C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures (1959) began a critical debate about the role of the humanities in an increasingly scientific world. It was also the receipt of such enormous criticism that Snow later wrote The Two Cultures: A Second Look (1963). In the last few months David Armitage and I have experienced a technologically-accelerated version of the same. In the 21st Century, this debate happens not only between colleagues, but also via pseudonymous blogs and retweeted punchlines.
When we published The History Manifesto in October, we set out to rouse a debate in the university, and in history departments in particular, about the methods and ambitions of our profession in a moment of global warming, growing inequality, academic specialization, and short-term thinking. The debate took off beyond our wildest dreams; usually positive, sometimes controversial, and even occasionally dipping into extreme ire as individual personalities took issue with our text, some of them choosing to duel in the footnotes instead of to engage the substantive, positive vision that we wrote to offer. A deliberation of this variety and passion on all sides is evidence, we believe, of a healthy engagement by the profession. Like others creatures, when historians are aroused, they experience emotions, sometimes violently.
Passion and critique redound on the internet, mirrored and intensified beyond the bounds of normal scholarly discourse, where debates are moderated by editors as well as conventions of reasonable politeness, in ways that can be particularly dangerous for junior faculty. In the voicing of criticism online, the norms of academic discourse disappear. Online enthusiasms that use heated rhetoric to suggest that an argument has been totally eviscerated can distract from the question of which data and issues are at the core of a professional debate, and which are illustrations that can be overlooked without harm to the major argument.