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.

My Interview with John Fea at The Way of Improvement Leads Home

In which I admit to having had an ulterior motive when writing The Age of Charisma, but don’t say what it was

In late December, Messiah College history professor John Fea interviewed me about The Age of Charisma for his blog, The Way of Improvement Leads Home. I’m grateful to John for the opportunity to speak about my book and my scholarship overall. Click here to read the interview.

At HNN: What’s Wrong with the Way We Defend the Humanities

We have misunderstood our critics. They in turn misunderstand us.

I’ve written an essay, published today at History News Network, about the problems with most defenses of the humanities. It’s not that our critics believe the humanities don’t matter, I argue; it’s that they think there’s no new knowledge to be created by modern humanities scholars. Convincing non-academics of the value of humanities professors requires convincing them of the value of research and writing. Thanks to Rick Shenkman for publishing this piece. Click here to read the essay.

At S-USIH Blog: Herbert Croly, Unleavened Bread, and Progressivism in the Age of Charisma

In which I explain how I arrived at a fresh interpretation of Herbert Croly’s progressive philosophy

Over at the S-USIH blog, I have a post on how my reinterpretation of Robert Grant’s novel Unleavened Bread led me to a fresh take on Herbert Croly’s important book of progressive philosophy, The Promise of American Life — and to realize that The Promise was a book not about intellectual life, but about political charisma. Click here to read the post.

At Nursing Clio: Emotion and Fantasy: Marcus Garvey and a Blueprint for Modern Protest Movements

In which I explain why Marcus Garvey was more popular among American Americans than was W. E. B. Du Bois

I’m particularly proud of my new guest post at Nursing Clio, which argues that Marcus Garvey and Donald Trump prove that emotional appeals and uplifting fantasies are essential for successful political movements.  I’m grateful to the editors at Nursing Clio for their interest in my work.  Click here to read the post.

The Angel of History and the Race for DNC Chair

Walter Benjamin, Ed Miliband, and Keith Ellison have much to tell us about our moment in history.

klee2c_angelus_novusThe philosopher Walter Benjamin, who knew such times as these, wrote in 1940 of “the Angel of History.” The idea came to him while studying Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920), a portrait of an angel who is being propelled away from the viewer and who appears stricken by the prospect. This, Benjamin believed, was the personification of history itself. “His face is turned towards the past,” Benjamin wrote. “Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high.” That was how history worked, Benjamin recognized. There is no learning from the mistakes of the past, for even as we try we are making the mistakes of the present, while we are propelled forward in time to meet an uncertain and terrifying destiny. That is why the Angel is agape in horror: his eyes are open to the tragedy of the past, but he has no power to prevent it from recurring, over and over. Continue reading “The Angel of History and the Race for DNC Chair”