Wednesday, August 02, 2006

McPherson's views on history

James M. McPherson, who wrote Battle Cry of Freedom, put together a series of essays into a book called Drawn With the Sword. His last essay, called What's the Matter with History?, took a look at the state of the historian profession.

In this he saw two divisions:

1. The Professional: This is the one with the Ph.D who teaches at the university or other educational institutions and belongs to professional organizations.

2. The amateur: These write books and articles that reach a wide audience but do not adhere to the rigorous standards of the Professional. They are known as "popular" historians.

There is a struggle between the two, as noted by Ken Burns, producer of PBS's The Civil War, who told the Journal of American History, "I believe you (the Professional) have failed and lost touch absolutely in the communication of history to the public and that it has fallen to the amateur historians, if you will, to try to rescue that history; I would hope that the academy (meaning academia) could change course and join a swelling chorus if interest in history for everyone."

McPherson's point in his essay was that the Professional dwelt on the causes and effects of the CW rather than the actions. He states that Professionals have only recently started to look at the military aspects. He also took a shot at the CW buff, who solely looked at the military and did not study the social and political actions. Of course this is the largest audience for the 1000s of books that have come out.

McPherson ends the essay with mentioning the letters he receives since the publication of Battle Cry of Freedom and its effect on those who were not interested in history to begin with. He finishes it with this story; "A colleague at a California university recently remarked to me that I would be forced to choose between becoming a "popular historian" or a "historian's historian." He strongly hinted that I was in mortal danger of becoming the former. Why couldn't I be both? I responded. Surely it is possible to sat something of value to fellow professionals while at the same time engaging a wider audience. My colleague only smiled sadly at my naivete. Maybe that is what's the matter with history."

Makes me glad I'm an amateur.

Comments: Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]