Woeful Ignorance and the Need of History Professors

civil war flagsby Timothy Huebner

U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, recently made news by suggesting that we no longer need professors.  They are too expensive, he argued.  The example he gave was that those taking courses on the American Civil War could simply watch the Ken Burns PBS video series instead.

According to a story in Inside Higher Ed, here’s what Johnson said:

We’ve got the internet—you have so much information available.  Why do you have to keep paying different lecturers to teach the same course?  You get one solid lecturer and put it up online and have everybody available to that knowledge for a whole lot cheaper?”  He went on:  “One of the examples I always used – if you want to teach the Civil War across the country, are you better off having, I don’t know, tens of thousands of history teachers that kind of know the subject, or would you be better off popping in 14 hours of Ken Burns’s Civil War tape and then have those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done?  You keep duplicating that over all these different subject areas.

Johnson’s comments not only demonstrate a woeful ignorance of the mission of American colleges and universities, they also point up the need for those of us in academia to do a better job of explaining to the public what it is that we actually do.  So, let me give it a try.

First, research is fundamental to the life of our nation’s higher educational institutions.  In doing research, professors discover and create new knowledge.  This is just as true for those of us who write about the American Civil War as it is for those who are working in the fields of biomedical engineering or artificial intelligence.  Historians are constantly unearthing new sources, employing new methods, and asking new questions about things that they thought they already knew.

To give just one example:  For decades, historians of the American Civil War almost unanimously agreed that approximately 620,000 Americans died in the war—approximately 360,000 Union soldiers and 260,000 Confederates.  In the last few years, however, a new study by J. David Hacker argued that, based on a rigorous analysis of the 1870 census, Confederate dead had been vastly under counted.  An estimated 752,000 people probably died in the war, Hacker claimed, an increase of 20 percent from the previous figure.  This new number has since become the accepted wisdom in the field.

The point is that every fact presented in the Burns series was itself the product of research done over the years by historians, who found and pieced together different sources in order to arrive at some version of the past.  They presented these interpretations in books and articles, as well as in on- camera interviews with Burns and his staff.  Research—the act of discovery and interpretation—is the foundation of all historical knowledge.  Without the work of historians over decades, the Burns series would never have been possible.  Arguing that because we have the Burns series—or any documentary—we have no need for historians is like saying that because we can buy honey in the grocery store we have no need for honeybees.

Second, the writing and producing of all history—even Burns’ documentary—itself exists within a historical context.  The Burns series is now more than a quarter century old, so its interpretation is in some ways dated.  Produced in the late 1980s and first aired in September 1990, the series reflected the concerns of its time.  In the post-Vietnam era, it emphasized the extraordinary carnage brought about by the war.  At the tail end of the Reagan years, it highlighted the patriotic theme of national reconciliation, the notion of the war as a “brothers’ war” in which both sides—Union and Confederate—deserved equal respect for their heroism and sacrifice.  And to a lesser extent, in the era after the passage of landmark civil rights legislation, the series explored the war as a means of bringing about the end of slavery.

Perspectives on the past change over time.  Interpretations shift and evolve as society transforms and historians ask different types of questions.  The Civil War remains among the most vibrant fields in all of American historical scholarship, as new books, journals, blogs, and digital archives appear, devoted to researching and teaching about the central event in United States history.  Historians are now (re)conceiving of the conflict as part of the long struggle for freedom in African American history, and they are breaking down the artificial temporal barriers created by previous generations of scholars by increasingly viewing the war and reconstruction as of a piece.

In Memphis, local historians have lately made an effort to uncover the history of the long-suppressed Memphis Massacre.  Over three days in May 1866, just a year after the end of the war, mobs of whites indiscriminately attacked black men, women, and children in the city, killing 46 African Americans and destroying black businesses, churches, and homes.  Despite the fact that three different contemporary investigations documented the white-on-black massacre, many historical works subsequently neglected to mention it or misleadingly referred to it as the “Memphis Riot.”  The first book ever produced on the subject appeared only a few years ago, and our recent conference promises additional historical scholarship on the topic.  In short, historians are now shedding new light on the Memphis Massacre, a key moment at the end of the war that some historians neglected and that the Burns series never mentioned.

Because research and investigation is ongoing in history—just as it is in other fields—we would never limit our study of the past to a documentary whose production occurred nearly three decades ago.  To do so would confine ourselves to an interpretive framework frozen in 1990, thus ignoring all that historians have learned since that time and stifling ongoing debate over the war’s meaning in our own day.  As is the case with other fields, the study of history always reflects present concerns, for as Edward H. Carr famously wrote, history is “an unending dialogue between the present and the past.”

Finally, the essence of all meaningful history teaching is critical analysis of sources, along with deep discussion of the significance of the past.  Because the Burns documentary offers such an artful and engaging interpretation of the war, I am actually a big fan of the series.  There was nothing like it at the time.  Combining still photographs, letter and diary excerpts, and interviews with historians against a backdrop of stirring narration and music, Burns told a compelling story and told it well.   He brought to life moving personal accounts of soldiers who fought in the war, and some of Burns’ carefully crafted battle descriptions still shine.  But the series left a lot out as well, as it arguably offered a unifying tale of white heroism that downplayed the experiences of African Americans, both during and after the war.

My institution, Rhodes College, houses the personal papers of the southern writer Shelby Foote, the star of the Burns series, and for the past few years I have been teaching a course, “Shelby Foote, the South, and the Civil War.”  The seminar examines Foote’s life and work, and we watch segments of the Burns series and discuss the debate that it spawned among historians about how we ought to interpret the war.  In addition to being a terrific vehicle for analyzing the differences between documentary filmmaking and historical writing, the Burns series is a great source for considering public memory of the Civil War at the end of the twentieth century.  Burns produced a masterful documentary, to be sure, but his film should always be understood as a product of its time and discussed alongside the work of historians.  It could never suffice as a course unto itself.

If U.S. Senators believe that professors can be replaced with videos viewed on the web, we in academia still have a great deal of work to do.  In the internet age, we will all need to do a better of job of explaining to the public that the acquisition of knowledge, however important, is not the ultimate purpose of education.  Rather, the process of engaging in research and discovery, the act of acquiring knowledge while also placing it in historical context, and the craft of critically analyzing sources lie at the heart of history education in the academy.  Above all, education, regardless of field, should always foster a love of continued learning.  The only way that any of this really happens is when talented, devoted professors engage with students in the dynamic environment of the classroom.  No single documentary—however well done—could ever aspire to accomplish as much.

Timothy S. Huebner, Sternberg Professor of History at Rhodes College, is the author of Liberty and Union:  The Civil War Era and American Constitutionalism, recently published by University Press of Kansas.

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