On being a snob

I've had a few inbound links from forums in the last few days, including this one. It's nice to be linked to, but in this case one of the participants, kyt, has a bit of a rant about my snobbishness:

The blogger does seem to have a certain, for want of a better word, snobbishness. He keeps saying academics this and academics that. For example, in his section on Unwritten books he writes about books that academics haven't written. The areas that he is concerned with cover ones where there are lots of books. OK, so they aren't written by university lecturers, but are these people the only ones who can validate a subject? What about the plethora of books written by enthusiasists? People who have devoted there lives on researching and writing on subjects, on top of holding down a day job? My shelves are full of books written by these sort of people, and they are excellent.

And I have read books by "accredited" academics which are dry, boring and so turgid that they fail to convey any true sense of the subject.

Well, I'd have to say I'm mostly guilty as charged -- but I don't see what's so wrong with that! The reference is to my post on books which historians have neglected to write. Yes, I did say academic historians, but then I'm an academic in training (whether or not I ever become one), so of course my orientation is going to be towards academic works.

But more than that, on the whole I do think academic histories are better than non-academic histories. If I didn't think there was some value in thinking and writing like an academic historian, presumably I wouldn't be doing a PhD in history. In general, books written by academic historians are better contextualised, less narrow in their focus than those written by non-academics. They usually better referenced -- I have a very low tolerance for books with no endnotes, or with only a half-page of further reading!

Which is not to say that I just reject histories written by non-academics out of hand -- after all, they are often interested in subjects that the academics don't seem to be, and that's a good thing. I can think of a number which I have praised on this very blog, such as Waiting for Hitler by Midge Gillies, a journalist. Another one which at least one regular here rates very highly is The Paladins by John James, a psychologist. I think The Paladins shows some of the advantages and disadvantages of an outsider's perspective. One of James' big points is that you can use the monthly Air Force Lists (which show the rank of every officer, the location of all commands, the distribution of squadrons, etc) to chart the growth of the RAF between the wars, in a way which is independent of the usual minute analysis of CID meetings and the Ten Year Rule and so on. And he criticises academic historians for neglecting this source, quite fairly. But on the way James makes some blunders of his own. So averse to any form of archival research is he that he is reduced to guessing things that he could easily find out, such as the function of various squadrons. That's the sort of mistake that an academic training in history would (should!) teach one to avoid.

I guess the upshot of all that is that for me, it's not so much a question of whether a history is actually written by an academic, but of how closely the book itself conforms to the academic model of research and writing. If that makes me a snob then so be it!

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21 thoughts on “On being a snob

  1. Erik Lund

    Does anyone remember the old billboard ad campaign for Christies brand "Crisper" snacks. They would show two crowds, one holding signs saying "Cracker," the other, "Chip," and they were converging, evidently with a little of the old ultra-violence in mind.
    The caption underneath read, "Chip or Cracker? The debate continues."

    ...What we have here is the same old debate. Somewhere here I have a fifty year old signboard. I just can't remember whether I'm supposed to hit an "academic" or an "entusiast."
    I do know that the academic is writing the zillionth book about how the interwar RAF was a dysfunctional institution that never even thought about war fighting after the staff caught a showing of "Shape of Things To Come," and realised that bombs could solve the global coloured people problem.
    Meanwhile, the "enthusiast" is writing yet another "Axis Aircraft of World War II" splatbook in time for Christmas. It will have a three page entry for that forward-swept wing Junker 287 jet bomber including the "information" that a flyable prototype was stolen by the Commies, and will skip every Arado below the 2xx series to save space.

    Can I hit both of them?

  2. Odd, the last thing I would describe you as is a snob, Brett. I think Airminded has always had an enthusiastic feel backed by solid learning, a pleasurable but reliably informative read. I wish you had a double covering the buildup to the Pacific war, which I'd love to see treated at this level of detail.

  3. Erik Lund

    As someone currently writing a world history out of secondary sources (look, anyone who wants to fund me doing primary source research is welcome to send me a cheque), I can say with confidence that we need more academic studies about just about darn near everything.
    And it is equally clear that enthusiasts are not helping anywhere near as much as they think they are. When you have shelf of enthusiasts' books about the origins of mounted warfare, the Great Wall of China, Shay's Rebellion, cod fishing, or Greenland Vikings, you could easily get the impression that we know something about the subject.
    But we don't. Thanks to the enthusiasts, we have many closely-studied facts to work with, but they are embedded with repeated commonplaces and, worse, "Just So" stories that save the received version of events and embed them in the details.
    The enthusiasts may fairly point out that academics do this, too (usually when we wander over to the political implications), but academics have method. In each of the periods and subjects I mentioned above, I found a serious academic study sitting amongst the enthusiasm that blew the cobwebs right out of my head and left me thinking, "how did we get it so wrong?"
    But there is another level of engagement here. Consider the issue of army-air cooperation in the interwar. The enthusiast version is clearly just stupid. I still remember reading the service biographies of the AOCs published in Flight in in 1939 and realising just how inane John Terraine's theory that Leigh-Mallory was isolated within the RAF by his prewar "specialisation" in AAC. Practically every Fighter Command AOC and the AOC BEF had exactly the same experience, and most of the Bomber AOCs had done a spell at the School of naval Cooperation.
    Nonethless, the American services continue to argue about "air strategy" (so this is a question upon which turns the spending of billions, if not trillions of dollars) today, and Richard Hallion's book on the subject is the received text.
    Yet it is also not worth the paper it was printed on because he shows no sense of understanding the history of radio technology. Until this has been highlighted, the whole discussion is void of historical context.
    This example deliberately highlights a very challenging technical problem. Really, how many historians involved can spare the time to learn about antenna loading? Not me. And I took a course in it as an undergrad.
    Which is where, turn and turn again, the enthusiasts come in. Some people have written on the subject; and, thanks to them, the academic doesn't need to know how to calculate antenna lengths.

  4. Excellent production values do not translate into useful additions to what is already available. How many books do we need about the Spitfire, Mustang , Fw 190 or Bf 109? The shelves of books he has are almost completely useless as references, aside from what can be gleaned from photos and the odd page from an original document they might happen to include. Not that they won't have something useful to say, but it is impossible to determine the validity of any conclusions (which are rare enough in themselves). The popular press is full of books that have copied the same errors over and over again to the point that it is almost impossible to correct, and yet a large part of academic history is about making just these corrections, to revise viewpoints especially in the face of participants who challenge anything that contradicts the propaganda they are invested in.

    While footnotes and endnotes do make reading more of a challenge and the assembling of arguments in favour of a position may be dry (especially to the easily distracted), the atmosphere of anti-intellectualism prevalent today is not a useful alternative and can never offer anything beneficial, and tagging anyone who actually has the temerity to use their brain as snobbish is just a small part of this. Ignorance it not bliss - it is willful self-imposed stupidity, and the Americans seem to be the biggest exponents of this (particularly those from Texas).

    Much of the popular press is little more than glorification and entertainment - whether it is of the RAF, USAF or Lufwaffe or others, while the serious academic works actually serve a real purpose in furthering our knowledge the way yet another book on a Nazi paper airplane cannot. By knowledge I do not mean about how fast, well liked, or the details of its production and which squadrons it served with though all of these are in a small way important, but rather the big picture - in its real effect on history and the impact it had on events. Most of the popular books are almost entirely lacking in context.

    I have found most enthusiasts to be impossibly ignorant about their own subjects of interest. I notice this in particular with aviation, perhaps because of the technical aspect imparts a real barrier to useful knowledge.

    The popular press may be better equipped to bring potentially interesting lines of research to light, but is rarely equipped get anything out of it and original arguments are almost unheard of, and with the few exceptions to this vanishing without a trace.

    IMHO :)

    Mike Fletcher
    (Ottawa, Canada)
    (proud to be a snob)

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  6. Chris Williams

    A snob writes:

    I know Terraine didn't get everything right, but in my opinion, the bomber offensive is remarkably well served by amateurs: JT, Max Hastings, and Martin Middlebrook between them bracket the subject nicely. The point here is that it isn't sitting in a university that makes you a historian, it's carrying out research like Ranke intended. Some amateurs are better at this than most professionals.

    But I'm not a reasearcher into C20th air warfare, save only for a very few bits when it intersects with the development of control rooms generally. My own personal bugbear is amateur histories of policing, which generally contain some gems of information that I Need To Know, buried in reams of stuff that I don't. Man, this is annoying. Planes must be worse. Merry Christmas.

  7. Erik Lund

    Terraine and Hastings haven't written the book about the strategic air offensive. _The_ book would talk about the School of Air Navigation, carbonitriding, extrusion, spark plugs, civil engineering of air fields, and its relationship with tyres. It was impossible to write before Adam Tooz. It would reference Richard Davis' unpublished history, with its raid spreadsheet, Gavin Bailey's thesis on avgas, and probably Mindell on "cybernetics."

    And, yes, it would be boring.

  8. Chris Williams

    Yeah, fair point. Someone has to understand the technical history of the back office in order to understand exactly why the techical elements of the systems worked the way that they did, and when. But the historians I've mentioned at least have some understanding that the politics of the bomber offensive _were_ structured by the technical history. That's one of the reasons why, despite his flaws, I rate John James: he's aware of these socio-technical structures which are the fruit of policy decisions, and themselves establish limits to future policy choices. "First, buy your airfield" is a good place to start.

    This is important to me precisely because right now I'm attempting to work out a first-cut history of UK police control systems, which requires the same kind of level of understanding of the various techniques involved - from ledgers through filing cabinets, control rooms, and the national computer.

    So, boring for whom? Not me, that's for sure. But I'm the kind of weirdo who's happy to count WG Lindsell's _Military Organization and Administration_ (16th ed., 1936) among his favorite books.

  9. Brett - I would revel in being a snob. Where would our understanding be without ‘academics’? As Chris points out being academic doesn't have to mean someone in academia but someone who is able to conduct research in a sophisticated manner and converse with and analyse sources without the same old rhetoric coming out; should we not revel in our differences of opinion? There are some very good 'amateur’s' out there who show this ability and I’m sure they would fit in at a university. What is probably of concern here is that the said person does not like their view of history being questioned. Something that is altogether too common outside of those deeply involved in the process of writing history. If this sounds snobbish then it probably is but what us 'academics', and I’m not fond of the word, do is question past assumptions and seek to explode myth's. This invariably leads to debate and this is healthy for the subject. I do not generally agree with all historians but I can see there research for what it is. This is the key difference IMHO.

    However, I do wish that all books came with footnotes! I do hate it when I can't verify someone’s work. It is annoying.


  10. Erik Lund

    John James is great. In fact, he could have pushed some of his findings a great deal farther. I'm fascinated by all the RAF pilots he found on the Mediterranean fleet carriers during the Abyssinian crisis, for reasons found somewhere in Friedman, _British Carrier Aviation_.
    Also, I couldn't find Lindsell's book in Vancouver. But if we're going to plug smart British military writers of the interwar _Army Quarterly_ stable, has anyone else read
    _Armies, not air forces, decide wars_ , Lieut. Col. B. C. Dening (Fleet, Hampshire : North Hants printing co., ltd., 1937. ) (I'm going to leave UBC's original, weird citation without further editing.)

  11. Post author

    Thanks for everybody's comments -- seems like we are mostly on the same page (heh) over here. It's about the methodology and the reproducibility of the results, not the subject matter or the author.

    Note that kyt (who has a PhD in sociology and is familiar with academia) has posted a response to my post and the comments, here. He clarifies his objection: it's that academics are mostly writing for other academics, both by intention and in practice (true enough, that's one reason why I blog) and that he's not interested in 'rivet counting' but rather:

    My interest is in the human aspects of the war. In this area I again reiterate my point that books written by non-academics are far superior to those written by academics. Academic historians have almost all completelky failed to contribute to this area in any form that I would find interesting and informative, Those written by sociologists and psychologists take a macro level approach snd try to then extrapolate some sort of meaning on war experiences. Yes, useful to a point.

    But the enthusiasts go out and actually talk to the people who were there, the families, the comrades etc They don't just rely on the original documents. They are the ones who, more often than not, allow the voices to come through.

    So he likes oral history (which, btw, academic historians do also). That's fine, but it's hardly an unproblematic window into the past as he seems to imply. And it can only illuminate some aspects of history, and by definition, only those within living memory. (How many oral histories of the Italian Renaissance are there? My starting point is 1908, I'm not going to find too many people who can remember that year.) If that's what interests kyt then again, that's fine, but all it comes down to in the end is that it's his preference. One might even say it's snobbery ...

  12. Post author

    Oh, and Erik, I haven't come across Armies, not air forces, decide wars but maybe I should track it down. I don't read enough airpower scepticism.

  13. Erik Lund

    Everyone involved in the field should read Colonel Dening, (d. June 12 1940), if only to put context to Liddell Hart and especially Fuller's pose as the only brains in the prewar Army. Dening essentially rips Hart a new one in _Armies, Not Air Forces_, and is very illuminating in other ways, too.
    As for oral histories..... Well, I see yet another pilot memoir, and for a novelty, Guardsmen, tankers, even some of the Bletchley Park office staff. Finally an artillery officer puts pen to paper and changes our whole picture of the war in Western Europe.
    Now, could I please have a memoir by a Port Reconstruction Diver, a 1930 RAF Halton graduate, or the story of a Divisional Engineer Park? No? Well, I grant that it's probably too late, but there's also the issue of finding a publisher. Hardy had to bring out _Minesweeper's Victory_ on a vanity press. On the one hand, it shows. On the other, it is a very precious book, precisely because the "boring" parts of the war didn't get this treatment.

  14. Let's hope it's possible to write in an academically respectable, popularly accessible way that tries to get readers to think about some of the broader technological/social/economic context without getting too bogged down in rivet counting, or making so many mistakes that the experts (academic or otherwise) tear you apart. Otherwise I have totally been wasting my time for the last three years.
    As Erik says, Adam Tooze's book is a model of such an approach.

    I'm not sure I totally agree with kyt's argument that it is enthusiasts, rather than academics, who best write the people into histories of war. Take my colleague Catherine Merridale's fantastic Ivan's War, for example: an excellent, human centred account of the Red Army in the Second World War, written by an academic. The problem with many non-academic texts in this field is that personal histories - like any source - can be highly problematic, and that they are not always treated with the rigour they deserve in a market where publication is relatively easy and peer-reviewing non-existent.
    In the end, there is good history and bad history. We pretty much all know the difference when we read it. Both academics and enthusiasts write both sorts.

    Speaking of the good sort, I will make an advance plug here for Charles Kirke's Red Coat to Green Machine - a sociological study of the British army from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, coming out in the near future in Continuum's Birmingham War Studies series. It does the human without any loss of academic rigour or personal understanding.

  15. JDK

    Unfortunately I received 1421 - The Year that China Discovered the World/America/Mars (depending on edition) for Christmas which shows the dangers of someone working outside the academic discipline and the damage they can do to real history in the pursuit of a rolling bestseller. There's no sanction for an author like that (but there is for academics) although the publisher can be sued under the trade descriptions act for selling 'fiction' as 'history'.

    As a professional aviation writer, I come at the inter war aviation story from different direction to Brett (we are both rivet-free, I trust) to some mutual benefit I find (and hope). Generally I have greater freedom to choose and develop a narrative and less obligation to provide citations for it - I could if I had to, but that's no more part of the job than choosing attention-grabbing cover-designs is for a thesis.

    We should both be aware of what we leave out, the exceptions and caveats to our sagas etc. Editing articles and books, I will challenge our authors to substantiate their claims - with sometimes interesting results. The principle guidelines are academic disciplines and methods, even though we are not academic publishers (we prefer to earn some money).

    As to the charge of 'snobbery', that's a classic case of using a prejudicial term for implied insult. The issue is actually being an elitist - a charge I'd gladly accept. I'm no snob, as that's pretty weak on merit-selection of peers or interests, while being an elitist in many fields makes sense. My time's to short to waste on reading 500+ pages of 1421 bilge, so I'm certainly an 'elitist' reader. Not a snob, though, because it's got lots of doorstop and anti-academic snob points...

  16. Post author


    Isn't the latest one 2008: The Year Gavin Menzies Discovered How to Write a Lucrative Sequel?

    I think that's a good point about snobbery vs. elitism. There are some things that we should be elitist about, and this is one of them!

  17. Erik Lund

    In defence of rivet-counting, if Gavin Menzies had only counted more rivets, he'd.....
    Well, he would have made less money, so what's the point of that? There's got to be someone to hang out with Erich von Daniken at wherever gormless rich people hang out

  18. I'm a lot less enthusiastic about amateurs since I got flamed at the Great War Forum for insisting that recording references to your sources is not optional!

    I don't think pushing for higher standards is elitist as long as it applies to everyone - an elite is only an elite if it's better than some other group.

    I also think readers need to take more responsibility in this area. Authors and publishers will give their target audience what it wants. If more readers demanded footnotes, there'd be more footnotes. Unfortunately too many people are prepared to believe anything they read just because it's in a book so it must be true. This isn't just an esoteric history problem. Knowing how to evaluate and criticise things is a useful skill when dealing with politicians and the media.

  19. Post author

    This isn’t just an esoteric history problem. Knowing how to evaluate and criticise things is a useful skill when dealing with politicians and the media.

    Very true.

    I’m a lot less enthusiastic about amateurs since I got flamed at the Great War Forum for insisting that recording references to your sources is not optional!

    I find that a bit surprising, since as I recall there are a lot of genealogists on there, and the value of recording sources should be pretty apparent to them, whether it's from your own notes or trying to incorporate somebody else's research. Past a few generations back, the records are just too patchy to take dates on faith!

  20. It was only one person and ironically he was saying a similar thing but felt offended when I said he should have gone further. It's usually a safe and friendly place as long as you stay away from threads that mention Haig and/or cavalry in the title. A few people there do have a very naive faith in facts and common sense, and a few are unable to take any criticism or difference of opinion, but most members are nice and helpful.

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