Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Which History?

Randall J. Stephens

Patricia Cohen reports on the steady drop in college courses offered on diplomatic, economic, and intellectual history in "Great Caesar’s Ghost! Are Traditional History Courses Vanishing?" NYT, June 10, 2009. "To the pessimists evidence that the field of diplomatic history is on the decline is everywhere," writes Cohen. "Job openings on the nation’s college campuses are scarce, while bread-and-butter courses like the Origins of War and American Foreign Policy are dropping from history department postings."

Cohen's comments are sparked by a roundtable on the topic at the upcoming meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, June 25th - June 27th at the Fairview Park Marriott in Falls Church, Virginia. That session is titled "What’s in a Name?: Diplomatic History and the Future of the Field" and includes the following participants: Thomas Zeiler, University of Colorado at Boulder; Matthew Connelly, Columbia University; Christopher Endy, California State University, Los Angeles; Barbara Keys, University of Melbourne; Robert J. McMahon, Ohio State University; Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, University of Kentucky; Emily Rosenberg, University of California, Irvine.

According to Cohen the percentage of history departments with faculty who specialize in intellectual, diplomatic, or economic history has declined sharply since the 1970s. By contrast greater numbers of faculty work in gender, women's, or cultural history. There's also been a slight increase in the number of faculty specializing in military history, oddly enough. (The latter bit contradicts what John Miller wrote in his 2006 National Review essay, "Sounding Taps: Why Military History is Being Retied.")

There are many reasons why some areas of history lose lines and why others gain them. Cohen cites David Kaiser, history professor at the Naval War College: “The boomer generation made a decision in the 1960s that history was starting over. It was an overreaction to a terrible mistake that was the Vietnam War.” To what extent has post-1960s identity politics shaped the profession?

As I read on I wondered what other fields could be added to those that Cohen mentions. I'm no longer certain that religious history would qualify as "neglected" or "underrepresented.” There is much interest in religious history. (See this interesting thread at Religion in American History on a recent conference on religious history/American religion.) Though it’s debatable whether or not that interest has bubbled up into curriculum and/or publications. I conducted a little informal, crude, utterly unscientific study of my own a couple years back. I went through journals like American Quarterly and the Journal of American History for the years 1997-2007. These rarely include religious history topics. (The American Historical Review was a little better.) Only 5% of the articles in the American Quarterly, the premier publication for American studies, covered religion. Only 4.3% of the essays in the Journal of American History dealt with religion over the same period. Thumb through most professional history conference programs and find much the same. (See John Butler's now-classic 2004 essay in the JAH: "Jack-in-the-Box Faith: The Religion Problem in Modern American History.")

What else? Would political history count as underrepresented? What about the history of science? This could probably be extended to include periods that receive less attention, too. I’m looking at you, Early Bronze Age.


Donald A. Yerxa said...

Thanks for bringing attention to Cohen's NYT article. Historically Speaking has received a grant from the Earhart Foundation to run a series of four forums on "neglected fields of history." The first, on intellectual history, will appear in the September issue. Daniel Wickberg writes the lead essay, with responses from David Hollinger, Sarah Igo, and Wilfred McClay. A forum on military history will follow in the November issue. Participants scheduled for that one include Brian Linn, Dennis Showalter, Victor Davis Hanson, and Andrew Bacevich. -- Donald Yerxa

Chris Beneke said...

Thanks for directing us to this piece, Randall. I had missed it. Looking forward to the HS forums.

Jeff Vanke said...

For me, another important metric is the vast decline in the numbers of history majors. Many of those have migrated to political science or, where it's offered, public policy studies. Those are the facts.

My hypothesis is that it's due to the shift in history offerings, and the redirection of surveys away from political and other traditional history (part of which redirection was a necessary expansion to long neglected genres).