The Skewing of American History

iowa.bmpA few years ago, the University of Iowa’s History Department conducted a search for a new hire in U.S. foreign relations. After the department denied a preliminary, or screening, interview to Mark Moyar—a highly qualified (B.A. summa cum laude in history from Harvard, Ph.D. In history from Cambridge), but also clearly conservative, historian—it came to light that the department’s faculty had a Democrat-to-Republican ratio of 22:0.

The department’s explanations for this discrepancy were almost comical. First, department chairman Colin Gordon attributed the department’s not having hired any Republicans to the fact that “about two thirds of Johnson County are Democrats”—as if 67 percent equals 100 percent, and as if all of the applicants for jobs in Iowa’s History Department came from the University’s home county. Then he pled ignorance: “We do not know if an applicant belongs to the Republican Party, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Black Panthers or the Loyal Order of Water Buffalo.” It was, the chairman implied, just a coincidence that the department hired for the position to which Moyar applied a professor whose first academic publication came in Radical History Review, and who committed to teaching courses in “Race, Gender and U. S. International History” and “Comparing Racial Formations.”

As Mark Bauerlein observed at the time, “Think of what would happen if other diversities suffered the same disparate outcome. A department of all men would spark an outcry, and rightly so. But nobody seems to worry about the political skew.” Gordon’s response, on the other hand, made it perfectly clear that he and his colleagues found nothing undesirable about their one-sided partisan makeup, and wouldn’t engage in any critical self-reflection about why their department’s hiring process had skewed so overwhelmingly in one direction.

Political registration figures represent perhaps the crudest possible measurement tool to evaluate bias in History hiring processes. (For the record, I’m a registered Democrat who supported and donated to Barack Obama’s 2008 primary and general election campaigns.) Whatever members of the Texas State Board of Education might think, there shouldn’t a Democratic or Republican version of U.S. history. Yet a situation as extreme as Iowa’s—and there’s little indication that the partisan breakdown in Iowa’s History Department differs all that much from that of most other major universities—does suggest something amiss.

As Gordon claimed, it’s hard to imagine members of departmental search committees scouring the voter registration pages in applicants’ hometowns to determine party registration, so as to eliminate Republicans or independents (though Cary Nelson has implied the AAUP doesn’t deem such behavior inconsistent with defending academic freedom, particularly in an instance like Iowa’s, in which the addition of a Republican might be “poisonous” to the department’s Democratic bubble).

The wildly one-sided registration figures are best seen more as a symptom than a cause of the disease that afflicts U.S. history in higher education, in that they provide additional, if indirect, evidence of the pedagogical bias that has infected the field.

 Certain subdisciplines translate, at least to some extent, into partisan politics. There obviously isn’t a one-to-one correlation between studying military history and a conservative view on political issues—but, at the very least, a scholar who chooses to explore the history of the U.S. military is likely to have respect for the institution, in a way that many academics do not.

To take the other, and more significant, extreme: those who examine U.S. history through the lens of race, class, and gender perceive a society in which discrimination against African-Americans, women, and the poor has been omnipresent. This sort of pedagogical interest doesn’t necessarily translate into views on contemporary politics; it’s conceivable that a historian could devote his or her career to arguing that the male patriarchy has discriminated against women since the founding of the United States, and still vote Republican in the ballot box. But, in the real world, such an outcome is very unlikely.

Indeed, perhaps the most significant academic lesson from the Duke lacrosse case came in its showing to the world how race/class/gender academics apply their views to contemporary issues outside of campus. The race/class/gender pedagogical agenda of the Group of 88 and their campus allies generated an extreme-left view of events within their midst, even as anyone with any degree of objectivity could see that the case to which these “scholars” had attached their reputations was a tissue of fantastic lies.

So while the kind of registration figures evident in Iowa and most other History Departments around the country don’t prove a partisan bias in hiring, they do suggest a pedagogical bias in the personnel process. Departments that have a race/class/gender pedagogical tilt—a department, say, that refused even to give a screening interview to an obviously candidate with two books reflecting a traditional military history approach, even as it hired someone for a position in U.S. foreign relations who was committed to teaching students not about the history of U.S. foreign policy as the term is commonly understood but instead about “Race, Gender and U. S. International History”—would also be expected to feature disproportionately few independents or Republicans.

And as the overwhelming majority of elite History departments have a race/class/gender pedagogical tilt, at least with regard to teaching about the United States, this problem is a national one. Indeed, as U.S. historians whose research revolves around issues of race, class, or gender have come to dominate most history departments, the percentage of scholars devoted to more “traditional” subfields (political, constitutional, diplomatic, or military) has plunged. So few departments now hire in U.S. constitutional history that the American Historical Association has ceased keeping track of the figure. Diplomatic, political, and to some extent military history appointments are being imaginatively interpreted (as in the Iowa case) to ensure the hiring of professors who won’t challenge the pedagogical majority.

Hard numbers? At the University of Michigan, 12.5 percent of the 32 full-time department members currently teaching the national period of U.S. history work on diplomatic history, one on legal history, and two publish on topics in political history. (35 percent alone of the Americanists work on race.) At the University of Illinois, a mere 25 percent of the Americanists focus on U.S. diplomatic, political, constitutional, or military history. At the University of Washington, the figure is 10 percent. At the University of Florida, the total is 18 percent. At UCLA, 22 percent of Americanists could be described as focusing on politics, diplomacy, the military, or public policy, in the most generous definitions of those terms. And the figures at other big-name public institutions are equally depressing: the University of Minnesota (20 percent); the University of North Carolina (21 percent); Indiana University (21 percent); the University of Maryland (17 percent).

Iowa actually offers what passes for pedagogical diversity in the contemporary academy, at least regarding the teaching of U.S. history; 30 percent of its Americanists examine “traditional” fields, although some do so in ways that would be unrecognizable to most observers.

Why, in the end, does any of this matter? Defenders of the academic status quo suggest that we’re witnessing nothing more than the academy functioning as it should, with scholars—after a thorough intellectual inquiry—abandoning pedagogical approaches that have become passe. As my former colleague, the gender historian Bonnie S. Anderson, wrote, the study of “figures in power” represents “an old-fashioned approach to our field,” and should be terminated.

Such reasoning, of course, is little more than declaratory: U.S. historians should, at the least, examine “figures in power” solely through the lens of race, class, and gender and at most abandon the topic altogether because . . . historians of race, class, and gender say historians should do so.

But leave aside the shallow intellectual rationale for historians de-emphasizing or eliminating altogether the study of American politics, the law, foreign policy, or military affairs. Narrowing the field to minimize or exclude more “traditional” approaches to U.S. history also sacrifices the chief reason why the public (not to mention state legislators) should consider the study of history important: the need to train an informed citizenry to participate in American political culture. It’s hard to claim that university history departments are training future citizens when students have either no exosure or a wildly limited exposure to courses about historical events in U.S. politics and policy, foreign relations and national security, and constitutional and legal affairs. Such knowledge, it would seem, is fundamental to produce an informed citizenry.

If professional historians want to have the credibility to stand up to partisan hacks like the majority of the Texas Board of Education, they have to show that the academy, in fact, features scholars committed to a complete, nuanced, and pedagogically diverse view of the American past. Such a claim now couldn’t be made with a straight face. Instead, alas, it seems as if too often, the defenders of the status quo in higher education and anti-intellectual activists such as those in Texas are little more than two sides of the same coin.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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