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The Narrow Halls of Academe

By James E. McWilliams
Wednesday, August 25, 2004; Page A17

For better or worse, election years lure many members of my profession out of the ivory tower and into the real world. As political events heat up, historians are summoned to illuminate the political landscape for a wide audience that suddenly craves the insights our expertise supposedly qualifies us to deliver. Generally the appeals flatter, and generally we descend and comply.

Traditionally, the most conspicuous obstacle to our effectiveness as public intellectuals has been the idea that we're all radical lefties marching in lockstep with the Democratic platform. But this stereotype is woefully inaccurate. In reality, academics -- especially middle-aged and older ones -- are just as likely to be libertarians or conservatives as they are woolly minded liberals. In point of fact, our most skewed collective bias is something more disturbing: We're pathologically close-minded.

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It's an intellectual habit that we cultivate. Starting as early as graduate school (which I recently finished), future academics are forced to pursue the most minuscule topics through needlessly esoteric methods. The ultimate goal is to become an authority on a subject matter that nobody else has explored.

The problem with this expectation is that universities churn out thousands of PhDs every year, thereby slicing the available pie of thesis possibilities into ever more abstruse slices. The typical newly minted PhD about to teach his first survey course can tell you everything there is to know about, say, gender identity among poor Dutch women in colonial New York from 1700 to 1708, but have trouble recalling who was president in 1846.

Add to this hyper-specialization the professional requirement that historians usually take one intellectual stance and promote it for the duration of their careers. The few history PhDs who manage to land full-time academic jobs quickly learn that the easiest way to become distinguished in the profession is through a lifetime of scholarly dedication to a single, defining and often very small idea -- one that usually has no bearing on contemporary events. That's precisely how to "make a contribution" -- the be-all and end-all for a serious academic. More often than not, though, that contribution is to our own job security and status within a small club rather than to a public debate badly in need of a broader historical perspective.

Adding to our professional insularity is the quiet (and usually inadvertent) disdain we harbor for "the masses" we're asked to enlighten. This is a sensitive issue. The disdain mainly manifests itself in a couple of ways. First, a liberal (slightly Marxist) suspicion of market-driven writing prevents professors who otherwise have deep sympathy with "the common folk" from writing books that appeal and relate to those very people (on this score Marx could have taught them a thing or two). Authors such as the late Stephen Ambrose and David McCullough garner little respect among professional historians, largely because they stoop to write books geared for the madding crowd and -- gasp! -- make money doing it.

A second form of disdain common among conservative academics thrives on a secretive sense of superiority. No one will outright say it but many scholars think so highly of their work and themselves that they see it as pointless to try to teach the multitudes the rarified intellectual skills endemic to the natural aristocracy.

It hasn't always been this way. Historians such as Richard Hofstadter, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Daniel Boorstin once earned the privilege of acting as public intellectuals. They wrote books for "the people" and the people bought those books. They didn't dumb down or candy-coat their messages -- they produced tough, intellectually honest works, written with sympathy, respect, trust and a deep sense of community.

Nevertheless, the media tap us because we are "experts." Unless we allow curiosity and humility back into the narrow halls of academe, encourage graduate students to address more publicly relevant issues, and learn to say "I don't know" when we don't, then the media will be better off leaving scholars to their specialization and going directly to the source we too often forget: the people.

The writer is an assistant professor of history at Texas State University at San Marcos.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company