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specialization and its discontents (short version)

March 11, 2005

I’m putting together a longer post on the problem of specialization vs grand narrative in history, but with the end of the term coming up it may be a while before I finish it. In the meantime, I’ll just post a few thoughts here:

While I was trying to catch up with the discussion of Ross Douthat’s recent article about Harvard (and higher education in general) in The Atlantic, I came across this post by Kieran Healy from just about a year ago discussing Simon Schama’s criticisms of academic history (link via No Loss for Words). The discussion seems to have been started by Timothy Burke here, and then continued by the Invisible Adjunct here, before making its way over to Crooked Timber.

To sum up very briefly: Schama argues that academic history is too specialized and too obsessed with footnotes, and calls for a return to some golden age of narrative history-writing; Timothy Burke points out that broadly written histories aimed at the public could not be written without the detailed research that goes into monographs, but that historians indeed should nevertheless work on writing more “broadly communicative” histories; the Invisible Adjunct and Kieran Healy both point out the problems with idealizing some past “golden age”; the original posters and various commenters complain about the contraints created by the norms of graduate education and tenure and promotion committees; everything settles down after a while.

None of this is all that remarkable. The complaint is quite an old one: I could probably do a whole additional post on The Historian’s Craft summarizing what Marc Bloch had to say about specialization and synthesis. Indeed, Schama himself actually published a longer article on this very topic back in 1991. If you have access to the New York Times historical database you can read it here.

What is remarkable about this particular discussion, however, is that – though he was still critical of academic history – Simon Schama never actually said most of what the Independent attributed to him.

If you clicked on the link to the article, you probably noticed that it’s now available only to subscribers. As I am not one, I had to go back through Lexis-Nexis to look it up. (Sorry, Lexis-Nexis doesn’t seem to do permalinks. Update: Thanks to Sharon, you can find the article here.) While doing so, I happened to come across the following letter to the editor, dated one week after the original article (29 Feb 2004):

HEADLINE: LETTER: HISTORY HAS NEVER BEEN BETTER

BYLINE: SIMON SCHAMA

BODY:
Contrary to the headline “History just isn’t what it used to be: Schama slams academic historians”, (22 February), I most certainly did not “slam” academic historians in the interview I gave on the three- part BBC4 series Historians of Genius for which I provide brief introductions. In fact, when egged on to say something of this sort, I was at pains to say what I believe, namely that we are now in something of a golden age of narrative writing and that more history which combines scholarship of the highest level with narrative craft is being written than ever before. Antony Beevor was just one of a long list of names – including Cannadine, Colley, Brewer, Tillyard, Jardine, Ferguson – whose work I want to celebrate. Nor (since a leader in your paper took me to task on this) did I say anything, or indeed have anything, against footnotes; and in the same interview I went out of my way to sing the praises of Gibbon’s footnotes, which are things of stunning erudition, elegance and mischievous wit.

Simon Schama

Columbia University, New York, USA

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