Publication Date

May 20, 2019

Perspectives Section

From the President


Public History

“Discursively imbricated ontologies . . .”

Hunh? The student who wrote this phrase is set to graduate this month. I wish him well, even if I suspect he has no more idea what his words mean than I do—and I haven’t the vaguest. If he learned nothing else in my class, I hope he learned that it doesn’t make anyone sound smart to write strings of fancy words.

One of the things I like about history is that it can be written clearly, in language any literate person can understand. I don’t enjoy having to puzzle out meanings as if reading a foreign language I don’t know properly. It is much harder for biomedical scientists or atomic physicists to write clearly for professional publication, not because of deficiencies in their skill sets, but because their disciplines are so technical, so dependent on knowledge far outside the realm of ordinary citizens. A century ago the New Zealander and Nobel laureate physicist Ernest Rutherford allegedly claimed that “all good science can be explained to a bar[tender].” We have better ways today to refer to uninitiated audiences, and I hope we no longer condescend to bartenders, but the sentiment behind his remark remains an admirable ambition.

Most sciences fall short. Internal communication among specialists in most sciences is more efficient when it uses technical jargon. If geologists, for example, avoided referring to the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary because few others understand the term (it’s the boundary in rock layers associated with the extinction of dinosaurs 66 million years ago), they would have to resort to lengthy workarounds.

The same is true, with a pernicious twist, in some other professions. Tax attorneys and lawyers, for example, share a common interest in devising and using obscure language that laypersons cannot understand. That way, fewer people can file their taxes without hiring specialists. Documents clotted with jargon are good for business.

My generation of historians is, I hope, leaving a legacy of good work. But we are also leaving a blight on the craft of history.

For historians, the opposite is true. It is in our collective interest for everyone to read and enjoy history. Nowadays, that seems as true as it has ever been. History is one of the few disciplines that allows efficient communication among specialists in ordinary language. That is good fortune we should cherish.

I’m 64 and finished my PhD in 1981. My generation of historians is, I hope, leaving a legacy of good work. But we are also leaving a blight on the craft of history. We pioneered—or at the very least normalized—the use of relentlessly abstract and obscure prose, often in imitation of models once current in literary criticism and philosophy. I consider that practice undemocratic, unhelpful to the prospects for our discipline, and a poor example for smart but impressionable students, such as the one quoted above.

Obscure language is undemocratic: it reaches only a few initiates and excludes the great majority of readers. It alienates audiences needlessly, which no one concerned with the standing of the humanities in our society can welcome. It sometimes makes readers feel dumb, especially young ones, because they can’t understand it. Some of them think, wrongly, that writing that way makes authors appear smart.

Over the decades, I have enjoyed cordial arguments with colleagues who do not share my faith in the value of ordinary language. One told me, for example, that it is impossible to express novel ideas without novel language. I remain unpersuaded. I think historians can easily offer revolutionary ideas in ordinary language. An example I recall from my student days is A.J.P. Taylor’s argument—wrongheaded, I thought—in The Origins of the Second World War, published in 1961. He made a radically revisionist argument in brisk, simple sentences. I still think that argument, which portrayed Hitler’s foreign policy in the 1930s as consistent with the traditions of modern German aims, is wrong. But I also still think his prose is lucid and lean. I wish my students could write like that. I wish I could.

Another argument, which I find slightly more persuasive, is that there is no reason every historian should write accessibly as long as some do. That way, a wider public, including students who don’t like to be made to feel dim-witted, will still find some enjoyable history. And at the same time, those historians who prefer to communicate in codes may do so with one another. My sympathy with this position extends only so far.

First, my sympathies for liberty require me to accept this position. I don’t want anyone, even me, telling historians how they must write. But I have no objection to anyone telling historians how they should write.

Second, I think it’s fine to write of “the long 19th century,” even if that phrase baffles citizens who know very well that every century is the same length. That seems, to me at least, a gentle form of jargon, its meaning easily inferred from context. I think it’s also fine to write in coded language in specialized journals, just as astrophysicists and neuroscientists (and tax accountants) do. But I think it is unwise to do so in general history journals, or in books or digital forums, where wider readership is a plausible possibility. Some science journals in recent years have taken to requiring that authors prepare not only an abstract but a summary in plain language. The point of the requirement is not to make science articles accessible to Rutherford’s bartender, although that is an added benefit, but to other scientists with other specializations.

Obscure language alienates audiences needlessly, which no one concerned with the standing of the humanities in our society can welcome.

In this era of emphasis on STEM education, scientists have less reason than historians to worry about their audiences. My sense is—and has been for decades—that historians’ claim on the public imagination, and the public purse, is tenuous. Why should society at large reward us for our pursuits when we won’t cure cancer or reduce the cost of solar power? I hope the day will never come when general history journals need to require a summary in plain language as well as an abstract—because we don’t enjoy the same prestige and security that some other disciplines have.

My faith in the value of ordinary language for historians is confirmed every now and then by search committee work in a multidisciplinary unit of my university. We often end up short-listing candidates from several disciplines. Economists never win these jobs. It is too hard for them to explain their work, in job letters and job talks, in terms that non-economists can understand. Political scientists sometimes win. Historians win more often, precisely because so many can so easily explain their work to so many colleagues who have no history education. That is, again, good fortune we should cherish.

Enough whinin’ ’bout my generation, to misquote the Who. I draw the line somewhere between “the long 19th century” and “discursively imbricated ontologies,” and lot closer to the former than to the latter. Where would you draw it, if you would draw it at all?

PS: In a recent column, I discussed the advisability of the AHA continuing to host job interviews at its annual meeting, and invited responses. As of early May, several dozen people have have registered their views, which I have passed on to the Professional Division. The division will offer a recommendation to the AHA Council on this matter in the first week of June. Thanks to all those who weighed in. The responses are not, of course, a statistically valid poll. But for what it’s worth, sentiment is running strongly against continuing to host interviews.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.

John R. McNeill
John R. McNeill

Georgetown University