Suffocating History

Bruce Cole sketches an elegant portrait of historian Barbara Tuchman that’s well worth reading in its entirety, particularly for her tips on “practicing history,” as she called it. But Cole focuses on the fact that Tuchman was not an academic — to her credit.

Is a Ph.D.—the union card for the professorate—a hindrance to approaching history as Tuchman did?

Alas, the answer is likely “yes.” The years-long slog of course work, exams and the laborious, footnote-laden dissertation—written strictly to be read by other scholars—have a way of hard-wiring habits of the mind that are difficult to overcome. A few academically trained scholars do survive the tyranny of their doctorates and reach a wide reading audience. But inside the Ivory Tower, where most historians dwell, professors write books, articles, and conference papers for other professors, and mainly for those colleagues toiling in the same small subset of the past.

A grad-school professor once chided me that I wrote in a “casual” popular style. His goal was to gently push me toward a more formal tone in my papers but I stubbornly dug in my heels. Academic English is a baroque dialect, a game of tin-can telephone meant for a minority of receivers, as Cole says, and not intended for a general audience.

Yet what then is the point of writing something no one will ever read? What rationalization can be presented for the public grants, endowments, tax exemptions, and tolerance if no outsider ever benefits? How can you ever argue that professors aren’t just a priest class removed from yet supported by society? It’s an obligation to write in a comprehensible style. I earned very good marks in graduate school — I even enjoyed it! — but the writing was the most difficult for me. I hated the writing.

I shouldn’t complain, though; general-audience historians are the main beneficiaries of this system. Leave the professorial witch doctors shut up in their temples, burning their incense and scrutinizing their chicken bones. I’m more than happy to author the books they never will.

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