The dustbin of history

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.

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  1. Ali says:

    Wow, two posts in a row that are of particular interest to me! This post interests me, especially because I was a history major at Penn in the late eighties. From your days there, you know what a good department they have. I did take a diplomatic history course and a course about Nazi Germany, both of which taught me a lot. But the courses that were the most interesting to me while I was there were the social history courses. I took several French history courses, which were so interesting–as well as a course on La Belle Epoque, which was especially enlightening. And the exciting thing about my upper level courses was the opportunity to sit in small classes with exceptional and renowned professors. Almost twenty years later, I still feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to learn from such professors and to have taken such classes.

  2. Eveningsun says:

    “At a time when our God-ordained status as world hegemon is threatened by China’s rapidly increasing economic power, the history department at the University of Tenured Radicals does not have a single China specialist. The reason, of course, is that historians generally are too obsessed with the Holy Trinity of Notwhite, Notrich, and Notmale to attend to things that truly matter. Ergo, academia bad. Solution: do things the way they were done when *I* was in grad school. And you kids get off my lawn.”

    – Erasmus Smithers, Professor Emeritus

    Seriously, given limited resources, especially at relatively small institutions like the University of Montana, can’t one always find something important that’s not being done? I agree that history departments, especially at larger universities, or maybe collectively across the discipline as a whole, “need to make sure that they responsibly cover all the important areas…, and that they are not absurdly lopsided.” I would only add that before the 1970s and 80s began to transform those departments, “absurdly lopsided” is precisely what they were. Covering “all the important areas” was to a great extent what the transformation was all about. It’s just that the stuff considered “important” was considerably enlarged.

    Anyway, Johnson writes that “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.”

    Set aside the hyperbole (“banished,” “obsessed”). Is this statement even true? I’m not a historian, but it seems to me that a lot of post-1970s historiography *has* been influential in “legal and public policy debates.” Has the work of Howard Zinn, Patricia Limerick, John Boswell (my apologies for being familiar only with the more famous names here), and others “obsessed” with R/C/G had no influence on public policy? I’m thinking of the cultural and political shifts that have resulted in gay marriage, Occupy Wall Street, etc. Even if they haven’t been cited directly in court cases, they’ve certainly contributed enough to the cultural climate in which such cases are decided, and the terms in which they are framed, that it would seem premature to consign them to “the dustbin of history.”

  3. Erin O'Connor says:

    Hi Eveningsun — I think you and KC are both right. One reason I don’t write so much about this stuff any more is that the critique has shown a tendency to get as hackneyed as the stuff it’s critiquing, and it makes me want to bang my head against the wall. As one of KC’s commenters points out, “class” doesn’t really belong in the holy trinity anymore, since “if a historian champions the lower class, he ends up siding with people who like to hunt, attend mega-churches, watch NASCAR, and wish you “Merry Christmas!” indiscriminately, and that WILL NOT DO.” I had to laugh.

    I think the useful thing to take away here is that there are serious and real gaps and absences and losses in the field of history. I actually adore social history and gobble it up in my free time like there is no tomorrow. I would never want to do away with it. I think it’s a point of entry into, well, literally everything. I have read histories of syphilis that opened up study of Renaissance exploration of the new world; histories of chocolate and spices and tea and clothing and fashion and so on that illuminate everything from early global economics to the rise of the factory system to the historically contingent and fragile nature of the concepts of beauty and art. I value all that immensely, and much of that work arises out of the special inclinations of new sorts of scholars with new types of interests. It gets terrible when it gets overly ideological, but then, everything does. Still, KC has a real point about the disappearance of other kinds of history from academic departments — military history, diplomatic history, the histories of governments and administrations. This is the kind of thing he does, so he’s alive to it. And the loss is serious and real. It would be nice if this didn’t have to be a zero-sum game, all either-or. It would be nice if we could have it all and value it all. KC’s primary concern, I think, is the manner in which we are producing a dark age in what should be an era of hyper-enlightenment. It doesn’t have to happen, and it’s a shame.

  4. Art Deco says:

    especially at relatively small institutions like the University of Montana, can’t one always find something important that’s not being done?

    The University of Montana has 15,000 students.

    Has the work of Howard Zinn, Patricia Limerick, John Boswell

    Boswell’s most famous work was bogus and Zinn’s original research consisted of his dissertation (edited for publication) and two or three minor labor histories (the last written with two collaborators).

    I would only add that before the 1970s and 80s began to transform those departments, “absurdly lopsided” is precisely what they were.


  5. Eveningsun says:

    Yes, Art Deco, the University of Montana has 15,000 students. Harvard has 21,000, Berkeley has 35,000. UCLA has 40,000, NYU has 43,000, and OSU has more than 50,000. The disparities are even greater if one looks at the graduate level, where the research faculty are: NYU has about seven times as many grad students as UM. Ergo, as I said, UM is “relatively small.”

    As for Boswell, Zinn, et al, your comments are hardly a rebuttal to my suggestion that a lot of post-70s historiography has influenced public policy. You might not like Zinn, and maybe he’s not even that good a historian, but I would wager that a lot of those OWS protestors have read and been influenced by him, and they seem to be having some impact on policy. Certainly Limerick has been influential out here in the West where I live (my state senator is a fan of Legacy of Conquest). And maybe the ongoing revolution in gay rights owes nothing at all to Boswell. But somehow I doubt it.

  6. Art Deco says:

    I have no particular reason to believe the OWS protestors have (as a rule) done any critical thinking about American history or social life.

    John Boswell published two books of note, the latter almost immediately discredited as a work of historical fabulism. No, I do not think a seedy divinity professor publishing one book in 1980 and another in 1994 had much influence on decidedly non-scholarly protest movements of sexual deviants.

    The mean population of tertiary institutions in this country runs to about 4,500 students. An institution which has 15,000 students is more than thrice the size of the mean.

    The University of Montana does not invest in its History department, which has about half the faculty one would ordinarily expect of an institution of that size. They have fourteen professors. That will suffice for about three regional or functional subspecialties. If you leave the cultural history to the humanities departments and the economics department contributes most of the manpower to the study of economic history, you have about 5 or 6 slots to devote to the social and political life of the United States and Canada. You have about four broad time periods to cover and public life and mundane life to cover. It is not too much to ask that you have one person on your faculty who studies the evolution of political struggles and formal institutions of the country and not too much to ask that you not over-invest in niche specialties (e.g. the history of the tiny aboriginal minority) or to ask that you not waste resources on twee pseudo-specialties like ‘women’s history’. It is also not too much to ask that your professoriate in the arts and sciences maintain a variety of perspectives about what is just and prudent in social relations, most especially if they are in a state institution. The academy is nothing if not adamant that it should be their privilege to construct sandboxes for themselves with other people’s money, alas.

  7. UM history grad says:

    Decades ago I took an undergrad degree in history at the U of Montana before moving on to a history MA at a much larger university and then on to an MA and PhD in another discipline. And, alas, I’ll have to agree with Mr Johnson, Ms O’Connor, and Art Deco that PC/RCG conformity has eroded the coverage responsibilities of a long-established discipline in a university of the UM’s size. I might add that the department seems to have farmed out its ancient history offerings to a Classics prof and perhaps relies on an emeritus history prof (William Farr) under whom in the early 1970s I studied medieval history (but now whose first speciality listed is “Native Americans and the Rocky Mountain West”).

  8. Eveningsun says:

    Well, Erin, I guess I stand corrected. It hadn’t occurred to me that women’s history was a “twee pseudo-specialty,” and previously I had thought there might be some value in studying the history of Native Americans and the Rocky Mountain West.

    I was blind, but now I see.

  9. UM history grad says:

    Just to add a bit more valuable perspective for the recently-sighted in this exchange: of the 14 historians currently in the UM’s history department, none lists ancient or medieval history as a specialty or interest, while there is one specializing in women’s history, another in African-American history (assisted by an “associated faculty” lecturer), another in Native American history (the last assisted by 4 “associated faculty” in the Native American Studies department).

  10. Dave S. says:

    UM history grad: if you’re affiliated with UM, you should know that they have a classics program ( with three professors, an emeritus professor, and an instructor. That’s where you’ll find ancient history.

  11. UM history grad says:

    Yes, Dave S., thanks for the link. However, as one peruses the Classics course lists, one notes that in this list (not always accurate or indicative of regular offerings) history courses are few, and naturally, language and literature predominate, in addition to courses offered in ancient philosophy, art, etc. In a history department of 14 plus one should expect one ancient historian and one medievalist I think.

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