By Bob Holladay, President
I’m worried about the history profession. In fact, I have been worried about it for some time. Let me be clear: I am talking about the relationship of the academic history profession in the colleges and universities, and the non-academic or not-so-academic folks who just like history. There seems to be a growing divide. There was a time when history faculty members from FSU, FAMU and TCC’s history departments formed the core of the Tallahassee Historical Society; J. Leitch Wright, Mary Louise Ellis, William Warren Rogers, all served as presidents of the THS for multiple terms, and there were others. Bill Rogers was a lifetime member of this organization and when he died, his family asked for donations to us in lieu of flowers, and we got quite a few of them. Every year, it seemed, members of one or the other history departments gave papers at THS meetings. That last happened two years ago, when David Proctor, chair of the TCC History Department, spoke. It is true that our March speaker is going to be Andrew Frank, from the FSU history department, but two years is a long time between speakers. The last member of any of the history departments to serve on the THS board was Will Guzman at FAMU four years ago.
Who cares, you might ask, as long as we get good speakers? There is something to that. I think what worries me is what it says about the notion of historical community in a place like Tallahassee, in which the colleges and universities, take up so much of the oxygen. Are we a community, or are we a community of separate communities, each growing more distant from the other, and indeed not listening very much to each other? The first indication of this, at least to me, was the controversy over the Francis Eppes statue at FSU, where most of the academic historians at FSU and the history-loving public in Tallahassee, seemed to be on opposite sides.
In a lot of ways this growing divide manifests itself in the way academic historians write about history, as opposed to a lot of members of THS, who just enjoy it. It has led, frankly, to a deep suspicion on the part of great swaths of the public toward professional historians. Many of you know that I have spent the last three legislative sessions trying to convince the Florida legislature to implement a postsecondary history requirement in our colleges and universities. It’s been a hard slog and one of the reasons is that politicians don’t trust historians any more than they do journalists. When you turn on TV and see a historian like Douglass Brinkley compare the president to Al Capone, or see that only five historians in the entire nation were willing to sign a letter protesting the by-now infamous “1619 Project” put forth by The New York Times, it becomes evident that that suspicion is at least partially deserved. The Harvard historian (and New Yorker writer) Jill Lepore has a new little book out, This America: The Case for the Nation in which she argues that since the 1960s, American historians have largely stopped writing national history in favor of both globalism and identity politics. I don’t agree with Lepore on much, but she is dead right on that.
On the other hand—and this needs to be said—it is not the job of historians to make us feel good about ourselves. It is their job to research and write what each of them considers the truth, something that is increasingly difficult in a postmodern world where there is decreasing belief in the entire concept of objective truth. It appears to me that academic historians are, more and more, simply speaking a different language than the majority of people, certainly in flyover country, are willing to accept. This makes it difficult for an organization like the Tallahassee Historical Society, founded upon a belief that there is, or should be, a community that loves history and which includes both the faculty of FSU, FAMU, TCC, and the laymen who do other things for a living, can get together one night a month between October and May, and enjoy each other’s company and learn something.
As president, I want to do something about that. I’m not sure what, except to make sure that we reach out to the history departments at our three schools, and reiterate that we want them to be part of us. Despite the differences with which we often approach the study of history, we have too much in common not to do that.