By Phil Hamilton, April 14, 2010 in Publishing and Research, Professional Development
I recently read some works on the 18th century European Enlightenment in preparation for my American Revolution class, which I’m teaching once again this fall. In particular, I’ve been reading about Denis Diderot’s efforts to publish his famous Encyclopedie from the 1750s to 1770s. These readings have reminded me that Diderot and the philosophes were not philosophers as we would use that word. They did not to seek discover new principles regarding human and natural law. Rather they sought to convey the ideas and discoveries others had made to the general public. And these writers saw it as their responsibility to make these discoveries accessible to the larger society. Not to “dumb down” these things, but to disseminate information in a clear and logical manner in order to educate and improve society.
In this context, I wonder about our roles and responsibilities as scholars in today’s society. It is a common criticism that academics mainly write only for one another and that most scholarly volumes are nothing more than incomprehensible tomes, filled with jargon, obscure theories, and inelegant prose. Having read many of these sorts of works (especially when in graduate school), I think there’s a large measure of truth here.
I realize that not all monographs can or should be geared toward the general public. Much scholarship must be written in such a manner as to communicate directly with other scholars. And we, as academics, are not simply popularisers of ideas and information. But it seems to me that too few scholars ever try to reach a larger audience, which is unfortunate. Indeed, the less we write for both our fellow academics and a well-educated general public, the more we marginalize ourselves in terms of influencing our society and culture.
History in particular has, as a scholarly discipline, ceded the general reading public to non-specialists. Journalists today write the bulk of best-selling history books. These volumes often tell a good story, but typically lack meaningful analysis or interpretation.
There are, of course, some notable exceptions, for instance David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing (2004) and Gordon Wood’s recent Empire of Liberty (2009). Fischer’s book is a wonderful combination of clear narration and noteworthy interpretation. I’ve started reading Wood’s book and it, too, is superbly written, substantive, jargon-free, and accessible to a thoughtful reading public. The fact that both books have sold well indicates that segments of the public are willing to tackle good solid works of scholarship as long as the writing and analysis are clear and comprehensible.
I wish there were more books like these and more scholars like Fischer and Wood.