Eric Foner Talks History

998b0-foner

Over at History News Network, Erik Moshe continues his series of interviews with historians . This time his subject is Columbia University historian Eric Foner.

Here is a taste:

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

There’s a couple of things that I often repeat to my students. Oscar Wilde, I believe, said, “The only obligation we have to history is to rewrite it,” which I think is a good one. Ernest Renan, the 19th century French historian, said something to the effect of—this is a rough translation—“the historian is the enemy of the nation.” I often ask students, what does he mean by that? “The enemy of the nation.” Does that mean we’re traitors? No, what he’s saying is nations are built on myths, historical myths, and then the historian comes along and if he’s doing his job, shatters those myths, and often that makes the historian very unpopular. People like their myths but “myth” is not a good way of understanding how the society developed to where it is today.

Another saying, this goes back to Carl Becker, “History is what the present chooses to remember about the past.” In other words, he’s trying to tell us that history is created by the historian in a certain sense, the historical narrative is the creation of the historian. The facts of history are out there but the selection of facts and the merging of the facts into a narrative is an act of the historical imagination. It doesn’t just exist out there independently in the past.

My own saying, I don’t know if I invented this—perhaps I did—which I tell students is that “nothing is easier than finding what you are looking for.” In other words, that’s my plea to be open-minded. When you go to an archive, you have certain presuppositions but it’s very easy to find what you’re looking for and to ignore those things which don’t fit your assumptions, and you can’t do that. You have to, as they say, be open-minded enough to be willing to change your mind when you encounter countervailing evidence. Those things were on my mind because as it happens, I used to teach seminars, etc. I would start off the first session with a list of these quotations about history and ask students to discuss them and what they tell us about what we’re going to be doing that semester.

Read the entire interview here.

An Interview with Allen Guelzo

GUelzo

Over at History News Network, Erik Moshe interviews Gettysburg College historian Allen Guelzo.

Here are Moshe’s questions:

What books are you reading now?

What is your favorite history book?

Why did you choose history as your career?

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

Which historical time period do you find to be most fascinating?

Who was your favorite history teacher?

What are your hopes for world and social history?

Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?

If you could sum up world history in one word, what would that word be?

Why’d you pick it?

What are you doing next?

Read Guelzo’s answers these questions here.  (Spoiler alert #1: He is writing a “big book” on Robert E. Lee with Knopf.  Spoiler alert #2: The word he used to sum world history is “depravity.”)

Public History and the Church (or why I do what I do)

Why Study History CoverIn the last few days, several folks have asked me why I get so “bent out of shape” about the likes of David Barton and the “court evangelicals.”  One noted American religious historian regularly implies on Twitter and in blog comments that I am “obsessed” with Trump.

I get so “bent out of shape” because I believe that part of my vocation as a historian is to bring good United States history to the church–both to the local church and the larger American church.  (And especially to evangelicalism, since that is my tribe).  I wrote about this extensively in the Epilogue of Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  When I speak at churches–and I do this often–I see it as a form of public history.

My critique of the court evangelicals is a natural extension of my ongoing criticism of conservative activist Barton and other Christian nationalist purveyors of the past.  It is not a coincidence that First Baptist-Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress often preaches a sermon titled “America is a Christian Nation.”  In this sermon he says. among other things:

We don’t restrict people’s right to worship [they can] worship however they choose to worship.  But that doesn’t mean we treat all religions equally.  This is a Christian nation. Every other religion is an impostor, it is an infidelity.  That is what the United States Supreme Court said.

Someone can correct me, but I think First Baptist–Dallas is the largest Southern Baptist church in the world.  Jeffress is an influential figure.  He goes on Fox News and claims to represent American evangelicals.  His profile has risen immensely since he announced his support of Trump.

It’s important to remember that Jeffress’s political theology (if you can call it that) is based on a false view of American history.  And it is not very difficult to trace it to the teachings of Barton.

In the aforementioned sermon, Jeffress comments on a recent Barton visit to First Baptist–Dallas.  He then says, referencing the prince of Aledo, Texas, that “52 of the 55 signers of the Constitution” were “evangelical believers.” This is problematic on so many levels.  First, only 39 people signed the Constitution.  Actually, I think Jeffress might be referring here to the men who signed the Declaration of Independence.  Second, to suggest that most of them were “evangelicalRevised believers” is a blatant misrepresentation of history.  In fact, Jeffress doesn’t even get Barton right here.  Barton says (wrongly) that nearly all of the signers of the Declaration had Bible school and seminary degrees.  Jeffress is confused about his fake history. 🙂  But that doesn’t matter.  People in his massive congregation applaud and cheer when he preaches this stuff.

Jeffress and the court evangelicals support Trump because they want to “make America great again.”  Jeffress’s congregation even sings a song about it.  Let’s remember that “Make America Great Again” is a historical claim.  The nation is “great,” Christian nationalists like Jeffress argue, when it upholds the Christian beliefs on which it was founded.  Christian Right politics, the same politics that carry a great deal of weight in today’s GOP, thus starts with this dubious claim about the American founding. From there it can go in all sorts of directions related to immigration, race, church and state, marriage, abortion, religious liberty, etc….

My approach to critiquing Jeffress, the Christian Right, and the court evangelicals is structural in nature. It is fitting with my vocation as a historian.  Theologians and pastors are probably better equipped to make a direct biblical case for why Jeffress’s Christian nationalism is idolatry and harmful to the witness of the Gospel. Greg Boyd, Richard, Hughes, John Wilsey, and others have already made such a case. I encourage you to read their books.  But early American historians are best equipped at taking a sledgehammer to the foundation of Christian nationalist politics.

So yes, I do get “bent out of shape.”  Maybe I am obsessed.  Somebody has to be.  We need good American history more than ever. Christian historians have a public role to play in such a time as this.

 

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.

Historians: Take Notes!

ea148-notesandpen

Check out Fernanda Zamudio-Suarez‘s piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education on historians, archivists, and scholars who are taking notes, keeping journals, tweeting, and blogging about the age of Trump.

As part of the story Fernanda Zamudio interviewed Rebecca Erbelding of the United States Holocaust Memoral Museum, Ari Kohen of the University of Nebraska (and the author of “Trump Watch” blog),  Chris Prom of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Melanie Newport of the University of Connecticut at Hartford.

Here is a taste:

History is made every day, but there’s no doubt that this November something changed for Ms. Erbelding. Now, she says, she feels like she’s living in “extraordinary times” worth journaling about.

“There did seem to be a more palpable sense, at least to me, of, ‘I am actually living through history,’” Ms. Erbelding said. “It felt different. And I guess I’m going to try to keep it up until it stops feeling different.”

She knows that the Library of Congress is working to archive Twitter, but Ms. Erbelding said there’s also value in people taking note of how specific political actions and policy changes make them feel. She’s careful to note that she doesn’t journal every day, but knows that documenting moments that feel personally important is significant for future scholars. It’s this type of documentation, written or typed on one-sided paper, that she could see archivists and historians using for displays in future museum exhibits, she said.

Read the entire article here.

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

trump-jackson

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.

 

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

britishmuseum-1

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.

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.

On the Dangers of Court Historians

Schlesinger

Historian Arthur Schlesinger (in bow tie) was an adviser to JFK

Does the office of the President of the United States need a council of historians?  Two Harvard professors–Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson–think that it does.  In an Atlantic article that has been making the rounds on history-related social media, Allison and Ferguson write:

To address this deficit, it is not enough for a president to invite friendly historians to dinner, as Obama has been known to do. Nor is it enough to appoint a court historian, as John F. Kennedy did with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. We urge the next president to establish a White House Council of Historical Advisers. Historians made similar recommendations to Presidents Carter and Reagan during their administrations, but nothing ever came of these proposals. Operationally, the Council of Historical Advisers would mirror the Council of Economic Advisers, established after World War II. A chair and two additional members would be appointed by the president to full-time positions, and respond to assignments from him or her. They would be supported by a small professional staff and would be part of the Executive Office of the President.

For too long, history has been disparaged as a “soft” subject by social scientists offering spurious certainty. We believe it is time for a new and rigorous “applied history”—an attempt to illuminate current challenges and choices by analyzing precedents and historical analogues. We not only want to see applied history incorporated into the Executive Office of the President, alongside economic expertise; we also want to see it developed as a discipline in its own right at American universities, beginning at our own. When people refer to “applied history” today, they are typically referring to training for archivists, museum curators, and the like. We have in mind a different sort of applied history, one that follows in the tradition of the modern historian Ernest May and the political scientist Richard Neustadt. Their 1986 book, Thinking in Time, provides the foundation on which we intend to build.

Mainstream historians take an event, phenomenon, or era and attempt to explain what happened. They sometimes say that they study the past “for its own sake.” Applied historians would take a current predicament and try to identify analogues in the past. Their ultimate goal would be to find clues about what is likely to happen, then suggest possible policy interventions and assess probable consequences. You might say that applied history is to mainstream history as medical practice is to biochemistry, or engineering is to physics. But those analogies are not quite right. In the realm of science, there is mutual respect between practitioners and theorists. In the realm of policy, by contrast, there is far too often mutual contempt between practitioners and academic historians. Applied history can try to remedy that.

My initial reaction to this piece was positive.  I am certainly in favor of bringing historical perspective to the policy decisions.  But if John Hope Franklin is correct, and historians are indeed the “conscience of the nation,” I wonder how their work as White House staff members could remain free of politics.

Jeremy Adelman, a historian at Princeton University, seems to have a more sensible take on all of this.

Here is a taste:

Saving history and America at the same time means taking current problems, finding historic precedents from which we can learn, and bridging the gap between ailing mainstream historians and practitioners who need more informed coordinates about what’s going on in the world. That’s fine — good, actually.

But: It represents only one slice of what historians have to offer. What happens to pasts that are not so readily repurposed for the future as decided by today? Whose past gets summoned? And who is the past to serve if relevance drives the agenda, shakes up status differences, and allocates resources?…

My second quip is more banal. It is simply to call for a little more humility about what we historians have to offer. The worst thing that could happen in thissauve-qui-peut world is for the history brokers to give us all a shiny, new, higher mission, only to discover that we have oversold the importance of history. Having accepted that the old mainstream is in basic trouble, disappointment with this new bauble could leave us all wondering whether there is any point to history. Foolish collective decisions are often made on the rebound from panaceas.

One is tempted to side with Kurt Vonnegut’s riposte to Ivy historians (like me) who want to play the role of prophet: “We’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive. It’s pretty dense kids who haven’t figured that out by the time they’re 10. … Most kids can’t afford to go to Harvard and be misinformed.”

In this sense, being misinformed might be the good news. Historians are notoriously slow movers, their trade is more of the slow-boil kind; it can take ages to master a tough language, to harvest data from archives and to write it all up, by which time the results are out of sync, badly timed. What’s more, their stories are often at odds with what the present wants — narratives of success when the world seems a mess, courses on human atrocity when our public figures go triumphal. They are often countervailing, countercyclical. So much of it can seem useless. Or downright misinforming.

Relevance is more than fine. It’s important. But let’s not inflate expectations. And let’s certainly not give up on a pluralistic commitment to the past, to teach our students and convey to our readers the importance of alternative narratives — and how to evaluate them according to shifting values of the present, new evidence, and the range of voices we need to hear. This pluralistic vision is not necessarily at odds with relevance. But giving the news cycle outsize weight in deciding what kind of history matters can lead to less, not more, remembering.

Read the entire piece here.

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.

Some Autobiographical Reflections on Doing “Academic History” and Writing History for Public Audiences

ancientI usually do a few of these posts a year, as the spirit moves.  Having a blog means that I can occasionally write autobiographically. Sabbaticals provide opportunities to do more of it.  So here we go again.

Over at the Scholarly Kitchen, Karin Wulf defends the importance of academic history writing.  Here is a taste:

…The question is what constitutes purposely “writing for the public,” and how that differs significantly from the writing academics do for one another — and which might also be of interest to the public. For historians this often boils down to “narrative” versus “argument.” “People care about stories, not arguments,” was one tweeted paraphrase of Lepore’s talk. Storytelling is one of the oldest human forms of communication. It is not a simple thing to tell a story well and with meaning. One of the masters of the genre (and Lepore’s teacher), John Demos, teaches a course on narrative history that pushes students to think about form and expression as well as evidence and argument. These debates about narrative versus argument have been happening for eons; I imagine Thucydides saying “look, guys, narrative is the only way to write history of the Peloponnesian War.”

The question ought not be, however, one versus the other. Academic writing is expository. For academic writing, argument is essential, and narrative is optional. Academic research is the accumulation of new information by many different means. The significance of this information is articulated through evidence-based argument, the heart of historical disciplinary practice. Argument doesn’t preclude narrative — a very fine writer can craft a narrative that conveys a variety of important arguments, but pure narrative can never substitute for argument in professional exchange.

Why not? Don’t professional historians appreciate a good story? Every historian I know loves a good story. Academic writing, however, is the formulation of research into new knowledge. That might be in the form of genuinely new information, or it might be an importantly fresh perspective or interpretation. Using new methods and tools as well as the regular revelation of new materials means that historians are generating new knowledge at a rapid clip.

So how do we know what’s new? A fundamental responsibility of academic writing is to explain the relationship of new scholarship to its forebears. Knowledge doesn’t accrete in a linear or progressive fashion, of course, but explaining how research and interpretation is related to the literature that’s come before it is fundamental to our evaluation of the work. After all, historians have been writing about the American Revolution since shortly after the American Revolution. As a professional historian, how would I know whether the next book I see on either an oft-studied topic or an entirely fresh subject is important to read and digest, to inform or incorporate into my own research perspective or plans, and to integrate into my teaching? I just watched an exchange between an experienced former journal editor and a manuscript reviewer who asked “if I think I’ve seen something like this argument before but I can’t quite place it, what should I do?” And of course the former editor encouraged the reviewer to try to address that issue as fully as possible, noting that expert peer reviewers play a key role in signaling to editors how a submission relates to the existing scholarship. In other words, historians are particularly attuned to the history of history.

I largely agree with Wulf here.  We need academic history. Scholarly articles and books find their way into databases that can be consulted later and perhaps even provide a scholarly foundation for popular writing on a given historical subject.  Academic scholarship is needed, even if the public audience is small or non-existent.  New knowledge must be advanced.

If everything goes well, sometimes academic history finds its way to the public.  But often times it does not.  The old quip about academics writing scholarly articles that only a small number people read is mostly true.

I applaud people who write academic monographs and publish scholarly articles.  I am just not sure I want to do it any more.  Did I just commit a certain kind of professional suicide by saying this?  Maybe.  Or maybe I did that a long time ago.

Over the last half-decade or so, ever since Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction appeared and garnered attention as a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize, I realized that my vocation as a historian was less about writing for my peers and more about reaching the public with my work.

I still try to keep one foot in the professional world of academic history.  I attend conferences, write book reviews when asked, try to stay abreast of new work, and serve as an outside reviewer of book and article manuscripts.  I try to expose the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home to the latest scholarship in the field through The Author’s Corner feature at the blog.  I continue to network with my academic friends and colleagues because I want to remain in conversation with very smart people who love to talk about history.  As a college teacher I also think these connections are important for my students, especially when I write letters of recommendation to supplement their graduate school applications.  So by no means have I left academia or the world of professional history.

But I am losing my passion for writing academic history. Perhaps I have already lost it. The last scholarly article I published in a history journal was my piece on Philip Vickers Fithian and the rural Enlightenment.  It appeared in The Journal of American History in 2003.  Granted, I have written scholarly essays that have appeared in edited collections and other venues, but these were mostly pieces that I was invited to write. I still have a few ideas for scholarly essays percolating in my head.  Sometimes I wonder if they will ever see the light of print.

My first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early Americagave me my first glimpse of the power of non-academic story-telling.  As a scholarly monograph, the book covers some sophisticated ground.  I write about the “rural enlightenment,” the “public sphere,” “cosmopolitanism” and “local attachments.”  But when I spoke (and continue to occasionally speak) about the book before public audiences I found that people were most attracted to the tragic life of Philip Vickers Fithian.  They didn’t care about the “rural enlightenment.”  Instead they wanted to know Fithian’s story.  They wanted to hear about his love affair with Elizabeth Beatty.  They wanted to hear about his experiences on the Pennsylvania frontier and what it was like to attend college at 18th-century Princeton. The K-8 teachers who attend my Gilder-Lerhman seminar at Princeton on colonial America have told me on more than one occasion that the book’s last chapter moved them to tears.

I was shocked when people dropped $30.00 for a copy of The Way of Improvement Leads Home and asked me to sign it. I was also a bit embarrassed because I knew that in the book the dramatic story I had told them in the talk was wedged between a lot of theoretical discussion that could make it a disappointing read.  (Maybe this is why in the last couple of years I have found at least three signed copies of the book on the shelves of used bookstores).

My experience with The Way of Improvement Leads Home convinced me to write with those people who attended my book talks in mind.  And then I started this blog and realized that I could reach more people with one post than I could with any journal article or scholarly monograph.

At some point along the way I was forced to reckon with the careerism that defines academic life. I am sure that there are many historians who write academic history for their peers out of a sense of vocation.  They love to advance knowledge and feel called to do it, even if very few people will read what they write. But there are others who would balk at the approach to doing the kind of public history I described above because it might be considered a bad career move.  I understand this critique.  An article in the William and Mary Quarterly brings much more prestige among one’s fellow academic peers than a blog post or a book published with Westminster/John Knox or Baker Academic. Articles in prestigious journals can lead to “good” jobs at research universities and a whole lot of respect.  We are fooling ourselves if we think that the writing of academic history is not embedded in a narrative of social climbing and careerism.  Should academic historians write to advance new knowledge in the context of the noble pursuit of a scholarly life?  Of course.  Is it difficult to separate this noble pursuit from rank careerism and ambition?  Of course.

In 2002 I found a dream job–teaching American history at Messiah College.  From the perspective of the profession and the academy, Messiah College is, in more ways than one, an outpost.  But being at a place like Messiah has made it much easier for me to think about my calling as a historian in ways that are fundamentally different than the academic culture I imbibed as a graduate student.  And this is freeing.

Maybe some of you feel the same way I do about all of this.  If so, send me an e-mail. Let’s talk.

Historians Are Teachers

Jim Grossman, the Executive Director of the American Historical Association, believes that teaching is at the heart of what it means to be a historian.  He is right.  Ph.D programs must recognize this.


Here is a taste of his recent column in Perspectives on History:

Most of our largest PhD programs train students for positions that only a small minority will attain: tenurable appointments in “high research activity” institutions. Among history PhDs graduated between 1998 and 2009 who currently teach in higher education, approximately 75 percent are either outside “high research activity” institutions or off the tenure track. This means that the process and products embodied in much of graduate education—writing books and scholarly articles, teaching lecture courses and highly specialized seminars, and perhaps even preparing grant proposals for major fellowships—leave aside the principal issues and tasks that faculty at teaching-oriented institutions must engage. And those that faculty even at high-level research universities ought to engage.

We do not train our PhD students to see their profession as “teacher.” This might be inevitable, even appropriate. The PhD is, after all, a research degree. The craft of publication through books and articles stands at the center of graduate education in history, as it does in many other disciplines. At the same time, a historian is a scholar who not only creates new knowledge, but also disseminates insights across a variety of platforms, many of them in the classroom. The ways that digital tools now dissolve the boundaries between scholarship and teaching make this an opportune time to address these long-standing issues. The AHA has already resolved to put its imprimatur on and resources into elevating digital dissemination of knowledge onto the same plane as print. If we believe in putting teaching on that plane as well, too few of us have communicated that belief to graduate students. We have failed to integrate the teaching of history into the profession of being a historian—other than by example, or perhaps by sending our students across campus to teaching and learning centers generally considered marginal to the main pathway.

These centers have made great strides in improving the quality of teaching on their campuses, offering graduate students and junior faculty the resources that their home departments have not. Academic job candidates now brandish teaching portfolios and have benefited from videotaping and coaching unavailable a generation ago. Still, department chairs tell us that few job candidates are able to establish a dialogue between these portfolios and the curriculum at the institution to which they are applying. Worse, conversations about teaching that occur outside the context of disciplinary learning and practice remain marginal to the pursuit of a PhD in most disciplines. History faculty generally consider such training a valuable supplement, rather than seeing it as part of “becoming a historian.”

But it should be. Teaching is an essential skill for every historian, whether in a secondary school, college classroom, museum, archive, historical site, or even the public square, presenting evidence persuasively to legislators and fellow citizens. Historians teach. Learning how to teach should be equal to and intertwined with learning to become a research scholar.

If teaching history—including content not directly related to a scholar’s ongoing research agenda—is integral to being a professional historian, then it is essential to becoming one. It’s one thing to have the ability to plan a course and choose readings carefully and knowledgeably, something that many of our graduate students have already begun integrating into their portfolios. It’s another to shift our vocabulary of teaching to a discourse on learning, an approach to undergraduate education now largely relegated to the centers for teaching and learning, with inadequate integration into discipline-centered training.

Read the rest here.

$1.6 Million to Expand the Horizons of History Ph.Ds

Jim Grossman, Executive Director of the AHA

Jim Grossman and his staff at the American Historical Association want to widen “the presence and influence of humanistic thinking in business, government, and non profits.”  The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation apparently agrees with this vision.  They have just awarded the AHA $1.6 million to fund a series of pilot projects that will attempt to change the academic culture in history departments as it relates to the opportunities for history PhDs in society and the marketplace.

Here is a taste of Grossman’s post at AHA Today:

In particular, this project will:

  • –Compile data and narratives that will continue to improve our knowledge of the ways history PhDs have built rewarding careers in the world outside the academy, and then publicize what we have learned, in part to highlight the range of possibilities and in part to normalize these pathways and facilitate them through a “virtual mentorship” program.

  • –Prepare history PhD students for work and other activity beyond the professoriate through curricular enhancements that provide essential skills and experience.

  • –Transform a cultural environment within the academy, among faculty as well as students, that continues to define “success” exclusively as tenure-track employment at four-year institutions, even as such opportunities become less 

  • –Cultivate a broader understanding among potential employers of the skills, knowledge, and personal characteristics implied by advanced education in history and the completion of a PhD dissertation.
As I argued in Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, historical thinking has the potential to make us better people, better citizens, and better employees in a host of professions. Needless to say, I find this is a very exciting venture.

Do Academic Historians Dislike the American Revolution?

Over the past few weeks there has been a very interesting conversation going on at New York History, a blog that should be getting more attention due to the thoughtful posts from blogger and public historian Peter Feinman.

Recently Feinman attended The American Revolution Reborn conference in Philadelphia (May 30-June 1, 2013) and wrote a series of excellent posts on his experience.  In one post, Feinman noted that none of the participants in the conference were willing to recognize “the profound power of the revolutionary ideas of the American Revolution.”

The posts led to an exchange between Feinman and Penn historian Michael Zuckerman, the co-organizer of the conference. The exchange focused on academic historians, the American Revolution, and American exceptionalism.  Here is a taste of Zuckerman’s response to Feinman’s series:

In one of his most severe swipes at those academics, Peter lamented their lack of any apparent pride in the Revolution.  People everywhere, he says, take pride in the birth of their own country; only ivory-tower elites do not.  But, in this regard, Peter did not attend the same conference I did.  He blogged as though we all understand and agree on the story of that birth.  BUT WE DON’T.  That, it seemed to me, was the burden and the anguish of the conference.   A bunch of well-meaning scholars who don’t even know their own minds with any assurance, let alone think they know “the truth” of that birth, came together in the hope that, together, they might make more sense of it than they now do.  The issue of the conference was never, so far as I could see, whether we had pride in that birth.  The issue was the same issue that has preoccupied Americans since July 4, 1776: what is the meaning of that birth?

Pride was not the mood of the conference because humility was.  That is why messiness was, as Peter admits, the recurrent theme of our time together.  That, I think, is why no one was eager to address the question of whether the Revolution was a good thing.  That question begs a deeper one, on which no one wanted to pronounce pontifically: what was the Revolution?  On that, we will be having conferences like The American Revolution Reborn forever.  Or at least until the great corporate leaders who really don’t believe in We the People or in America finally win and tell us once and for all what the Revolution was.

Read Zuckerman’s entire post here.

And now a taste of Feinman’s response, “Scholars in the Public Mind“:

How do scholars “market” themselves in the public arena so their image is positive, and not apologetic anti-American? If scholars seek a call to (political) arms as Mike Zuckerman seems to suggest, then those issuing the call need to do so as prophets who want America to live up to its ideals and oppose the wealthy, powerful, and the loudly ignorant. 

If however, the language of academics today is condescending, doesn’t take pride in the American Revolution, and only criticizes America, then Mike Zuckerman is right: the battle over the changes America needs to live up to its potential is lost.

There is a difference between challenging America to be great and simply constantly condemning it for its shortcomings. Academics haven’t learned to speak the language of patriotism when criticizing America. They should champion the journey the Founding Fathers began, rather than only criticizing them for failing to meet their 21st century moral standards.

At one point in the exchange Feinman accuses historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich of ducking a question about “whether the Revolution was a good thing.”  Feinman sees this as a failure by academic historians to openly acknowledge what is exceptional about America.  In fact, he called Ulrich’s failure to answer the question “embarrassing.”

Now I don’t know what Laurel Ulrich thinks about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the American Revolution.  I do not turn to Ulrich or any of the scholars at the conference for their opinion on such a matter.  But I do want historians like Ulrich to help me understand the meaning of the Revolution. In other words, to wonder whether the American Revolution was “good” is certainly a topic that can be debated and discussed, but it is not an issue that falls within the scope of the historian’s vocation. And the American Revolution Reborn was a historical conference.

As Zuckerman notes, “The issue of the conference was never, so far as I could see, whether we had pride in (America’s) birth.  The issue was the same issue that has preoccupied Americans since July 4, 1776: what is the meaning of that birth.”

Zuckerman also has some very good things to say about the place of history in our society, particularly the limits of our discipline. He writes:

I don’t for a moment discount the bright visions and the glowing words of the Founders, and I don’t know any other academics who do.  The scholars who spoke at The American Revolution Reborn study the founders – all the founders – because they treasure those ideals and that rhetoric.  But the world of the Founders and the founders is not ours, and their virtues no longer characterize us distinctively or, in some cases, at all.  The question is how we salvage something of those virtues in a world transformed, and largely transformed in ways inimical to those virtues.  The question is how we renew those virtues under new circumstances and against the odds.  But we can’t take up those questions and a dozen others like them if we simply reiterate the old verities.  If we are to engage in the conversation we have to have in 2013, we have got to acknowledge the realities of our new world.  

Zuckerman’s response here reminds me of Catherine O’Donnell’s recent op-ed in an Arizona newspaper,  “History is a Useful Tool, Not Answer to Every Problem.”  I encourage you to check it out.

On the other hand, Feinman certainly has a point when he writes, “If the new master narrative gives the appearance of being anti-American, then it will be rejected.  If it is presented by people who have pride in being American and who are not always apologizing for it, then it has a better chance of resonating with the American people.”

I think Feinman has put his finger on one of the primary reasons academic historians have struggled to speak to the public. American exceptionalism and so-called “founders chic” is so popular today because academic historians have abandoned the public sphere.  While there is definitely change on the horizon in this regard, historians should not be surprised that Americans get their American history from the likes of David McCullough, Bill O’Reilly, and David Barton.

US Intellectual Historians Tackle *Confessing History*

University of Texas-Dallas graduate student Mark Thompson has offered the most thorough review of our Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation to date.  I think he captures the essence and schizophrenic nature of the volume.  It is a great review and I am thrilled that the good folks at US Intellectual History have chosen to post it.  I now have no doubt that sales of this volume will be brisk. In fact, I am sure that after I split my next royalty check with Jay and Eric I will be able to buy a few stocking stuffers for my kids this Christmas.  Heck, the cover “art” alone should boost sales. 🙂

At one point, Thompson writes:

While one can appreciate the desire by these Christian scholars to grapple with their life’s vocation, one underlying theme seems to echo Wilson’s dilemma while teaching in higher education: if one is a theist, when does one invoke God (or spirits) to explain events?  If  Confessing History is a tocsin for Christian-founded and –affiliated colleges, then it should have a positive impact on introducing faith-based institutions of higher education to a more rigorous analysis of history and causation.  However, when the goal is to attempt to bridge the gap between confessing and secular institutions, one wonders how the City of Supernaturalism and the City of Naturalism can ultimately merge into one city, although, that does not seem to be the objective for some of the authors.  To this reviewer, the complications involved by allowing supernatural evidence to guide (or even supplement) the professional community of inquirers are centered around how to identify which parts of past events were caused by supernatural intervention vs. human intervention. 

It seems that everyone who reads Confessing History seems to think that the book is somehow promoting a return to providential history.  While a few authors in the volume play with this idea, most of the authors would reject the kind of providential history that Thompson describes in the quote above.

Others–such as Dan Allosso in the comments section of review–thinks that Confessing History somehow “privileges” Christianity “in a way that culturally sensitive religious historians would never do.”  Allosso has not read the book so I will give him a pass on this one.  (I am glad that Allosso still “likes” me despite my apparent cultural insensitivity). But I don’t think any of the authors in Confessing History blatantly privilege Christianity as a system of interpretation that offers some special insight into the past.  (Perhaps the essays by Shannon and Miller could be read this way).

As one of the editors, I will also admit that Confessing History lacks any kind of central argument about the relationship of Christian faith and history.  Even the editors have serious disagreements. (I put all my cards on the table in my forthcoming [September] Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past). The only thing that holds the volume together is the fact that all of the authors are people of serious Christian faith who have thought deeply about how that faith bears (or in some cases does not bear) on their work as historians.  We also tried to offer an approach to this topic that deals more with “vocation” than with the epistemological questions often associated with the “world view” thinking of the Reformed tradition.

I also think that it is important to situate this book in the larger context of historians–Charles Bancroft, Herbert Butterfield, R.G. Collingwood, George Marsden, Mark Noll, Ron Wells, Arthur Link, Scott Latourette, C.T. McIntire, Nick Salvatore, the Calvin School, etc…–who have explored the relationship between Christian faith and historical practice. 

I am looking forward to following what has already proven to be fruitful conversation at U.S. Intellectual History.

How Do You Become a Historian?

Chris Gehrz recently had to answer this question for a group of 8th grade history students.  The experience, he writes, “got me rethinking the very definition of ‘historian.'”

You should read the entire post, but here is a taste to whet your appetite:

…And this has implications for what I do in higher education. While we’ll produce some number of professional historians (mostly junior high and high school social studies teachers, plus some who work in museums and archives and a very few who teach in universities), I think our department is better off focusing on preparing future businesspeople, lawyers, nurses, pastors, parents, church members, consumers, and voters to do two things: 

To think historically, of course — to ask good questions about the present and how it emerged from the past, and, as appropriate, to seek answers by locating, evaluating, analyzing, and synthesizing historical evidence. But still more, to love history. 

I’ve yet to meet a college History major who didn’t choose that path because she had some inexplicable passion for studying the past and hungered to do it more. It’s easy to feed that desire in college, when you are paying for the opportunity to spend hours and hours each week making sense of the past under the guidance of professionals with a similar passion. But how do our alumni sustain their love for history when it’s no longer a discipline practiced in the relative freedom and leisure of college, and has to compete with many other pressing demands on their time? Here I hope that even as they think historically to answer contemporary questions, they remember that the past is a foreign country — fundamentally different from our own, and worth visiting for its own sake. I hope that they read books, watch films, and visit museums and other sites for the sheer joy of encountering the past. That is to say, I hope that they practice history “at whim,” to use Alan Jacobs’ more general advice about reading.

Why You Should Read the Opening Paragraph of Barbara Tuchman’s "The Guns of August"

Because Robert Caro, the famed biographer of Robert Moses and LBJ, read it in the 1960s and came away convinced that he wanted to be a historian.

Read all about Caro’s story in The New York Times.  (HT: AHA Today).  Here is a taste:

Robert Caro, the biographer of LBJ and Robert Moses, delivered a talk about a fellow historian, Barbara Tuchman, to a standing-room-only crowd at the Links Club on a recent evening. The event was sponsored by the Library of America, which was marking its reissue of her masterwork about the events leading up to World War I, “The Guns of August.” 

The Library of America may not be familiar to all—it’s actually not a library but a nonprofit publishing house—but most bibliophiles would probably recognize its handsome series (241 volumes and counting) in matching black covers decorated with a red, white and blue stripe. The series is devoted to great American writers; most, but certainly not all, are deceased. 

So expertly and elegantly are the books published, and so affordably priced, that I have a hunch: Were an author offered the option of a Library of America edition and an unmarked grave, or no book and a splendid sarcophagus, he or she would choose the former.


Mr. Caro talked about how Tuchman, who died in 1989, influenced him and his work when he’d left his job as a journalist at Newsday in the 1960s and, uncertain of himself, was embarking on his next career as a historian and his monumental Moses biography, “The Power Broker.”

“I remember quite vividly reading that opening paragraph,” he told the audience, referring to the sweep and poetry of “The Guns of August.” And he said he thought: “That’s what history should be. That’s what I want to do.”

By the way, here is the first paragraph from The Guns of August:

So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration.  In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun.  After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens–four dowager and three regnant–and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries.  Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.

Me and My Shadow

As I noted a few weeks ago, a local high school student who is considering a career as a history professor recently asked if she could “job shadow” me.  I am pleased to report that I spent the day today with Abby and I think it went very well.   She was very professional and eager to learn about the daily life of a history professor.  We talked about everything from the job market to graduate school and teaching loads to what someone like me did during the summer.

Here was our schedule:

8:30:  Orientation.  We grabbed some coffee and we talked about her shadowing assignment and what I had in store for the day.

9:00-10:30: More chatting, some course prep, and some department chair paperwork.

10:30-11:30:  Messiah College Center for Public Humanities board meeting.  At one point Abby even participated in the discussion, although I later heard her say that the meeting was a little boring.

11:30-12:15:  We had lunch with some history students in the college cafeteria.

12:25-1:55:  Abby sat in on my British Colonial America course.

2:00-2:30:  Abby sat in on the filming of a forthcoming “Virtual Office Hours.”

2:30-3:00:  We gathered materials for tomorrow’s “Accepted Students Preview Day” at Messiah College.

Overall, I found the experience to be very worthwhile.  If asked, I would definitely do it again.  I am not sure if I convinced Abby that a life as a history professor is worth pursuing, but she seemed enthused by the visit.

Historians as College Presidents

Nathan Hatch of Wake Forest

What do Drew Gilpin Faust, Nathan Hatch, Jeffery von Arx, Charles Middleton, Dale Knobel, Edward Ayers, and Brian Casey all have in common?

They are all historians by training who now serve as college presidents.  Jennifer Reut calls our attention to the growing number of historian-presidents in her post, “Is this the Golden Age of Historian Administrators?”

Here is a taste:

Recently, we read an essay in the Nation on the role of university presidents as civic leaders that lamented the way in which the office had become, according to the author, more timid than in the past. “Was there truly a ‘golden age’ of engaged college and university presidents who ‘sculpted’ society?” asked the author, citing James B. Conant, Robert Hutchins, Kingman Brewster, and Clark Kerr as examples. But we wondered, how would these “golden age” presidents fare in today’s higher education environment?

With all the controversy in the news lately around what a university president should and shouldn’t be doing, there seems to be little consensus on what that position actually entails. Are university presidents academic leaders or risk managers or fundraisers? Should they be involved in shaping an institution’s character, or advocating for higher education in the public sphere? Should they be embracing new ideas and technologies, or defending the historic strengths and traditions or an institution? And if they must do all of these things, how might a president balance these often-competing needs? Given this dizzying job description, what kind of professional background might be best suited for executing this increasingly complex role? 

All of this got us thinking about how historians have fared as leaders in higher education, and this led us to do a little (highly unscientific, and largely anecdotal) research into the current administrative landscape, with some fairly interesting results. There are currently a very respectable number of historians occupying the position of president at universities, including Drew Gilpin Faust (Harvard Univ.), Nathan Hatch (Wake Forest Univ.), Jeffery von Arx (Fairfield Univ.), Charles Middleton (Roosevelt Univ.), Dale Knobel (Denison Univ.), Edward Ayers (Univ. of Richmond), and Brian W. Casey (DePauw Univ.).

So what kinds of skills do historians possess that make them good college presidents?