The Ruinous Reign of Race-and-Gender Historians

Jan 23, 2012 | 

KC Johnson

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The Ruinous Reign of Race-and-Gender Historians

Jan 23, 2012 | 

KC Johnson



This article is cross-posted from Minding the Campus.

In a ruling likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Montana Supreme Court last month upheld the state constitution's prohibition on corporations directly spending on state campaigns. For those concerned with academic matters, the case is important for reasons quite unrelated to political debates about Citizens United. In a significant case involving history (the Montana court relied heavily upon the scholarship and words of historians to reach its conclusions), all the books cited were more than 35 years old. And that wasn't a coincidence: the kind of U.S. history relevant to influencing legal and public policy debates increasingly has been banished from an academy obsessed with scholarship organized around the race/class/gender trinity.
 
A quick summary of the decision: the Montana court ruled that "unlike Citizens United, this case concerns Montana law, Montana elections and it arises from Montana history," requiring the justices to examine "the context of the time and place it was enacted, during the early twentieth century." To provide this necessary historical background, the Court repeatedly cited books by historians Helen Fisk Sanders, K. Ross Toole, C. B. Glasscock, Michael Malone, and Richard Roeder. The Court also accepted an affidavit from Harry Fritz, a professor emeritus at the University of Montana and a specialist in Montana history, who affirmed, "What was true a century ago is as true today: distant corporate interests mean that corporate dominated campaigns will only work 'in the essential interest of outsiders with local interests a very secondary consideration.'"
 
An attorney analyzing the decision, however, probably would have been surprised to see that the works of history upon which the Montana court relied were all published before 1977. She might even have wondered whether the court's reliance on older works suggested that it had ignored newer, perhaps contradictory, publications. But for anyone familiar with how the contemporary academy approaches U.S. history, the court's inability to find recent relevant works could have come as no surprise at all.
 
The study of U.S. history has transformed in the last two generations, with emphasis on staffing positions in race, class, or gender leading to dramatic declines in fields viewed as more "traditional," such as U.S. political, constitutional, diplomatic, and military history. And even those latter areas have been "re-visioned," in the word coined by an advocate of the transformation, Illinois history professor Mark Leff, to make their approach more accommodating to the dominant race/class/gender paradigm. In the new academy, political histories of state governments--of the type cited and used effectively by the Montana Supreme Court--were among the first to go. The Montana court had to turn to Fritz, an emeritus professor, because the University of Montana History Department no longer features a specialist in Montana history(nor, for that matter, does it have a professor whose research interests, like those of Fritz, deal with U.S. military history, a topic that has fallen out of fashion in the contemporary academy).
 
To take the nature of the U.S. history positions in one major department as an example of the new staffing patterns: the University of Michigan, once home to Dexter and then Bradford Perkins, was a pioneer in the study of U.S. diplomatic history. Now the department's 29 professors whose research focuses on U.S. history after 1789 include only one whose scholarship has focused on U.S. foreign relations--Penny von Eschen, a perfect example of the "re-visioning" approach. (Her most recent book is Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War.) In contrast to this 1-in-29 ratio, Michigan has hired ten Americanists (including von Eschen) whose research, according to their department profiles, focuses on issues of race; and eight Americanists whose research focuses on issues of gender. The department has more specialists in the history of Native Americans than U.S. foreign relations.
 
It's true, of course, that departments heavy in African-American historians might have lots of scholars who focus on such topics as a sympathetic portrayal of Ward Connerly's efforts against racial preferences. Or a department heavy in women's historians might have lots of scholars who focus on such topics as a study of grassroots pro-life women, as part of a project suggesting that feminists don't speak for a majority of U.S. women. But in the real world, figures with such interests would have almost no chance of being hired for an African-American history or gender history line.
 
One-sided scholarly approaches tend to produce one-sided views on contemporary political and public policy issues. In recent years, controversies in the history departments at Duke and the University of Iowa revealed that neither department had even one registered Republican. Political registration figures are the crudest possible measurement of a faculty's pedagogical breadth, but a partisan ratio of dozens-to-zero raises some troubling questions about the open-mindedness of a department's hiring process. So too did the justifications offered for the imbalance. Iowa's Sarah Hanley rationalized, "I don't think there is a downside [to having a department that, according to a survey done by the local newspaper, had 22 registered Democrats and zero registered Republicans]. If it is a downside, then it would be a downside to have states to be so-called blue or so-called red. It would be casting a pall on the democratic system where people are free to choose." The then-chairman of Duke's history department, John Thompson, dismissed findings that his department had 32 registered Democrats and zero registered Republicans, on grounds that "the interesting thing about the United States is that the political spectrum is very narrow."
 
This type of comment is exactly what would be expected in an environment characterized by faculty groupthink--the common assumption that all thinking people chose to be Democrats (full disclosure: I'm a registered and partisan Democrat), the law of group polarization producing extreme arguments on the merits of affiliating with the Democrats.
 
The increasingly one-sided conception of the profession has appeared most distinctly when national historical organizations have placed their members' partisan interests ahead of a commitment to historical ideals. During the second Bush term, for instance, historians were pressing for increased access to government documents from an administration notoriously indifferent to open government. Any claim that the chief purpose of the request was academic rather than political, however, was undermined in 2007, when the American Historical Association approved a "Resolution on United States Government Practices Inimical to the Values of the Historical Profession." The resolution called on all AHA members "to do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion." That was a perfectly appropriate goal for partisan Democrats. But for historians? And why would any administration want to increase access to government documents for a profession whose major national organization demanded that its members seek to undermine a key foreign policy goal of the President?
 
Similarly, last year during the William Cronon controversy in Wisconsin, the American Historical Association issued an official statement demanding that the GOP withdraw its open-records request, offering the following reasoning. "The purpose of the state's Open Records Law is to promote informed public conversation. Historians vigorously support the freedom of information act traditions of the United States of which this law is a part. In this case, however, the law has been invoked to do the opposite: to find a pretext for discrediting a scholar who has taken a public position. This inquiry will damage, rather than promote, public conversation." Shutting down any inquiry into Cronon, even if it meant advocating a narrowing of the state's Open Records Law, was a perfectly appropriate goal for partisan Democrats opposed to the Walker administration. But for historians?
 
There are few areas in which the groupthink academy has had a more disastrous impact than the study of U.S. history. One-sidedness has its costs, however, in terms of influence outside the Ivory Tower. Courts or politicians who rely on the opinions of professors who now qualify as "mainstream" U.S. historians do so at their own peril. 
 
KC Johnson is Professor of American History at Brooklyn College.

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