Recently there have been some postings around the blogosphere about the pros and cons of academic historians blogging, as well as reports from some in the field who are participating in various seminars examining the study of the War Between the States. One blogger over at Civil Warriors even mentioned attending a weekend conference in New York City to discuss the “state of Civil War military history scholarship.” As one who is clearly not part of this demographic, I can’t help but wonder what exactly are these events and why do they hold them?
Please don’t misunderstand me, many of the attendees and speakers at these events have forgotten more about Civil War history than I’ll ever know. In fact, their works usually provide priceless reference to the rest of us ‘blue-collar’ historians who write books and articles for the normal, or casual, Civil War reader. (I am not, nor will I ever be in their league. Therefore do not take this as an attack on anyone personally. My point in this post is in regards to the ever-widening divide that exists between the ‘schooled’ and the ‘un-schooled’ historians.)
Many of these conferences and seminars can sometimes come off as being a bit elitist and arrogant. Sometimes people who participate in these events echo that sentiment in their comments. (Ironically, many of the best rangers, guides, speakers, authors and all around 'experts' that I know are anything but academics and have zero pedigrees to boot.)
I guess my confusion lies in why do these history teachers feel the need to hold these conventions and sit around discussing the state of anything? What has changed so drastically in the last 140+ years in the presentation of the War Between the States? And what exactly defines scholarship? To me it represents an expertise that is earned by the study and examination of a subject. So, do you have to be an academic to accomplish this? Is there any more (or less) expertise sitting at a roundtable in a symposium, or around a campfire at a re-enactment?
Perhaps questioning and challenging everything that has come before them gives this generation of professors the feeling that they too are contributing something to the legacy of the subject matter. Still, other teachers don't do this. I'm not aware of any Science or English instructors holding conferences to discuss the state of their subjects.
I guess my issue is that they always appear so negative to me, preaching the idea that everyone else is ignorant and wrong. I am also bothered by the tendency they have to try and tear people down. These are the people that say things like "Yeah Robert E. Lee was great, but not nearly as great as you think and here are the reasons why." What real purpose does that serve?
Adding to their distance, most of the individuals in the academic realm seem to research, author, and publish material solely for their peers. I say that as you could be fairly certain that John Q. Public walking into the history section at Borders, or bringing his wife and kids to a weekender at Gettysburg is probably not that interested in reading some 1000+-page dissertation on a long-neglected topic that challenges hundreds of years or so of historical memory. University press releases that require a degree to understand are not what these people read. Its teachers writing to impress other teachers in my opinion.
Most tourists and/or those with a passing fancy want to read something that is inspiring and exciting that will hold their short-attention-span and leave them feeling that they’ve learned something about a subject that they hadn’t thought about since they were in grade school. Unfortunately, these are also the people that are far too often ignored by the academics who criticize the rest of us for catering to them. It’s a shame too as I think John Q. Public could really benefit by the knowledge of these historical "brainiacks" if they could just come down to our level. I have heard some of these teachers use the terms ‘same old’ and ‘traditional tales’ to describe what the rest of us read and write. I for one say what is wrong with that? And why not?
I’ll put on my baseball cap for a moment and use this as an example. As one who has written 400+ studies on Major League Baseball history over the years for Baseball-Almanac I ask you, the reader this. Would you rather examine the Box Score for the game in which Babe Ruth supposedly called his shot, or would you prefer to read the exciting tale that tells the story of this amazing feat? Certainly some will want the statistics (and we always include them), but the majority of everyday people would rather read the tale. Those people are the ones that we need to write to. Those are the people that we need to keep interested so they will come visit our battlefields and museums and introduce their kids to the subject. Those people were us, and we are a direct descendant of them. They will keep history alive too, not just the academics.
Let the teachers hold their conferences to discuss the state of the union and write their titanic-tomes that can be used as booster seats. Let them criticize everything that has come before them and even the work that we are doing now. I’m banking on John Q. Public and John Q. Jr. to save our battlefields and make the susquentennial a success. To those of us (academic and non) who study this stuff all the time, don't forget Mr. Public and his son. They are the regular people that we need to reach and keep reaching if the stories of the Great Divide are to survive for generations to come.
UPDATE 4/2: Two of our fellow bloggers have responded to my post.
Regardless of our difference of opinion, I still appreciate their comments and am linking them here.
Civil Warriors: As I was saying … or, here we go again … (I explain the poorly planned genesis of this post in the Comments section.)
There is one reader response that I want to share from a man who knows what he is talking about: Read Here