Robert Townsend: The End of Cultural History?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Robert Townsend is AHA Assistant Director, Research and Publications. Robert serves as senior staff assistant to the Association's Research Division, maintains databases and statistics on the historical profession in the U.S., and oversees scheduling and production of all print and online publications. He is currently completing his doctoral studies at George Mason University, working on a dissertation about the discipline under the working title “Making History: Scholarship and the Historical Profession, 1880–1940.”]

In this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard Pells (a historian at the University of Texas at Austin) charges, “The vast majority of American historians no longer regard American culture—whether high culture or mainstream popular culture—as an essential area of study.” It’s an interesting article, and the Chronicle reports that it is among the most e-mailed for the week, but I think it should be read with considerable caution.

His timeline for cultural history’s decline and fall—placing cultural history’s golden age in the 1960s, with the fall starting sometime in the 1980s—is sure to surprise anyone who has taken a historiography class in the past 15 years. I must admit that several of my recent classes were with the late Larry Levine, who catches some of the blame for cultural history’s current fallen state in Pells’s narrative. But for his part, Levine traced a narrative that ran in precisely the opposite direction of Pells’s assertions, with a small coterie of cultural historians in the sixties growing into a much larger group in the present. Those conflicting perspectives reflect the dangers of imposing memory on history, I suppose, which is why it is worth looking to other evidence for proof of cultural history’s decline. So (to borrow a bit of eighties popular culture) where’s the beef?

As it turns out, the most rhetorically powerful evidence in Pells’s article consists of simple assertions about what is not taught in the classroom. According to Pells, the greats of American culture, including Brando, Gershwin, Hemingway, and a host of others are now exiled from American history classrooms. He tells us that, but he does not point to any hard evidence to support that claim. I suspect he would be hard pressed to find it. A recent survey on the content of introductory history courses in 2003 found that cultural history was the only area to show a significant increase over the previous five years. The amount of course time allocated to cultural history grew from an average of 5 to 15 percent between 1998 and 2003—hardly evidence of its declining fortunes.

Topical Coverage in U.S. History Survey Courses, 2003

When it comes down to it, the only substantive evidence Pells offers to prove his point is that he read around 2,000 books for a project on the global impact of American culture (exclusively on the 20th century it seems), and “not more than 50” of them were by professional historians. That is interesting evidence, but a survey driven by one historian’s research agenda is a weak foundation for assertions about the state of the discipline.


comments powered by Disqus