I haven’t written about the academic profession much on Historista, mostly because such topics always seem a little “inside baseball.” But last week, the New York Times published a “By the Book” interview with James McPherson, professor emeritus at Princeton University and one of the most well-known historians of the Civil War Era. The Times asked him a number of questions: which writers he would invite to a literary dinner party, the best book ever written about the Civil War, the changing interests of his students. But it was the question, “Who are the best historians writing today?” and McPherson’s answer to it that got my historian friends all riled up. He named Bernard Bailyn, David Brion Davis, Gordon Wood, Eric Foner, David McCullough, and David Hackett Fischer. All prize-winning and esteemed historians, to be sure. And all white all men, all over the age of … wait for it … 70.
Now, judgments like this—lists of “favorites” or “bests”—are always a matter of personal preference, as Kevin Levin has argued. And academics often admire the work of those who are most like themselves, both methodologically and demographically.
But “best of” lists are influential texts; they convey authority upon both the list-maker and the individuals included. They appear simple and straightforward—names, separated by commas. But they are not at all simple, or neutral; they disseminate important messages about who and what is valued, and what a broader reading public should or should not know.
As the blogger Historiann and many of my friends and colleagues noted in a conversation about McPherson’s interview on Facebook, a list like this becomes particularly problematic when it is published in a respected and widely read publication like the New York Times.
It suggests that white men are still the dominant voices in the field of American history, both as authors and as subjects. And in doing so this list ignores and implicitly condones the marginalization of the very important work being produced by women, people of color, and scholars of different (younger) generations. By all accounts, McPherson is a generous colleague and a devoted advisor to a diverse group of graduate students. But as Jim Downs pointed out in a Facebook thread, McPherson’s list represents “how patriarchy reproduces itself.”
The interview—and the impassioned discussion it provoked in a variety of forums—also illuminates how power is structured and reinforced in academia. Scholars gain status through their PhD programs and the star power of their advisors; in Civil War studies in particular, this system of patronage and affiliation is so entrenched and deterministic that I have often compared it to Game of Thrones: House Gallagher, House McPherson, that upstart House Berry (they are the ones with the dragons). Certain scholars become “well-known” when they win prizes, or accept prestigious positions, or sometimes, when they become embroiled in controversies.
Most of these “well-known” scholars are white men, and most of them teach at Ivy League or similarly exalted institutions on the East Coast. As many of my colleagues noted on Facebook, the field of American history is still an old boys’ club. Men hold the vast majority of the endowed chairs and they have until quite recently held most scholarly organization leadership positions. But the times are definitely changing–the next generation is rising, and it is one that is more diverse. Would this generation be willing to take on McPherson’s list, to create a different kind of inventory of “the best historians writing today,” one that recognizes the excellent work that scholars are doing across subject areas and methodologies?
Apparently not. I posed the New York Times’ question to my Facebook friends—who are, overwhelmingly, academics who very strenuously took issue with McPherson’s answers—with the intention of posting the crowdsourced list as a response to the interview. But the majority refused to answer the question. Many objected to list making as a practice, arguing that ranking scholars or picking favorites is just a game, and not a particularly productive one. Others parsed the terminology, and advocated for sharing the names of historians who inspire them or who have changed their thinking, rather than choosing “the best” (one might argue that such inspiring folks would qualify as “the best,” but that’s just more parsing). There was no subsequent sharing. The only scholars who actually did answer my question are … wait for it … white men.
Where does this reticence to publicly judge—or this devotion to only judging “gently”—come from? Because we do judge, all the time: on search committees, as manuscript and article reviewers, in conversations at hotel bars during conferences. Perhaps academics are naturally shy (I find this hard to believe). Perhaps they are wary of making such pronouncements “out loud,” lest they alienate friends and colleagues by leaving them off the list (this is more convincing).
Whatever the reason, if we do not get our own voices out there, and call attention to the really great work that historians are doing in the field today, then New York Times will continue to interview the old boys, and their assessments of the field will continue to shape the public’s perception of American history.