The Decline of Intellectual History is a ProblemRoundup
tags: historiography, intellectual history
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.
Empires are not the only entities that rise and fall. So too are academic fields of study.
When I was a doctoral student, many of the foremost U.S. historians were intellectual historians: David Brion Davis at Cornell and Yale, George Fredrickson at Northwestern and Stanford, John Higham at Michigan and Hopkins, and Henry May at Berkeley, among others. Other leading scholars, including Bernard Bailyn, Eric Foner, Winthrop Jordan and Gordon S. Wood, foregrounded ideas (or, in the parlance of the time, ideology) in their interpretations of slavery, the causes of the American Revolution, the drafting of the Constitution and the coming of the American Civil War.
Even though American intellectual history as a research field persists, replete with journals, professional societies, exemplary scholars like Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen and big books, it has certainly shifted from the center to the periphery of the discipline. Leading practitioners, like Robert Abzug and James Kloppenberg, have retired, while others, like Richard Wightman Fox and Jackson Lears, near the end of their illustrious professional careers.
It’s possible, of course, to argue that intellectual history hasn’t faded at all. Some would claim that it flourishes under a new name: cultural history. It might also be argued that intellectual history has been absorbed by various subfields. After all, there’s a flourishing field of African American and U.S. women’s intellectual history.
But I’m convinced that something real has occurred. No longer are large departments like mine committed to having a slot in American intellectual history or looking for scholars with expertise in the history of ideas.
American intellectual history isn’t the only field to experience decline. A few years ago, Robert B. Townsend, now the director of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ humanities, arts and culture programs, charted shifts in the discipline of history over 40 years. The growth areas included women’s history and cultural history, with legal, economic, diplomatic and intellectual history fading.
I suspect that many students interested in diplomatic history gravitated toward degrees in international relations or area studies. The decline in economic history no doubt underscored a more general failure within the discipline to train students in social science methodologies, in demography and statistics as well as econometrics. Flagging interest in legal history is harder to explain, since the field aligns so well with students’ pre-professional interests in law and public policy.
As for American intellectual history, I’d speculate that that the field is much too frequently and wrongly dismissed as elitist, ethnocentric and excessively abstract, as the study largely of a white, male intelligentsia. In fact, anyone who has followed the field knows that it has become increasingly democratic and now includes many examples of intellectual history from below (for example, studies of the ideas of the working class), more global and comparative and more wide-ranging (including the intellectual history of sexuality).
I guess it’s no surprise that pragmatic people view fancy ideas as immaterial.
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