Activism and niches are killing the teaching of history at universities

by Miles Smith IV

The statistics are in for history as a profession, and they are dire. The number of tenure-track positions open for history professors fell to an all-time low in 2021, according to an American Historical Association report.

The AHA blamed the COVID-19 pandemic. But while that explains the dip after 2020 and 2021, it doesn’t explain the broader and longer trend of history departments at most institutions shrinking. Nor does it explain why increasingly fewer students are taking history classes.

In 2021, the AHA noted that “history has a majors problem.” The number of students who earned history degrees “fell precipitously after the Great Recession of 2008,” the association said, “and while the decline became a bit more gradual before the pandemic (especially when including double majors), it has continued to slip.” Clearly, the problem is bigger than merely the flawed institutional responses to the pandemic.

In the last decade, history as a profession in the United States has accelerated its transformation into a home for activism more than a faithful relating of human experience through written narratives. Moreover, it’s been given over to a deeply problematic iconoclasm. At best, this shift best makes history as a vocation primarily about morally scolding American citizens. At worst, it aims to tear down the intellectual, cultural, religious and social frameworks that uphold the republican liberties guaranteed by the United States Constitution.

“The 1619 Project,” which posits a laughably ahistoric proposition that America was founded on slavery in 1619, was a journalistic creation. For historians of the United States, and especially the 19th century, teaching history is especially fraught with anachronisms used to litigate contemporary political issues.

Hal Brands of Yale University and Francis J. Gavin of Johns Hopkins University rightly note in a 2018 article in the national security publication War on the Rocks that history’s wounds are largely self-inflicted. Hostility in the field toward “old-school” forms of historical inquiry has created a glut of niche fields, while traditionally important ones have been crowded out.

“Decades ago, the subfields of political history, diplomatic history, and military history dominated the discipline,” Brands and Gavin state. The focus on traditional fields meant that “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.”

The 1960s, in particular, saw a significant change in priorities for history professionals, and much of what was traditional “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,” they say. Brands and Gavin argue that prioritizing new fields “was initially a very healthy impulse, meant to broaden the field,” but “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.”

Job postings for the last two years seem to bear out Brands and Gavin’s concerns. Jobs in 19th-century U.S. fields have been cut in half, from 13% to less than 6% of new posts, according to Princeton University historian Matt Karp. The destruction of “early America” history as a field was even more severe. In 2011, early America jobs represented 17% of history posts; by 2022, they were a mere 6.6%. Yet jobs in African American history grew from 10% to a whopping 35%. While focus on historic minorities is not bad in itself, the nichification of professional history, the often highly partisan nature of the study of African American history and the general decline in majors make it clear that the revolution in history has proved to be injurious to the profession.

Anachronism, partisanship and forms of intellectual anti-Americanism have all combined to turn the history profession into anti-American catechesis that appears more nihilistic than informative. Works such as Julian Zelizer and Kevin Kruse’s “Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past” are little more than telemedia-driven historical nihilism, devoted to telling Americans — and particularly conservative Americans — why everything they might’ve celebrated about their country is somehow either a lie or a historic evil.

It might be asked why anyone should take the time to learn something so loathsome as American history. Conversely, those who might be interested in learning about the best of what their country has to offer the world no longer seek their history from professional historians at universities. They can read books by popular historians who might not have the methodological training that so-called professional historians do, but who nonetheless offer well-researched, well-written and nonpartisan chronicles of the American people and various American institutions.

Activism and niches are killing history in universities. Until professional historians return to some sense of sober-minded pursuit of historical inquiry for its own sake, people can hardly be blamed for being indifferent to the death of history as a profession.

Miles Smith IV is an assistant professor of history at Hillsdale College in Michigan.