Andrew L. Yarrow: Getting a Ph.D. in History at Age 48

Roundup: Talking About History

Andrew L. Yarrow, a former reporter for The New York Times, is outreach director for special projects for the economic studies program at the Brookings Institution. He received his Ph.D. in history from George Mason University.

Not too many people get doctorates in history at age 48, as I did this year.

At a time when business and technology careers are venerated, and more idealistic mid-life career-changers tend to gravitate to service professions such as theology, social work, government and teaching, U.S. history might seem like a particularly eccentric choice.

The experience impressed me, as an American, with the fundamental importance of knowing our nation's great and troubled, heroic and quirky story as almost a requisite for good citizenship.

The idea that good citizenship depends on a basic understanding of our nation's past does not mean that 300 million Americans should slog through a Ph.D. program. Yet at a time when the study of history, from universities to elementary schools, has dwindled, there is a strong case for reinvigorating our national knowledge and teaching of U.S. (and global) history.

There are many causes for the decline in interest, understanding and teaching of history.

The emphasis on math, science and English testing in schools has crowded out many worthy courses - from music and art to physical education and history or social studies.

The political correctness and narrow parochialism of many academic historians - who view our past through the quasi-Marxist or other radical lenses of oppression, or focus on seemingly absurd minutiae of American history - hardly have given the profession and its academic practice a good name.

Finally, the deep cynicism about government and our political class has rubbed off on the way that many Americans think about public life, today and in the past. As Voltaire said, it has led most of us to want to simply "tend our own gardens" and forget about the genius of our founders' achievement, the horrors of slavery or countless other developments that have made the United States what it is today.

In completing my doctorate in post-World War II history, I had to delve into the personally uncharted waters of Colonial and early American history. And I was richly rewarded. To understand the sheer brilliance, shining idealism and political acumen of figures such as Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton in crafting the most remarkably successful political and economic system in human history should be part of every Americans' intellectual capital and a source of enormous pride.

But the brutality and hypocrisy of 250 years of slavery and another 100 years of official racism are a moral blot on our national conscience that, as Elie Wiesel said of the Holocaust, we must never forget.

The heroism and successful global leadership that the United States provided in crushing the Nazis and defeating Communism, helping to liberate hundreds of millions of people, are achievements that every American should celebrate. So, too, are the achievements of industry, government, inventors and workers in creating the most prosperous economy the world has ever seen.

Yet as we cynically dismiss the corruption that seems to permeate Washington, and many states, today, it is important to remember the betrayal of African-Americans in our Constitution, by Andrew Johnson, Woodrow Wilson and so many others. And then there were the brazen illegalities perpetrated by Warren Harding, Richard Nixon and even presidents such as Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam and Ronald Reagan with Iran-contra.

America's story is neither the tale of woe told by bitter academics nor the Pollyanna narrative of glib patriots. It is complex, rich and fascinatingly multitextured. It's rich enough that it might even make a good TV series, a Hollywood blockbuster and an engrossing computer game - not to mention a subject that should be taught and required in schools and colleges.

As a people, we are proud to be Americans. But shouldn't we at least know who we are and how we got that way?

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Lisa, You have gone somewhat off track trumpeting one of your own pet narrow specialties. A bad habit common to most historians, and most of the rest of us too. As for Novick, his book is a treasure chest of detail on professional history, but it hardly proves that objectivity is an unworthy objective, and rather shows only that this ideal has not been and is never likely to be fully achieved. Should we, however, therefore give up on trying to get dirty money out of political campaigns, or curbing wasteful exploitation of fossil fuels, or finding lasting cures for poverty, or stopping genocide in Darfur, etc, etc. (add your own personal favorite societal ills) because past efforts at such problem solving have been such miserable failures?

Richard Thornburgh - 5/30/2006

I graduated with a degree in history, but decided to go on to an MD/PhD (with the PhD most certainly not in history). The bickering and shrill denunciations on display in this thread make me thankful I had the good sense to get out and pursue something with more value.

Lisa Kazmier - 5/24/2006

Oh, and where did I say how I feel about this? And who exactly am I being a revisionist of? I don't think you know what you're talking about. You have a comparison of a woman's body with a public service project, not a surprise given some thought prostitution was necessary to the functioning of society and prostitutues were commonly called "public women." If that offensive that I actually can read?

Lisa Kazmier - 5/24/2006

I didn't say it; another historian did. Your narrowness about what constitutes history would suck all the intellectual drive out of doing history, rendering it colorless textbook he said, she said crap without a referree. I told you the basis for their comments. Maybe you should read a few good works of history to see how it works, because apparently you think to be a historian is to be an apologist. Perhaps I should defend what Hitler was thinking, too, while I'm it. Given you assume all the women caught in the CD Acts were prostitutes and you forgot that many of these women were illiterate, I can see you'd be a pretty shoddy historian.

Rob Willis - 5/23/2006

Ms. Kazmier,
I haven't the time or patience to suffer what YOU "feel" about the situation described above. I would love to know what the whores felt about it, though. Were they offended by the sewer comparison? (you obviously are, and again, this comes through in your attitude and response, and has affected your analysis. This is isogesis and revisionism at its worst.)

It is grand to quote someone (who I don't know) suggesting that soap would have been more effective. Gee, what a revelation. The same could be said for any period of history in hindsight. I WANT TO KNOW WHAT THEY THOUGHT AND SAID, not your post-modern overlay.

You are an activist for a cause, who has given up on trying to be objective in your professional work, and you admit it. This sickens me.

Go Steelers.

Lisa Kazmier - 5/23/2006

And on the accident, I endeavor to get it right. If you were in the wrong, I'd call you out. What you advocate is some namby-pamby no-fault garbage. I actually sift through evidence and take a stand. In that order.

Lisa Kazmier - 5/23/2006

You should read the Novick book. I was referring to it. It is a bogus ideal. There is no such thing. You can be fair but you cannot possibly be objective. When you make narrative choices and attempt to tell a coherent story, you can't do that well and remain objective. This is in part why textbooks are considered dry.

And "thinking like the authors" sounds like framer's intent or something. You would pass up examining their own blind spots, their own presumptions. For example, I had a paper supporting the British Contagious Diseases Acts (against prostitution) saying "we do not punish a sewer when we cleanse it. Nor do we punish a woman when we seclude and heal her." How about the assumptions: let's start with the attitude of comparing a woman's "plumbing" to a sewer. Fact is a lot of men believed "fallen women" incubated VD on their own; they did not catch it from the poor man they "tempted" who merely gave in to his "natural impluse." This is reflected in the quote, and I could say a lot more about it. It's a quote from the Times of London essentially (I used it in a paper years ago).

Then let's go to the presumption that these lock hospitals actually cured actual patients. The instruments weren't sterilized and many women were examined consecutively. That sure is going to help, isn't it? (Military men weren't examined because it was "bad for morale." Women assumed guilty -- who often still couldn't read their own statements -- did not count.) The exam was visual, not via testing. In women, this is no slam dunk. Finally, the medicines for "cure" were crude and ineffective. Indeed, FB Smith (I think) said that the advocates of this law would have been better advised in the 1870s to pass out soap.

So, to understand the history of this advocacy, one needs to do more than merely understand the mindset of the advocates. Do you understand me now in seeing how incomplete a story is told by not interrogating a text and its context? I just fleshed out something you would leave if not overlook because it begs for analysis. I'm guessing to you it is merely having an axe to grind to conclude that these laws were shortsighted and biased against women, particularly working class women, since the "proof" of being a prostitute was on dress and being seen in public in certain areas. The fact that they gave implicit permission for prostitution actually offended more people, though, but in the repealist Josephine Butler, the advocates found an adversary able to bring together all sorts of arguments against these acts.

Maybe you think it's an axe to grind to criticize these advocates, though wouldn't it be one to criticize Butler, who actually was physically attacked and called nasty things in print for daring to challenge this act and discuss such a thing in public? Both sides can be thoroughly be dissected -- and have been. That's doing history.

In short, there's a lot to this story and the way you presented yourself suggests I should stop at what William Acton & friends thought they would accomplish. That's not history. Sounds more like hagiography to me.

Rob Willis - 5/22/2006

Ms. Kazmier,
You have missed my point, or perhaps you haven't, I can't tell. I never suggested that those who lived events were objective, I am suggesting that modern observers who lack objectivity would never realize their subjects' bias. Yes, i do think there are so-called academics who revise history in the light of modern experience and expectations, and in so doing warp beyond recognition what the original voices were saying. I believe a better policy is enter the mindset of our subjects, rather than force our mindset upon them. One of those simple undergrad rules of doing history, as I recall. Sorry, I guess I'm just an old-fashioned guy.

I might also say that if you, as you admit, have given up on pursuing the Noble Dream, then by God madam, I hope you never get an opportunity to report on any car accident in which I am involved.

Lisa Kazmier - 5/22/2006

Mr. Willis,

Who said "axe to grind"? Is "becoming visible" or giving a voice to those omitted by history an axe? Second, when is history not filtered by an author? You really think Thomas Carlyle's French Revolution had nothing to do with his time? Or that de Toqueville's study of America had nothing to do with his France? It is pretty rare if not impossible for an author doing any sort of analysis to be alien divorced from his own time; the questions brought to bear, for one, do not come from a vacuum. I guess you still believe in "That Noble Dream" of objectivity, esp. for anyone that agrees with your politics, huh?

I got over this eons ago. It's like my professors taught me in journalism school. Say there is a car accident. You weren't there but you gather the information from as many perspectives as you can and attempt to deduce what happened. Neutrality does not mean you merely state what each driver, the cops and any witness said (though many would leave it at that). If one side lacks credibility, you show why that is. That's not an "axe to grind." That's being a thoughtful investigator into fact in order to find what works or is most likely true. We need more of it, not more preaching to the choir.

Rob Willis - 5/22/2006

This is where we part company. I really don't care how history is "viewed" by modern entities with an axe to grind, because this invariably leads to a fuzzy revisionism that does NOT serve the facts.

However, I am more than delighted to read what an ignored group thought about their experiences back in the day. That is an entirely different subject.

It is difficult to take seriously any historian who tries to filter history through current social filters. It doesn't work well, if ever. No matter how we "feel" about history, our "feeling" cannot ever change the hard facts of the past.

Craig Michael Loftin - 5/22/2006

Congratulations on your Ph.D. I feel compelled to comment on one paragraph of your essay:

"The political correctness and narrow parochialism of many academic historians - who view our past through the quasi-Marxist or other radical lenses of oppression, or focus on seemingly absurd minutiae of American history - hardly have given the profession and its academic practice a good name."

I think this depends on who you ask. Among many conservatives, certainly, the inclusion into historical narratives of historically mariginalized groups seems to reek of some sort of PC conspiracy, but speaking as a member of a historically marginalized group, I deeply appreciate the fact that "history" can now include me and others who have been told throughout our lives via historical ommission that we are invisible, have no voice, have no history. More perspectives from historically marginalized groups (blacks, woman, gays etc.) enrich our understanding of history by making it more nuanced and complex. Of course we should not ignore the constitution, the founding fathers, etc., but it is important to remember that even these classic topics that fill so many with pride are viewed differently by different groups of people, and even if you disagree with these other viewpoints, they should not be dismissed without first being heard and seriously considered.

John D. Beatty - 5/22/2006

Though hard to believe, when I finally finish. I shall be leaving the corporate ratrace for an adjunct position this year (MA, Military history next month), and good riddance.

Good luck, sir. I believe we shall both need it.

Lisa Kazmier - 5/22/2006

I find it rather ironic that this new PhD opts to criticize his fellow historians as having a narrow parochialism.

Wouldn't this statement qualify as such: "The heroism and successful global leadership that the United States provided in crushing the Nazis and defeating Communism..." ? Certainly, the effort as feel-good simplicity -- dismissing as it does the dirty laundry of the post1945 period as it assumes the "defeat" of Communism -- could count as a kind of PC, no? Where's the tribute to Ronald Reagan -- or is that merely implied by the term "herocism"?

In other words, "before you accuse me, take a look at yourself."

Sign me a European history PhD whose parochialism lay in Britain, not in the US.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/21/2006

The realization that we are not simply atomized individuals or cogs in an unchanging machine, but historically contingent yet autonomous beings in a society created and recreated over time.... that is the beginning of historical wisdom.

The pursuit of answers to interesting questions is the essence of history; that is what I take my greatest pride in. Truth is neither simple nor comfortable, but it is necessary, and I am thrilled beyond words to have more and more help in its pursuit and dissemination.

Yes, sometimes we rain gloom and doom; sometimes we celebrate. Always we question.

Mr. Pettit would have us accept his answers simply and unthinkingly because they are logically consistent (given his premises), despite their impracticality, insularity and ahistoricality. That's not the historians' way.

samuel D. Martin - 5/21/2006


James Spence - 5/21/2006

More like thankfulness and luck to brightly celebrate than pride of country - pure dumb luck not to be born in countries where human rights are still a century or two behind. The dark spots in our history, like the questionable practice of stealing the land from its original inhabitants, Christianizing them, or installing a tobacco-based economy using imported slaves is still understated in school history books. But if the wisdom Mr. Dresner intends to spread is not all the "Pollyannish narrative of glib patriots" of Manifest Destiny then there will be plenty of gloom and doom he will have to rain down on another day.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/21/2006

Mr. Pettit, your ability to rain gloom on the brightest celebration is nearly unparalleled in the annals of world civilization.

Dr. Yarrow, my heartiest congratulations, and may you have the chance to spread your wisdom to many students and readers.

chris l pettit - 5/20/2006

As a human rights academic, I am proud to be human. It is impossible to truly define American, Christian, or any of the other archaic, artificial, and ultimately individualistic categories that we make up about ourselves. So many start from their individual selves, then proceed into their "correct" school of whatever larger articifial division they subscribe to, then into the division as a general whole that is the "most correct" one for humanity as they see it, and then finally reach humanity. This bottom up approach is one of the main reasons there is so much strife. Nationalism is a religion just like any other. When we start from the fact that we all descended from a common ancestor and are human before we split off into our ignorant and artificial divisions, then we can truly understand history.

This is why children understand and make sense of international law and human rights better than adults in many ways...they have not been conditioned and indoctrinated into the various sources of prejudice and bigotry that we separate into when we identify our artificial and ultimately undefinable group as the best one (for us or anyone) and then put that above our humanity.

We should be proud to be the jingoism (nationalism, patriotism) for the only place it should ever belong...the Olympics and pride in national sports teams.