The Rules of Engagement: What can historians learn from the Jill Lepore/Clayton Christensen showdown?

Spring Greeney, a graduate student of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, assists with Erstwhile’s blogosphere debut in this response to the Jill Lepore and Clayton Christensen debate over disruptive innovation theory. Moving past media focus on the vitriol of the tussle, she suggests three lessons we historians can learn from this conversation and asks readers to consider the virtues of what she calls “deliberate disruption.”

It’s rare to see a scholar of early America appear on the pages of Business Week, the Financial Times, and Forbes magazine, but the recent sparring match between Harvard historian Jill Lepore and Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen has done precisely that: thrust the wide-ranging Lepore squarely into the crosshairs of more than one financial news outlet and spurred a flurry of sports-like commentary in the process. Most respondents have eagerly taken up the sensational “Harvard prof takes on Harvard prof!” angle, describing Lepore’s June New Yorker rebuke of Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation theory as a “takedown,” “an evisceration,” and even “an attempted academic assassination.”

But what substantive lessons can we as historians draw from the dispute, particularly as we strive to also engage the contemporary audiences Lepore and Christensen successfully excite?

First, a word on the Lepore/Christensen dispute itself. The conflict exploded in June, when Lepore published a 6000-word article in The New Yorker raising significant questions about the historical evidence underlying Christensen’s 1997 book “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” In that earlier work, an extension of the Harvard Business School professor’s dissertation research, Christensen proposed an explanation for why firms fail. Market-shifting technologies coupled with effective business models—“disruptive innovations” in context—replace entrenched firms in a classic David-and-Goliath parable that suggests Goliath is blind to threats from innovating smaller firms. According to his theory, smaller and smaller floppy disks disrupted their larger predecessors in the information technology sector, hydraulic-actuated pump replaced cable-driven models in the construction sector, the mass-produced automobile disrupted the horse-drawn buggy in the transportation sector.

Lepore calls much of Christensen’s theory into question, arguing that the business scholar cherry-picked case studies to write his 1997 book, arbitrarily defined what constituted “successful” disruption, and ignored disruptions—sub-prime mortgages, for example—that ended in very public disaster. “Disruptive innovation … doesn’t explain change,” Lepore concludes. “It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time. … It makes a very poor prophet.” In one deft stroke, Lepore tosses Christensen and his theory aside.

But the full debate is more accurately characterized as three distinct disputes. Lepore and Christensen diverge over questions of (1) scholarly conduct (Did Lepore’s biting public essay abide by norms of respectful scholarly exchange?): (2) evidence (Did Christensen’s sources warrant the sweeping conclusions that he drew in his 1997 book?); and (3) implications (Can Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation usefully describe institutional change in non-business sectors like the university and the newsroom?). No, no, and no—but let me offer more than head-shaking here. Let’s dive into each.

Lesson #1: Artful jabs are welcome, but c’mon guys: know your opponent.

Lepore’s staggering research and writing abilities make her a model of public intellectual, and we all have much to learn from her example. But the scholar’s June New Yorker article is undeniably mean-spirited in tone, prompting similarly vitriolic response from Christensen.  More troublingly, Lepore’s rhetorical conflation of the man and his theory (who doesn’t love a villain?) forecloses an opportunity to offer productive intervention into contemporary debates over the future of the university. As Lepore herself indicates, it is the application of Christensen’s theory that troubles her most. “Public schools, colleges and universities, churches, museums, and many hospitals … aren’t industries in the same way that manufacturers of hard-disk drives or truck engines or drygoods are industries,” she writes, arguing that a disruption mindset ought not govern administration of non-business institutions.

But Christensen is not a member of disruptive-loving administrations, nor is he Lepore’s true opponent. Instead, his objection seems more to lie with the more amorphous denim-wearing “upstarts” who, Lepore maintains, “are told that they should be reckless and ruthless.” Education, in effect, is the problem: college students learn to “disrupt or be disrupted,” and Lepore laments the lack of introspection she sees from disruption’s acolytes. Happily—not coincidentally—history as a discipline has always committed itself to the teaching of reading, writing, and argumentation skills. What better fix for confused young-ish grads than the resources of their classroom time?

Lesson #2: Write more editorials, and assign more of ‘em to our students.

 Lepore’s vitriol aside, we historians ought to continue writing probing opinion pieces that our former undergraduates will read and debate. Our authority on contemporary affairs derives from our ability to “think in time,” describing long-range cause and effect. So let us recall the variety of historical arcs available to us within the editorial: continuity where popular opinion has seen rupture (think Stephanie Coontz on family policy or Michelle Alexander on African-American incarceration), rupture where talking heads invoke tradition (think William Cronon on the 2011 Wisconsin State House brouhaha), or political organizing where prevailing opinion credits technological causality (think Malcolm Gladwell on the 1960s civil rights movement). Non-engagement, too, can be powerful form of intervention: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s silence on the recent excommunication of fellow Mormon feminist Kate Kelly, despite Ulrich’s past outspoken commitment to gender equality, makes notable the scholar’s lack of commentary in the Kelly case.

Teaching students to read and write editorials furthers our mission as educators who see history classes as teaching argumentation skills. Lepore’s own commitment to public writing makes her an admirable example of a scholar who applies her intellectual talents to contemporary affiars. Why not follow her lead in our classroom assignments? Think: op-ed writing exercises, or assignments that require students reverse-engineer a controversial editorial by tracing its key contentions back to their sources. Lepore’s scholarly webpage, where she posts bibliographies to accompany each of her New Yorker essays, serves as useful resource for such reverse-engineering assignments.

Lesson #3: Even historians are anxious—and can deliberately disrupt.

Why has disruptive innovation taken on the status of a “gospel” today? According to Lepore, it’s about anxiety: disruption theory is product of an age of “profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation.” Contemporary context explains the popularity of the idea.

But we can productively turn the question back on ourselves. Why is “disruption” a term that troubles so many of us in the academy? Why now? The obvious answers are a first step: MOOCs seem to threaten the face-to-face relationship-building on which a liberal education depends, and “disrupt!” sounds frighteningly ahistorical to a scholar committed to temporal complexity.

The less obvious answers are a better second step. Whether or not we call it “disruption,” many recent pedagogical innovations are exciting, if not downright inspiring. We scholars live in our age of anxiety over the future of the university—and we should embrace change that refreshes the ways we teach even as we advocate for the continued relevance of basic reading, writing, and argumentation skills. One need not venture far to find models of inspired teaching: historian Michael Goodwin’s Rivers and Revolutions integrative course for students at Concord Carlisle High School, Mary-Louise Roberts “Epinal Project” linking University of Wisconsin-Madison undergraduates with Wisconsin WWII soldiers interred in France, and even Harvard’s EdX course on teaching philosophy—admittedly monotone in its deployment—all push us to reflect on how we proselytize the gospel of history, and how we might improve our teaching practice.

The problem, in the end, isn’t the popularity of disruptive innovation theory or its Harvard Business School author. The problem is a lack of substantive engagement with questions that will help us imagine a collective future of education; the problem is a lack of deliberate disruption. What parts of our current educational model ought we dispense with? What successes ought we strive to replicate and spread? If we are anxious, let us channel that anxiety into productive experimentation, in our classrooms and our writing. Peter Thiel, the tech-sector venture capitalist and self-described disruptor who most avidly criticizes the university model, likes to quote Mark Twain as evidence that the academy should be killed off: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” As educators and scholars, let’s model responses to ol’ Samuel Clemens. We don’t interfere with education, and we won’t in the future. Instead, we ask questions. We try out answers. And we learn from our students, as we insistently ask those questions again and again and again.


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