What's Behind the Lamentations Over History?Roundup
tags: historians, Max Boot, history, academia, public engagement
James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.
Many years ago, the distinguished urban historian Richard Wade half-jokingly noted two truisms available to students cramming for exams at the last minute: the middle class is always rising, and community is always declining. I recalled Wade’s cheat sheet last month as I considered an analogous bromide: rising specialization renders historians’ work increasingly inaccessible, and historical literacy among the general public is always declining.
The latest version of this lamentation came from Washington Post columnist Max Boot, who links the long-term decline in history majors to his claim that “history professors have retreated from public debate into their own esoteric pursuits.” These pursuits, according to Boot (citing historians Hal Brands and Francis Gavin) are “cultural, social, and gender history,” initially a “welcome corrective to an older historiography that focused almost entirely on powerful white men. But like many revolutions, this one has gone too far, leading to the neglect of political, diplomatic, and military history—subjects that students need to study and, as enrollment figures indicate, students want to study but that universities perversely neglect.”
This is one part of the argument. The other, closely related, pertains beyond the classrooms to public culture: the failure of academic historians to connect with the general public, and their disdain for “popularizers,” whether outside of the academic guild or within its ranks. On campus and in their publications, professional historians have tilted toward identity issues and away from the things that truly matter: electoral politics, diplomacy, and war.
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