Why Most Academic Histories Today Are Rubbish

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As longtime readers of this blog know, I have a deep and abiding passion for history.  I lament the fact that most histories produced today by academic historians are usually politicized drek, often written in a jargon that makes them gibberish to the general reader.  Historian K C Johnson has a superb post lamenting this situation:

The study of U.S. history has transformed in the last two generations, with emphasis on staffing positions in race, class, or gender leading to dramatic declines in fields viewed as more “traditional,” such as U.S. political, constitutional, diplomatic, and military history. And even those latter areas have been “re-visioned,” in the word coined by an advocate of the transformation, Illinois history professor Mark Leff, to make their approach more accommodating to the dominant race/class/gender paradigm. In the new academy, political histories of state governments–of the type cited and used effectively by the Montana Supreme Court–were among the first to go. The Montana court had to turn to Fritz, an emeritus professor, because the University of Montana History Department no longer features a specialist in Montana history (nor, for that matter, does it have a professor whose research interests, like those of Fritz, deal with U.S. military history, a topic that has fallen out of fashion in the contemporary academy).

To take the nature of the U.S. history positions in one major department as an example of the new staffing patterns: the University of Michigan, once home to Dexter and then Bradford Perkins, was a pioneer in the study of U.S. diplomatic history. Now the department’s 29 professors whose research focuses on U.S. history after 1789 include only one whose scholarship has focused on U.S. foreign relations–Penny von Eschen, a perfect example of the “re-visioning” approach. (Her most recent book is Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War.) In contrast to this 1-in-29 ratio, Michigan has hired ten Americanists (including von Eschen) whose research, according to their department profiles, focuses on issues of race; and eight Americanists whose research focuses on issues of gender. The department has more specialists in the history of Native Americans than U.S. foreign relations.

It’s true, of course, that departments heavy in African-American historians might have lots of scholars who focus on such topics as a sympathetic portrayal of Ward Connerly’s efforts against racial preferences. Or a department heavy in women’s historians might have lots of scholars who focus on such topics as a study of grassroots pro-life women, as part of a project suggesting that feminists don’t speak for a majority of U.S. women. But in the real world, figures with such interests would have almost no chance of being hired for an African-American history or gender history line.

Go here to read the brilliant rest.  K C Johnson is a partisan Democrat, but he recognizes that the ideological conformity of most history departments in this country, and the constant resulting focus on race, gender and class, is destroying the ability of academic historians to perform their traditional function of giving readers access to the world of the past in order to aid them in making sense of the present.

Historian Francis Prucha, as noted by Australian historian Keith Windschuttle, set forth in 1972 the traditional understanding of the role of the historian:

History is a legitimate scholarly discipline whose purpose is to reconstruct the past as accurately as the intelligence of the historian and the fullness of the historical sources permit. Its purpose is to supply enlightenment, understanding, and perspective and to provide sound information on which balanced judgements can be based. Its purpose is not to serve the special interests of any group or doctrine, nor to furnish ammunition for polemics or propaganda … We must seek the truth in the story we are telling, and in the history of Indian-white relations especially we must be alert to the pitfall of having too much sympathy either for our own preconceived ideas or for one side or the other of the controversy. To be a good judge, we must not care what the truth is we are seeking. We must be concerned only with finding it.

 

The old time honored standard of  Francis Prucha, and of many generations of academic historians before him, is now one with Nineveh and Tyre.  The junk that is produced under the new dispensation of politics-disguised-as-history is rarely read, except by people paid to do so, history professors, or forced to do so, students.  Leftist academic historians are doing their very unintentional best to destroy the love of history in all who do not share their ideological obsessions, and that is a crime against history.

 

 

9 Responses to Why Most Academic Histories Today Are Rubbish

  • T. Shaw says:

    In my business, we talk about “fairy tale value” (versus fair value) and “mark-to-make-believe” (vs. mark-to-market) when we discern questionable asset accounting and valuations.

    Once, I thought intellectuals studied their subject areas to discern truth, as close to truth as fallen man can approach.

    Now, similar to the guys that put together subprime mortgage securitizations, I think they data-mine, distort, exaggerate, manufacture false comparisons, omit material that doesn’t support the issue to advance ideology.

    I would not waste a second of my numbered days with any of it.

    Saturday, I read a WSJ book review of a some thing on or about the Spanish Inquisition. The reviewer (not sure about the author) went into a Bush Derangement Syndrome tripe-fest stating something about “both depended on anonymous denunciations” (not true) and “at least the inquisitors understood they were torturing people”, WTF? Arguably, someone with knowledge of the Inquisition would identify numerous other false comparisons.

    “The truth is that which supports [fill in the blank].” What is that stuff? Is it history? Is it allegory?

  • The book you are refering to is God’s Jury by Cullen Murphy T.Shaw. He is not an academic historian but an editor at large at Vanity Fair. He wrote the scripts for years for the Prince Valiant comic strip which his father drew. I assume that he got his comic book level view of history from this experience. He is a liberal Catholic with the emphasis always on liberal. His book allowed him to bash the Church and the Bush administration, a twofer.

    A good review of this worthless tome:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/historybookreviews/9045246/Gods-Jury-by-Cullen-Murphy-review.html

  • WK Aiken says:

    ” . . . the ideological conformity of most history departments in this country, and the constant resulting focus on race, gender and class, is destroying the ability of academic historians to perform their traditional function of giving readers access to the world of the past in order to aid them in making sense of the present.”

    At $35,000 a year plus state subsidy. How? I find no conclusion that can be delivered kindly.

  • Kevin J says:

    Blogger and philosophy prof Lydia McGrew has said that it’s an open secret that universities advertise for race and gender specialists because that’s how they’re likely to get more minority and women applicants. I wouldn’t be surprised that this process completely transforms history.

    Check out the 1982 interview with Norman Dodd, who headed one of Congress’ McCarthy-era investigations of the charitable foundations. He found evidence that the foundations were packing elite history departments with their partisans even back before WWII.

  • dcb says:

    As the author of three books of military history and a lifelong student of history the decline of the teaching of history at every academic level has concerned me since my own contact with college level history programs in the late 1970′s. At the time I realized, since I didn’t want to teach, history would be an avocation rather than a career. On the positive side there are very good histories being written, including military history…the problem is that very few of them are being written by academics and as a result very little of the real history is being included in textbooks or taught in universities.

  • Ivan says:

    College education excepting specialised degrees such as engineering or medicine are chock full of Whiggish propaganda. It takes quite a few years to understand that the professors had ruined one’s mind in preparation for our role as minions of the state or the Commisariat – enlightenment dawns from the age of thirty onwards – this leaves one embittered for years afterwards. This is particularly so in matters concerning Catholic history.

  • “On the positive side there are very good histories being written, including military history…the problem is that very few of them are being written by academics and as a result very little of the real history is being included in textbooks or taught in universities.”

    Quite right dcb.

  • T. Shaw says:

    Not only college credentialed cretins, semi-literate idiots that populate so-called journalism spin the news to support the progressive, libertine narrative.

    African-American studies, Gender Studies, GLTB Science, Why-I-Hate-America: anyone know what was Obama’s college major?

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