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From the Letters to the Editor column of the September 2003 Perspectives

The Golden Age and Beyond

Philip Benedict, September 2003

This letter is in response to the report of the Committee on Graduate Education that appeared in the May 2003 issue of Perspectives.

To the Editor:

Two comments about the excerpts from the report of the Committee on Graduate Education published in the May 2003 Perspectives ("We Historians: The Golden Age and Beyond"). First, is the American historical profession really as exceptionally international in the scope of its research and teaching as the report asserts? The report boldly claims, "No other national historical profession is so strongly committed to studying other parts of the world." True enough, if we compare ourselves to our counterparts in England, France, or Japan, but the proper comparison is surely to other postcolonial settler nations whose national history is relatively short in relation to the full sweep of recorded history, and whose institutions, language, and learned culture derive from lands outside their borders.

Curious about how we stack up against Canadian departments, I took out the AHA's Directory of History Departments and calculated the percentage of historians specializing in things other than U.S. history in a dozen randomly selected U.S. history departments, and things other than Canadian history in a dozen randomly selected Canadian departments. The Canadian departments came out a full 11 per cent higher than the U.S. ones in the percentage of nonnational specialists. While we can be proud of the extent of attention American historiography devotes to other continents, we should not exaggerate our singularity in this regard or overlook the historical conditions from which this pattern derives.

I also regretted that the excerpts presented incomplete data about one question of current concern. The article reports, "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 . . . and salaries are lower for women than for men." It then says nothing about the situation at the associate and assistant professor ranks.

Recent letters to Perspectives have charged that the balance of discrimination in hiring has tipped in the other direction in the past few years, and that women are now overrepresented among new hires relative to their proportion among all new PhDs. Is this true? For those of us who have to advise young men and women every year about their career prospects after graduate school, it would have been most helpful if the committee had looked searchingly at career prospects and advancement by gender among recent and current PhDs, not simply at the full professor level.

—Philip Benedict
Brown University

Editor's Note: Many of the larger issues raised here are discussed in Robert Townsend's article, "The Status of Women and Minorities in the History Profession," in the April 2002 Perspectives available online at http://www.theaha.org/Perspectives/Issues/2002/0204/0204prof1.cfm).