Historian Robert Zaretsky suggests the non-academic market for history is flourishing

Historians in the News
tags: Robert Zaretsky

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of world cultures and literatures in the department of modern and classical languages and the Honors College at the University of Houston. His latest book, Boswell’s Enlightenment, was recently published by Harvard University Press.

... Of course, there are many powerful factors at play. The subsiding of the demographic surge that raised student numbers at colleges, the decline in state support for public colleges, and the shift from tenure line to temporary lines at research universities have all contributed to this collapse in the job market.

But can these elements alone explain this sea change in the profession? Or is it possible that a focus on external factors helps us ignore the internal causes to our decline? For example, graduate history departments have continued to bestow doctoral degrees at a rate that exceeds available positions. They do so for simple, though ultimately suicidal reasons: The flow of graduate students not only justifies the economic relevance of our department in the university, but also justifies the existential relevance of our work. I teach graduate seminars, therefore I exist. That this leads to a second twist on the Cartesian cogito — I have a history Ph.D., therefore I am a barista — does not, I suspect, keep the tenured and happy few awake at night.

But the source of our self-inflicted ills lies elsewhere, I think. Slightly more than 65 years ago, Fernand Braudel published his landmark work The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II. A vast canvas of the early modern nations and peoples that bordered the Mediterranean Sea, the work has enjoyed a celebrity that rests on the manner in which it treats historical time. Braudel rejected the domino method, in which historians set up a neat series of political or military events with one seemingly knocking over the next.

Instead, real history, Braudel declared — demographic, economic, and climatic — rumbles deep below the surface of things. When the dominoes tremble and tumble, it is not due to the flick of a general’s or king’s finger, but instead the work of natural and man-made changes rippling up from the historical depths. What Braudel called la longue durée, or the long haul of history, dwarfs and largely determines the actions of individual men and women.

Braudel’s approach casts light not just on early-modern scholastics, but also on their postmodern descendants. Consider the tempo of life in graduate school: It moves at the same glacial pace as did life during the age of Phillip. Still governed by guildlike regulations and socio-professional traditions that our early-modern ancestors would recognize, the careers of grad students advance as languidly as trade caravans once did across North Africa. ...

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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