Monday, June 02, 2008

Elitism, Bias, and David McCullough in the Study of History

Do you remember when John Adams by David McCullough first hit the bestseller list? I do. And, being a fan of that era of history, I was probably one of the first to scoop up a copy. And I remember telling a friend of mine - a university professor friend of mine - that I was enjoying John Adams.

I was surprised to hear his sneering over the phone, as my friend - my university professor friend - had very few good things to say about "popular" history writers like David McCullough. McCullough, my university professor friend explained to me, was not a "REAL historian."

Looking back, I am amazed that my scholar friend had the patience to walk me through this position. After all, HE was a scholar, an academic, a university professor, an esteemed member of enlightened academia. And I....well...I was a member of the proleteriat class - at least intellectually speaking. Why, I only had a bachelor's degree (at the time) and my friend, well, he had a P....H.....D. Yessir, HE was the REAL deal! Me? least....I could read.

That conversation served up (for me) a real serious dose of academic elitism. And it was crystal clear to me that David McCullough, as terrific a writer and researcher as he is, will never shake off the snobbery of his critics. Why?

I think it boils down to two reasons...

1) Academic Elitism

Academic elitism, according to Wikipedia, is essentially "the view that only someone who has engaged in serious scholarship has anything worthwhile to say on any given topic." Of course, those truly in the "academic elite" category are likely to cringe at my citing Wikipedia - for any reason - but I doubt very many people would question that definition.

Due to such elitism, bestselling historical writers like the late Stephen Ambrose and the Pulitzer winner David McCullough are routinely dismissed in the historical scholarship community.

Indeed, one historian, writing for Slate, dismissed McCullough's 1776 as "vapid mythmaking." He derided it as a "rousing, feel-good tale of how George Washington led a ragtag crew of continental soldiers into their fateful battle for independence." And as I read those words, I couldn't help but scream, "What's wrong with a rousing, feel-good tale about George Washington leading a ragtag crew of continental soldiers into their fateful battle for independence??!!!"

To be fair, this writer did concede that academic historians write too much for themselves - and that their writing has become rather....boring. He was more sophisticated than using the word "boring," but that's what he meant. And he's right.

The "academic elites" excel at making history boring, whereas people like David McCullough should be credited (by EVERYONE - especially those "jargon-clotted" academics) for making history fun, interesting, and (yes) ALIVE! McCullough is making FANS out of history - and that's a good thing! For that, McCullough should be praised - since if McCullough's dreams come true (dreams he has publicly expressed), it will mean MORE young people pursuing historical studies in high school and college.

Nevertheless, academic elitism is deeply entrenched in our universities - no matter how many bestsellers McCullough turns out or how many young people he inspires.

2) Liberal Bias

I know my left-of-center readers will get mad at me for using the term "liberal bias," but I have to call it like it is! The truth is that the more "elite" of the academic elites in the field of historical studies are....well....liberal. Let's be honest.

I can hear you asking: "Are you saying that only liberals have elites?" Well, the truth is that conservative elites don't tend to be in academia. (If you want to find conservative elites, head to Wall Street or to the high-brow country clubs. But don't look for them in the universities).

In the world of academia, conservatives (those right of center in today's political, religious, and cultural discussions) tend to believe that historical scholarship is open to anyone willing to work hard and engage in ethical and critical research.

(This isn't to say that there aren't some conservative cranks out there. Trust me, there are. But conservatives aren't barring the door to historical scholarship. You don't typically find conservatives checking ID cards and academic papers before letting people in the door).

The reason, I think, isn't so much that liberals are engaged in a conspiracy to take over America. Liberals are no more interested in advancing their agenda than conservatives. I don't mean "liberal bias" in any kind of sinister way. What I think is at work here is that there's a fundamental difference in worldviews.

Some examples of this...

I don't know David McCullough's politics. My hunch is that he's a moderate Democrat of the Hubert Humphrey era. (Some of my readers may know more about this. If so, chime in). If I'm right, then McCullough is a centrist - liberal on some issues, but somewhat traditional in his general view of America. I consider this a good thing. A healthy thing. But, alas, my liberal readers and friends will disagree. And that's my point!

David McCullough believes it's healthy and desirable to celebrate our heroes. His 1776 is a clear celebration of George Washington, which the writer for the left-leaning Slate derides. Liberals pooh-pooh this, believing it better to emphasize previously disadvantaged or dispossessed sectors of society.

For my own part, I believe we can do both. And, I think, McCullough would agree. BUT...I would add (and I believe McCullough would agree with this too) that there are REASONS why certain individuals rise to the top of society. There are reasons why history has traditionally focused on leaders like George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, and Martin Luther King. Among those reasons is the fact that the people (including some of those disadvantaged groups) CHOSE to FOLLOW those leaders.

And this brings us full circle. Historians like Ray Raphael are wrong to protest the celebration of figures like Washington. Why? Because the masses that Raphael CLAIMS to represent in his work celebrated Washington. That's right. Washington didn't impose himself on the people of America. The people of America embraced Washington.

It's not just the celebration of heroes over groups that separates conservatives and liberals in history, but also the celebration of certain ideas. Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States is a favorite of many liberals, because Zinn gives a full, gut-wrenching condemnation of America's past (something fashionable in most left-of-center circles). By contrast, Thomas G. West's Vindicating the Founders is ridiculed, because West dares to contextualize and defend the Founders over sins for which the Academic Left has long since pronounced guilt and shame on America's heritage.

And, finally, there's the whole debate over the nature of truth itself. Liberals tend to be more sympathetic to the notion that truth is relative and that much (some say most) of history is unknowable. You just don't find that many postmodern relativists in conservative circles.

Bringing this to a conclusion, I have to tell you that my friend (my university professor friend) changed his mind on McCullough. He called back a couple weeks later to tell me that he was wrong about John Adams. He was, indeed, impressed with McCullough's research and analysis. I was surprised. A scholar with humility. It told me that there was still hope.

Indeed, with writers like David McCullough out there, there is still hope.


Rachel said...

Huzzah!! Great post! I totally agree that History doesn't have to be boring to be right. And I totally agree that many people are under the false impression that it does. Think of it this way, would we write a story a story of Clinton's escapades as well as his accomplishments in a dry format? He was president. He helped the economy. He slept with that woman. Hell no. It's lurid, it's captivating, and it’s real people in a power position doing very human things. It will be a damn interesting story to someone 200 years from now. And I want to read a damn interesting story about Washington, about John Adams, about anyone of that time. I want to know what made these men in power human. I want the real story. I don't want boring. He was president. He went to battle. He was the first president. Boring. Thanks again or the great post, I wish more people wrote history like David does, maybe they would find it as captivating as the Enquirer is.

bpabbott said...

Great points regarding the history often appearing boring and the value that a good writer can bring by making it exciting.

However, it is necessary to resort to categorical insults to make those points?

Historians are passionate about the facts. Those who write of history are interested in making history entertaining.

For the large part these things are not in conflict, but some conflict will no doubt emerge as the passion and focus of these passions point in slightly different directions.

It should not be a surprise to anyone that some serious historians find it objectionable to dress up history to make it more appealing ... which (in at least a small degree) will distort the picture.

Hii$T0RY R0X said...

good post. but NEVER quote Wikipedia. duh.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I actually googled McCullough and Raphael and found your blog. I am reading Raphael's "Founding Myths" and was amazed at how much he berated McCullough's work in "John Adams." I got the definite feeling there was some bitterness, or jealously, or something there. Admittedly, I am biased. McCullough is one of my favorite authors. I've read everthing that he's written, save "Truman" because that is one huge piece of work! I do plan to attack it, however. He could write about bugs and I believe I would read it. :)