Professional Barbs

Joseph Ellis, a historian at Mount Holyoke College and the author of “serious nonfiction” works including American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson and Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (which won the Pulitzer), had this to say of his fellow historians

Whether the founders are studiously ignored or condescendingly reviled within the academy, the effect on the larger public has been negligible, since the scholarly debates are in-house affairs, the books and articles written in language that the uninitiated find inaccessible and often incomprehensible. For whatever reasons, historians dedicated to a recovery of the experience of ordinary Americans in the past [women, slaves, and Indians] have chosen to abandon the ordinary readers in the present, preferring to communicate only with each other. (American Creation, p. 12)

Ouch! Of course the charge that academics engage in “voluntary abdication” of the general reader and wallow in highfalutin’, technical jargon is nothing new. (At one extreme, recall the Sokal affair.) However, the perceived disengagement of the academy from the public has hurt the humanities more than any other discipline. Allow me to elaborate on my (pure) speculation below.

Justified or not, humanities scholarship is expected to be more immediately understandable than that produced by, say, physicists. This is because humanists profess to study “the human condition”, and as all readers (no matter how laid we may be) are humans, it’s natural that we expect to understand what of our condition is being discussed. This may not be fair. All readers are also biological beings, but we don’ t expect to grasp papers in microbiology, genetics, or organic chemistry without some formal training.

So life is not fair (a subject on which I’m sure plenty of papers have been published within and without the humanities).

Fair or not, one consequence of the above that when the majority of humanists fail to be comprehensible, the laid person does not excuse them for it in the same way he may physicists. Because the humanities are supposed to enlighten us laid mortals — as opposed to say delivering cool, new gadgets like engineers and computer scientists do — we feel cheated, hurt, and angry when they don’t even deign to talk to us most of the time.

Can things be different? Can they change?

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