The Corner

Knowledge Is Good

It might be passé to mock the ever-obliging humanities departments in our universities and colleges, but there’s so much . . . richness in the soil underneath Faber College’s motto that one can’t help taking les clercs to task at least once a quarter. A few days ago, I mused from the halcyon courtyards of Merton College, Oxford, on the gap between the ideal of a life devoted to scholarship and the often-sordid reality.

Today, Bruce Cole offers a more serious look at whether graduate programs actively hinder one’s study of, appreciation of, and ability to write about history.  Reviewing in the Wall Street Journal the reissue of two of Barbara Tuchman’s best books, Cole asks:

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.

Speaking as a recovering academic, I heartily agree with everything he writes above.  Not merely is one “taught” (I use the term loosely) to write academic prose badly, the concept of engaging with a broader audience is considered little short of heresy. My career switch from academia probably began with writing the occasional op-ed for the Journal, but I may as well have been using invisible ink for as much as my academic colleagues ever noticed. 

My latest book, Pacific Cosmopolitans, a cracking good read, if I do say so (even Joe Nye agrees), is a cultural history of U.S.-Japan relations from 1800 to today.  I wrote about 95 percent of it while a professor at Yale, but once I left, I wound up shelving it for over two years and then ripping out as much as I could of the useless theoretical baggage, tendentious analogies (some of which I rather liked), and superfluous footnotes (which for a Ph.D. is like shooting a gun without bullets).  And yet because of that, it became what it always should have been — a story of a unique and fascinating relationship. It became a narrative valuable on its own terms, full of interesting anecdotes, and not because I had somehow proved the concept of the emergence of global society through the combination of philanthropy, technology, and the rise of an educated global cultural class (you see how it would have turned out originally). 

While it has risen as high as no. 230,000 on Amazon (which is where I think the first 22 minutes of preordering for Jonah’s books start), it doesn’t matter to me, since I ultimately said just what I wanted to — and enjoy re-reading it, to boot.  No author is really happy with how a book turns out, and I certainly see all the weaknesses in this one. But having produced something that is actually fun and instructive to read (if you like Babe Ruth, Akira Kurosawa, and Asahi beer), I finally feel I’ve left Faber College behind me. And, amazingly, the American Historical Review appreciates that.  So maybe there’s some hope, after all. I may go buy that sweatshirt I’ve always wanted that says “College.”

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