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From the AHA Activities column of the May 2003 Perspectives

We Historians: The Golden Age and Beyond

the Committee on Graduate Education, May 2003

Editor's Note: The following article has been adapted from Chapter 1 of the final report of the Committee on Graduate Education, The Education of Historians for the 21st Century. The full report, which was unanimously endorsed by the AHA Council in January 2003, will be published later this year by the University of Illinois Press. The report is divided into four chapters: an analysis of transformations in the historical profession over the past half-century and their implications for doctoral training; a list of the "necessary discussions" about graduate education that individual history departments and the profession as a whole ought to be carrying out; a set of specific recommendations for doctoral programs, graduate students, instructors, administrators, and the AHA itself; and a presentation of the research foundations for the report as a whole. The principal author of the report was Thomas Bender. All footnotes have been omitted.

World War II brought in its wake a vast expansion of higher education and, consequently, graduate education. This change not only increased the number of historians, it subtly altered the historian's identity. The academic historian, particularly the historian as researcher, became the presumed exemplar of the discipline. Nonacademic historians were hardly recognized, and the notion of public history had not yet been articulated. Even those in academic careers found that professional work and responsibilities unrelated to research, including teaching, advising undergraduates, service, and public engagement, brought less professional esteem. In the half-century following 1940, enrollments in higher education increased ten-fold, while average teaching loads were reduced by half. This transformation in the ethos of the profession was general, not unique to history. It was substantial enough for David Riesman and Christopher Jencks to characterize it in 1968 as an "academic revolution." The conditions enabling that revolution—what Louis Menand recently called the "Golden Age of the University," spanning roughly the period 1945 to 1975—no longer pertain. But memories of that era, real for senior faculty who lived through it, mythic for younger faculty and graduate students, continue to shape and misshape our thinking about what is right and what is wrong with the profession.

Inherited Assumptions

The legacy includes a false assumption that traditionally all PhDs sought and obtained academic employment. While the largest number of history PhDs have historically found employment teaching at the college level, academic careers have never been universal, nor has research. There is no long-term data on employment patterns, but spot checks are revealing. For example, as many as 30 percent of the historians receiving PhDs from Johns Hopkins University between 1880 and 1920 pursued careers outside of the academy. We have no data series on employment in the crucial postwar years, but among the cohort receiving their PhDs in 1959, only 70 percent found employment as college faculty. Whatever the precise figures over the course of the century, one can be certain that the 1960s are not at all representative of the employment of historians. We must escape the expectations inherited from that so-called Golden Age.

By taking a longer and broader view, we can better identify values and patterns from which we can fashion sustainable expectations and practices for the 21st century. In fact, in a variety of ad hoc ways over the past two decades, historians have been refashioning the profession, seeking to recover a larger and more diverse sense of the community of historians. We need to continue that work, guided by a consistent acknowledgement of the actual diversity of careers and work settings of historians.

The past half-century has been the best of times and the worst of times for history as a profession in the United States. History is one of the oldest organized disciplines in the United States; the founding of the American Historical Association in 1884 was preceded only by that of the Modern Language Association in 1883. History is also one of academe's largest disciplines. During the past 50 years the number of departments conferring PhDs in history has doubled; the number of PhDs has more than doubled, and doctoral training has become a national endeavor, with significant numbers of historians being trained in every region of the country. In 1950, 20 departments produced three-quarters of all history PhDs; by the 1990s the 20 largest programs were producing just 40 percent of the history PhDs.

Historians are among the most productive researchers in the humanities, but publication is not universal among historians, academic or otherwise—a point of relevance to doctoral education. Professional historians have a large place in American public culture, though our efforts to engage our fellow citizens and to educate students in classrooms are sometimes overshadowed by the work of popular amateur historians and subverted by commercial productions that blend into entertainment. While we cannot—and should not—claim to own history, we should strive as a profession to bring the depth and rigor we value as professionals into the public discussion of historical issues.

Community and Cosmopolitanism

Over the past half-century, professional history has been pluralized in more ways than one. One unintended result is that the community of scholars who feel represented by the AHA has progressively narrowed since World War II—school teachers, archivists, state and local historians, and curators feel less a part of the community of historians than we would like. Similarly, many scholars identify more strongly with the more than 100 specialized historical associations affiliated with the AHA than with the AHA itself. But, as we increasingly understand in our scholarship, pluralism allows, implies, and even demands multiple identities, and we need to achieve a balance of those identities within the community of historians. An important step is to seek practical expression of such cosmopolitanism in doctoral programs, where students should become comfortable with the complex identities inherent in the profession. They must be open to and prepared for a variety of scholarly methods, agendas, and careers.

We historians have refined and multiplied our methods, and we have engaged in provocative theoretical discussions, welcoming an increasing number of perspectives on the past. Some of these new perspectives and approaches have been associated with the inclusion of underrepresented groups in the profession, including women, African Americans, Latinos/as, Asian Americans, and Native Americans, among others. Contemporary social movements played a role in changing the terrain of historical investigation and promoting demographic changes in the profession. The changing intellectual agenda and the social commitment to greater inclusion and diversity within the profession have tended to reinforce each other. The domain of history has become both socially and intellectually more cosmopolitan.

An Expanding Sphere

Historians have vastly extended the geography and domain of our collective inquiries. New regions and areas of public and private life previously thought to belong to other disciplines are now fully incorporated into historical study. A century ago, the North Atlantic, Euro-American region constituted almost the whole domain of professional historical inquiry in the United States, but in the past half-century the several continents beyond this region have become increasingly lively fields of historical research and teaching.

The generational shift under way among academic historians highlights these changes. One-third of current full-time faculty earned their PhDs since 1990, and they are more likely to be students of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America than the retiring cohort that earned degrees between 1960 and 1973. Meanwhile, the proportion of Americanists in the professoriate has remained stable. There is every reason to expect this pattern of an increasing interest in other regions of the world to continue. While some historians fear that the study of new areas and new topics has intellectually marginalized older areas (such as political and diplomatic history, to name two), there is evidence that the newer histories have not come at the expense of other fields. In a global context, American historians have contributed more than their share to innovative methodologies, novel interpretations, and the pioneering of new domains of study. Partly this has been the result of a cosmopolitan spirit that encouraged borrowing from other national historiographic traditions as American historians fashioned their own national style in historical scholarship. Again, one of the distinctive accomplishments of American historical scholarship is its cosmopolitanism. While many observers, historians included, rightly worry about the limits of American academic internationalism, the fact is that no other national historical profession is so strongly committed to studying other parts of the world. Most history departments in other nations concentrate on their own national history, while in the United States two-thirds of the historians in our colleges and universities study foreign societies.

Demand and Demographics

We should be pleased with the accomplishments of the past half-century. But the profession's past half-century also had a less happy side. In 1958, the last time the American Historical Association undertook a thorough study of doctoral education, the main concern was to increase the number of doctorates in history in order to meet a seemingly open-ended demand for college professors in history and other disciplines. If the first two decades of the past half-century saw a rising demand for historians in academe, the past quarter-century has presented a different and more complicated situation.

Contrary to common opinion, there has been no decline in the number of faculty positions in history. Indeed, the number of new jobs (991) posted in Perspectives in 2000–01 marked an all-time high (and would have been even higher if full-time teachers had been recruited to teach the courses being taught by adjuncts). However, graduate history programs are still producing many more PhDs seeking faculty careers than the academic job market can absorb. And graduate faculties must also assume a good deal of responsibility for sustaining a narrow conception of appropriate careers for historians, which may discourage students from considering other occupational choices. Of course, graduate faculties may have particular affection for academic careers, and students may as well. But the issue is less about preference than it is about devaluing some career choices historians might make. The whole range of careers embraced by professional history deserves the respect of those who train professional historians.

There are other persistent problems as well. While steady progress is being made toward a more equal representation of men and women in the academy, the story becomes more complex when we consider rank, salary, and institutional prestige. Among full professors of history, the profession is still overwhelmingly white and male (82 percent male; 91 percent white), and salaries are lower for women than for men. The number of African Americans earning history PhDs has leveled off and even declined as a percentage of all new doctorates. (The situation with Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American students is different. Although the numbers are still small, especially in the case of Native Americans, there has been a modest increase in their numbers.) Moreover, there is some evidence suggesting a reduction in the openness that was characteristic of the profession in the 1960s and 1970s. Anecdotal evidence and some quantitative data indicate that graduate students from families of modest means and students who are the first in their family to attend college or pursue an advanced degree presently make up a smaller proportion of doctoral students than they did two decades ago. Concern about this possibility was repeatedly expressed to the Committee on Graduate Education in the course of its site visits.

Rethinking Historical Research

While new research agendas, new courses, and a lively discussion about nonacademic employment have sustained an expansive notion of historical knowledge and professional practices, complaints about excessive narrowness and specialization in graduate education have also grown louder. As a department chair at a state university explained to the committee, "some of the most prestigious universities are turning out PhDs whose knowledge is a mile deep and an inch wide." Meanwhile, the structure of doctoral programs has changed little since World War I. The organization of historical knowledge in many programs by chronology and geography still adheres to 19th-century categories—basically those enshrined in the Library of Congress classification system at the turn of the century.

Professional history in the United States was established within a framework that assumed the nation to be a natural and self-contained unit for historical analysis. However, contemporary thinking increasingly recognizes forms of solidarity and interaction both smaller and larger than the nation, often outside of state frameworks. There can be no doubt that the world is changing (and has changed) enough to compel the rethinking of the organization of historical knowledge for purposes of research, teaching, and public discussion.

The Multiplicity of History Careers

There has always been a public aspect to professional history, but the "job crisis" of the past three decades has prompted a considerable increase of interest in public history and, more generally, in the different ways of being a professional historian outside of the academy. Yet there is less openness to a plurality of occupations for professional historians than meets the eye. Our inquiries have revealed a deeply held and obstructive sense of hierarchy within the profession that unnecessarily exaggerates the worthiness of just one way of being a historian at the expense of others. As one graduate student reported to the committee, "we need to open up to the reality that the nonacademic world has many options, and train students to become engaged with these options without feeling they are 'selling out'"; another added that "not enough attention is paid to career possibilities for historians as critical thinkers with a doctorate in the humanities."

Doctoral programs overwhelmingly promote a faculty position at a research university as the best career, or at least as the model career choice. Statistically speaking, of course, that is impossible: there are more new PhDs than new openings at research universities. It is also a formula for promoting disappointment and alienation. Depending upon who is counting, the number of research universities varies, but the 2000 Carnegie classification designates 151 institutions as "Doctoral/Research Universities-Extensive." These represent 3.8 percent of the 3,941 highly differentiated institutions of higher education that they classify and in which historians pursuing academic careers will seek employment. But these schools generally have much larger history departments, and despite their small proportion of the total number of institutions, 30 percent of history teachers at the college level are employed at them. Nonetheless, the proportion of historians teaching in such institutions is less than half of the proportion of students being prepared for employment in them—and, perhaps even more important, being told directly and indirectly to focus their aspirations especially on this one form of employment.

Predictably, given this line of thought, teaching in a community college, where academic employment is growing, is typically given little respect in graduate departments. It is important that the culture of graduate departments be open enough to recognize that there is a considerable diversity of gratifying teaching careers possible within higher education, as well as many satisfying and diverse careers open to historians beyond the academy. The sense of professional worth and the patterns of doctoral education promoted in our doctoral departments need to more fully acknowledge and more constructively engage the variety of work settings and careers.