Jill Lepore: “The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril.”


Writer and historian

Evan Goldstein interviews the New Yorker’s Jill Lepore for The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Lepore, an historian, is the author of These Truths (W.W. Norton), a new history of America.

She insists “facts come from the realm of humanities.” Do they? We don’t know what kind of facts you can find in Li Po or Euripides or Anna Karenina, but she nevertheless has some interesting observations about the state of the humanities in America, always an important subject at the Book Haven. A few excerpts below:

A. That transformation, from facts to numbers to data, traces something else: the shifting prestige placed on different ways of knowing. Facts come from the realm of the humanities, numbers represent the social sciences, and data the natural sciences. When people talk about the decline of the humanities, they are actually talking about the rise and fall of the fact, as well as other factors. When people try to re-establish the prestige of the humanities with the digital humanities and large data sets, that is no longer the humanities. What humanists do comes from a different epistemological scale of a unit of knowledge.

Q. How is the academy implicated in or imperiled by this moment of epistemological crisis?

A. The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril. The retreat of humanists from public life has had enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world.

Universities have also been complicit in letting sources of federal government funding set the intellectual agenda. The size and growth of majors follows the size of budgets, and unsurprisingly so. After World War II, the demands of the national security state greatly influenced the exciting fields of study. Federal-government funding is still crucial, but now there’s a lot of corporate money. Whole realms of knowing are being brought to the university through commerce.

Congratulations in order? (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I don’t expect the university to be a pure place, but there are questions that need to be asked. If we have a public culture that suffers for lack of ability to comprehend other human beings, we shouldn’t be surprised. The resources of institutions of higher learning have gone to teaching students how to engineer problems rather than speak to people.


Q. You did your graduate work at Yale in the early ’90s in a post-structuralist American-studies department. You read a lot of Derrida and Foucault. You’ve said that you grew uncomfortable with how you were trained versus how you wanted to write.

A. I should say that I happened to land at a place where there were people writing in their own way. John Demos was my adviser. I also worked with Bill Cronon, who’s a tremendous writer. And Jon Butler. All of whom read my dissertation prospectus and said, OK, this is not a dissertation prospectus but we’re going to pass it because we love it. They were the exception.

Like any Ph.D. program, what you’re being trained to do is employ a jargon that instantiates your authority in the abstruseness of your prose. You display what you know by writing in a way that other people can’t understand. That’s not how I understand writing. Writing is about sharing what you know with storybook clarity, even and especially if you’re writing about something that’s complicated or morally ambiguous. Also, I like to write about people who are characters, who have limbs and fingers and toes and loves and desires and agonies and triumphs and ages and hair colors. But that’s not how historical writing is taught in a Ph.D. program.


Last of a kind. (Photo: Bernard Gotfryd)

Q. In your 2010 book, The Whites of Their Eyes, about the rise of the Tea Party, you note that Richard Hofstadter, who died in 1970, was one of the last academic historians to reach readers outside the academy “with sweeping interpretations both of the past and of his own time.” You seem to occupy a Hofstadter-like space in American life. How do you see your role?

A. You can see in Hofstadter’s life why so many academics from his generation and the generation that followed retreated. Hofstadter was stricken by student protests at Columbia. Something had gone wrong in American political life, which had become zealous. It would be best for historians to therefore not be part of it.

Since serious academic historians have to a large degree retreated, that space is taken up by other people. Again, generally by presidential historians, most of them journalists. That’s not to say they’re not excellent journalists and brilliant biographers. But what they write is presidential history, and what they offer is political punditry that emphasizes the power of the presidency. Just this week I was frantically reading about the attempted assassinations, possibly, of Trump critics, and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, and I just knew I was going to see Michael Beschloss tell a story about LBJ. That’s the casting call for the historian. I’m not convinced that it’s a great contribution, especially when you think of the incredible work scholars do studying patterns of political expression, social movements, the history of political violence; none of that is gathered up in a one-clause quote from Michael Beschloss. What I’ve tried to do in The New Yorker is figure out a different way for a historian to offer a contribution. It doesn’t refuse to engage with what’s going on in the present, but it also doesn’t offer up the comforting anecdote or the disquieting anecdote.

There’s lots more to be said on all this, and so much I want to question in what she says. You can read the whole article here.


4 Responses to “Jill Lepore: “The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril.””

  1. George Says:

    You might want to change the URL to https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Academy-Is-Largely/245080?cid=wsinglestory_hp_1 . The link now takes one to a page requesting one’s Stanford login.

    I can think of a number of well-credentialed historians who write books for reading by those outside the universities: Charles Carr, Robert Kagan, and Steven Ozment come to mind. Ozment and Kagan were two of the authors of the Western history text my son’s high school used; both have written quite readable works for the general reader, and perhaps their third co-author Frank Turner has also. These authors do tend to write a lot about monarchs, states, and wars. On the other hand, the one history by a woman that I can lay hands on just now is The Thirty Years War by C.V. Wedgwood.

    But I have read the article a bit quickly to do it justice, and will have to go back.

    Still I wonder whether someone who reads and writes for a living is conscious how daunting 790 pages is for the non-academic reader. Those of us whose employment does not involve the reading of literature do well to get through 150 pages of anything that makes an argument. For many readers, then, that is ten percent of a year’s reading.

  2. Bill Cook Says:

    “You display what you know by writing in a way that other people can’t understand. That’s not how I understand writing,” says the subject.

    Not academic writing anyway.

  3. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks, George. Correction made. (And I might add that many of us whose employment does involve the reading of literature have a very large stack of books by our desks to get through.)

  4. George Says:

    You’re welcome. I should have said “150 pages per week”. I have a notion what stacks of reading matter the professionals must get through. Probably I underestimate them; but even my estimate keeps me from envying those who must tackle them.