Historians Should Follow C. Vann Woodward: Write for a Broad Public and Show Why the Discipline MattersRoundup
tags: historiography, popular history, C. Vann Woodward
James C. Cobb is Spalding Distinguished professor of history emeritus at the University of Georgia. His most recent book is C. Vann Woodward, America’s Historian (2022)
While historians have long argued among themselves about the nature of their craft, growing doubts beyond the academy about the importance or even the necessity of what they do have left the profession under siege. History’s steadily declining share of undergraduate majors, course enrollments, university funding and permanent faculty positions over the better part of the past two decades have even fueled warnings that “The End of History” could be near if these trends aren’t reversed.
The problems afflicting history are myriad, but not all the concerns are new. More than 50 years ago, the revered American historian C. Vann Woodward warned practitioners in his field that this day might come. In fact, Woodward revealed through his own work what he saw as the best means of avoiding such a crisis.
Through books like “The Strange Career of Jim Crow,” and his historically informed essays on current affairs, Woodward won acclaim from his colleagues in the academy and, no less importantly, from general audiences, as well. But despite his own notable success, by the end of the 1960s, he was fretting about “the future of the past,” citing slumping enrollments in history courses, a decline in history majors and a Harris survey of 100 high schools in which students named history as the “most irrelevant” subject in their curriculum. In his 1969 presidential address to the American Historical Association, Woodward shared a recent admonition from French historian Marc Bloch that civilization might “one day turn away from history, and historians would do well to reflect on this possibility.”
Several years later, in his brief reflections on the “History of American History,” Woodward seemed to foresee his fellow historians contributing to their profession’s demise by losing sight of the need to write effectively for a broader nonacademic audience to maintain public awareness of the importance of their contributions. Doing so, he thought, ran the risk of their discipline being perceived from the outside as insular and irrelevant.
The first cohort of academically trained historians, such as J. Franklin Jameson and Herbert Baxter Adams, emerged near the end of the 19th century determined to make their work seem more “scientific” than the popularly oriented “storytelling” of their “amateur” predecessors like George Bancroft, Henry Adams and James Ford Rhodes. Their pursuit of scientific standing soon led to writing that struck Woodward as so bland and pedantic that they seemed prepared “not so much [to] lose the public as abandon it” and limit themselves to writing primarily “for each other.”
In keeping with the reform spirit that marked the years leading up to and between the world wars, historians of the “Progressive School” such as Carl Becker and Charles A. Beard managed to regain a broader following by using clear, straightforward prose to advance a thesis especially relevant to that period. At a time when capitalism struck many as the enemy of democracy, the Progressive historians saw free competition between conflicting economic interest groups as the key to America’s progress and the fulfillment of its democratic ideals.