The Historical Profession Stumbles on the Edge of Ruin - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Historical Profession Stumbles on the Edge of Ruin

In recent years, we have heard much about the need to accept the findings of “the science,” despite the fact that such a thing does not exist. Scientists and informed observers know that science is seldom settled but instead consists of an ongoing process of rigorous debate, further research, testing hypotheses, and challenging conclusions. Nonetheless, certain experts attempt to close down debate on issues — the efficacy of face masks and shutdowns in the recent pandemic, the ability of solar and wind energy to supplant fossil fuels in the near future, the dangers of gas stoves — by claiming the authority of a reputed scientific consensus. Usually for political reasons, they tell us that “the science” has settled the matter and further questions are raised only by the ignorant and the depraved.

The same trend is becoming evident in humanistic study where, particularly in universities, left-wing ideologues are foreclosing debate on a host of issues by insisting that expertise, and hence a kind of moral authority, confirms their conclusions. Challenges to radical racialism or genderism, for instance, are disdainfully dismissed or censored by woke zealots who first reify their own “professional” standards of judgment and then label skepticism as the effusions of white supremacists, misogynists, authoritarians, conspiracy theorists, anti-intellectual troglodytes, and liars. Historical study has emerged as ground zero in this process. Over the last several decades on campus, leftist activists have largely succeeded in establishing their version of the American past as “the history,” and then driving other interpretations into the wilderness.

Demonstrations of “the history” and its powerful groupthink appear everywhere. It inspired the 1619 Project with its ludicrous claim that British moves to emancipate black slaves triggered the American Revolution. It lay behind the College Board’s recent proposal for a national Advance Placement course in African American studies that, in its concluding section, proselytizes for socialist transformation and “intersectionality” while denouncing “color-blind racism,” a template the organization agreed to modify with more diverse points of view only after Florida state officials refused to allow it in their schools. It prompted a clampdown in August 2022 when James H. Sweet, the president of the American Historical Association, the oldest and largest professional organization in the field, dared publish an essay in the organization’s monthly magazine suggesting that some current history writing had fallen prey to “presentism” — judging the past by the standards of the present — and produced work flawed by “historical erasures and narrow politics.” A horde of outraged radical historians immediately bombarded the organization with accusations that Sweet was trying to delegitimize studies of race and gender and demanded his resignation. They excoriated his “white gaze,” described his essay as “significant and substantial violence,” and contended his words supported “white supremacism and misogyny.” Sadly, but typically, Sweet, like transgressors in Mao’s Cultural Revolution, was forced into a humiliating public confession of error: “I apologize to for the damage I have caused to my fellow historians, the discipline, and the AHA. I hope to redeem myself in future conversations with you all. I’m listening and learning.”

“The history” with its radical orthodoxy now dominates the academic study of American history and the results have been disastrous. A chilling atmosphere has descended to discourage the historian’s traditional goal — the free pursuit of knowledge wherever it leads — in favor of a carefully circumscribed radical activism. Much historical education of college students has devolved into political indoctrination. An eye-rolling public grown weary of far-left renderings of the American experience has largely abandoned academic history as a useful guide for illuminating contemporary issues. And the historical profession itself, by destroying the nuts-and-bolts structure that sustains it, has stumbled to the edge of ruin.

*  *  *  * *

A prime example of “the history,” both its contents and its discontents, is Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past (Basic Books, 2022), a recently published volume of 20 essays edited by Princeton historians Kevin M. Cruse and Julian E. Zelizer. The volume’s introduction establishes its crusading mission. Because a wave of historical “disinformation” has washed over modern America, the editors claim, they have assembled a group of university scholars to recapture our past from those who “lack any training in the [historical] field or familiarity with its norms.” These contributors, self-described heroic successors to Progressive historians of the early 1900s and New Left historians of the 1960s, constitute a new generation of scholars entering the public lists “to push back against misinformation in the public sphere.” The stakes are high, the editors claim. There is a “war on truth” in modern America that is rooted in distortions and outright lies about the nation’s past, and by marshaling “the best scholarly traditions of the profession” these essays will help bring victory for the virtuous.

Myth America takes aim at politicians and popularizers who construct historical interpretations “not from scholarly motives but rather from patriotic demands or political considerations.” These professional historians bemoan “how common it has been for history to become politicized” and decry “partisan authors producing a partisan version of the past to please partisan audiences.” So far so good. Fair-minded readers anticipate that such claims of disinterested, nonpartisan truth-telling will produce a balanced rendering of the American past. Imagine their surprise, then, when they read the editors’ explanation of the causes of the modern crisis of history.

Kruse and Zelizer claim, in what sounds like a talking-points memo from the Democrat “Squad,” that the Republican Party in general and “the political campaigns and presidency of Donald Trump” in particular are solely to blame for current warped views of American history. They accuse conservatives of polluting the nation’s historical consciousness by creating a huge platform for disseminating “right-wing myths.” First, right-wingers have created a “conservative media ecosystem” composed of Fox News and Newsmax, Breitbart, and talk radio shows to disseminate historical lies. Second, they have encouraged “the devolution of the Republican Party’s commitment to truth” with the likes of George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and Trump “positioning themselves against intellectuals, universities, the media, and other sources of valid information.” There you have it — an unbiased, nonpartisan explanation of America’s history problem informed by the expertise of disinterested professional historians.

The essays that follow elaborate on this theme with a parade of radical leftist readings of the American past. Claiming to overturn a boatload of “myths and lies,” the essayists march down History Avenue wielding the past as a cudgel to bash the conservative side in contemporary political disputes. They take up a series of issues — these include immigration, Native Americans, isolationism, imperialism, American socialism, the market, Confederate monuments, the Great Society, police violence, feminism — and reach predictable conclusions. The history of the United States, in this telling, unfolds a long tale of xenophobia, systemic racism, state-sanctioned violence against minorities, land-hungry imperialism, corporate profit-mongering, right-wing insurrection, God-fearing homophobia, and misogynistic anti-feminism. This deplorable history, and the refusal to face it, has produced the current “age of disinformation,” Donald Trump, and his follower’s “violent insurrection at the United States Capitol.”

Here is American history rendered as a political morality tale of virtuous leftists combating conservative blackguards. And anyone who challenges this narrative is a liar or peddler of fake news. But a closer look at four typical essays in Myth America reveals another characteristic pattern: radical activist position their view of hotly contested issues as “the history” while evading a host of inconvenient truths.

The first essay in the collection, “American Exceptionalism,” by David A. Bell, takes on one of the bedrock beliefs in the nation’s historical consciousness — that from its founding, the United States has been a unique polity providing, through its republican government and social ethos of opportunity, an inspiration for freedom to the rest of the world. Bell denies this claim. He argues that “the two most important actors” in the history of American exceptionalism were Joseph Stalin and Newt Gingrich, surely the first time these two figures have been grouped together in any way whatsoever. The Soviet dictator, according to Bell, denied that the United States deviated from “the laws of historical development,” thus making socialist revolution necessary here as elsewhere, while decades later the Republican congressional leader simply politicized exceptionalism to attack leftists. Regardless, says Bell, the entire notion is a vacuous conceit that should be abandoned by Americans who, instead, need to focus on working harder “actually to be exceptional.” This rendering of American exceptionalism is a head-scratcher, mainly because it ignores the impressive list of historical figures who embraced it as an inspirational ideal, not a weapon of knavery. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, frequently pronounced that America’s institutions and habits would be “a standing monument & example for the aim & imitation of the peoples of other countries.” Abraham Lincoln, a steadfast disciple of American exceptionalism, insisted in 1861 that the Declaration of Independence “gave liberty not alone to the people of this country, but hope to all the world, for all future time … that in due time the weights would be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.” John F. Kennedy also followed this tradition, declaring in 1961, “More than any other people on earth, we bear the burdens and accept risks unprecedented in their size and duration, not for ourselves alone but for all who wish to be free.” There are dozens of other such examples in the American past. One might reasonably suggest these historical figures spoke not from dastardly reactionary motives but from idealistic conviction.

Eric Rauchway’s “The New Deal” confronts a long-standing historical issue: did Franklin D. Roosevelt’s series of economic and social welfare policies succeed in defeating the Great Depression of the 1930s, or did World War II really bring recovery from this economic calamity? Rauchway dismisses those who claim the global conflict, not FDR’s domestic programs, lifted the nation back to prosperity as “dishonest” dispensers of (his term) “bullshit” who don’t really care about accurate history. He insists the evidence leads clearly to a contrary conclusion: FDR’s New Deal, by boosting employment and prompting economic growth, had largely brought the United States back to prosperity by 1938. Moreover, it must be judged a success because it guaranteed “democracy” and promoted “social justice.” Many historians, however, would be baffled by Rauchway’s confident claims. For decades, a battery of conservative historians and economists have maintained that New Deal programs actually stifled recovery by hindering capital investment, slowing economic growth, and impeding job creation. Moreover, a number of dyed-in-the-wool Keynesian scholars maintain that the New Deal floundered because of insufficient stimulus spending from the federal government. Even mainstream historians such as David Kennedy, in his Pulitzer Prize–winning Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, acknowledges the New Deal’s “conspicuous failure to produce economic recovery” and concludes, “recovery awaited not the release of more New Deal energies but the unleashing of the dogs of war.” Rauchway’s “dishonest bullshit,” evidently, has reached epidemic proportions among his colleagues.

Examining the other end of America’s political spectrum, Joshua Zeitz analyzes “The Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s. Given this volume’s hostility to all things Republican, we are not surprised to learn that claims of Reagan’s influence “greatly exaggerated the strength of conservatism and, equally important, the demise of liberalism.” Zeitz contends this conservative movement generated few policy achievements and had a limited influence on modern American political culture. Reagan failed to undermine the welfare state, triggered a recession in 1982, promoted a failed agenda of supply-side economics, achieved little with his hawkish foreign policy, and succumbed to scandal with the Iran-Contra affair. In fact, the whole myth of a Reagan Revolution, according to Zeitz, is not honest analysis so much as a Republican ploy to help create “a mandate for conservatism.” It needs to be tossed “in the dustbin” of history. Yet many obvious facts contradict this view. There are the Electoral College results: in 1980, Reagan received 489 votes and Carter received 49, and, in 1984, Reagan received 525 votes and Mondale received 13 (Zeitz, obviously a descendent of George Armstrong Custer, describes the latter annihilation as a “sound defeat”). There is the end of the Cold War with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communist ideology in 1989, a stunning development at least partly attributable to Reagan’s diplomatic engagement with Mikhail Gorbachev alongside the intense economic and military pressure he had placed on the Soviet bloc over the previous decade. There is the famous admission of Bill Clinton — one of only two Democratic presidents elected in the 40 years between 1968 and 2008 — that “the era of big government is over.” As Sean Wilentz, a mainstream liberal historian and supporter of the Democratic Party, fairly concluded in his The Age of Reagan, 1974-2008, the California conservative’s influence “dramatically changed the sum and substance of American politics” and lasted longer than “the ages of Jefferson and Jackson; longer than the ‘gilded age’ or the Progressive era; and virtually as long as the combined era of the New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier, and Great Society.” A great many historians, it seems, are scrambling for space in that dustbin of history.

Myth America concludes with an essay on “Voter Fraud,” by Carol Anderson. She argues that claims of voter fraud have become a key tactic of the Republican Party, especially Donald Trump, whose claims of a stolen election in 2020 fueled the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol by his followers. However, Anderson asserts, this maneuver is properly seen as the culminating episode in a long history of white supremacists suppressing voting by racial minorities in the name of election integrity. In the 19th century, she points to 1890 Mississippi where a panicked white establishment claimed recurring fraud and rewrote the state constitution to impose impossible literacy tests to dampen African American voting. In the 20th century, says Anderson, a “lily white Republican Party” adopted this strategy to dampen minority voting with maneuvers such as Operation Eagle Eye in the 1960s, which scoured urban voting roles, and Reagan’s scuttling of Jimmy Carter’s proposals for same-day registration and a federal holiday on election day. This sordid history, Anderson concludes, has produced a situation where as long as conservative leaders “hunt for Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster, and the phantom of massive, rampant voter fraud, democracy in the United States will be under the very real threat of sowing distrust in election results and blocking millions of voters from the ballot box.” If there was ever a two-sided coin, this is it, but Anderson has glued it to the table — only the side where conservative Republicans have screamed voter fraud and moved to thwart it is visible while the equal number of cases where Democrats and progressives have done so remains hidden. Those Jim Crow Mississippians, of course, were Democrats. In the early 1900s, Progressives, such as Lincoln Steffens with his famous “Shame of the Cities” magazine series, denounced urban political machines that harvested votes in return for services and favors. Nearer to the present, 31 Democrat members of Congress refused to certify George W. Bush’s election in 2004 claiming fraudulent voting “irregularities” in Ohio while Hillary Clinton, John Lewis, Jerry Nadler, among many others, described Donald Trump as an “illegitimate president” after the 2016 election because of supposed Russian corruption of voters. Using Anderson’s benchmark, with accusations of voter fraud regularly flying across the partisan aisle throughout American history, perhaps we need to reevaluate those Bigfoot sightings.

A common weakness sullies all of Myth America’s essays. It is not that they are completely wrong (although they are seriously distorted, in my opinion) because they cite legitimate witnesses and actions to support their conclusions. The problem is that they are maddeningly incomplete and unfair. The authors cherry-pick supportive evidence and ignore facts and trends that don’t fit their conclusions, which are preordained because of radical political commitments. Every issue raised in these essays has been recognized by American historians for many years, who have offered an array of interpretations. But in this echo chamber of radical orthodoxy, differing perspectives get no respect but only condemnation as the work of liars and myth-makers. Myth America’s indignant complaint about Republican renderings of history — “decades of well-regarded research have been simply disregarded for the sake of convenience” — is almost artistic in its irony. Because disregarding decades of reputable historical research, of course, is the raison d’être of this book and the larger activist movement it embodies. It represents the professional equivalent of radical students shouting down conservative speakers on campus because they don’t fit the prevailing narrative.

The hegemony of social justice extremism in the study of the American past has no doubt proved edifying to radicals as they complete their long march through our cultural institutions. What has gradually come into focus, however, is the self-defeating, perhaps suicidal nature of this political enterprise for the profession of history.

*  *  *  *  *

The triumph of woke history has come at a heavy price. In universities and colleges around the country, statistics clearly show a field withering on the vine. A recent article in the New York Times entitled “The Dangerous Decline of the Historical Profession,” affirms what academic historians have realized over the last decade. In the 2018–19 academic year (it is even worse now), history majors were down by more than a third from 2012. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, spending for humanities research equaled only 0.7 percent of that for STEM research and development. Academic jobs in the history field have rapidly declined, with only 27 percent of those who received a history Ph.D. in 2017 being employed in tenure-track jobs four years later; some in temporary positions are paid a measly piece-rate for teaching classes; many are simply unemployed. Unsurprisingly, given this array of problems, the size of history departments at many universities and colleges has shrunk dramatically. Rather than overcoming a presumed supposed crisis of truth, “The History” and its radical agenda is presiding over the dissolution of the historical profession.

So is there any hope for revitalizing the study of American history in this contentious age? Academic activists, of course, call for even more strenuous efforts to steer the field toward meeting social justice goals, which is equivalent to standing on the deck of the Titanic as it encounters that massive iceberg and yelling, “Rev up the engines and hit it harder — we’ve almost broken through!” Wiser heads might suggest an alternate strategy, namely breaking the stranglehold of radical orthodoxy and returning historical study to the task of promoting knowledge, discernment, and judgment rather than gathering fodder for political crusades. This could begin by confronting George Orwell’s provocative dictum quoted as inspiration in the introduction to Myth America: “He who controls the past, controls the present.” The British critic may have gotten this backward. It seems more frequent that those who seize control of the present then control the past — see the Nazis and their creation of a glorious Teutonic heritage, Stalin and Mao and their fabrication of a triumphant working-class march to destiny. Do reasonable Americans want to replicate such an enterprise by sanctioning an official radical reading of our national story?

A second step lay in abandoning the notion of anybody controlling anything in favor of a richer goal: “understanding.” History helps us most when, as we examine people in ages past and how they wrestled with changes in their lives, we discover very little cocksure certainty and clear-minded action but a great deal of ambiguity, complexity, mixed motives, false starts, unintended consequences, changed minds, and awkward attempts to balance tradition and innovation. Contemplating those human impulses in the past can assist us not in promoting silly fantasies of controlling the present, but in gaining a deeper understanding of the pressing issues that roil our own time. Studying history should nurture two qualities all too often absent in contemporary discussions of our public and private life: humility and perspective. It should lead us to explore how Americans who lived in the past are like us in certain ways but also quite dissimilar because of the circumstances of their lives (“The past is a foreign country,” said novelist L. P. Hartley; “they do things differently there”). Thus there can never be “the history” that authoritatively establishes a benchmark of truth, but only a record of messy human attempts to reckon with change over time. And a recognition that historians, in many ways and approaching from many directions, engage in an ongoing, contentious, frustrating, and occasionally gratifying attempt to explain what it means.

Steven Watts has written several pieces on cultural and political issues for The American Spectator, National Review, Newsweek, the Atlantic, and several other publications.  He is the author of eight books, including the forthcoming Citizen Cowboy: Will Rogers and His America.   

Sign up to receive our latest updates! Register

By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: The American Spectator, 122 S Royal Street, Alexandria, VA, 22314, You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

Be a Free Market Loving Patriot. Subscribe Today!