Are Traditional History Courses Vanishing?

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The future of the history profession (as well as the journal’s title) are the subject of a roundtable discussion to be held this month at the annual convention of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. Many historians “are on the defensive,” said Thomas W. Zeiler, the executive editor of Diplomatic History and the moderator of the panel. (Mr. Zeiler, who floated the name change, said he did not have a particular replacement in mind.)

The shift in focus began in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when a generation of academics began looking into the roles of people generally missing from history books — women, minorities, immigrants, workers. Social and cultural history, often referred to as bottom-up history, offered fresh subjects. Diplomatic historians, by contrast, generally work from the top down, diving into official archives and concentrating on people in power, an approach often tagged as elitist and old-fashioned.

Over the last three decades the number of history faculty members at four-year institutions has more than doubled to 20,000-plus, said Robert B. Townsend, assistant director for research at the American Historical Association. Yet the growth has been predominantly in the newer specializations, spurring those in diplomatic, military, legal and economic history to complain they are being squeezed out.

How have some departments sliced up the pie? At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, out of the 45 history faculty members listed (many with overlapping interests), one includes diplomatic history as a specialty, one other lists American foreign policy; 13 name either gender, race or ethnicity. Of the 12 American-history professors at Brown University, the single specialist in United States empire also lists political and cultural history as areas of interest. The department’s professor of international studies focuses on victims of genocide.

So students still study, say, World War I and the cold war, but while a traditional class would focus on the actions and statements of presidents and secretaries of state, a newer approach might look at how the imperial powers treated their colonies in the Middle East or how Soviet propaganda that tried to tarnish democracy by pointing to racism in America may have contributed to President Harry S. Truman’s decision to integrate the armed forces.

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