The Historical Profession is Committing Slow-Motion Suicide

Hal Brands and Francis Gavin :

The result of these changes is a discipline that feels remarkably parochial to students or anyone outside the ivory tower. As Harvard’s Jill Lepore, the profession’s leading exception to these trends, recently pointed out, “The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril. The retreat of humanists from public life has had enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world.”

The second issue, closely related to the first, is the hostility toward certain kinds of historical inquiry. Decades ago, the subfields of political history, diplomatic history, and military history dominated the discipline. That focus had its costs: Issues of race, gender, and class were often deemphasized, and the perspectives of the powerless were frequently ignored in favor of the perspectives of the powerful. During the 1960s and after, the discipline was therefore swept by new approaches that emphasized cultural, social, and gender history, and that paid greater attention to the experiences of underrepresented and oppressed groups. This was initially a very healthy impulse, meant to broaden the field. Yet what was initially a very healthy impulse to broaden the field ultimately became decidedly unhealthy, because it went so far as to push the more traditional subfields to the margins.

Two historians, Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, have noted that “American political history as a field of study has cratered … What was once a central part of the historical profession, a vital part of this country’s continuing democratic discussion, is disappearing.” Political history, however, is a growth industry compared to diplomatic history and military history. Scholars who study strategy and statecraft, diplomacy and policymaking, and the causes and consequences of war are often labeled as old-fashioned, methodologically unimaginative, and ideologically conservative. As a recent chair of a prominent history department recently explained to us, the discipline of history does not consider exploring and understanding the decisions of state leaders or military officials to be interesting, important, or innovative. Not surprisingly, those who study these subjects are a dying breed within major American history departments.

According to the American Historical Association, only three percent of practicing historians self-identified as diplomatic historians in 2015, as compared to seven percent in 1975. Only 44 percent of all history departments employed a diplomatic historian in 2015, compared to 85 percent four decades earlier. During the 2014–15 academic year, only nine out of 587 history jobs advertised with the American Historical Association were for positions in diplomatic or international history. During the 2015–16 academic year, the tally was three out of 572 — around one half of one percent. If anything, these dire numbers actually understate the problem. In an understandable effort at self-preservation within an inhospitable field, many self-identified diplomatic and military historians study questions far removed from the exercise of state power or the causes of war and peace. They are more likely to focus on the role of sports, gender, or culture in international and military affairs than on traditional aspects of statecraft.