The evolution of the historical profession in the United States in the last fifty years provides much reason for celebration. It provides even more reason for unhappiness and dread. Never before has the profession seemed so intellectually vibrant. An unprecedented amount of scholarship and teaching is being devoted to regions outside of the traditional American concentration on itself and Europe. New subjects of enquiry — gender, race and ethnicity — have developed. Never have historians been so influenced by the methodology and contributions of other disciplines, from anthropology to sociology.
At the same time, never has the historical profession been so threatened. Political correctness has both narrowed and distorted enquiry. Traditional fields demanding intellectual rigor, such as economic and intellectual history, are in decline. Even worse, education about Western civilization and the Enlightenment, that font of American liberties, and the foundation of modern industrial, scientific and liberal world civilization, has come to be treated with increasing disdain at colleges and universities.
This extraordinary bias began in the late 1960s with the anti-Vietnam war protests. Many participants, at least those who subsequently went into academia, have never gotten over it. Their fossilized views have made their own disciplines largely museums of dead ideologies. Another of the remarkable changes within the historical profession has been the growth of women’s history. With only a negligible representation in 1975, almost 10% of all historians today identify themselves as historians of gender and women’s affairs.
The problem with this is that it has helped force out many other kinds of historical enquiry. It is important to emphasize women’s role in society and in history. However, it is difficult to see how a feminist perspective could contribute very much to a purely economic history of the English industrial revolution (as opposed to its social consequences), or to a diplomatic history of Europe between the Napoleonic and the First World War. As a result, these kinds of studies are receiving ever less attention.
Worst of all, women’s history has contributed to the current holy trinity of race, gender and class that dominates the historical profession. Under normal circumstances, the tight focus on victimization would soon fade. Since oppression studies explain so little, they soon become boring. But, as a part of a political chorus demanding ever-more extravagant entitlements for key voting groups, an essential part of the identity politics that is so destructive of national unity, the trinity is ensured a long life. Historians can grow tired of an intellectual movement. Politicians of a useful political tool, never.
There is also something else beyond the fanciful and fraudulent political and academic rhetoric of “equal opportunity – affirmative action.” That is jobs. Key voting groups designated as oppressed have been hired preferentially in the academy, most especially in the social sciences, including history. To justify these preferences, historians of gender and race must keep emphasizing oppression. How otherwise can their privileges be justified? Hence, the refiguring history to justify their positions in the professoriate.
A remarkable generational change is also coming. Most of the historians in the declining fields, economic, intellectual and diplomatic history, earned their degrees more than 30 years ago. At the same time, more than 50% of the new PhDs are now trained in women and gender history, in cultural history (a watered-down version of social history), in world and African-American history. This is going to make an extraordinary difference in what kind of scholarship will continue to be undertaken, and how the past will be taught. The history profession, seemingly innovative and robust, is in fact intellectually debilitated, and sadly reduced in scope.
Most ominously of all, changes in college curricula across the nation threaten to severely reduce the place of history in liberal arts education. Americans are threatened with losing touch with their past. We are in this regard on the brink of becoming a nation adrift. New core requirements at many institutions permit students to graduate without taking a single history course. When one considers how much first rate history scholarship and teaching remains in the academy, this is a tragedy. And yet, in contemplating the evolving state of the profession, one might equally ask – will they be missing so much?