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December 3, 2012

The Mangling of American History

By David Gordon

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The evolution of the historical profession in the United States in the last fifty years provides much reason for celebration.  It provides even more reason for unhappiness and dread.  Never before has the profession seemed so intellectually vibrant.  An unprecedented amount of scholarship and teaching is being devoted to regions outside of the traditional American concentration on itself and Europe. New subjects of enquiry -- gender, race and ethnicity -- have developed.  Never have historians been so influenced by the methodology and contributions of other disciplines, from anthropology to sociology.  

At the same time, never has the historical profession been so threatened.  Political correctness has both narrowed and distorted enquiry. Traditional fields demanding intellectual rigor, such as economic and intellectual history, are in decline.  Even worse, education about Western civilization and the Enlightenment, that font of American liberties, and the foundation of modern industrial, scientific and liberal world civilization, has come to be treated with increasing disdain at colleges and universities.  

This extraordinary bias began in the late 1960s with the anti-Vietnam war protests. Many participants, at least those who subsequently went into academia, have never gotten over it. Their fossilized views have made their own disciplines largely museums of dead ideologies. Another of the remarkable changes within the historical profession has been the growth of women's history.  With only a negligible representation in 1975, almost 10% of all historians today identify themselves as historians of gender and women's affairs.

The problem with this is that it has helped force out many other kinds of historical enquiry.  It is important to emphasize women's role in society and in history. However, it is difficult to see how a feminist perspective could contribute very much to a purely economic history of the English industrial revolution (as opposed to its social consequences), or to a diplomatic history of Europe between the Napoleonic and the First World War. As a result, these kinds of studies are receiving ever less attention.

Worst of all, women's history has contributed to the current holy trinity of race, gender and class that dominates the historical profession. Under normal circumstances, the tight focus on victimization would soon fade.  Since oppression studies explain so little, they soon become boring. But, as a part of a political chorus demanding ever-more extravagant entitlements for key voting groups, an essential part of the identity politics that is so destructive of national unity, the trinity is ensured a long life. Historians can grow tired of an intellectual movement.  Politicians of a useful political tool, never. 

There is also something else beyond the fanciful and fraudulent political and academic rhetoric of "equal opportunity - affirmative action." That is jobs. Key voting groups designated as oppressed have been hired preferentially in the academy, most especially in the social sciences, including history. To justify these preferences, historians of gender and race must keep emphasizing oppression. How otherwise can their privileges be justified?  Hence, the refiguring history to justify their positions in the professoriate. 

A remarkable generational change is also coming. Most of the historians in the declining fields, economic, intellectual and diplomatic history, earned their degrees more than 30 years ago. At the same time, more than 50% of the new PhDs are now trained in women and gender history, in cultural history (a watered-down version of social history), in world and African-American history. This is going to make an extraordinary difference in what kind of scholarship will continue to be undertaken, and how the past will be taught. The history profession, seemingly innovative and robust, is in fact intellectually debilitated, and sadly reduced in scope.

Most ominously of all, changes in college curricula across the nation threaten to severely reduce the place of history in liberal arts education. Americans are threatened with losing touch with their past. We are in this regard on the brink of becoming a nation adrift. New core requirements at many institutions permit students to graduate without taking a single history course. When one considers how much first rate history scholarship and teaching remains in the academy, this is a tragedy. And yet, in contemplating the evolving state of the profession, one might equally ask - will they be missing so much?



Comments (16)

The situation of creeping political correctness into academia is worse than you think... let's look at science in America.

Gender and Ethnic studies departments are attacking current research in genetic research as being 'behaviorally insignificant.' Their students learn that some things 'should not be studied' and that their is such a thing as socially destructive 'knowledge.' Research must support predetermined social goals.

When we can not look honestly at the world... nothing good will come.

Micha Elyi:

If feminism were genuinely about equality then it is important to emphasize men's role in society and in history as well.

But feminism is not interested in emphasizing men's role in society and history.

Therefore, feminism isn't about equality.

The opposite of feminism is masculism.

QED masculism - not feminism - is about equality.

S P Dudley:

"...in contemplating the evolving state of the profession, one might equally ask - will they be missing so much?"

It might be better to remain ignorant of badly taught history than be indoctrinated in such politically-correct but highly distorted worldviews. Both are useless to the learner, but at least with the former there's no need to unlearn what was wrong.

RickJ:

Roger's comment reminded me of what has been done to NASA, once dedicated to our space program, now a cultural/political instrument for relations with one segment of the world's population.

Maybe it is a godd thing that I am getting old, the years ahead promise to be very boring; at best.

Chris Rampley:

None of this is by chance - you have to rewrite the past if you want to control the future. The old idols must come down, all mention of their name removed, etc. Attacking our history (and access to it though teaching) is attacking our ability to remain free. I weep for our future...

Judith Gilbert:

Odd, isn't it, that the book reading public has an insatiatible thirst for traditional history. Case in point: O'Reilly & Dugard's books on the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations both sit atop the bestseller lists. Military history is hugely popular, as are bios of past presidents. Guess the great unwashed public is out of step with academia.

grey eagle:

Perhaps on-line education will change this trend. Its easy to cram oppression studies down the throat of students when you have their money in your pocket, the police on your side, and the student is on the hook for $200,000 in student loans.

Virtually free classes must deliver knowledge or they will not be watched.

If students want dramatic history/science, they will view free movies on-line. If they want facts, they will view free classes on line.

Andrew:

Anyone who has dealt with primary source historical information realizes that behind history are billions of facts, most of which are trivial. The historian works to distill the important facts into a useful narrative. Unfortunately, history has become a magnet for the cultural marxists who are able to create a narrative to suit their purpose. I don't trust our public institutions to be able to manage this.

Here is the fix: 1) dump women's studies. 2) develop Conservative Studies. 3) Eliminate tenure.

richard40:

"At the same time, more than 50% of the new PhDs are now trained in women and gender history, in cultural history (a watered-down version of social history), in world and African-American history"

So basically over 50% of our new history PHD's specialize in politicised crap. This sentence is the worst news of all. And its even worse, since no sensible business would ever hire any of these useless idiots, most of them will go to academia, leaving even less history professorships in the hands of competant people that actually know history.

When I went to HS and college, there were at least a few real history teachers left, and I learned to love history. But given the idiots teachng it now, I can understand why no sensible undergrad would want to take it now.

Dismalist:

Rather than lamenting what has happened, let's attempt to peer into the future: No way public funding, nor private funding, for that matter, for these irrelevancies will continue at the same rate as in the past. The idiots savants will be economically squeezed, hard.

Serious historians have always had, and continue to have, an audience of interested consumers of history. The audience is willing to pay. For a while, at least, the audience will be mainly outside the academy, but it will help keep the discipline alive. Surely, one day it can move back into the academy.

Voyager:

As long as the source material still exists, a new generation of historians can still be born.

I've been seeing some of this in military history. It seems as though many of the mil hist writers I've heard of or read were people who were curious and could only feed their curiosity by tracking down the original documents, until one day they were the foremost authority on said subject.

The internet will also help, simply because of the amount of searchable classics people keep uploading. In another window, I've got an online translation of Aeneas Tacticus, that I've been just reading for the heck of it.

And, when my kid brother got a humanities project to design a post zombie apocalypse society, I pointed him to that as an example of how low tech societies defended towns.

Curious people will look for this stuff, and they'll find it.

Over50:

I am reminded of the time my daughter came home from 4th grade excited from learning about Eleanor Roosevelt. After listening to her recitation, I asked if she knew who Eleanor Roosevelt was married to and what he did. Nope, her teacher didn't cover that. She only spent one more year in public schools; switched her to private schools with more rigorous classes.

Render:

"It is important to emphasize women's role in society and in history."

I disagree. It is important to emphasize all roles when relevant to a thorough and honest treatment of the material and the discussions thereof, regardless of gender, sex, class, or the socio-political and cultural biases du jour. Phrasing it the way you have validates the sexists' premises while attempting to articulate their danger, much like handing a loaded gun to a psychopath and then attempting to explain why it's illogical to shoot you. Good luck with that.

Gary from Jersey:

What's worse is that the p.c. nomenklatura bred in universities has a tight grip on primary education and is making certain that only the party line will be taught. The utter lack of a quality history curriculum in public schools not only deprives students of a national identity, it indoctrinates them to believe their country is the cause of all the world's ills, real or not.

Extrapolate that to other disciplines and combine them with badly educated teachers and we have a recipe for our long, slow demise.

PJ:

And then these graduates go on to careers in academia or government where they perpetuate this PC view of true history, like the new Smithsonian exhibit on the slaves of Thomas Jefferson. Why, it's as if they are trying to discredit our Constitution!

I eagerly await an exhibit about the racism of progressive Woodrow Wilson and Margaret Sanger.

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