Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
Historians as a Group Should Not Endorse Candidates
Recently, more than 70 historians proclaimed their support for Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy under the banner headline: Historians for Obama. It triggered the predictable response: both A Historian Against Obama, then Academics for Ron Paul. Let’s put aside the question of whether it should be “a historian” or “an historian.” Although I have tremendous respect for many of the historians who signed the endorsement letter, I do not think that historians as a group should endorse candidates. Uniting on the basis of our professional expertise implies that somehow through applying the rigorous skills of our discipline it is obvious who should be the next president.
I am no shrinking violet and have taken many stands on public issues in newspapers. However, I try to keep my political activism out of the classroom – and out of my historical monographs. Taking a strong stand as an historian, with other historians, would breach the already admittedly shaky and permeable wall I’ve built between my scholarship and my activism.
I think there is great merit in trying to keep the mantle of objectivity as both a teacher and a scholar – if not as a citizen. To help stimulate what I think is a necessary and long overdue discussion about this question – on different terms than is usually debated – let’s think about journalists. Let’s start by admitting (without probing deeply “why” for now) most academics’ (unfairly) condescending attitudes toward reporters. If they are the ones who, as the cliché goes, write history’s first draft, we are the ones who supposedly write the more authoritative, objective version.
And yet, academics, especially these days, feel empowered to be political inside and outside the classroom – often with few internal or external constraints – while our most respected journalists follow careful “conflict of interest” guidelines. In 1989, when reporters from the New York Times and Washington Post participated in a pro-choice march, editors at both papers criticized them. More recently, when one of those reporters, Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times, who covers the Supreme Court, gave a partisan speech at Harvard University it triggered another controversy.
The NPR story covering that speech quoted the first public editor – or in-house journalism critic – of the New York Times, Daniel Okrent, who reportedly was amazed by Greenhouse’s speech, saying: “It's been a basic tenet of journalism ... that the reporter's ideology [has] to be suppressed and submerged, so the reader has absolute confidence that what he or she is reading is not colored by previous views.” Don’t our students – and readers -- deserve what newspaper readers deserve? Isn’t there value in trying to control ourselves, and not turn our professorial podiums into political platforms? At what point does blurring the line between scholarship and advocacy risk becoming educational and professional malpractice?
I pose these as questions because I acknowledge my own inconsistencies here. I remember as an undergraduate how exciting it was to hear Professor Archibald Cox lecture about Supreme Court cases he argued originally as Solicitor General or watching professors work on campaigns, advise presidents, or take public stands. But I also respected professors who kept their opinions to themselves, and kept their partisan politics out of their professional scholarship.
I am not critical of individual historians who plunge into the public arena – I struggle with the question of how intellectuals stay relevant and make a broader contribution. But I draw the line on these kinds of group statements in speculative political matters – just as I try to draw a line between my identity as an op-ed writer my students might read in the morning and as their professor whose hopefully far less political and polemical lecture they will attend in the afternoon.
HNN Hot Topics: Historians and the 2008 Election