Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Historians as public intellectuals

The history job market remains grim, the result of cutbacks in funding to many institutions of higher education, the triumph of the professions over such impractical arts as history, and the increasing exploitation of an army of mostly underpaid, exploited adjuncts to teach our undergraduates.

Many frustrated job seekers in the history profession choose alternative careers. Law schools attract some, business schools others. History-related, non-academic professions, among them historical societies and museums, have benefited greatly from the glut of history Ph.Ds.

But one of the more interesting phenomena worth comment is the rise of public intellectuals who trained as historians. Consider just these few exemplary cases. One of the most smashingly successful blogs, Talking Points Memo, is run by former Brown history graduate student Josh Marshall. Best-selling authors Thomas Frank and Rick Perlstein are both trained historians. Frank earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, whose press published his fine dissertation as The Conquest of Cool. Perlstein attended the American Culture program at the University of Michigan before writing path-breaking histories of conservativism that have much more panache than all but the very best academic books. I have already mentioned critic Chris Lehmann, a Lasch student. Matthew Dallek, the son of the presidential biographer Robert Dallek, has followed his father's footsteps into political history but has also served as a political speechwriter and political essayist. The new liberal intellectual journal Democracy is run by three editors who are all published historians and Beltway insiders. Andrei Cherney has just published a well-reviewed history of the Berlin Airlift. His co-editor, Kenneth Baer, wrote a well-regarded history of the Democratic Leadership Council after earning an Oxford Ph.D. Their colleague Clay Risen is soon publishing a history of the riots that followed Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination.

Professor Bierce is pleased that historians are demonstrating their relevance outside of the cloistered precincts of the university. The best historians are masters of the art of narrative. It's a skill that translates well into the world of punditry and politics.


Anonymous said...

Doctorates from Oxford University are awarded as D.Phils., not as Ph.Ds.

Ambrose Hofstader Bierce III said...

My humble apologies, anon. Forgive my American obtuseness about the fine distinctions of the British academy.