Why do they hate us?

2 11 2010

This post by Kevin at the Fake Chinese Rubber Tree Plant blog (via New Faculty Majority) is really a lovely piece of writing that makes me proud to be an academic. I’m not sure I believe all of it, but it did make my smile (as did the excellent picture of Professor Frink that I too have appropriated for this post here). Go read it though. It’s well worth your time. When you come back, I’ll focus upon a small part of the overall argument…

This portion of that larger post is certainly debatable:

College professors take a lot of heat from the general public, and we deserve much of what we get; and humanities professors get the worst of it. And arguably, English professors the worst of that: we represent, apparently, the absolute nadir of contemporary culture.

I’m not sure if the public hates English professors more than history professors, but there’s no question we’re both right down there. This explanation of why we are at “the absolute nadir of contemporary culture” would certainly work for either discipline:

I think that college professors as a group, and English professors as a high-visibility (and high-risibility) subset, have done a terrible job of explaining just what it is that we do, and actively countering the most pernicious caricatures of our work that circulate in the larger culture.

I certainly can’t speak for English professors, but I’ve always thought that for historians the problem is that we communicate what we do too well. Our job is not to tell stories, but to analyze the past. As a result, we take a subject that everyone thinks they understand and make it much more complicated than most people think it has to be.

What’s worse is that everyone thinks that they can do our job for us. Think of that woman who wrote the text with the line about all those supposed black Civil War veterans. She doesn’t have any credentials yet she probably made more money from that text than most of us academic historians will make in our publishing lifetimes. In the future, if historians are forced to justify their existences on a material basis (like everyone now does at Texas A&M), I’m afraid that the public would just assume see us replaced by the man off the street.

The best historians can certainly tell stories AND analyze the past. Nevertheless, there should always be a place for academic history too. That, after all, is from where much of the research for the stories that people like David McCullough write will come. Put yourself in our place and you’ll see that it’s not so easy.

Speaking of putting other people in our place, I’m told the current American Constitution Party candidate for Governor of Colorado, Tom Tancredo, believes that people like me only work 13 hours per week. Win or lose tonight, I’d like to see him go teach Political Science somewhere for a semester, and see if he still feels that way afterwords.


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