Tag Archives: campus political bias

The Alarming Decline of U.S. Political History

One of the year’s most important essays on higher education appeared earlier this week in The New York Times op-ed page. Historians Fredrick Logevall and Kenneth Osgood wrote of the decline of U.S. political history. “The public’s love for political stories,” they correctly noted, “belies a crisis in the profession. American political history as a field of study has cratered. Fewer scholars build careers on studying the political process, in part because few universities make space for them. Fewer courses are available, and fewer students are exposed to it. What was once a central part of the historical profession, a vital part of this country’s continuing democratic discussion, is disappearing.”

Related: A Big Campus Trend–Ignorance of U.S. History

As someone who almost lost his job in part because (as a former colleague put it in a then-secret letter), my scholarship took the “old-fashioned” approach of focusing on “figures in power,” I obviously share the concerns raised by Logevall and Osgood. I’ve made similar points about the field at Minding the Campus and in Congressional testimony.

The two historians also offered a solution: “What is needed, to begin with, is for university administrators to identify political history as a priority, for students and families to lobby their schools, for benefactors to endow professorships and graduate fellowships and for lawmakers and school boards to enact policies that bolster its teaching—and without politicizing the enterprise.” They’re absolutely right, of course, that history departments won’t solve the problem (though I suspect the reason is less “tight budgets” than the fact that the departments, through their hiring policies, created the problem in the first place).

I’m dubious that administrators will do anything about the issue; only a reckless administrator takes on faculty on personnel matters when faculty has strong ideological objections. And based on what we saw from student protests in 2015-2016, restoring U.S. political history seems unlikely to be a central concern (despite the fact that political, and diplomatic, history classes tend to be very popular with students). I agree that state legislatures are fully within their rights to bolster the teaching of political history, especially since—as at schools like CUNY—state policies require public school history teachers to get M.A. degrees, on the theory that this knowledge will train the students to be better teachers. If history departments don’t hire specialists in the areas that states need to have taught, why should states continue to prop up these departments through the tuition dollars from M.A. students? Trustees also should play a critical role. They can and should be far more involved in ensuring pedagogical diversity in key departments, including (and perhaps especially) history.

Related: Big History Kicks American History to the Back of the Class

The op-ed has (appropriately) generated lots of positive responses. Academic criticism has come from two sources—one of which is correct but not germane to the point Logevall and Osgood raise, and one of which unintentionally proves their point.

The first noted that good work in political history sometimes comes from people outside of history departments. True. To take some examples from my experience: whenever I teach an M.A. or Ph.D. class in political (or constitutional) history, I assign at least one book by Kevin McMahon, a Trinity political scientist who’s written on FDR and Nixon. The next time I teach my undergraduate course in recent political history, I’ll use this article on the state marriage equality debates from Anthony Kreis, currently on the faculty of Chicago-Kent Law School. (Kreis’ work is also a reminder to historians that if we don’t write about recent events for which lots of sources are available, we cede the topic to non-historians.) And Robert Mann of LSU, who holds chairs in journalism and mass communication, is the author of one of the two or three finest histories of the Senate.

The fact that some academic non-historians write good political history, however, isn’t a reason why history departments shouldn’t hire specialists in U.S. political history. Imagine the reaction if (say) political science departments started not hiring specialists in race or gender in U.S. affairs, because those topics are already extensively covered in history departments.

Related: The Campus Assault on American History

Critical reaction was more troubling. Here was the New School’s Claire Potter (a 1990 Ph.D. whose sole published monograph appears to be War on Crime: Bandits, G-Men and the Politics of Mass Culture), tweeting to six other historians: “According to @nytimes we don’t exist.” It’s not clear to me why—even if Potter is correct that all seven of these people were hired in U.S. political history—the existence of seven U.S. political historians among the nation’s 7000 universities would undercut the Logevall/Osgood thesis. The reaction of Potter and her correspondents, however, seemed to reflect a general argument that Logevall and Osgood have misunderstood the nature of the field—overlooking what once was called the “new” political history, or a “re-visioned” political history, which sees the field as more attuned to themes in social history, or urban history, or elements of identity politics.

Some of this history, of course, is excellent—such as the work of Tom Sugrue (who unsurprisingly dismissed the op-ed) or Nancy Cott. But, as an approach, the “new” political history envisions a narrowed, not broadened, field—one in which it’s difficult to fit in most elements of congressional or even presidential history, or institutional histories of the government, or public policy histories that don’t correspond to identity politics or urban themes, or many types of political biographies, or the history of campaigns and elections. “The most interesting scholars blend the older fields,” as Potter euphemistically put it.

I suspect, for instance, that someone like Potter would not be pleased if gender history as a field generated few jobs; and that a significant portion of the diminished tenured or tenure-track positions in the field had gone to specialists in biographies of female members of Congress, with a heavy focus on their committee work. Such studies could be considered gender history. But they’d obviously represent only a small segment of the field.

It’s good to see Logevall and Osgood speaking out, and I hope their op-ed makes a difference.

Political Tests for Faculty?

What’s going on when a public university feels entitled to ask potential faculty members questions clearly aimed at ferreting out their political and social commitments? Such questions, reminiscent of loyalty oaths and the demands of totalitarian regimes would seem to have no place in an educational institution in modern-day America.  But for some years now, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, as at many other universities, the administration has allowed and actively encouraged precisely such interrogations.

In fact, the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity at UMass thoughtfully provides Supplemental Search Instructions, including suggestions for typical questions to be asked during interviews. These invite search committees to fill in the blank with the name of the “protected group” of their choice.

Related: How PC Corrupted the Colleges

The suggested questions include the following representative queries:

  • How have you demonstrated your commitment to (____) issues in your current position?
  • Which of your achievements in the area of equity for (____) gives you the most satisfaction?
  • In your current position, have you ever seen a (___) treated unfairly? How would/did you handle it?
  • How many of the top people at your current or previous institution are (___)?
  • What did you do to encourage hiring more (___)?

Where, one may well wonder, in the context of a public university supposedly committed to education rather than indoctrination, could such questions come from?  They turn out to be based on a nearly 30-year-old report entitled, It’s All in What You Ask (Association of American Colleges, Project on the Status and Education of Women, 1988), which contained scores of questions for job searches reaching into every part of the university – faculty, administrators, and staff – all aiming to uncover candidates’ underlying commitments to promoting particular groups.

But where the original document aimed at promoting women and merely mentioned in passing that the questions “can easily be adapted to apply to minority and disabled persons,” UMass Amherst has corrected that narrow perspective by providing its long (but not exhaustive) list of identity groups.

Related: Political Correctness Is the New Puritanism

In other respects, however, the guidelines largely replicate (and credit) the specific language of the original document, which makes no effort to disguise the “gotcha” mentality underlying the entire endeavor, despite a disingenuous assurance that there are no “right” or “wrong” answers. The rationale is spelled out:

When prospective employees are asked, “Are you concerned about and supportive of these [identity group] issues?” they will invariably give an affirmative reply. Unfortunately, that gives little indication of their level of concern or commitment. Asking some of the questions listed [here] may help you gain a better understanding of a candidate’s position on these issues.… Many candidates will not have prepared answers to these questions in advance. These questions will, therefore, be useful in drawing out the candidate’s opinions rather than the “correct answer.”

The problem with these questions may not be primarily their legality—although there should be some concern about the possible unconstitutionality of anything smacking of an ideological qualification. The main problem is the overshadowing of genuine education by the demand for conformity and an explicit display of one’s politics.  The result is likely to be a monolithic corps of new employees, selected for their political commitments as much as, perhaps indeed more than, their professional qualifications.

Nor is this is happening in isolation. It has been accompanied, for years, by an out-of-control growth in administrators and staff whose explicit task is promoting and protecting certain identity groups.  Who knew that after thirty years of tireless efforts, universities would still be in desperate need of measures to combat their allegedly exclusionary policies toward all who aren’t able-bodied heterosexual white males?

All Diversity All the Time

Whereas certain parts of the academic world – Schools of Social Work, for example, and Schools of Education — have for some years insisted on overt expressions (on the part of both students and faculty) of correct political attitudes, it’s important to recognize how such demands are built into the entire job search procedure itself.

In addition, at UMass Amherst, as at other universities around the nation, the key documents about proper search procedures place a persistent and ceaseless emphasis on diversity, as required by equal opportunity regulations. Pages and pages of details are devoted to spelling out the efforts to identify and recruit “diverse” candidates, providing suggestions for every stage of the process.  Ironically, detailed lists are also provided of questions that are prohibited (having to do with ethnicity, race, gender, national origin, ancestry, and so on.  And to ensure that this process is fully complied with, search committees must meet with a representative of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity for orientation and “coaching” sessions.

Yet, though we are repeatedly told that, “An applicant’s potential contribution to workforce diversity is an asset that should be carefully considered,” at the completion of the search process, everything changes. Despite the relentless emphasis on “diversity-enhancing measures” up to this point, and the careful documentation of these efforts that are required, when final recommendations are made by the search committee and sent up the chain of command, we are told that the candidates’ race, sex, and other identity markers should not be mentioned, only the excellence of their qualifications:

When describing candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, the committee’s rationale must focus strictly on their qualifications for the job itself. Do NOT comment on their race, ethnicity, accent, personal appearance, clothing, personality, age or maturity, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, or marital status. . . . The process will move much faster if the Chair, or, as a last resort, the Dean has made sure that all recommendations focus on qualifications for the job and do not make inappropriate references to protected personal characteristics.

In other words, after dominating the search and hiring procedure in multiple ways, the obsession with identity politics needs to be disguised at the very end, when all talk reverts to academic qualifications alone.

Thus, to the entire overdetermined process is added, at the last stage, a whiff of utter fraudulence. There’s the part where everyone is put through their diversity paces; then there’s the part where you cover it up.