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. 

Johnson questions the encouraging findings of the AHA survey in several telling respects: most importantly, compared to previous surveys of fields of interest, the new survey expanded the number of fields that a professor could designate as a field of interest (from three to five) thereby making it much easier to pose as a diplomatic or military historian. This point is very well taken.

As a co-author and I reveal in a forthcoming book on military presence and higher education (Donald Alexander Downs and Ilia Murtazashvili: Arms and the University: Military Presence and the Civic Education of Non-Military Students. Cambridge University Press), what one makes of the status of military history in higher education depends to a significant extent upon how one defines the field. This is especially the case among top-ranked departments, about which we devote a lengthy chapter that includes a survey of faculty members and courses in the top 20 departments according to the 2009 U.S. News and World Report.

If the definition of military history includes “the new social military history” that embraces the broader cultural, social, and psychological aspects of war, then military history is alive and well, even among elite departments that are beholden to identity politics and research. But the status of military history plummets when it is defined in traditional terms, which military historian John Lynn defines as “the study of military institutions and practices and of the conduct of war in the past.” Military historians “are those who write military history, whether this work comprises their main scholarly effort or simply part of it, whether or not they define themselves as military historians.”

If you exclude the University of North Carolina and Northwestern, which are outliers among the top 20 departments in terms of their hospitality to military history, there are only 9 traditional military historians  in the 18 other departments, according to our scrutiny, which intentionally erred on the side of generosity. Including all 20 departments, traditional military historians comprised 15 out of 1273 total faculty members.

This said, the inclusion of military issues in broader research agendas should not be dismissed as not meaningful, as it often does indicate significant attention to the study of war and military matters. It would be shortsighted to be either too pessimistic or too sanguine regarding the status of military history, as a perusal of course offerings and research agendas reveals a vast array of approaches to military affairs. Some such research and teaching only marginally incorporates actual military history, whereas other projects are more substantive.

On the positive side, recent events suggest that the pendulum really is swinging back to some degree, at least regarding military history. Long a critic of military history’s status, Lynn himself has recently sounded a more hopeful note, pointing to military history’s return to some quarters that had previously abandoned it, such as the University of Wisconsin at Madison. In a related vein, programs as ROTC have begun returning to some elite schools now that the death knell of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has been sounded. (We devote considerable attention to this phenomenon in Arms and the University.) The coming to campus of thousands of veterans under the Yellow Ribbon program has also had a positive impact on many campuses, making them more receptive to military presence.

Advocates of military-related programs such as ROTC and veterans affairs have also adopted the discourse of diversity to justify their presence on campus, claiming the rights of equal respect and recognition, and pointing to how military presence broadens the intellectual and experiential diversity of campus life. Such arguments carried the day at Columbia University, where the University Senate voted to bring Navy ROTC back last April after a decade-long political process and the recent demise of DADT. Arms and the University concludes on a hopeful yet realistic note, affirming that we are witnessing a “return of the soldier” to higher education in many respects after decades in which many campuses have been hostile to all things military. 


  • Donald A. Downs

    Donald A. Downs, winner of the 2013 Jeane Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award, is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin Madison and Faculty Advisor to the Institute for Humane Studies’ Free Speech and Open Inquiry Project.

    View all posts

2 thoughts on “Military History and ‘The Revolt Against Elitism’

  1. Professor Downs mentions the return of military history to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It’s interesting to note that this came about primarily because of an expose that revealed that an endowment created by the historian Stephen Ambrose and others had been left unused for years because the faculty refused to hire for such a field. It was only after much delay and controversy that a faculty member was finally hired, and this was for an endowed chair not even a regular faculty line.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *