Historian KC Johnson has for years now been tracking how the politicization of his discipline has transformed it in ways that thoroughly compromise and threaten not just the study of history, but our capacity to be a functional democracy.
Here’s an excerpt from his latest:
In a ruling likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Montana Supreme Court last month upheld the state constitution’s prohibition on corporations directly spending on state campaigns. For those concerned with academic matters, the case is important for reasons quite unrelated to political debates about Citizens United. In a significant case involving history (the Montana court relied heavily upon the scholarship and words of historians to reach its conclusions), all the books cited were more than 35 years old. And that wasn’t a coincidence: the kind of U.S. history relevant to influencing legal and public policy debates increasingly has been banished from an academy obsessed with scholarship organized around the race/class/gender trinity.
A quick summary of the decision: the Montana court ruled that “unlike Citizens United, this case concerns Montana law, Montana elections and it arises from Montana history,” requiring the justices to examine “the context of the time and place it was enacted, during the early twentieth century.” To provide this necessary historical background, the Court repeatedly cited books by historians Helen Fisk Sanders, K. Ross Toole, C. B. Glasscock, Michael Malone, and Richard Roeder. The Court also accepted an affidavit from Harry Fritz, a professor emeritus at the University of Montana and a specialist in Montana history, who affirmed, “What was true a century ago is as true today: distant corporate interests mean that corporate dominated campaigns will only work ‘in the essential interest of outsiders with local interests a very secondary consideration.’”
An attorney analyzing the decision, however, probably would have been surprised to see that the works of history upon which the Montana court relied were all published before 1977. She might even have wondered whether the court’s reliance on older works suggested that it had ignored newer, perhaps contradictory, publications. But for anyone familiar with how the contemporary academy approaches U.S. history, the court’s inability to find recent relevant works could have come as no surprise at all.
The study of U.S. history has transformed in the last two generations, with emphasis on staffing positions in race, class, or gender leading to dramatic declines in fields viewed as more “traditional,” such as U.S. political, constitutional, diplomatic, and military history. And even those latter areas have been “re-visioned,” in the word coined by an advocate of the transformation, Illinois history professor Mark Leff, to make their approach more accommodating to the dominant race/class/gender paradigm. In the new academy, political histories of state governments–of the type cited and used effectively by the Montana Supreme Court–were among the first to go. The Montana court had to turn to Fritz, an emeritus professor, because the University of Montana History Department no longer features a specialist in Montana history (nor, for that matter, does it have a professor whose research interests, like those of Fritz, deal with U.S. military history, a topic that has fallen out of fashion in the contemporary academy).
History departments have an obligation to be, at least to some degree, curatorial: they need to make sure that they responsibly cover all the important areas (with the caveat that larger, better funded departments can define and do this more expansively), and that they are not absurdly lopsided. This responsibility is partly about teaching (KC often writes about the deplorable lack, for instance, of course offerings on military and diplomatic history), but it’s also, as his current piece shows, about ensuring that we have the capacity to make knowledgeable choices at the very highest procedural levels. We aren’t doing that. And we’re dooming ourselves to bad decisions based on mass forgetting and ignorance.
Marx said it best: history repeats itself, “first as tragedy, then as farce.”
My feelings about the human condition are pretty cynical. Our pattern is to build something amazing, and then to get complacent about it, fail to maintain it, do a lot of resting on laurels and over-reaching, enter a period of decadent decline, and kill off, through sheer human stupidity, the good we’ve done. Seems like we’re in one of those periods now.