Reflections on Temkin’s “Historians Shouldn’t be Pundits”

November 15, 2018 |  Tagged , | Comments Off on Reflections on Temkin’s “Historians Shouldn’t be Pundits”

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In the Era of Trump, we seem to be a witnessing a television renaissance for historians. Various panels and guest spots on nearly every news station are filled with historians, all offering their take on the events of the day. Moshik Temkin’s recent article in the New York Times, “Historians Shouldn’t be Pundits,” argues that historians should not become the standard talking heads on the nightly news. Many historians have taken issue with the premise of the article, insisting that historians have a critical voice which needs to be heard in these trying times. How can we make sense of these times if we don’t understand the complexities leading up to the present day? Who better to make these arguments than historians? No one, but I don’t believe that is what Temkin is really arguing here. I took the article as a call for those historians who make the rounds on television to not be the standard pundit, but to be the better pundit.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Many of the issues with how history is presented in the media are the results of format, partisanship, and ratings. The tenor of our conversations has changed. The media and our relationship with it has changed. Historians are drawn into the fray and have mere moments to make their points in a way the viewing public will both understand and connect with. Temkin worries, “about the rapid-fire, superficial way history is being presented, as if it’s mostly a matter of drawing historical analogies.” References to Trump’s similarities to various dictators, despots, corrupt politicians, and the like are seen every day on television. These comments are great soundbites, are striking when written in a bold banner at the bottom of the screen, but do little to teach the public about the how and why questions that inform the way history has shaped our current situation.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Those who disagree with Temkin’s article point out that historians’ contributions should not be diminished to simple analogy and buzzwords. Julian Zelizer, a thorough and dedicated historian who has appeared on various media outlets challenges the idea that historians are making easy connections between Trump and Hitler. Zelizer suspects, “that most of these claims emanated from persons who were not historians and who in fact could have benefited from having a little more academy in the conversations.” Perhaps the issue is then not with trained historians, but those guests who practice in the field without the proper training who are portrayed as historians or history experts. In these instances, the media should more thoroughly vet the qualifications and caliber of their guests.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Still, there are moments when that quick comparison is available and seems to fit well in response to an interviewer’s question. There is not necessarily an issue with using comparative language or analogy to make a point, and most historians would find ways to make worthy connections easily. Temkin and Zelizer both call for historians to reach out beyond simple equivocation to make true connections between our current world and history. Trump did not happen in a vacuum. His rise was the result of a complex series of events including demographic shifts, partisan polarization, economic trends, media consumption, just to name a few. Zelizer argues that truly competent historians are able to analyze and synthesize these viewpoints so the public can understand the big picture. I find it hard to believe that Temkin would argue this point as he essentially says the same thing in his article.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 I agree with the premise of Temkin’s argument, perhaps because I am reading it in good faith, however I do think there was room for clarification and expansion. In the end I think much of the distaste for Temkin’s article within the historical community comes from the title. It seems to suggest that historians should withdraw from public and use their work to challenge in a more scholarly way. While I don’t believe that was the author’s intention, as generally authors are not able to choose the title of the piece, the tone it sets for the article is less than helpful. It is also clear to me that Temkin might have been better served by drawing on some examples of historians handling a jaunt around the media circuit the right way versus someone who was phoning it in while phoning in. By not having a few examples of direct missteps, he makes it easy to assume he is attacking the voices of so many professional historians working hard to teach through the past and not just make easy comparisons. Lastly, it would have been beneficial to assess what qualifies a media outlet to classify someone as a historian. Does the person have a degree in the area, or do the voices of popular “historians” carry as much weight as one who have received scholastic training? By taking the media to task, as well as urging historians to always strive to hit their highest standards, his article might have resonated a bit more.


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