emails arrived, she tried to reply to most of them, even making a couple of friends along the way. When I asked her if she would countenance taking Isis’s ideology seriously, she said: “That’s the wrong question. There is no argument that I won’t take seriously. Thinking through how you look to your enemies is helpful. That doesn’t mean that your ideology is wrong and theirs is right, but maybe you have to recognise that they have one – and that it may be logically coherent. Which may be uncomfortable.” Few would think it worth arguing with Arron Banks, the Ukip donor, when he said the Roman empire had collapsed because of immigration. Beard pulled him up on Twitter, suggesting he might like to read a bit more classical history – and then went out to lunch with him.

Trying to calm the fury and aggression of public speech is, quite possibly, a futile endeavour. Friends worry about the toll such a publicly exposed existence takes on her. The time she devotes to email alone is daunting; she tries to respond to everything. Withstanding appalling online abuse is draining. Still she keeps going. She abhors a comfortable consensus. “She is very suspicious of received wisdoms, conventional views,” said Peter Stothard. “If everyone is saying X is Y, her instinct is to say, are we sure it isn’t P?” For Beard, the very point of being an academic in the public sphere is the ability to be a kind of intellectual awkward squad – unlike elected politicians, who inevitably seek popularity. “The right to be unpopular is important – that’s what academic freedom is about,” she said.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Historians Weigh-In on Trump’s War with the FBI

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Vox has collected nine historians to reflect on the Donald Trump’s belief that the FBI is plotting against himSean Illing has gathered responses from Douglas Charles (Penn State), Rhodri-Jeffryss Jones (Edinburgh), Meg Jacobs (Princeton), Carol Anderson (Emory), Ivan Greenberg, Morton Keller (Brandeis), Timothy Naftali (NYU), H.W. Brands (Texas-Austin), and David Stebenne (Ohio State).

Here is Jones:

The contest of wills between Trump and the FBI is not so much a part of a long-term battle between the president and the director of intelligence as much as it is the latest episode in the GOP effort to sideline and discredit the Russia investigation.

When Christopher Wray testified during his confirmation hearings, he assured the Senate committee he was “not faint of heart.” If and when necessary, he would be willing to stand up to the president. And so far, it looks like he’s living up to his promise. However, the fight over the House Republican memo is less about historical precedence or weakening of the checks on the presidency than it is a reflection of the polarized politics we are living through and, more generally, the attack on the credibility of all government institutions.

The memo scandal is a move on behalf of the White House … to tarnish the reputation of the FBI and of the Justice Department, and by extension call into doubt the motives of the Mueller investigation. In that way, it takes us further down the path of turning every development in the investigation into a partisan ploy.

That, of course, is nothing new — think of the attacks on Kenneth Star by the Clinton White House. But here, the charges are not simply that Mueller is an overzealous prosecutor, but rather that the FBI tried to help throw an entire election. The House memo seems like it will suggest that the FBI was implicated in an attempted coup. The long-term significance of the memo release is that it may confirm for some how few in government can be trusted to act in an independent and honest way, even the FBI —which has historically been seen as beyond the partisan fray.

Read the entire piece here.

Is Social Media Scholarship?

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Yesterday I was in Northfield, Minnesota where I gave a talk about blogging, The Way of Improvement Leads Home (the blog), and the relationship between social media and civic engagement.  I spoke as part of a series on digital publishing sponsored by faculty and staff from Carleton College and St. Olaf College.  (Thanks to the DeAne Lagerquist for the invitation!)

During our conversation several professors talked to me about the possibility of starting their own blogs.

I don’t pretend to believe that our blogging model at The Way of Improvement Leads Home is normative.  We post a lot here and have developed a unique approach.  So yesterday I tried to suggest some ways that busy academics might make blogging work for them as teachers and scholars.

One model for academic blogging comes from Mark Carrigan in his recent Chronicle of Higher Education piece, “Social Media is Scholarship.”  It is excellent.

Here is a taste:

Before I created a research blog, I used to carry a series of ornate notebooks in which to record my ideas, reflect on what I had read, and sketch out my plans — or rather I tried to carry them. Inevitably I forgot them at the most inopportune moments, reducing me to scribbling notes on scraps of paper, only to fail to transcribe them at a later date. Even when I managed to record my notes, my overly-enthusiastic scrawls often proved indecipherable when I came back to them.

In contrast, my research blog is accessible to me wherever I have a mobile phone or computer. The expectation that others might read my notes forces me to work out what I am trying to say, rather than scribbling down in shorthand ideas that might feel meaningful to me at the time but are often confusing later.

Sharing those blog posts through my social-media feeds often leads to useful conversations — at a much earlier stage in the research process than would otherwise be the case. It creates an awareness of what I’m working on, and has often been the first step in eventual invitations to speak or collaborate. The fact that I can categorize and tag my online notes helps me see connections between different projects I am working on, highlighting emerging themes and deepening my understanding of how the topics fit together. Having my notes online also makes them extremely easy to search, providing a fantastic resource when I am writing papers and chapters.

My point is not that everyone should use a research blog. There are many reasons why it might not be suitable for you: (1) Without a smartphone, a blog would be much less useful; (2) some people find that writing by hand actually helps, rather than hinders, the creative process; and (3) many academics are uncomfortable with sharing work-in-progress online with an unknown audience.

Exactly which technology works for which person will depend on many factors. But in my case, moving from a research notebook to a research blog helped me become a more efficient and effective scholar. Rather than being an unwelcome drain, social media has helped me use my time more effectively.

Read the entire piece here.

Even More Historians Talk About the Trump Presidency

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Scott Berg, Robert Dallek, Jon Meacham, Edmund Morris, Stacy Schiff, and Garry Wills all reflect on the Trump presidency in this piece at Vanity Fair.

Here is Schiff:

Eighty-seven years before the American Revolution, the New England elite lost their patience with overreaching British officials. They wailed that their royal governor intended to deliver them to a foreign power. He colluded with the Native Americans. He distributed Catholic propaganda. Privately, they alleged, Governor Edmund Andros sneered that the Puritans “were a people fit only to be rooted off the face of the earth.” To counter his “deep design,” Boston’s civic leaders staged a coup. They were hardly the first to pass off self-interest as self-preservation, persecution as piety. They warned that the French and Irish were en route to Boston to destroy it; that Andros had bribed the Native Americans with jewelry; that together those fiends intended to butcher the settlers. An Andros associate wrote off the charges as hysterical, “so apparently false and strangely ridiculous” that no one could conceivably believe them. He was wrong. The coup’s leaders had a great deal invested in that narrative. They were a familiar breed of thin-skinned men, the kind who—as John Adams would later say of Elbridge Gerry—“would risk great things to secure small ones.”

Setting the stage for the American Revolution, Samuel Adams took a page from that playbook when in 1768 he linked a later Massachusetts governor to a so-called Papist plot. Adams had not a shred of evidence. But he knew a thing or two about stalking horses; Jesuits would be said to prowl menacingly through much of the American 19th century. Ultimately the Catholic specter gave way to the Communist one: between the Puritan hedge and Trump’s Mexican wall came networks of subversives, the watchtowers of the nation, and the reckless cruelty of Joseph McCarthy. The fevered imaginings remained the same. Each group served its purpose, threatening, as an eminent cleric warned in an 1835 anti-Catholic tirade, to “decide our elections, perplex our policy, inflame and divide the nation, break the bond of our union and throw down our free institutions.” Always a convenient demon can be found to plot against America, to remind a chosen few that they are the elect, that our way of life is in peril, that time is short, that we are precariously poised between a sun-dappled past and an apocalyptic future. The language has evolved very little since the 17th century. The judge sentencing Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage in 1951 termed theirs “a diabolical conspiracy to destroy a God-fearing nation.” That fiery 1835 cleric could have been selling this administration’s Muslim ban.

By definition the contest is stark and absolute. The insinuations alone are vague. “There’s something going on that’s really, really bad,” our current president has reminded us. “A lot of people are saying,” he hints, broadly, vaguely. The fearmongering works, as does the cheap call to arms, Patriotism Lite. To connect Ted Cruz’s father with J.F.K.’s murder, to invent Kenyan births or Trump Tower wiretaps, allow you to avenge and aggrandize yourself while defrauding the truth. It divorces the rest of us from reality. It dangerously obscures the evidence at hand. It moves the club from the hand of the slogan-spewing white supremacist to that of the peaceful protester. Reason takes a holiday; in rush the phantom Frenchmen. Conveniently, a fake enemy can’t return fire. Better yet, he will continue to wage battle only so long as he is needed, after which he disappears into thin air.

Read the entire piece here.

Historians Discuss American History in the Age of Trump

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Tom Ashbrook interviews historians Judith Giesberg and Julian Zelizer on his WBUR-Boston show “On Point”

Listen here.

Themes discussed and things learned:

  • Julian Zelizer is writing a book about Newt Gingrich
  • Zelizer says that we should be careful not to place Trump solely in “long term continuums.”  There is a lot about him that is unique, new, and unprecedented.
  • Giesberg trashes Newt Gingrich’s attempt to compare the culture wars with the American Civil War.
  • Giesberg reminds us that Confederate monuments were erected during Jim Crow.
  • Zelizer:  If you think that we are living in “two different countries” today, try learning something about the 1960s.
  • Giesburg assigns Eric Foner’s biography of Abraham Lincoln in her Civil War class at Villanova.
  • Giesburg argues that Lincoln learned a lot during his presidency.  So can Trump.  (But she is not optimistic).
  •  Zelizer:  In the 1990s, Gingrich pushed a kind of conservative populism similar to Trump’s base.
  • Zelizer connects Trump’s populism to Father Coughlin and George Wallace.  Trump is the first president to ride this wave of conservative populism to the White House.
  • Zelizer: Race-based nativism never went away.  Trump is not “restoring” anything.
  • Evangelicals Christian do call NPR stations and make thoughtful comments
  • Giesburg compares the Trump victory to the period of “redemption” at the end of Reconstruction.

A Call for Historians to “Use Their Power”

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As one who has been in trenches of public scholarship for years, I cheered when I read historian Karen Cox‘s piece at CNN: “Historians need to use their power now.”

A taste:

Historians need to take their role as public intellectuals seriously. True, op-eds often require a timely response to events that are unfolding. Yet, some events, like historical anniversaries, can be anticipated. We need to pay attention to contemporary conversations that have historical parallels or require a global context.

Today, humanities scholars are roundly criticized for being irrelevant. Degrees in history and English, among others, are described as “useless.” But this is simply not true as recent events have shown. That being said, scholars who have yet to write for broader audiences should take the initiative (and be encouraged by their institutions) to do so, whether that’s through editorials, a blog, popular magazines, or books that not only offer lessons, but are written to be accessible.

Make your work available via social media as well. Historians on Twitter, also known as “Twitterstorians,” share and engage with the public and are on many journalists’ radar. One of the most important developments in recent years has been hashtags for various syllabi. The #Charlestonsyllabus was one of the first. It emerged on Twitter as a response to the killing of nine parishioners in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. The effort amassed a reading list of scholarship and public writing about our country’s racial history that is now a book. It is also highly regarded for its comprehensiveness.

As historians, we must also engage in community discussions, and many of us do. But more of us can and should, whether that’s via a panel discussion or speaking to local citizens’ groups.

Read the entire piece here.

More on Historians as Pundits

WoodwardToday we published two posts on a small debate raging over how historians should engage in public discourse.   After Moshik Temkin published a piece at The New York Times titled “Historians Should Not Be Pundits,” Julian Zelizer and Morton Keller responded at The Atlantic.  Earlier today I discussed these issues with historian and author Amy Bass on her New York radio show (WVOX) “Conversations with Amy Bass.”

Joe Adelman, an American history who teaches at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, has also weighed-in with a helpful critique of Temkin’s piece.  It is published (with permission) below:

Like many historians, I awoke this morning and recoiled when I opened Twitter and stumbled into an New York Times op-ed piece entitled, “Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits.” The author, a historian at the Harvard Kennedy School, argues that he is concerned by what he believes is “the rapid-fire, superficial way history is being presented, as if it’s mostly a matter of drawing historical analogies.” He then offers examples of such analogies, and suggests that instead historians should address a variety of “historical processes” that led to the current day. I found the essay frustrating (and judging by my Twitter and Facebook feeds, I’m not alone in that feeling among historians), but set it aside to go about my day.

But the essay has stuck with me for three reasons, so here I am to respond. First, the headline (which was almost certainly not written by the column’s author), which is delightfully ironic in placing the construction “X Shouldn’t Be Pundits” at the corner of Main Street and Broadway in Punditville, USA (i.e., the New York Times opinion page). Second, the essay employs a series of straw men. Somewhere out there, the author assures us, are historians making “facile analogies” between the politics and personalities of 2017 and Adolf Hitler, Richard Nixon, and Huey Long. Sure, I’ve seen a few of those pieces, and so have you, but they are far from the majority of work that historians have done in the past six months. Even when I have seen essays that employed analogy, they were rarely “facile.”

It’s particularly useful here to note that Temkin is wrong in one of his examples, in which he claims that C. Vann Woodward avoided analogy in his classic study, The Strange Career of Jim Crow. One scholar quickly found evidence that Woodward had specifically said that he did use analogies, and in direct reference to Strange Career.

So historians are using analogies, but there’s a very good reason for that: analogies are in the air. I hesitate to generalize broadly at the risk of committing the same sin I just condemned, but anecdotally I can offer from the classroom and public talks in the community that one of the more common frames people use to ask questions is, “so is X like Y?” Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no, but it’s an impulse that seems common (at least among my own students and the audiences I encounter). In my own case, I demur on questions too much about the late twentieth century, since it’s far outside my research specialty. However, I will engage on most analogies that deal with the Civil War or earlier, and use what’s offered in the question to work towards an effective answer. As Woodward notes in the tweeted quotation, analogies aren’t meant to capture direct comparison, but rather a way to set something familiar side by side with something less so.

Prof. Temkin wants historians to engage the public and offer factual and nuanced portraits of the past. I agree. But especially when speaking outside the profession, whether in an essay for a news publication, at a public talk, or in the classroom, that means we need to start with where our audience is and work from there. And many of them are working from analogy.

Zelizer and Keller Respond to Moshik Temkin

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Earlier today we posted on Moshik Temkin’s New York Times piece “Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits.”  Over at The Atlantic, historians Julian Zelizer and Morton Keller have also responded to Temkin’s piece.  Here is a taste of Zelizer’s response:

As he suggests toward the end of his piece, historians are particularly well positioned to place current events in longer time frames and to offer more perspective on the origins of a certain situation (another point that May and Neustadt made in their classic work). For my own part, I have spent much of my time on CNN and here in The Atlantic trying to explain how the Donald Trump presidency can only be understood within the context of the strengthened role of partisanship in Washington since the 1970s and the transformation of the news media. In other words, I have tried to show that President Trump is not a cause of our current political environment but a product of changes that have been building for years.Sometimes comparisons with the past, even if imperfect, are very useful. Most of the good historical work in the media does not claim that Trump is President Nixon. Rather, the point is that the institution of the presidency creates certain incentives and opportunities for abusing power and that some people who have held these positions have done just that. That is crucial to remember, just like the ways that the institutional fragmentation of our political system perpetually creates huge amounts of friction between the president and Congress, as well as between the parties, despite the endless nostalgia about how things worked better in the past.

Historians have an important role in unpacking key elements of the ways that institutions operate over time to make sense of big trends and broader forces that move beyond the particular moment within which we live. We can’t become so blinded by our concern for particularity and specificity and nuance that we lose site of the big picture—something my friends in political science always remind me of. Claiming that we can’t look at these kind of continuities and similarities is in many ways moving in the opposite direction of what historians do. Some of the best books in American history, such as J.G.A. Pocock’s classic book on the history of Republican ideology, look over decades and even across national-lines to explain how history unfolds. It is possible for historians to take the long view and provide this kind of useful analysis in 800 words or even a five-minute television discussion. It has to be short, it has be to the point, but it can be as insightful and on point as anything said in the classroom.

Read the entire piece here.

Tips for Public Writing

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Over at Inside Higher Ed, academics Christopher Schaberg and Ian Bogost offer “10 Challenges for Scholars Writing for Wider Audiences.”  Schaberg and Bogost are the editors of Object Lessons, a book and article series “about the hidden lives of ordinary things.” During the 2017-2018 academic year they will be conducting four NEH-funded workshops for scholars who are interested in reaching larger audiences with their writing.

Here are some of their “challenges”:

Scholars need not choose between reaching the public and impressing their peers. They can do both. The deciding factor in whether the public appreciates an article or book is not the subject matter; rather, it is the manner in which the subject is made to connect with readers’ interests and concerns. Likewise, ordinary people are perfectly capable of digesting difficult, technical and specialized material as long as the writer explains that material clearly and concisely. Even most scholarly authors prefer reading stuff that doesn’t require physical suffering. But habit, pride and maybe even shame make this topic a forbidden one. And so we end up with the same hard-to-read books and articles.

Scholars don’t know what a “market” is, even when they write for a specific scholarly audience. The process of evaluating a work for whom it might reach and why is simply foreign to scholars — especially humanists. Almost all book proposals include a section on the book’s supposed audience, but it typically gets filled with celebrations of a project’s “uniqueness.” Uniqueness is not necessarily a virtue. Work needs to reach people who have previously been reached by other, similar work. Academics can benefit from thinking of their work as having a market and considering how comparable titles have fared in the marketplace of ideas and books.

This isn’t for everyone. Not every scholar will or should be destined to reach a broader, more general audience. It is not more or less scholarly or more or less righteous to do so. Each scholar must figure out how their individual talents and disposition can best be put to use. Similarly, recognizing that colleagues and peers might have different talents and dispositions, and concomitant publishing trajectories, can help produce greater scholarly harmony. 


Read the entire article here.

Trump’s Remarks Are Drawing Historians Out of the Ivory Tower

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Check out Graham Vyse’s piece at The New Republic in which he suggests that Donald Trump is radicalizing American historians.

I am not sure if “radicalizing” is the right word here.  Historians have been radicalized for a long time.  The professions leans heavily to the left.

But Trump’s misuse of the past seems to be getting more historians out of the ivory tower and into a deeper engagement with the public.  This is a good thing.

Here is a taste of Vyse’s piece:

But Trump also presents a challenge for historians: how to use their expertise to counteract Trump’s ignorance, but without appearing partisan. “You’re entering into a very heated world with a very heated president, so you have to be careful not to be an advocate. It’s very tempting for many people,” Zelizer said. “It’s difficult to figure out the proper tone with which to object to Trump’s positions,” Greenberg acknowledged. “Nobody wants to look biased.”

Some historians fear that, given how partisanship increasingly dictates what Americans believe, many Americans will believe Trump’s alternative history. “Before you know it, we may have a new term: history deniers,” said Yale University historian David Blight. Avoiding such a future “may mean more of us have to become public spokespeople about history than we were in the past,” Blight said. “When the most powerful man in the world speaks historical nonsense, we have to speak out and say so.” “I think we are very much in a similar role as climate scientists,” Lichtman added. “There are truths of science. There are truths of history.”

For Blight, the trouble is that Trump rose to power despite these truths—despite the established danger of demagogues, the historic viciousness of prejudice, and the broad consensus that expanding rights for women and people of color has strengthened societies. “You spend all your years and all your life trying to teach history, and then to see this man elected—I felt historians had failed,” he said. “We’re working in every medium we can—from film, to museums, to writing books. But we’re up against the Fox News view of the country, which we don’t reach. We don’t even know how.

Vyse’s piece focuses on Penn State historian Amy Greenberg, but it also quotes Allan Lichtman, Julian Zelizer, and David Blight.  The latter three are all historians who do speak to the general public.

Read it all here.

 

Historians and History Teachers in the Age of Trump

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Last week I got a nice note from a former student. Let’s call him Patrick.

Patrick is a recent college graduate and a relatively new history teacher. He wrote to tell me that his middle-school principal recently praised him for his good work in the classroom.  In the course of their conversation the principal said, “history is important, particularly now.”

Patrick’s principal is right. Good history is always important, but it is especially needed in times of great social and political change.  We are living in a day and age when historians and history teachers must serve as a “check” on presidential power.

Donald Trump gave history teachers a gift when he released his executive order banning immigration from 7 predominantly Muslim nations. When the 9th Circuit Court refused to overturn a federal judge’s decision to stop this ban, classroom lessons on the separation of powers came took on new significance. The Executive Branch went too far and the Judicial Branch, at least for the moment, put a stop to it.  Chalk it up as a victory for the Constitution.  The facts of the textbook met the realities of current events.  This is every history teacher’s dream.

The separation of powers is not the only way to keep the President of the United States in check.  A free press holds the government accountable to the people. Freedom of speech and the right to assemble, as we have seen in American cities every weekend since Trump took office, is a means of getting the President’s attention and exercising dissent.

It is time that those of us who are called to teach and write about the American past must use our First Amendment rights to be part of the dissent.

Sometimes our public work as historians is as simple as correcting the historical record when it is being abused by those in power.

For example, earlier this month Kellyanne Conway, a senior official in the Trump White House, introduced us to something called the “Bowling Green Massacre.”

I imagine that there were people who saw and heard Conway’s conversation with television host Chris Matthews and believed her claim that two Iraqi refugees in 2011 led a “massacre” of Americans in the town of Bowling Green, Kentucky.  By claiming that such an event happened (it did not) and giving her fake story a historically-sounding name like the “Bowling Green Massacre,” Conway was trying to instill fear in ordinary Americans.  It was a blatant attempt to fabricate history in order to justify her boss’s immigration ban.  History teaches us that tyrants often manipulate the past to buttress their power.

Historians quickly debunked Conway’s fake history, but the damage had already been done.  The day after the Conway’s interview with Matthews I was speaking to a Trump voter who referenced the “Bowling Green Massacre” as a Muslim terrorist attack that could have been avoided if Trump’s ban had been in place in 2011.  A poll by Public Polling Policy found that over half of Trump supporters still believe that the President’s executive order is justified by the “Bowling Green Massacre.”

Historians might also show that Americans have been banning immigrants based on country of origin or religious faith for a long time.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 excluded people from coming to the United States on the basis of their race, ethnicity, or country of origin. The Johnson-Reed Act, which banned most immigration from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, remained in place until 1965.

Historians must remind us, in this age of Donald Trump, that we as a nation have not always lived up to our highest ideals.  Their work can remind us that we have failed in the past and encourage us, perhaps this time around, to follow our better angels.

But most importantly, historians offer ways of thinking about the world that we desperately need right now.  History teachers challenge students to make evidence-based arguments. They spend time showing students how to write footnotes and cite sources correctly because they do not want them to speak or write in public without research to support their conclusions.  They counter “fake news” with facts.

In this regard they teach the nation’s young people how not to be like Donald Trump.

History teachers challenge students to enter imaginatively into the thoughts and motivations of the people they encounter in the past.  They teach students to listen before judging and to empathize before criticizing.  They want students to consider the public statements of our leaders in context, and to call them out when they play fast and loose with the past for the purpose of political gain.

There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution about the role that historians and history teachers play in the checking of presidential power.  But we need them now–perhaps more than ever.

Scott Culpepper’s “Call to Courageous Christian Scholarship” in the Age of Trump

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Scott Culpepper teaches history at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. In a guest post at The Anxious Bench he exhorts Christian scholars to courageously pursue their vocations in the age of Trump.  It is a wonderful piece.  Here is just a taste:

Christian scholars are indeed a subversive influence.  Critics are right in labeling us a subversive influence if what they mean is that we subvert the subordination of facts to falsehoods calculated to sway popular opinion, the substitution of shallow shibboleths for deeper reflection, and the sacrifice of principle on the profane altar of political expediency.  And there will be a greater need for us to keep on subverting these things with all the energy we can muster in the age of Trump.

The times call for renewed conviction, creativity and courage on the part of Christian scholars.  The masses may not know they need us, but they need us.  The endorsement of popular influence as a virtue in the framing of our American republic was predicated on the hope that education and character formation would equip people to exercise their rights intelligently.  No one is better prepared than Christian scholars and the institutions they serve to provide this kind of education infused with serious attention to character formation.

In a time when forces abound that pressure Christian scholars to adopt a posture of compliance to fit in, we need more than ever to stand up and stand out unapologetically.  All clouds pass in time.  When they do, a new generation will build on either the ruins or the foundations of the past.  That generation sits in our classrooms today.  We have the opportunity to model something very different from what they are seeing on the national stage in both church and state.  May Christian scholars in the age of Trump have the courage to give the masses what benefits them rather than what has been mandated in their name.

Read the entire piece here.

Are You an Intellectual?

kendiIbram X. Kendi‘s book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America recently won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.  Last week he delivered the doctoral commencement address at the University of Florida where he teaches in the history department.  His address, titled “Are You Intellectual,” is worth reading in full.  He has posted it to the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society.

Here is a taste:

The point of my address is to ask you a simple question: are you an intellectual?

I am asking this question because you need to know that having a doctorate does not make you an intellectual. It is so embarrassing, but there are doctorates who are not intellectuals. Just like there are MDs who are not healers. Just like there are JDs who are not about justice. Just like there are Reverends who are not about God. Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a Reverend who is not about God? Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a JD who is not about justice. Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a MD who is not a healer? Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a doctorate holder who is not an intellectual?

Today you are joining the illustrious academy of doctoral recipients. But I want to talk to you today about joining the even more illustrious academy of intellectuals. No doctorate degree is required to join the intellectual academy. This is an inclusive academy with all types of people with all types of backgrounds. There are people with only a GED in this intellectual academy. There are incarcerated people in this intellectual academy. There are homeless people in this intellectual academy. There are poor people in this intellectual academy.

When I say intellectual, I am not referring to someone who knows a wealth of information. How much you know has no bearing on how much you are in intellectual.

I define—and many others define an intellectual as someone with a tremendous desire to know. Intellectuals are open-minded. Intellectuals have a tremendous capacity to change their mind on matters, to self-reflect, to self-critique. Intellectuals are governed by only one special interest that is rarely self-serving—the special interest of finding and revealing the truth.

Read the entire address here.

Is History Hot?

Anxious-Bench-squareOver at The Anxious Bench, Chris Gehrz responds to Jason Steinhauer‘s recent piece for Inside Higher Ed about how history can contribute to public life.

Here is a taste of Gehrz’s piece:

I’m glad that more and more of us seem to take an interest in helping the public to think historically about the past. (All the more so when one alternative is a politician encouraging frightened voters to think nostalgically about the past.) This is no accident: in many corners of the guild, we’ve received encouragement to move out of our comfort zones and use new and old media to communicate with wider audiences.

Indeed, Steinhauer has elsewhere urged at least some historians to take on the role of “history communicators” and

advocate for policy decisions informed by historical research; step beyond the walls of universities and institutions and participate in public debates; author opinion pieces; engage in conversation with policymakers and the public; and work diligently to communicate history in a populist tone that has mass appeal across print, video, and audio. Most important, History Communicators will stand up for history against simplification, misinformation, or attack and explain basic historical concepts that we in the profession take for granted.

Indeed, blogs like The Anxious Bench have sprung up in large part because more and more historians want to “communicate history in a populist tone that has mass appeal….” As many of us continue to wrestle with Alan Jacobs’ widely-discussed Harper’s essay, “The Watchmen,” I’d point to AB colleagues like Philip Jenkins, Tommy Kidd, and John Fea as sustaining a (vanishing?) tradition of “serious Christian intellectuals who occupied a prominent place on the national stage.”

At the same time, I also think it’s important that historians and other Christian intellectuals continue to take up what Tracy McKenzie has called our “vocation to the church.” In my Trump post, I quoted John Hope Franklin’s famous claim that historians can serve as “the conscience of his nation, if honesty and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience.” By the same token, I think Christian historians might sometimes serve as the “conscience of the church,” helping fellow believers to confess and learn from those moments when we fall short of our calling as the Body of Christ. For example, Justin Taylor has been doing a nice job of this at the new Gospel Coalition history blog he shares with Kidd, writing multiple posts on racism and segregation in the history of evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

A lot of good stuff here.  Read the entire piece.

And Gerhz is right when he says that some of us “continue to wrestle” with Alan Jacobs’s Harper‘s essay “The Watchmen.”  I hope to get some posts up on the Jacobs piece soon.  Stay tuned.

More Historians on “Historians Against Trump”

HistoryTrumpThe debate over whether historians should sign a letter opposing Donald Trump’s POTUS candidacy has received a lot of attention.  (See our coverage here).

A few of these conversations took place yesterday on my Facebook page.  I asked some of the historians who wrote on my page for permission to publish their thoughts here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

John Haas, Bethel College (IN):

Back in the 1920s and ’30s sociologist William F. Ogburn was on the war path trying to discredit the notion that social scientists should be engaged with the present at all in their professional work. His strongest argument, it seems to me (if I recall correctly) was that taking stands on contemporary controversies would politicize their work, and ruin their reputations as objective scientists generally.

The problem, to get back to your specific question, is that in a democratic society history will be used to justify numerous courses of action to the people, and it’s the “lessons of the past” that the people are interested in. Politicians and pundits will generate and disseminate them, using them for their purposes, even if we won’t.

We can sit back and say, “Well, it’s far more complicated than that,” or “The discontinuities with the past outweigh continuities, rendering those ‘lessons’ dubious,” or just, “Read my book,” but the people have no patience for that. And who can blame them? The enlightenment dream of an educated and virtuous republic never imagined that the attainment of reliable knowledge upon which policies would then be constructed would be such a difficult, immense, contentious and ambiguous task. It takes years of full-time devoted study even to a corner of the field before you really start to know anything. The public can’t do that, and without doing it, they have a very hard time judging among contending voices.

If historians drop into the political realm, they run the danger of being dismissed as mere partisans. (Andrew Bacevich is a great example–theologically and politically conservative, his reputation among his fellow conservatives was trashed when he came out for Obama in 2008. The intense tribal-loyalty dynamics of contemporary politics makes this almost unavoidable.) But, on the other hand, if historians won’t speak up, others will, spinning out “lessons of the past” to suit their agendas, and the people, hearing no other voices, will begin absorbing those “lessons.”

It’s not particularly helpful to say so, but never mind: When we do this–if we do it–it needs to be done really well. Put simply, too many historians sound like any other partisans when they’re weighing in on political issues. I believe we need to stick to our guns: Use a scientific, positivist literary style–unemotional, grounded in facts (especially statistics), etc.–and simply hammer the conclusion in place. Jettison adjectives. Kill anything that even shows the promise of becoming a darling. Be as careful in formulating “lessons” as in determining matters of mundane fact. Practice, in other words, the virtues of professional restraint.

I’m not, to be honest, convinced we’re up to the task. But I think there’s no alternative. The stakes are too high.

Katy McDaniel, Marietta College (OH):

This is a great exchange. To my way of thinking, historians should not *routinely* publicly comment on specific political candidates in a campaign season in this fashion. However, there are times, there are times. And in these times, I think we historians bear the responsibility of informed commentary, of recognition and identification of dangerous demagoguery, even in such a direct manner: that’s a part of our jobs as historians in a democratic society. Otherwise, our silence makes us complicit in what would surely prove to be a disastrous shift in our country, perhaps even away from democracy. This is not hubris; it is responsibility.

Bill Kerrigan, Muskingum College (OH)

I find this whole argument that historians, as historians, “should not” publicly express their views on national politics bizarre. The implicit assumption is that voters need to be protected from such speech because they might be unable to assess the validity of the arguments the historians are making. But of course we know that voters reject arguments and evidence presented all the time. Sometimes for sound reasons, sometimes because they are simply not open to considering perspectives that challenge their already firm beliefs. Fish’s argument, it seems to me is really just another variant on the one that tries to silence a celebrity, for example, for expressing a view on politics, on the grounds that their profession does not qualify them to have any particular insight. Collectively, these types of arguments are harmful because they discourage people from all walks of life from being engaged in the public square. They encourage political apathy, and are I believe, a threat to democracy. Let a group of historians present their view as historians. Let dissenting historians present their own counterviews. Let soap opera stars, and minimum wage workers, and plumbers, and housepainters, and hedge fund managers all publicly present their views. Surely each comes to the table with a distinct perspective that can contribute to the debate. And trust ordinary citizens to listen and read them all, hopefully with a critical but open mind. Let’s stop telling people, or groups of people, that publicly expressing political concerns is a form of hubris. It is fundamentally an anti-intellectual, anti-democratic argument to make.

Why the “Pietist Schoolman” Signed the “Historians Against Trump” Letter

Make AmericaChris Gerhz, aka “The Pietist Schoolman,” a history professor at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, was another signer of the “Historians Against Trump” letter.

Here is a taste of recent post:

I’m not naive enough to believe – as Fish reads out of the letter — “that historians, because of their training, are uniquely objective observers.” As the authors acknowledge early on, we historians (like anyone else) cannot fully escape “our own limitations and subjectivity.” But we do seek after truth as objectively as possible — not uniquely (most academic disciplines would affirm this objective), but distinctively (in accordance with the particularities of our discipline — e.g., grounding any historical truth-claim in a reasonable interpretation of available historical evidence. It’s why I’m more bothered than other Trump opponents by Hillary Clinton’s use of private email while serving as secretary of state, which was not only careless but made more difficult the work of those of us who benefit from the transparency of well-kept public records.)

I’m also not naive enough to believe that we should expect political candidates to be unfailingly honest. According to the nonpartisan, Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checkers at Politifact, the other major party’s presumptive nominee has made “True” or “Mostly True” statements only 51% of the time. That’s a higher percentage than the equivalent numbers for the current presidentvice president, and all four majorcongressional leaders.

It’s also nearly five times as high as the same number for Donald Trump.

Not just historians, but anyone else whose profession places any value on truth-telling, should be bothered by a supposedly candid non-politician’s casual disregard for reality. But it’s especially worrisome for historians because the central theme of Trump’s campaign is an ahistorical claim about the past: that America was once great and can easily be made so again. Harshly, but not unfairly, the open letter’s authors describe Trump’s campaign as one of violence — against “individuals and groups” (more on that in a moment), but also “against memory and accountability; against historical analysis and fact.”

Read the entire piece here.

What is a Public Intellectual?

I wish I was at the Annual Meeting of the United States Intellectual History (USIH) Society going on right now in Washington D.C.  Thanks to some great tweeters–especially Jonathan Wilson–I have been able to get a decent sense of what is being discussed.

Last night I followed along as Wilson and others tweeted a plenary session on public intellectuals. The session revolved around Russell Jacoby’s landmark The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe.  Jacoby spoke about the writing of his book and its relevance for defining a “public intellectual” today, nearly twenty-years after it appeared in 1987.  Leo Ribuffo, Jonathan Holloway, and Claire Potter presented papers on the role of public intellectuals in society since Jacoby published The Last Intellectuals.

You can get up to speed at #usih2015.

From what I was able to glean, all three of the respondents wanted to expand the idea of “public intellectual” beyond Jacoby’s definition. Even Jacoby admitted that his book would not look the same today, largely due to the Internet.

Here are some tweets:

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There is a lot I could riff on here, but I like the fact that Leo Ribuffo is willing to expand the definition of “public intellectuals to include evangelical Christians.  A few thoughts:

First, Ribuffo is suggesting that “evangelical intellectual” is not an oxymoron.

Second, evangelicals make up a significant portion of the population of the United States.  Most of them do not read the “small magazines” in which Jacoby’s “public intellectuals” publish (or published), but they make up an audience that far exceeds the size of the audience of most so called “public intellectuals” today.  And, as Mark Noll and others have shown, evangelicals probably need intellectuals more than anyone else.

Third, intellectuals who are evangelicals have sought to speak from an evangelical perspective to the intellectual culture at large.  If they write for public audiences at all, they are trying to find a voice in the world of Jacoby’s intellectuals.  This is well and good.  Evangelicals should speak to contemporary issues this way and seek to write in places where evangelical voices are rarely heard such as the op-ed pages of major newspapers and some of the so-called “small magazines.”

But, as I have argued here and, to some extent in my Why Study History, evangelical intellectuals and scholars may be missing opportunities to speak to churchgoers on their own terms. This is a largely untapped audience for public intellectuals, but evangelicals will not just listen to anyone.  They are suspicious of secular voices and always will be. They will, however, be more open to listen to someone with evangelical credentials or someone who is one of them. We need more people to be “public intellectuals” in this world.