In a recent issue of his popular history podcast Hardcore History, Dan Carlin expressed a note of regret regarding the direction that historical scholarship has taken over the last generation or so. Time was, argues Carlin, that historians were in the Big Picture business: They would study whole periods of human history, cogitate upon them and then produce epic works of scholarship that drew upon their entire reserves of specialist knowledge and general scholarship in order to produce some universal moral or theory about human nature and society. The exemplars of this type of historian, argues Carlin, are Will and Ariel Durant — whose 11-volume Pulitzer Prize-winning The Story of Civilization is, shockingly, currently out of print — but I would also list Kenneth Waltz whose Man, The State , And War (1959) remains one of the foundation texts of International Relations.
Contemporary scholars, suggests Carlin, are not just specialists but niche-dwellers. Their interests lie precisely not in the Big Picture but in high definition images of microscopically small areas. Most contemporary academic scholarship focuses upon areas so precisely defined and delimited that not only have the products of academic research become increasingly irrelevant to the intellectual culture at large, they are frequently inaccessible and incomprehensible even to other academics working in similar fields. Modern academia is about depth, not breadth. Specificity, not generality.
Of course, this is the result of changes in the culture of higher education. Even after the Second World War, university education in general and post-graduate education in particular were still comparatively uncommon allowing researchers enough intellectual lebensraum in which to discuss big ideas without replicating each other’s work and treading on each others’ toes. However, as the number of post-graduate students increased, so too did the need for more and more people to carve out professional niches for themselves. As population numbers increased, so did competition for intellectual territory and in order to survive, young graduate students were forced to carve out small specialised intellectual niches that could sustain an entire career’s worth of research purely through the depth and power of their obscurity and inaccessibility.
This process of specialisatilon has resulted in academic criticism becoming divorced from the public sphere. While humanities academics still do contribute to accessible cultural journals such as the New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, Sight & Sound and The London Review of Books, their public writings are frequently of a profoundly different character and form than their professional writings. Indeed, the likes of A.C.Grayling and Richard Dawkins are famous public intellectuals but the works that make them well known are not necessarily the works that got them their professorships.
This shift in the humanities from an emphasis on breadth of knowledge to depth of specialisation is what lies behind Pierre Bayard’s How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. The book is an extended essay that uses wit and provocation to poke fun at the cult of the specialist and argue for a return to an intellectual climate that championed the generalist over the specialist and the creative thinker over the niche-dweller. Bayard’s book is not only funny and beautifully written, it is a wake-up call to an academic culture that foolishly surrendered the hustle and bustle of the intellectual marketplace for the easily-defended comfort of the ivory tower.
I just hope that the academics can find the stairs by themselves.