Talk to Historians
What’s Behind the Lamentations over History?
Many years ago, the distinguished urban historian Richard Wade half-jokingly noted two truisms available to students cramming for exams at the last minute: the middle class is always rising, and community is always declining. I recalled Wade’s cheat sheet last month as I considered an analogous bromide: rising specialization renders historians’ work increasingly inaccessible, and historical literacy among the general public is always declining.
The latest version of this lamentation came from Washington Post columnist Max Boot, who links the long-term decline in history majors to his claim that “history professors have retreated from public debate into their own esoteric pursuits.” These pursuits, according to Boot (citing historians Hal Brands and Francis Gavin) are “cultural, social, and gender history,” initially a “welcome corrective to an older historiography that focused almost entirely on powerful white men. But like many revolutions, this one has gone too far, leading to the neglect of political, diplomatic, and military history—subjects that students need to study and, as enrollment figures indicate, students want to study but that universities perversely neglect.”
This is one part of the argument. The other, closely related, pertains beyond the classrooms to public culture: the failure of academic historians to connect with the general public, and their disdain for “popularizers,” whether outside of the academic guild or within its ranks. On campus and in their publications, professional historians have tilted toward identity issues and away from the things that truly matter: electoral politics, diplomacy, and war.
So two questions are on the table: What is responsible for the decline in college students majoring in history? And why don’t academic historians write things that something called the “general public” wants to read?
Max Boot’s questions imply change over time. But we can’t know why something has declined if we don’t know what conditions have changed.
Both questions are historical, implying change over time. It’s impossible to answer either of them with a singularly present focus. We can’t know why something has declined if we don’t know what conditions have changed. Otherwise, we are back to Wade’s clichés: interpretations of current data based on conventional wisdoms about the past.
This matters because Boot wants to link the decline in majors to a supposedly contemporaneous decline in the presence of academic historians in public culture. He attributes both to that turn toward identity and culture and away from politics, diplomacy, and war. One supposition is correct: many history departments are paying little attention to electoral politics (as opposed to “politics” in general), to diplomacy, and to the military. I’m struck by the number of large history departments that don’t even include “political history” as a category of faculty specialty. The annual Congress and History Conference has trouble identifying historians who study the Congress as an institution. Military history courses are not staples of undergraduate offerings. But what evidence do we have that this turn away from those subjects has had an impact on majors?
None. Boot’s evidence on what undergraduates seek lies mainly in his autobiography, specifically the inspiring professors from his undergraduate years and his master’s degree program. Six white men, at least one of whom scarcely changed his course syllabi over at least a decade (I know because I took one course and audited another). Yes, many history departments were still dominated by white men writing traditional political and intellectual history in the late 1980s, but the faculty at Boot’s undergraduate and master’s institutions had by then a substantially more diverse faculty than Boot celebrates, both demographically and by topic. Boot is entitled to his individual interests, but the question is whether today’s students share his enthusiasms. Higher education now is a place different from the world he inhabited—more diverse and (to the dismay of many who agree with Boot’s concerns) more engaged with issues of identity and culture than its predecessors. If college campuses have become overrun by students as obsessed with identity issues as Boot and others lament, then histories of gender, race, ethnicity, and culture should be magnets.
And perhaps they are. We don’t know because we don’t have good data on enrollments by course. Anecdotal evidence points to the continuing attraction of courses with the words “Nazi,” “sex,” “Vietnam,” and perhaps even “pirates,” “food,” or “sports” in the title. But since Boot didn’t bother to ask department chairs, the AHA, or anyone else with knowledge in this area, he’s unlikely to have been exposed to even this impressionistic evidence.
Here lies the heart of the matter: Boot’s disinclination to talk to any historians other than the scholars who share his lament but who are not involved in the discourse about enrollments and majors—a landscape populated by department chairs and professional associations. Boot’s documentation for the crisis in public historical literacy, for example, rests on studies conducted by the National Association of Trustees and Alumni, whose sensationalist references to eye-popping factoids, such as greater public familiarity with Michael Jackson than the Bill of Rights, stand in for any exploration of change over time. The implication is that this vast wasteland of historical illiteracy is something new. It is not, and a quick call to a historian would have yielded this crucial insight. Everything has a history, including jeremiads about public historical illiteracy. Frances Fitzgerald explored this in considerable detail 40 years ago (in America Revised), and numerous historians have published similar reminders every few years. Moreover, rising specialization has over time been frequently cited as the reason for the declining influence of professional history in public education and public culture.
The implication is that this vast wasteland of historical illiteracy is something new. It is not.
In a subsequent column, Boot wryly noted the defensive reaction of historians on Twitter because “90 percent of the reaction focused on 10 percent of the article—namely, my contention that historians ‘bear some blame for the increasing irrelevance of their discipline,’ because many ‘have retreated from public debate into their own esoteric pursuits,’ neglecting the study of political, diplomatic, and military history.” We’re back to the real source of Boot’s complaint: a reprise of a lament that has, in fact, been engaged in sessions at the AHA annual meeting and in this magazine.
Boot’s praise of the “prominent exceptions” and public historians who “do a wonderful job” leaves aside the hundreds of historians working in the academy who have been publishing in local venues and in blogs about all sorts of important contemporary topics, such as a scholar of early modern Europe who helped readers of a Cleveland newspaper place a papal election in context. Had Boot consulted the AHA, as many reporters do on a regular basis, including his colleagues at the Washington Post, we could have delivered numerous such sources, including a substantial bibliography of AHA members’ commentaries relating to Confederate monuments: work written by historians coming from specializations in politics, gender, race, regional culture, and all sorts of other angles.
Boot is not wrong about the lack of incentive for academic historians to reach wider publics, an issue frequently discussed in this magazine. Had Boot read even a few of these pieces, however, he would know that this is related less to what historians study than to traditional definitions of scholarship itself. Our discipline does have to rethink its definition of scholarship to consider whether and how to include scholarly interventions in public culture.
Talk to historians, Max. I asked you to do that on Twitter, and I’ll ask you again. I’m happy to organize a session at our next annual meeting where you can discuss these issues with the people whom you admire and the people you dismiss.
James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.
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