In 1994, Norman Cantor was gearing up for his fourth year of besiegement after the release of Inventing the Middle Ages, a mass-market book in which he sought to show how the formative experiences of certain twentieth-century medievalists explained the ways they interpreted history. Fellow historians didn’t like his blunt biographical approach—and so in “Medievalism and the Middle Ages,” a lively but little-read article in The Year’s Work in Medievalism, Cantor hammered back at “establishment dust-grinders” by holding up the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves as “a highly significant core defeat” the academy hadn’t even known it had suffered:
It shows how little the academic medievalists have made an impact on popular culture and its view of the medieval world. Costner’s Robin Hood signifies social failure for the Ivy League, Oxbridge, and the Medieval Academy of America. But I expect the august personalities in those exalted precincts never gave a moment’s thought to this connection.
I recalled Cantor’s smart, spirited (and, in retrospect, debatable) rant when I read last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education piece by Paul Dicken, a philosopher of science who’s keen to write for popular audiences despite the sneering of colleagues and peers:
Yet as I struggle on with my apparently misguided endeavors, I sometimes think that maybe the search committee had a point. It is difficult pitching academic material in a way that is suitable for a popular audience. I don’t pretend to be an unparalleled communicator of ideas, nor do I kid myself about my ability to produce pithy and engaging prose. After many years of writing for peer review, I have developed a nasty habit of overusing the passive voice — not to mention the usual reliance upon jargon, excessive footnotes, and the death by a thousand qualifications that undermines any attempt to state a clear, precise thesis. It is definitely a learning process. But no matter how dull the final product, I was at least confident that I could express my ideas clearly. That’s what we’re trained for, right?
I’ve known plenty of scholars who write lucid books and blogs; I doubt the academy nurtured the requisite skills.
When I decided to start writing in earnest, I drove wildly around England and Wales collecting material for travel stories. The Washington Post published two of them, but only after an editor nudged me with notes like this one from 1999:
I don’t think this lede works; it’s too slow and diffuse for our reader—imagine a bagel-eating Sunday morning householder, an occasional traveler seeking a weekly fix of travel infotainment—but surrounded by a pile of other sections tugging at his time, and household things about to start tugging too…this is different from someone who settles in for a long night with a New Yorker and a hot toddy.
A good editor knows how to improve and refine our writing without shearing off all of the frills and frippery we vainly adore. Thanks to that guy and a couple others like him, I sloughed off three-and-a-half years of bad grad-school style and (eventually, arguably) learned how to write. Paul Dicken, stick to your plan: keeping readers engrossed in weighty matters without overusing the passive voice or condemning them to “death by a thousand qualifications” doesn’t require “an unparalleled communicator of ideas.” Just know your audience, then decide what you’re doing is, among other things, art.
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We’re overdue for great shifts in our obsolete cultural coalitions; the creaking we hear as they seize up and fail is also the venting of truths. In another Chronicle of Higher Education piece last week, philosopher and science historian Lee McIntyre decries the recent “attack on truth” that he believes has us ambling into “an age of willful ignorance”:
It is sad that the modern attack on truth started in the academy — in the humanities, where the stakes may have initially seemed low in holding that there are multiple ways to read a text or that one cannot understand a book without taking account of the political beliefs of its author.
That disrespect, however, has metastasized into outrageous claims about the natural sciences.
Anyone who has been paying attention to the fault lines of academic debate for the past 20 years already knows that the “science wars” were fought by natural scientists (and their defenders in the philosophy of science) on the one side and literary critics and cultural-studies folks on the other. The latter argued that even in the natural realm, truth is relative, and there is no such thing as objectivity. The skirmishes blew up in the well-known “Sokal affair” in 1996, in which a prominent physicist created a scientifically absurd postmodernist paper and was able to get it published in a leading cultural-studies journal. The ridicule that followed may have seemed to settle the matter once and for all.
But then a funny thing happened: While many natural scientists declared the battle won and headed back to their labs, some left-wing postmodernist criticisms of truth began to be picked up by right-wing ideologues who were looking for respectable cover for their denial of climate change, evolution, and other scientifically accepted conclusions. Alan Sokal said he had hoped to shake up academic progressives, but suddenly one found hard-right conservatives sounding like Continental intellectuals. And that caused discombobulation on the left.
“Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies?,” Bruno Latour, one of the founders of the field that contextualizes science, famously asked. “Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we said? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good?”
“But now the climate-change deniers and the young-Earth creationists are coming after the natural scientists,” the literary critic Michael Bérubé noted, “… and they’re using some of the very arguments developed by an academic left that thought it was speaking only to people of like mind.”
Having noticed, as Norman Cantor did, how rare it is for new discoveries about the Middle Ages to prosper off-campus unless they’re being exploited for linkbait, I was startled by this whole line of thought. I’ll have to read McIntyre’s book to see if it’s true that postmodernist humanities scholars influenced “hard-right conservatives” or “climate-change deniers and the young-Earth creationists.” I doubt it, although I suspect that the latter have at least heckled the former to live up to the credos implied by their critical approaches, but what a remarkable admission: that a fair amount of recent work in the humanities is baloney that was never meant to be consumed, sold, or even sniffed by outsiders.
Humanities theorists have insisted for years that when we set our work loose, it’s no longer our own. They’ll find in the end that intentions still matter: there’s more pleasure and solace in writing and art when you believe what you’re doing is true.