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Military History and ‘The Revolt Against Elitism’

In his blog commentary, KC Johnson of Brooklyn College questions the results of a new American Historical Association survey, which found that more historians are focusing on diplomatic and military history than in recent times. “In contrast to critics (including me) who have suggested that the profession has aggressively diminished approaches to history deemed ‘traditional,'” Johnson writes, “Inside Higher Education reports that ‘designations of military history are up by 39 percent over the decade, for instance. Diplomatic history is up by 36 percent.’ We’re experiencing a veritable flowering of pedagogical diversity within the field!”

In recent decades, historical scholarship has turned away from a focus on higher levels of power and decision making (e.g., political, diplomatic, and military history) in favor of more egalitarian “social” research, stressing aspects of race, gender, and economic oppression. As historian H.W. Brands wrote in the 1999 Oxford Companion to Military History, “As the context of diplomacy was changing during the Cold War, so was the context of diplomatic history. Starting in the 1960s, the American historical profession experienced a revolt against elitism. The study of governing groups and ruling classes gave way to investigations into the lives of common people. Women and racial and ethnic minorities were judged more interesting than white males. Political historians were supplanted by social and cultural history. On nearly all fronts, diplomatic history came under attack.”

Critics have raised several objections to this trend, claiming that is deprives students of learning about important matters of citizenship and the state and that it embodies a progressive agenda that includes an implicit bias against traditional American values and power. In other words, it constitutes yet another example of political correctness’s reign on campus. 

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