Thursday, May 01, 2008

Historians as Public Intellectuals

Foreign Policy, the American magazine, offers its tally of the world's one hundred leading Public Intellectuals. Still a work in progress -- you can vote if you wish.

How are historians doing as public intellectuals? Not very strongly, I would say. On the FP 100, just eight of the magazine's choices are identified as historians:

  • Anne Applebaum, USA, historian of post-communist Europe and Washington Post columnist
  • Jared Diamond, USA, biologist and historian of the world
  • Drew Gilpin Faust, USA, American Civil War historian and Harvard president
  • Niall Ferguson, Britain, economic historian and commentator
  • Ramachandra Guha, India, historian of India and commentator
  • Tony Judt, Britain, historian of postwar Europe and essayist
  • Enrique Krause, Mexico, historian of Mexico and commentator
  • Bernard Lewis, Britain/US, historian of Islam

This is a list of public intellectuals, so it's no surprise historians who want to be on this list had better double as commentors or journalists. Still, these are also the authors of some pretty solid and substantial historical works, to my eye (though I confess I needed a little wikipedia/google help with Applebaum, Guha, and Krause). For what it's worth, Ferguson and Applebaum are the youngest, both born in 1964, and Applebaum and Faust the only women.

Eight historians in a hundred strikes me as low. (Political scientists and economists rule.) Four Canadians, however, might be a small country punching above its weight. Except two of them are "Canada/US."

  • Malcolm Gladwell (Canada/US), pop sociologist and New Yorker writer
  • Michael Ignatieff, human rights expert
  • Stephen Pinder (Canada/US), scientist of the mind
  • Charles Taylor, philosopher

No one, need we say, is both Canadian and historian -- though you could make a case for Ignatieff based on his education and early work at least.

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