Two Questions for Foner
Norman Cantor, March 2000
To the Editor:
I would like to question two statements Eric Foner makes in his inaugural essay in your January 2000 issue. As an example of "unprecedented public interest in history," he states, "the History Channel is among the most successful enterprises in television." My comment: first, there is plenty of precedent for the public interest in history if you go back far enough—to the 19th century. It is only since the domination of historical writing by scientific positivism that there has been a decline in the popular history reading audience. Macaulay and Parkman in the 19th century and G. M. Trevelyan as late as the early 1940s would have found Foner's statement wrong. The takeover of the academic profession by Marxists has only further shrunk the size of public readership.
Second, the History Channel's interest in history is much closer to Victorian historiography than to Foner's brand.
Later on, Foner says, "it would be quite wrong to assume that adjuncts are less able scholars and teachers than full-time employees." How does he know this, democratic sentiment aside? There must be some flaw, intellectual or social, that accounts for recent PhDs with very similar resumes having such different success in the tenure-track job market. One factor at work is highlighted on page 2 of the same issue of Perspectives: women PhDs have a clear advantage over males in the job market. This has been anecdotally known for the past two decades.
I also wonder if other factors are at work. The weight of a candidate? How candidates dress at job interviews? Then there is the matter of the field. Twentieth-century U.S. history is a dead field, employment wise. Latin American and Chinese history are immensely better; medieval history is much better than modern French history, another outrageously glutted field.
I think that all doctoral programs in history should declare a moratorium for three years on admitting new students into 20th-century U.S. history or modern French history. Tell these students to spend three years getting a law degree and then apply. At least they will always have something to fall back on.