My City University of New York colleague David Gordon has penned a convincing analysis about the current state of history in higher education. I share, and fully endorse, his critique about the direction of the field, with the vise-grip of the race/class/gender trinity “distort[ing] historical enquiry.” Stressing above all else victimization and oppression poorly serves both unbiased intellectual life on campus and the students that we teach.
Gordon’s article focuses on the dramatic expansion of gender history, observing how specialists in the topic have increased their representation to around 10 percent of all historians. (As Gordon points out, that percentage doesn’t include historians of race–a more popular topic, and one even more dominant among U.S. historians–or historians of class.) This expansion, moreover, has occurred at a time of overall contraction of history departments, especially in cash-starved public institutions. So what Gordon terms the “distort[ing]” effect of gender history is more than the profession simply expanding into a new area–it’s evidence of the profession contracting in other areas. In this zero-sum environment, advocates of “traditional” subfields have lost out.
If anything, then, Gordon could have presented an even more alarming case. And while I’d like to embrace an ideal that history departments might embrace a more pedagogically diverse vision in the future, I don’t see any evidence that it will occur. I’m certainly not aware of any department that has come under the dominance of the race/class/gender trinity that then launched a major hiring drive in political, or diplomatic, or military, or constitutional, or business history.
Less convincingly, Gordon suggests possible political influence on the profession’s current state. It’s quite clear that the early move toward race/class/gender was accelerated by contemporaneous political developments (such as the student protests at Cornell and Columbia in the late 1960s, or a second wave of politically correct campus protests in the 1980s). And it’s also true that a handful of politicians–such as the odious former New York City councilman Charles Barron, a close ally of the CUNY faculty union–continue to champion de facto racial or gender quotas in faculty hiring, or a certain type of “diversity” instruction in the classroom.
But in general, I don’t see much evidence that these hiring patterns–much less these curricular and pedagogical patterns–are driven by “politicians who want votes.” If anything, the problem is the reverse. A general indifference by politicians to the lack of intellectual or pedagogical diversity on campus is preventing state legislators in particular from providing a necessary (and appropriate) oversight role.
Nor, I should note, is there much evidence for Stanley Kurtz’s post-election theory implying a connection between the ideological imbalance among the faculty and the fact that “our colleges and universities have been quietly churning out left-leaning voters for some time.” It seems to me that Republican opposition to issues such as marriage equality (backed by 70 percent or more of all 18-24 year olds–not just those who attend college–in Maine, Minnesota, and Maryland last week) and the DREAM Act (which has two-to-one backing from all voters under 34 years old–not just those who went to college) more convincingly explains why 18-24 year olds strongly backed the Democrats in the 2012 elections.
Neither party has an interest in an ill-informed electorate: Democrats increasingly have presented themselves as technocrats, an approach that presumes voters will be able to comprehend public policy debates; Republicans increasingly have presented themselves as defenders of the Constitution, an approach that presumes voters understand what is (and is not) in the Constitution.
Cowardice provides an easy explanation as to why Democrats have avoided addressing the decline of academic diversity in the academy. In political terms, race, class, and gender correspond to black voters, unions, and feminists–three critical elements of the Democratic Party’s base. Tackling the situation on campuses would risk antagonizing base voters.
But what accounts for the Republicans’ reticence? Quite apart from the policy importance of promoting quality education, politically, the issue would seem to be ideal for the GOP. (Consider, for instance, the inexplicable silence of the Republican-controlled Iowa House of Representatives regarding persistent evidence of ideological slanting at the University of Iowa.) Alas, over the past four years the highest-profile Republican politician to involve himself in higher-ed issues has been Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli–who decided to go after a former University of Virginia science professor, in an effort that did little to advance the cause of pedagogical diversity on campus.
I don’t think, in the end, that historians can blame politicians or political pressure for the profession’s sad state. Blame instead lies with the scholars themselves, and the diversity-obsessed administrators who have abandoned the academy’s traditional fealty to the broadest possible range of intellectual debate on campus.