In History—the Obsession with Race, Class and Gender

The University of Michigan history department has 28 tenured or tenure-track professors whose research specialties in some way relate to U.S. history after 1789. Race is the favorite topic; at least eleven of the department’s professors indicate that their research in some way deals with race in America. Gender is the next prominent area of specialization; at least seven of the professors offer research in this area (with some overlap with race). Race and gender are, obviously, important themes in U.S. history. But are they of such importance that they should dominate to this extent the Americanist wing one of the nation’s major departments? And is Michigan fulfilling its mission of preparing future citizens by offering such a limited view of the nation’s past?

With the rise of the race/class/gender approach, subfields perceived as excessively “traditional" or overly focused on “dead white males” have gone into decline—or, in the case of political history, have been “re-visioned” in the hopes of transferring focus to topics oriented around themes of race, class, and gender. Since (at least in large departments, or at elite institutions) U.S. history hires in the national (post-1789) period come in subfields, looking at personnel specialties can give a sense of exactly how a university does—or does not—fulfill its obligation to train future citizens in the foundational events of their nation.

Most of Michigan’s handful of active scholars researching historical topics deemed “traditional” do so in a way that conforms to the department’s preferred view of the American past. Michigan has no U.S. military historians on staff. (It does have several specialists in Native American history.) The department’s sole specialist in U.S. foreign relations, Penny Von Eschen, describes her research interests as “transnational cultural and political dynamics, and race, gender, and empire” and “the political culture of United States imperialism”; her most recent book, Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War, certainly would not be confused with traditional diplomatic history. The department’s political historians tend to focus on themes of race and politics—again, an important theme, but obviously not an all-encompassing one.

The department has five assistant professors—offering perhaps an indication of fields in which the department might consider worthy of promotions to tenure, but at the least a sense of topics that the department considers insufficiently addressed in the curriculum or in personnel. Instead, Michigan doubled down on the race/class/gender approach. One assistant focuses on African-American cultural history, a second on African-American religious and intellectual history, a third on “race and ethnicity in the Americas,” a fourth on “Black Feminism(s).” (The fifth doesn’t list her research interests on her website.)

What about the next generation of historians? The departmental website lists 17 students currently earning Ph.D. degrees in U.S. history. Seven of the seventeen are working on topics related to gender or sexuality. Four are working on topics related to African-American history, two to Native American history. (Cultural history is another common topic.) On the other hand, only one is exploring institutional history (of the U.S. Southwest), another is looking at politics and the law, in the context of 20th century Jewish history. No students are working on diplomatic or military history. U.S. history, as it will be taught by future graduates of the University of Michigan, is a history dominated by specialists in race, gender, and ethnicity. Even class seems to take a back seat to the politically correct consensus.

Michigan is an extreme example of a broader pattern, one that’s been evident for more than a decade—the academy’s conscious decision to narrow the range of questions explored about the American past, to conform to campus racial, pedagogical, and ideological concerns. The mission of training future citizens can take a back seat.

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.

7 thoughts on “In History—the Obsession with Race, Class and Gender

  1. I went to the University of Michigan and graduated in 1983. I took a couple of history classes from professors Bradford Perkins and Sidney Fine, both outstanding scholars and gentlemen. While in their classes, I had no idea what their political leanings were. They were there to teach us history and the facts behind events. They were gifted speakers and at the end of their lectures at the end of the terms, everyone in our class would applaud. It is sad to see how things have fallen at our Universities.

  2. As a U.S. historian myself (M.A. Tennessee 2003, Ph.D. Purdue 2009), I can definitely testify to the prevalence of the “holy trinity” (as one moderate grad school friend called it) of race, class, and gender. It is not just diplomacy, military, and political history that suffer. Religious history often gets marginalized as well. I think the emphasis on so-called diversity in hiring and retention plays a key role in the imbalance, but the most important reason is the root worldview of most historians: a mishmash of Marxist and postmodernist thought. Even the postmodernist part of this simply replaces economic class with “oppressed” races and/or genders (sadly, the plural is intentional).

  3. I was on campus 1955 – 98. I saw this plague beginning with “multi-culturalism” as a banner, but anti-Western, anti-Christian, anti-Founders in its evil heart. We have reaped the fruits of this product of the left and without divine intervention, we will die as a civilization.

  4. This over concentration on a politically correct world view, to the exclusion of all else, is what has led to the dumbing down of this nation to the point that a totally unqualified person could be elected to the Presidency of the nation with the to be expected disastrous results.

  5. U of M seems chock-full of classes that at best would be better Term-paper or research topics in those historical fields rather than all-out classes on those subjects.

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