Publication Date

September 1, 2000

Perspectives Section

Letters to the Editor

To the Editor:

I was pleased to see Eric Foner’s recent comments (“On Diversity in History,” April 2000 Perspectives) supporting methodological diversity in the historical profession. I do, however, have two points on which I would respectfully like to challenge his representation of the

While it is true that, on the whole, history is a rich, diverse, and tolerant discipline, at the individual level this diversity is at times undercut by the modes of practice that govern the production of scholarship and the maintenance of professional boundaries. In short, tolerance and diversity are contingent not upon the actions of historians in the aggregate acting publicly and for an audience, but upon the private decisions of individual editors, manuscript reviewers, and hiring committees whose views on methodology may not be as catholic as Foner’s. In a recent encounter with the gatekeeper of one of the most widely circulated journals in the profession, for example, I was informed that my work “is intellectual history pretty much in the old style” and that “if this is to remain intellectual history or literary history of the old, speculative style, it will remain unpublishable here.” As I feel that I am actually a newish intellectual historian, I tried to make my own meanings out of these comments, but in the end it still seemed like a rejection based on methodological fashion.

Second, I think that it is somewhat misleading to cast this as an issue of youth vs. age. Lots of us young folk don’t know what’s hip.

J. M. Mancini
University College Cork

To the Editor:

In his recent column, Eric Foner defended the historical profession from criticism by a retired colleague that social and cultural historians have increasingly marginalized traditional historical subfields such as foreign policy, political history, intellectual history, and business history. In part, Foner defended the vitality of these subfields by describing how the members of the history department at Columbia continue to teach these traditional subjects, although “business and economic history seem, for the moment, to have fallen by the wayside.”

In contrast, as a young scholar just completing his PhD in American economic and business history, I feel considerably less sanguine. Despite John Burnham’s suggestion in the same issue of Perspectives that I consider a different outlet for my historical training, I entered the PhD program at Johns Hopkins, after working on Wall Street, in order to become an academic, not to become a manager. In the course of my academic training, however, it has become increasingly clear that the leading history departments have little interest in this “dreary” subject. Despite training under eminent business historians, publishing several articles, and winning the important fellowships in my subfield, I was not successful in securing a job within a history department. I soon realized that the only way that I might teach business and economic history at a prestigious institution like Columbia was to become a faculty member, not in a history department, but within a business school. Indeed, although my application to the history department at Columbia never made it past the initial review, this year I was a finalist for a tenure-track position at the Columbia Business School. And, this October, I will begin teaching at the Saïd Business School at Oxford University.

As the labor market for historians has tightened in recent years, tenured cultural and social historians have increasingly encouraged young political, religious, military, and business historians to seek employment in departments of political science, theology, military science, and management. Imagine the reaction, however, if the tables were turned and traditional historians suggested that cultural and social historians look outside history departments, to cultural studies and sociology, for their future employment. I am delighted that the field of history continues to be a vital area of study, I am disappointed, however, that many of us who study history are no longer welcome within the very departments in which we were trained.

Christopher McKenna
Brasenose College, Oxford

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