Why Most Academic Histories Today Are Rubbish
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.