Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Why Did We Stop Teaching Political History?


[JB note: Interesting that the brilliant Professor Osgood, much of whose academic research has been devoted to exposing the CIA/RFE's nefarious activities during the Cold War, as well castigating the USG's "covert" support of public diplomacy programs at that time, should now publish a piece in that journalistic bastion honoring honest, I'm-a-good-guy, all-American freedom/capitalism, the WSJ.

Let us thank, on our knees, the Goddess for American diversity for wisdom coming from Colorado mines (Osgood teaches at the Colorado School of Mines)! My respectful review of one of Osgood's pieces at].

Image from article, with caption: President-elect John F. Kennedy is greeted by Harvard professor Arthur Schlsinger, Jr., in Cambridge, Mass.

American political history, it would seem, is everywhere. Hardly a day passes
without some columnist comparing Donald J. Trump to Huey Long, Father Coughlin
or George Wallace. “All the Way,” a play about Lyndon B. Johnson, won a slew of
awards and was turned into an HBO film.

But the public’s love for political stories belies a crisis in the profession.
American political history as a field of study has cratered. Fewer scholars build
careers on studying the political process, in part because few universities make space
for them. Fewer courses are available, and fewer students are exposed to it. What
was once a central part of the historical profession, a vital part of this country’s
continuing democratic discussion, is disappearing.

This wasn’t always the case. Political history — a specialization in elections and
elected officials, policy and policy making, parties and party politics — was once a
dominant, if not the dominant, pursuit of American historians. Many of them, in
turn, made vital contributions to the political process itself, whether it was Arthur
Schlesinger Jr.’s role in the Kennedy White House or C. Vann Woodward’s “The
Strange Career of Jim Crow,” which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the
“bible of the civil rights movement.”

But somewhere along the way, such work fell out of favor with history
departments. According to the American Historical Association’s listing of academic
departments, three­-quarters of colleges and universities now lack full-­time
researchers and teachers in the subject.

There appears to be little effort to fill the void. A search of the leading website
advertising academic jobs in history, H-­Net, yielded just 15 advertisements in the
last 10 years specifically seeking a tenure­-track, junior historian specializing in
American political history. That’s right: just 15 new jobs in the last decade.
As a result, the study of America’s political past is being marginalized. Many
college catalogs list precious few specialized courses on the subject, and survey
courses often give scant attention to political topics. The pipelines for new Ph.D.s in
the subject, and therefore new faculty, are drying up, and in many graduate
programs one can earn a doctorate in American history with little exposure to

How did it come to this? The trend began in the 1960s. America’s misadventure
in Vietnam led to broad questioning of elite decision making and conventional
politics, and by extension those historical narratives that merely recounted the
doings of powerful men. Likewise, the movements of the 1960s and 1970s by
African­-Americans, Latinos, women, homosexuals and environmental activists
brought a new emphasis on history from the bottom up, spotlighting the role of
social movements in shaping the nation’s past.

The long overdue diversification of the academy also fostered changing
perspectives. As a field once dominated by middle-­class white males opened its
doors to women, minorities and people from working­-class backgrounds, recovering
the lost experiences of these groups understandably became priority No. 1.
These transformations enriched the national story. But they also carried costs.
Perceived “traditional” types of history that examined the doings of governing elites
fell into disfavor, and political history suffered the effects (as did its cousins,
diplomatic and military history).

The ramifications extend well beyond higher education. The drying up of
scholarly expertise affects universities’ ability to educate teachers — as well as
aspiring lawyers, politicians, journalists and business leaders — who will enter their
professions having learned too little about the nation’s political history. Not least, in
this age of extreme partisanship, they’ll be insufficiently aware of the importance
that compromise has played in America’s past, of the vital role of mutual give­-and-take
in the democratic process.

Change will not be easy, and will not come from history departments facing
tight budgets and competing demands. What is needed, to begin with, is for
university administrators to identify political history as a priority, for students and
families to lobby their schools, for benefactors to endow professorships and graduate
fellowships and for lawmakers and school boards to enact policies that bolster its
teaching — and without politicizing the enterprise.

This matters. Knowledge of our political past is important because it can serve
as an antidote to the misuse of history by our leaders and save us from being
bamboozled by analogies, by the easy “lessons of the past.” It can make us less
egocentric by showing us how other politicians and governments in other times have
responded to division and challenge. And it can help us better understand the likely
effects of our actions, a vital step in the acquisition of insight and maturity.
Judging by the state of our political discourse during this dismal campaign
season, the change can’t come soon enough.

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