Gordon Wood: The historian as public intellectual

... Much has been written about the divide between academe and "the real world," and about academic writing versus popular writing. But far less has been said about the split within the academy between those who care about the popularization of academic learning — either they want to be popularizers, or they enjoy reading popularizers, or they at least feel a professional obligation to know who the popularizers are — and those who do not. Residing in the same department can be a professor with influence far beyond the guild of scholars — often known as a public intellectual — and a student, or younger professor, with no idea how her colleague accrued the power and now wields it.

One important public intellectual in the field of American history, for example, is Gordon S. Wood, a history professor at Brown University. Only a couple of the American-history graduate students I knew were aware of the tremendous influence he has on how millions of Americans learn history. He is the primary reviewer of books about Revolutionary-era America for The New York Review, and so his opinions about new and important works of history are read by a couple of hundred thousand college professors, law-school professors, journalists, National Public Radio hosts and producers, and assorted other curious parties who, as a class, shape the narratives that get fed to the rest of us on talk shows and in textbooks and newspaper op-eds. Wood, who was even mentioned by Matt Damon's character in the movie Good Will Hunting, also reviews books for The New Republic, which similarly gives a few other professors, like Sean Wilentz, frequent opportunities to pass judgment on new works in American history.

It's not that Wood, Wilentz, Garry Wills, Christine Stansell, Edmund S. Morgan, and George M. Frederickson control how Americans think about history — they have less influence than best-selling authors like David McCullough — but they have the influence that comes with writing for journals at the intersection of academe and the culture at large. They interpret scholarship for people who prefer to read journalism, and their opinions reverberate and multiply, if in ways that we cannot measure.

Most graduate students I knew had no idea that this was going on. They knew Gordon Wood as the author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution, but they weren't aware that far more Americans knew him for his book reviews. They knew him, in other words, as just another professor, rather than as a professor with special powers with which to project his take on American history. Students were aware of debates in The Journal of American History, but not of how those debates got simplified and clarified in the pages of The New York Review, The New York Times Book Review, the London Review of Books, or The New Republic. The situation might be different in other disciplines. Anthropology students might, for example, hunt down Clifford Geertz's words wherever they can be found, even in nonacademic journals, and young political scientists might read articles and opinion essays by Michael Walzer and Jean Bethke Elshtain in popular publications. But in the humanities — history, literature, and philosophy — most graduate students whom I knew, and even many professors, did not regularly read the publications that explained those scholars' ideas to laypeople....

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