Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center
History As a Way of Learning: On the Death of the American Historian William A. Williams
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William Appleman Williams near his home in Waldport, Oregon, ca. 1980s.
William Appleman Williams near his home in Waldport, Oregon, ca. 1980s.
Image courtesy of the Oregon State University Daily Barometer.

Academic discourse in the humanities and social sciences is everywhere much the same: mostly it is the result, as Pierre Bourdieu has noted, of compromises between those who have an interest in saying something and those who would censor it. The pursuit of knowledge as an organized social system functions East and West in much the same way. The brotherhood of those already initiated first decides on a ritualized set of criteria and next on a fundamental scale of values. The result is the awarding of "reputation," on the basis of which individuals are then either received into the ranks of the learned or rejected. The discovery of truth is a peculiar and almost accidental by-product of this usual sort of academic productivity. And actually proclaiming that discovery is regularly rewarded with the loss of reputation.

Just as irritating to the academic profession as the search for truth is the insistence of a few on addressing the people directly. The intended audience of academic writing is not the public, but rather the community of academics. To be sure, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that there is some sort of rationalization process at work here. For most academic authors - especially the historians - dream secretly of just once having a best-seller and getting rich, or at least rising above the commonplace to a modest degree of fame. In most cases, this dream shatters on the restrictions that envelop the academic world, especially that which requires a specific point of view to be given adequate expression.

From the standpoint of a system's theoretical structure, both the search for truth and the attempt to give expression to that search in clear, everyday language are seen as disruptions of the academic operation. The coded verdict for the former is "too one-sided" and for the latter "too popular." However, the system is capable of compromise: those who are determined to be "one-sided" can make up for it by applying obfuscation - those, on the other hand, who wish to be perfectly clear and concise are permitted to do that, so long, that is, as they pay careful attention to the propriety of what it is they have to say. Explicit sanctions are only pronounced against those who want to do both at the same time: to write clearly and speak the truth.