18 November 2007

On Historical Names

As a history professor, something that annoys the hell out of me is when students refer to individuals from the past by their first names. I read essays that mention Franklin’s New Deal, Woodrow’s 14 Points, and Abraham being assinated by John at Ford’s Theater (yes, that’s how the murder of a famous person is generally spelled by students).

Why do they do this? My first inclination is to blame their lack of reading—for current students read very little. Since they rarely open a history book, they never see the regular use of last names.

But I also think some of it is cultural. Am I the only one who is utterly sick of reading about these media-anointed athletic superheroes like A-Rod, and T-Mac, and D-Wade? They are not our close personal friends. I sense that the cute little sobriquets somehow allow the unwashed masses to feel that they are connected to these celebrity millionaires. It makes us want to spend money and go see them, right?

This awkward need for celebrity kinship has unfortunately seeped into our history. I am sure it is only a matter of time before students start telling me how AJax (pictured above) kicked some ass at the Battle of New Orleans in 1814 (he defeated some terrorists--I see that one coming soon). AJax later became president, outpolling the ClayMan in the 1832 election.

And how about that inevitable research paper on that critical Election of 1800? That’s when G-Wash’s former vice-president lost a close election to TJ. The presidency almost went to that scoundrel A-Burr but for the machinations of his political enemy A-Ham. A-Burr later got back at A-Ham by assinating him somewhere in NJ.

We need to stop this crap soon.

Sean Wilentz on Hillary Clinton

What I really like about this post is that a respected historian is taking an unapologetic stand on presidential politics. When I was growing up, professors were not ashamed to comment and involve themselves in political affairs. But during the past few decades, the need to appear "neutral" has apparently driven academics from the public sphere. I assume the constant abuse by wingnut conservatives has something to do with that silliness.

It's about time historians and other academics reenter the civil realm. Neutrality is impossible anyway, and we desperately need to assert ourselves as citizens during these times of torture, empire, greed, and inequality.

While I don't necessarily agree with everything Wilentz has said, it's refreshing to see him get involved. Let's not allow the right-wingers to silence us.