The Corner

Publish or Perish

An e-mailer makes a good point, in response to this:

In a recent post on NRO you offered some reasons that academics do not care for popular, narrative history, including ideology, a preference for jargon, and envy of popular writers’ success.

I’m completing a dissertation in history, and I would point to another factor: professional historians are already familiar with the narrative that popular histories tell, at least in their given area of expertise.  If you are a specialist in the American Revolution or early republic, there is little new to be learned from, say, McCulloch’s biography of John Adams. Of course, popular histories don’t claim to break new ground. They are intended for a different audience.

Also, academics want arguments rather than narratives, since the basic facts are often well known and it is what the facts mean that is in dispute.

I agree that ideology and prejudice play a role.  I do a lot of narrative, and I’d like to do more.   Popular histories can be great.  But the structure of the discipline, I think, needs to be part of the explanation for why there’s a divide between popular and academic works.

The last thing we need, of course, is every professional historian in the land thinking that he must retell the Battle of Gettysburg.

At the same time, it’s worth asking what this scholarship is really worth. I don’t want to knock the importance of original research into obscure subjects, but I also suspect that the quality of a lot of this work is quite low–and that broadly speaking, we’d be better served if more professors performed less scholarship and did more teaching. Mark Bauerlein of Emory has addressed this question in an excellent paper for AEI (pdf here).

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.