Bernard Weisberger raised many important points in “American History Is Falling Down” (February/March issue). I bet you’re going to get howls of complaint from the academics. Please allow me to put my two cents into the debate. I’m one of those Ph.D.’s (UCLA, 1970) who was crunched by the job market. Unlike my colleagues who ended up as frustrated cab drivers or untenured academic gypsies, I fell back on secondary teaching for survival. Also rather untypically, I continued to research and write. Although I held no college positions other than part-time instructor at a local community college, I did publish my dissertation, two subsequent books, and many articles and book reviews.
As long as I was employed by the community college, even in a part-time capacity, I kept up the fiction of an academic connection for the book reviews I wrote. Then Governor Deukmejian declared war on California’s community colleges, and my part-time spot ceased to exist. Not long afterward I received an invitation from the prestigious American Historical Review to review a book. Now denied the last vestige of a college connection, I pondered over how to sign an affiliation. A few reviewers were signing just a name and city of residence. I decided to come out of the closet, so to speak, and signed “Los Angeles Unified School District” and the name of the high school where I was teaching. I thought that was that and didn’t expect further invitations from the AHR , especially since my review appeared flanked by articles by reviewers from major universities.
I was wrong. It seems the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians are really trying to democratize their organizations, i.e., to increase their memberships through reaching out to high school history teachers. Since then I have received several more books to review from AHR and The Journal of American History . I may be the token secondary teacher, however, since I don’t see many reviews published in those august journals by other high school teachers.
Meanwhile, I’ve made the best of things, writing and editing for several magazines and publishers. In refereeing manuscripts submitted to those publishers, I’ve experienced a problem that Weisberger mercifully left undiscussed. Most manuscripts submitted were terrible —ungrammatical, violating style rules, loaded with passive voice, poorly written and poorly researched.
It seems that a large percentage of history academics can’t write. If they can’t tell a story and can’t write, is it any wonder that narrative history has fallen from grace?