Publication Date

January 3, 2017

Perspectives Section



Political, Women, Gender, & Sexuality

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

As every author of a newspaper op-ed knows, it’s hard to do nuance in 800 words. But one accepts the risk of appearing simplistic for the opportunity to reach a mass audience on a topic of broad importance. In our case, we sought to spark a national conversation about the place of US political history in the academy. We appear to have succeeded. Readers flocked to comment on the New York Times website, social media outlets lit up, and our own inboxes overflowed. As we anticipated, the responses have varied—many have expressed support for our analysis (“I couldn’t agree more,” we’ve heard time and again), some have had mixed opinions, and a few have voiced strong objection to the entire thrust of the essay. Political history is alive and well, these critics say; in fact, it’s never been better.

Reasonable people can differ here, and Marc Stein is more apropos than perhaps he realizes with his repeated references to the view from his “little corner of the world.” The challenge for us all is to take a broader perspective, to take stock of the good and the bad, and to have an open dialogue about the state of the field as seen from all points on the compass, not just our own.

Notwithstanding the title of our piece (selected by the editors), we of course understand that political history is not dead. We’re well aware of the exciting research being done, including that cited by Stein and others. We assign it regularly to our students. An early draft of our article noted the “extremely important studies in recent years on topics such as the politics of mass consumption, southern black politics, and grassroots conservatism and the rise of the political right.” We could have gone on, and we regret now that we didn’t insist on retaining the sentence as we and the editors whittled our draft from 2,000 words to 800.

We applaud that the sphere of what constitutes “political history” has expanded—we’re not offering “faint praise,” as one inaccurate commentary claimed. We need no persuasion as to the advantages of bringing a multitude of perspectives to our collective study of politics, and Stein’s illustrative account of the 1965 Immigration Act is well taken, even if his intemperate mockery of our word choice is not.1 But if we’re opting for a capacious domain for the political, let’s make sure it’s truly inclusive, with full and robust attention also paid to “history from above,” to high politics, to those who have held predominant power in American society—presidents, Congress, state governments—the elections that brought them to office, and the formulation and impact of policies that resulted from the exercise of that power. In our daily lives, we take for granted the importance of these manifestations of our politics, but—as several correspondents rightly noted—too often we lose sight of it in our research, at least pre-tenure, and in our decision making on matters of curriculum design and faculty hiring.

One senior Americanist who was critical of parts of our analysis noted in an e-mail that our definition of “‘political history’ as ‘high politics, elections, the presidency, Congress, executive-legislative relations, etc.’ allows me to say that we agree that there is too little of this work, and that the lack of this analysis has costs.” Other academic respondents commented along similar lines, pointing out, for example, the striking lack of scholarly work on Congress and on state government. We agree. To a large degree, we’ve ceded this territory to our colleagues in political science. For the past quarter century, history grad students who express an interest in pursuing a dissertation centered on high politics have usually been gently steered in other directions. It’s old-fashioned and elite-centered, they’ve been told, not sufficiently cutting edge, too—egad—“traditional.” And “it won’t get you a job.”

To which one could respond: yes, but no one else will get hired either, for there are no jobs! Fair enough—it can’t be said strongly enough that the grim job market is a major concern. Even in a time of scarcity, though, our collective decision making about hiring provides a window into our priorities. If political history were indeed experiencing a glorious revival, we would expect to find evidence of it, even in this climate. So far, we’re not. We are currently undertaking an analysis of the 6,761 job advertisements that the AHA has published over the past 10 years, which includes 4,003 tenure-track openings at US institutions. The work is not yet done, but a preliminary finding is that 1 percent of the tenure-track listings for assistant professors has either US political history or US constitutional history as the preferred specialization, with little improvement if we also tally non-tenure-track positions. If one includes ads that list “political” as one of several acceptable specializations, the figure increases to 2.7 percent, though more research would need to be done to see if political historians in fact were hired in many of the searches in question.

For our part, we’re skeptical—the anecdotal evidence is powerful that when jobs do come up in, say, 20th-century US history, candidates doing straight-ahead political history as defined above usually sink without a trace. We heard this from several colleagues around the country, including from some who expressed concerns about aspects of the op-ed. There are subtle and welcome signs that the picture is changing, but the savvy grad student who wants to maximize her chances on the job market would still be well-advised to steer clear of a topic on high politics.

We also do not find compelling the claims by some observers that the number of faculty self-identifying as political historians has remained steady since 1975, or even—by one measure—ticked upward slightly. These claims rest on an article assessing trends in specialization, including, among other things, political history. Yet a sizable majority of the historians tabulated in this source are not Americanists, and the supposed uptick for US political historians (up just 0.8 percent since 1975) holds only if one includes emeritus faculty, currently comprising a quarter of all faculty in this field.2 The point is not to parse the economics of the job market or to deconstruct historical subfields, which have always been fluid. Nor do we argue for a return to the simple “march of the presidents” narratives of the past—few would advocate that. But presidents and other political elites ought to be part of any holistic treatment of the subject, and those who choose a “top-down” approach in their work should not have to apologize for doing so. In this time of profound polarization, the American electorate needs more than ever to be equipped to make sense of the nation’s politics and all that shapes it.

Perhaps it’s time for a constructive conversation about, as one correspondent suggested, “the big questions of our time and how we might organize our existing research, teaching, hiring, etc. better to address those questions more directly.” Are we doing all we can to equip our students to understand the political universe they are inheriting? Do they have the basic tools to understand the complex impact of government policy? Can we better prepare them to make sense of elections, lawmaking, regulations, and political institutions? How can we help them understand the impact of media, ethnicity, gender, class, and interest groups on our politics? Historical study is absolutely essential here. It cultivates contextual understanding, empathy, information literacy, and an appreciation of complexity—vital skills for democratic citizenship, especially in these Trumpian times.

Ultimately, we’re encouraged by the outpouring of commentary since the publication of the op-ed. Pro and con, it suggests there is broad agreement on the importance of political history. If indeed there is consensus on this point, the outlook may be brighter than our essay suggested. We look forward to further conversations with colleagues in the months ahead, all pointing to one goal: giving our students the best possible understanding of America’s rich and complex political past.


1. Usage regarding the LGBTQ+ community in historical scholarship is in flux. Since 2000, several scholarly roundtables and articles (including one by Stein himself), as well as books by leading presses, have been published with “homosexual” or “homosexual rights” in the titles. Moreover, “homosexual” would certainly not have been considered outdated during the period we were referencing in the op-ed.

2. Stein cites Rosenberg and Ron, “Chill Out” and Mary L. Dudziak, “Political History Is Alive and Well, and Matters More Than Ever,” Balkinization, August 30, 2016; both rely on Robert B. Townsend, “The Rise and Decline of History Specializations Over the Past 40 Years,” Perspectives on History, December 2015 and a tweet by Jim Grossman.

Fredrik Logevall is professor of history and international affairs at Harvard University. Kenneth Osgood is professor of history and director of the McBride Honors Program in Public Affairs at Colorado School of Mines.

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