Defending the Humanities: A Response to Matthew Hughes

He says the public has good reason to criticize humanities scholars. I disagree.

At History News Network, Matthew Hughes, a graduate student in communications at Bob Jones University, has written a response to my essay on defending the humanities. I encourage you to read his argument. Here’s how I responded to him in the comments:

I’ve just now seen this, and want to welcome you to the discussion. I’m glad my post inspired such a thoughtful response. However, as you might guess, I disagree with some of what you’ve written here. Let me address a few points.

I’m not surprised you mention David McCullough at the beginning of your argument. McCullough is indeed a fine writer and a better storyteller than are most academic historians. However, the books of McCullough and his fellow popular historians virtually never contain original ideas or original knowledge; they borrow their arguments from the works of academicians and dress them up in enjoyable verbiage. An excellent example is The Bully Pulpit, the recent book on Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2013). Goodwin, who actually holds a Ph.D. in international relations, tells a great story in that book, but if you find an argument in there that wasn’t borrowed directly from The Warrior and the Priest (1983) by University of Wisconsin professor John Milton Cooper, please let me know. I have no problem with popular historians who tell great stories and don’t make original arguments, but we need to recognize that their great stories would be impossible without academic historians making the original arguments for them to borrow. Get rid of historical research in the academy and there will be nothing for Goodwin and McCullough to write about, full stop.

Yes, it was possible in the revolutionary days for people to become important intellectuals in their leisure time — but there’s a very good reason for that. Washington and Jefferson were not, as you state, “doctors, lawyers, farmers, preachers, and businessmen.” They were plantation owners who had abundant leisure time because of the unfree and uncompensated labor of their slaves. They lived in a preindustrial economy that has disappeared in today’s society, not only because of the abolition of slavery, but because of the very system of industrial capitalism that has made the United States so successful. It is no longer possible to become an intellectual on your own time because there are no longer people around to do your work for free; to survive; you must labor yourself. Today, if we want to keep intellectuals in the business, we must remunerate them for being intellectuals; otherwise, they will be forced to do other things for money that will take up all their time and prevent them from functioning as intellectuals.

Finally, you mention anecdotal evidence that teachers who are too focused on research are likely to be poor teachers. While I agree that there are some teachers for whom that’s true, there are perhaps just as many who are poor teachers because they do too little research or none at all. For a good teacher, teaching and research operate symbiotically. I am a better teacher because I am research active; I can teach students how to write and how to think historically because I do those things on a daily basis. A bad teacher who is overly focused on research is not evidence that research is bad, any more than a bad teacher who does no research is evidence that teaching is bad. They are simply bad teachers.

Again, I’m grateful for this response and for your thoughts.

Author: Jeremy C. Young

Jeremy C. Young is a Washington, DC-based historian and the author of The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940.

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