For some years, select historians have bemoaned the direction of their discipline. They regret the turn away from war, diplomacy, economics, and ideas in favor of gender, environment, race, and sexuality as they bemoan the decline in student interest. Niall Ferguson titled his critique “The Decline and Fall of History.” Hal Brands and Francis J. Gavin wrote “The Historical Profession Is Committing Slow-Motion Suicide.” The Economistannounced “The study of history is in decline in Britain.”
While the glittery allure of fashionable topics and social-justice group-hugs drive this trend, a less visible economic factor enables it: many university-based historians have no need to attract students or readers. Assured funding from endowed chairs liberates them from having to address anyone other than fellow professional historians. Deans do not demand they fill classrooms; spouses do not clamor for royalties.
The Department of History at Harvard University serves as my example, partly because of its exceptional affluence, partly because of a long association with it (Richard Pipes, my father, first studied there in 1946 and taught there for half a century; I followed in 1967).