Why Are We Arguing About History But Letting the Profession Die?Roundup
tags: history, academic labor, adjunct professors
Daniel Bessner is an associate professor of international studies in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington and a co-host of the foreign affairs podcast “American Prestige.”
When I received my Ph.D. in history in 2013, I didn’t expect that within a decade fights over history — and historiography, even if few people use that word — would become front-page news. But over the last few years that is precisely what has happened: Just look at the recent debates over America’s legacy of slavery, what can be taught in public schools about the nation’s founders and even the definition of what constitutes fascism. The interpretation of the American past has not in recent memory been as public or as contentious as it is now.
Maybe it started with The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which sought to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative” and which accompanied a national reckoning around race. That provoked, perhaps inevitably, a right-wing backlash in the form of “The 1776 Report,” a triumphalist, Donald Trump-directed effort. Then came a raft of laws in conservative-governed states across the country aiming to restrict and control how history is taught in public schools.
History, as the historian Matthew Karp has written, has become “a new kind of political priority” for people across the political spectrum, a means to fight over what it is to be an American: which values we should emphasize, which groups we should honor, which injustices we should redress.
The historical profession has likewise been roiled by controversy. Last August, James H. Sweet, the president of the American Historical Association, published an essay in which he argued that present-focused narratives of African slavery often represent “historical erasures and narrow politics.” The piece engendered a firestorm of reproach, with scholars variously accusing Dr. Sweet of attempting to delegitimize new research on topics including race and gender; some even accused Dr. Sweet of outright racism.
Yet as Americans fight over their history, the historical profession itself is in rapid — maybe even terminal — decline. Twelve days after Dr. Sweet published his column, the A.H.A. released a “Jobs Report” that makes for grim reading: The average number of available new “tenure track” university jobs, which are secure jobs that provide living wages, benefits and stability, between 2020 and 2022 was 16 percent lower than it was for the four years before the pandemic.
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