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Joseph Kaminski

History, Sociology, & More

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October 20, 2019

Professionalizing History 7: Academic History and the Institution That Thinks Inside the Box

In the last installment of Professionalizing History, we talked about the world of public history  – one that is oftentimes overshadowed by the looming world of academia.

While academic history seems to be everyone’s “go-to” history job, we must not forget the museums, historical organizations, archiving industries, government positions, and library systems that make up the “community” aspects within our society. I highly recommend reading this series in order by publish date in order to fully understand what it means to professionalize history.

Before going into the historical perspectives within the world of academic history, I’d like to do a little refresher on the series itself. Posts one through three were written at the same time, with a short break in between the bulk writing of posts four through six.

Post 1 was published on February 1st, 2017, and since then views for the site have gone up and my social media has gone from the 600’s to the 2300’s. For anyone who might just be jumping into the series, I’d like to give direct links to each previous installment:

Professionalizing History 1: Why Study History?

Professionalizing History 2: What Does it Mean to be a Historian?

Professionalizing History 3: Empathizing and Sympathizing

Professionalizing History 4: Howard Zinn and the War Against American History

Professionalizing History 5: Is it Justifiable to Apologize for History?

Professionalizing History 6: The Public History of Our Community

and now, Professionalizing History 7: Academic History and the Institution That Thinks Inside the Box

Last week I spent a rather large portion of post six bashing academic history; this week, I’ll be spending a rather large portion of post seven bashing academic history. Don’t get me wrong – I love academia, for the most part. As my ongoing adventures in education have proven, there are some bureaucratic problems in how the teachers relate with students and how individual differences are ignored in favor of confusing and unimportant activities.

Most of my criticism on how the world of education is set up is focused on primary and secondary school. I feel as if elementary, middle, and high schools need to be completely reworked academically to present a better foundation for learning across all levels. As for academia in a professionalizing sense, most students going into history go in with the idea of becoming a college professor or – god forbid – a high school teacher.

It goes without saying that not every student of history can become a history teacher or professor (especially in the United States of America, where education is already underfunded and history is ignored in favor of overhyped and over-budgeted STEM careers). Many people with degrees in history will find themselves writing blogs or books, working as an archivist or editor, curating a for-profit or non-profit museum, or even in a career that has nothing to do with history before (or if they ever) becoming a professor in their subject.

So, what’s wrong with academia? What’s wrong with academic history? Well, I’d like to identify the main problem as the system itself. Academic historians are oftentimes what is wrong with the history ‘industry’.

Being a Historian

Being a Historian by James M. Banner, Jr.

Think about it. Academic historians don’t really think outside the box of professionalized history. I give reference to Banner’s Being a Historian and MacMillan’s Dangerous Games as excellent sources of writing when it comes to understanding what’s exactly wrong with the world of academia.

Academic historians oftentimes preach history from an academic perspective – through long-winded lectures, not so interactive activities, and infinite research papers. They speak of history through a history mindset – one oftentimes cluttered by immense research and objective quips. An academic lecturer doesn’t have the time (or usually the means) to teach history in a public perspective – one that encourages students of non-history and educates everyone.

Think of any academic paper for any world of history. The long sentences, articulate words, and a thesis buried beneath pages of research. These papers are not friendly to the world of non-history. Someone who doesn’t understand history, let alone someone who isn’t dedicated to the field, can’t pick up a research paper written by a top historian in the academic field and read it from cover to cover.

I call this perpetuating history. I find it interesting how several top-level historians will question why history isn’t universally adored or how history isn’t interesting for certain students. Well, these same historians are oftentimes the authors of books that are illegible for the base of people they are trying to communicate history towards. As a historian, one of your primary goals is to record history for generations to come. Whether you are residing within the public or academic realms of historical careers, you still have a common goal: to make sure that history is remembered.

Historians are story tellers; but the more academic a historian gets, the more private their stories get. When a vast majority of society can’t understand your writing, you find yourself not telling stories…but perpetuating them through an ‘elitist’ academic mindset. If the only people reading your histories are the people who already know your histories – are you really leaving an impact on the world?

Martin Dugard

Martin Dugard.

The academic institutions want you to think so. I know countless students of history that will look at Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s “Killing” series (ie. Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy, etc) and laugh. How bad! How terrible! Look at how basic the writing style is! Ha! Bill O’Reilly? Their “liberal bias” (funny, a liberal preaching about a liberal bias) kicks in, and they scoff at anyone who dare read the series.

What people in the world of academia don’t understand is that Bill O’Reilly’s (let’s be real, they’re Martin Dugard’s books with O’Reilly’s name stamped on for namesake) books actually teach history to an entire section of society that don’t care about history. 

These books are approachable to people who can’t digest or understand the research papers that the institutions love to pump out on a daily basis. The so-called “lower-leveled books” and internet “blogs” that exist primarily for the purpose of pumping history into society should not be classified as “incompetent” or laughed at by elitist egg-heads. They should be endorsed, cherished, and read. 

Academic institutions need to stop perpetuating history to people who already understand and cherish the subject; they should take a page out of public history and encourage people within the community to read and educate themselves on history.

That’s the end of this rather vague segment on academic history. I think this is as good of a time as any to announce that we’re nearing the beginning of the end of this Professionalizing History series. My original outline for the series had this as a 12-part series. I’m not yet sure if the series will go farther than the original 12 parts, but if it does then…well, it will!

In the next edition of Professionalizing History, we should be talking about historiography and its purpose. After that, we should be talking about conducting interviews and archiving typical stories. After that we should be talking about implementing history through cynicism of contemporary pieces and even, get this, the sciences.

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One Response “Professionalizing History 7: Academic History and the Institution That Thinks Inside the Box”

  1. March 5, 2017 at 12:33 pm

    Great analysis! I also agree that we talk to each other more often than we talk to the world, and that should definitely change. There’s a bias in the profession against engaging in popular history. It’s quite unfortunate, and probably part of the reason why history has been marginalized in education in favor of those over-sold STEM pathways.

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