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Learn the Right Lessons from Naomi Wolf’s Book Blunder

Expertise matters. But lane-policing is counterproductive.

Michael Fleshman/Flickr

Many people reacted with glee, witnessing the excruciating embarrassment of Naomi Wolf as her book was debunked on live radio last week. The forthcoming Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalization of Love deals with the persecution of homosexuality and emerging gay identity in Victorian England. It leans heavily on a number of criminal prosecutions of men who had sex with men, resulting in a sentence of “death recorded.” In her literal reading, Wolf thought these words meant the men had been executed when in fact it meant the opposite—they had been spared execution by the judge.

“I don’t think any of the executions you’ve identified here actually happened,” said BBC Radio host Matthew Sweet, calmly throwing the switch that triggered the train wreck.

The academic world cringed. “I feel like half the hidden curriculum of any decent graduate program involves inculcating a deep and abiding terror of ever having this happen to you,” tweeted sociologist Kieran Healy.

But in addition to those wincing in commiseration or rejoicing at her comeuppance, many critics also jumped on the fact that Wolf is not trained as a historian; the book is from her doctoral work in English at Oxford. The polemicist and activist, although credentialed in her own right, was out of her lane. Was that her personal failing, or a reflection of shifting norms within her discipline? To the right-wing critics of academic English—long frustrated by its theoretical heterodoxy and political ambitions—the story was the perfect hook: a “crusading lefty being hoisted on her own progressive petard,” as Rod Dreher wrote at The American Conservative.

While I have nothing against the theoretical heterodoxy or political ambitions, I have long been leery of the unfounded willingness of some who study literature to leap from their analysis of texts to pronounce on the social contexts within which they were written. This is part of why, having completed an undergraduate degree in American Culture at the University of Michigan more than a quarter century ago, I switched gears and headed for sociology—I wanted more facts. And maybe I was not alone.

When former English professor and university administrator William Chace attended a liberal arts college in the 1950s, he discovered “English as a way of understanding the world.” In that social world, a career as a “Joycean” could lead to a university presidency (two, in Chace’s case). Since then, English as a discipline has declined, along with its cultural authority. The number of bachelor’s degrees in the field fell another 25 percent in the last decade, while health professions, engineering, and business majors grew 48 percent. In a society that devalues intellectuals while assuming technology will solve its problems, the role of an English PhD is precarious at best. In a crisis (which we’re always in), who wants to turn to an English professor, much less be one?

Of course, history and most social sciences are hemorrhaging college majors as well. It turns out that the same tendency to beat up on Wolf for misinterpreting history can also lead people to scoff at the expertise of historians and many social scientists, who (in addition to sharing many of the political proclivities of English departments) are after all reading and writing words, which almost anyone can do. Perhaps we’d better stick together. And broadening ourselves, working in multiple lanes, is far more likely to be a strength in this new world: as the imperative for public engagement by academics increases, retreating behind disciplinary walls is the wrong direction in which to move.

Wolf’s debacle raises a challenge to that perspective, though, posing the question: When is a writer erudite, a renaissance person, a polymath—and when are they merely trespassing superficially into areas of knowledge they haven’t mastered, imposing their own prejudices or yanking cherry-picked tidbits out of context? In preparing to write this essay, I had to wrestle myself away from the archive of London’s Central Criminal Court, where I imagined I could find some historical tidbit that would crack the case wide open—so much more immediately gratifying than reading a dense history book by someone who actually understands the subject.

I should know better. In my own field a simple, literal reading of the law has led to a common and profound misunderstanding of a different topic: divorce trends. Many people associate the historical rise in divorce rates with the introduction of no-fault divorce laws, starting with California’s in 1970 and spreading across most of the country within a decade. That makes sense, because those laws were being debated while the divorce rate was obviously rising, and critics argued that the new laws would lead to more divorces. But the story that emerged—that changing laws changed families—rested on a false assumption about how divorce law worked already. In fact, in the century before 1970, the annual divorce rate had already increased more than ten-fold, from 3 for every 10,000 people to 3.5 for every 1,000, before peaking at 5.3 per 1,000. When historians dug into the records, they discovered that there hadn’t been a ten-fold increase in adultery, abandonment, or abuse—the “faults” that justified divorce. Rather, for decades couples had been conspiring with family lawyers to fabricate just the right amount of fault to persuade the courts to grant them what were essentially no-fault divorces. Like the Victorian law that commanded execution of men who committed homosexual acts, divorce law didn’t work.

The success of that kind of work in demography, especially historical demography, is instructive. You can’t learn all about American slavery from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, much less from Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Huckleberry Finn, any more than you can master contemporary feminism through a close reading of Beyoncé or The Vagina Monologues (or Naomi Wolf). You need to know something about the demography around slavery, and the trends in gender inequality.

The collaboration of literature and history, which helped give us social history, works when people recognize that to speak authoritatively about either subject you may have to understand both. That means English scholars reading history and social science in addition to literary works, while historians and social scientists become familiar with the relevant cultural works in their areas as well. Since no one can do all that alone, this openness requires collaboration, either personally or through shared understanding of the overlapping research. (Here I would recommend Michigan State English professor and digital humanities expert Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s recently released book, Generous Thinking, which deals with precisely this topic.)

Journalism has moved into these spaces as well. Good journalists writing about the present create the first draft of history, but that doesn’t make them historians. When they write about the past they rely on historical expertise—they read the secondary literature, and base conclusions on the work of historians. Good journalists also read data such as survey results, Census tables, and medical studies. More and more, journalists who know how to find, handle, and present data don’t wait to read our studies first. When they don’t understand the context, the results can be awful; but when they’re good the outcome is excellent (also, they tend to be good writers). They either need their own expertise or they need to be in touch with the relevant experts, directly or indirectly.

I bring up journalists because that’s a sore spot for many academics, a case where experts resent would-be polymaths hopping out of their lanes, like Naomi Wolf writing history. Superficially dipping into a neighboring field is dangerous in part because the results almost always reinforce the writer’s preconceptions and lead to stories that, while perhaps popular and satisfying to read, are too good to be true. That happens no less when journalists misread statistics than when literary scholars abuse history. But this incident should not be another elitist occasion to celebrate the protection of our myriad turfs. Instead we should devote ourselves to better lane-hopping, by recognizing our limits but also finding the partners we need to breach them.