J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Two Cultures at One Conference

I’ve been discussing the reactions to the “American Revolution Reborn” conference in Philadelphia this spring that Peter Feinman described in his thorough recap. In describing what he thought was a lack of military history, Feinman wrote:
One attendee from Boston sitting in the front row just in front of me privately expressed his keen disappointment at its absence from conference.
I’m pretty sure I know who that gentleman was. I’ve chatted with him at Massachusetts Historical Society events and elsewhere. Heck, he might be reading this right now.

Also in the right front rows of the auditorium was J. F. Gearhart, who brought up the question of describing the American Revolution as a Good Thing. Feinman reported that Gearhart was a “non-academic,” but I recall him saying that he invokes examples from the Revolution in classes on leadership. Certainly a business background seems evident in his request for a “net-net” assessment of the historical event.

In short, when I arrived at the conference halfway through, it struck me that that right front part of the auditorium had been staked out by, for want of a better term, Revolutionary history buffs. Those gents are by no means dilettantes. Feinman organizes teacher workshops in New York, and Gearhart teaches. All three of them had gone to the trouble and expense of attending the multi-day conference, probably without institutional support because they were part of the small minority in that crowded room not attached to a university as a professor, graduate student, librarian, or other academic.

There were other tribes in the auditorium as well. In the rear left was a cluster of young scholars with computers sharing the event with the world, like Liz Covart; they’d found the seats closest to the power outlets. (It was an older building without enough outlets or any wifi.) The balcony seemed to be the favored hangout of senior scholars who weren’t on the program but sent down their questions and comments from on high. The scholars on the program tended to sit in the middle of the auditorium in small groups determined by school ties. At the reception afterwards I met other folks linked through Philadelphia history museums and schools.

As for me, I sat in a different area during nearly every session. I don’t have academic training or responsibilities, so I could be classified as a buff, but Boston 1775 is also a weird sort of “public history.” So I kept moving. And I now claim that gives me perspective to pronounce on two cultures divided by the question of “pride” in the Revolution, the academics and the buffs.

Most history buffs know that different historical actors had different perceptions, goals, and values; that it’s poor history to dismiss one side of a conflict as the bad guys; that suspending one’s own outlook and moral judgments is necessary to understanding someone else’s as clearly as possible. They know that history is complex and the process of answering historical questions fraught with uncertainties (which is why that process is so damn interesting). The questions they pursue, whether about military maneuvers or the ultimate value of the Revolution, aren’t necessarily any simpler to answer than the questions that fill grad-school dissertations.

As for academic historians, it’s indeed part of their training and ideology not to label events as Good Things—but that doesn’t apply to every topic. Imagine someone asking an academic historian whether or not halting Jim Crow laws or the Holocaust was a Good Thing. Or if the end of transatlantic race-based chattel slavery was, “net-net,” a benefit to the world. I don’t believe for an instant that any history professor would answer that “There were some good things which came out of those events and some bad things,” or suggest that only freshmen would raise that sort of question. Indeed, on certain historical topics, authors might be pilloried for not acknowledging that they share our culture’s common moral judgments.

So why is the American Revolution not among the topics on which American academic historians express moral judgment, as some buffs seek? I think the main reason is that the Revolution doesn’t need any help from the academy to be perceived as a Good Thing. It’s a huge part of our national origin myth. It’s reflected in our laws, our art and literature, our public spaces, even our currency. Indeed, the value of the Revolution is so prevalent that scholars, in order to perceive the past accurately and glean new knowledge from it, have to push against that understanding, like a curtain to be moved aside.

Meanwhile, buffs study Revolutionary history (or baseball stats, or the Klingon language, or whatever else we’re buffs about) without a professional motivation. We may get lucky enough to earn something from workshops or books or tours, but we’re not part of the strange economy of the academy. We need some other reason to go to that effort, or to go to those lectures and sit up front. For many buffs the impetus is getting closer to our national heritage, and heritage is how we perceive history reflecting on ourselves—meaning a moral judgment is part of the bottom line. Not necessarily a simple judgment, but a necessary one.

As I’ve written, I had an immediate answer to the question of whether the American Revolution was a Good Thing. I also thought that a yes-or-no answer was too simplistic to be interesting and demanded more examination. I suspect that most academics, if assured that this discussion needn’t be simplistic, could offer more incisive judgments than “There were some good things and some bad things.” And I suspect that most buffs, if assured that they wouldn’t be dismissed, would enjoy that conversation.

6 comments:

J. L. Bell said...

Ken Owen at the Junto blog addresses the kerfuffle today. .

Charles Bahne said...

A very thought provoking discussion, John. Great work!

Here's someone else weighing in, from a non-U.S. perspective:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-american-revolution-was-a-flop/2013/07/03/fd077db0-e02b-11e2-b2d4-ea6d8f477a01_story.html

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Charlie! I wrote about that provocative oped here.

William H. Otis said...

I was wrong yesterday in my comment regarding that day's entry - today's entry has pushed me to even greater awe.

Getting hit with this topic kinda stops one in their tracks - forcing a deep breath. Do "buffs" and/or "acedemics" get tunnel vision from the paths they travel or from the frequencies they're tuned in to, or both?

Knowledgable people can quote statements, cite statistics, argue propaganda, and debate results, but it is only the profet, through an unpolluted vision, who can corral that mess and hit the reset button.

These past two days have been eye-openning. Thank you Mr. Bell.

Historical Ken said...

I know a number of "buffs" that would put many "academics" to shame. There are those "academics" with so little actual knowledge on history - one only needs to watch The History Channel - that it makes me sick.
People who study history intently - buffs and academics - should all be treated and revered in the same vein.
I know that I have personally learned more from your postings here on Boston 1775 than I have from many a book.
Don't sell yourself short.

Robert S. Paul said...

I wouldn't base your opinions of the academics who appear on the History Channel on what they've said there. 1. There's some heavy editing there and 2. It's one of the few ways to make some money doing what one loves if that love is history.

I mean yeah that's a bit of a sell out, but unless they're actively pushing incorrect history (like that aliens dude), I wouldn't hate them for it.