How Postmodern Historians Have Helped Cripple the American Left

David Kaiser

The changes that have occurred in the humanities in our colleges and universities over the last thirty years or so—essentially, the era of baby boomer supremacy—are generally viewed as coming from the left side of the political spectrum. That is natural enough. The vast majority of humanities professors vote for Democratic candidates and support causes such as feminism, homosexual rights, affirmative action, and environmental activism, which we associate with the Left. In response, it is fair to say, the National Association of Scholars, which began with a membership that included both distinguished conservatives and distinguished Marxists, has evidently become more conservative in its orientation—though not so much as to persuade a lifelong New Deal Democrat like myself to leave it.

It is precisely because I am a lifelong New Deal Democrat, however, that I see the political impact of what has happened in academia from a very different perspective. This applies particularly to changes in my own field, history. The modern discipline of history, as initially defined in the nineteenth century by men like Leopold von Ranke and Henry Adams, was a child of the Enlightenment, dedicated to the idea that exhaustive research into primary sources could yield the truth about the past, perhaps to the benefit of the present and the future. And thanks in large part to Ranke, it was very largely focused on the development of the modern state, including the state’s efforts to provide for the general welfare of its people. In the twentieth century that focus shifted somewhat to economic questions, including the economic relations among the various classes of society and the attempts by left-wing parties of various stripes to improve the lot of the people. During the first half of the twentieth century, students at some leading colleges and universities were even exposed to fairly sophisticated thinking about the rise and fall of civilizations, including the civilization of which the students of that tumultuous era were a part. Studying history, in short, made students think about the political and economic state of the world and how it could be improved.

It was surely no accident that the GI or “greatest” generation, born from about 1904 through 1924, was probably the first generation of graduates to emerge from college with predominantly Left or Center-Left views. Those views reflected not only the experience of the New Deal and the Second World War, both of which had led to the triumph of Center-Left principles, but the way that their professors had put those events in a broader historical context. Reaching power in the late 1950s and remaining in the White House from 1961 into 1993, that generation generally continued down the same path, building interstate highways, expanding Social Security, passing Medicare, and ending legal segregation with civil rights legislation. Perhaps the archetypal historian of that generation—although not the best one based upon the quality of his books—was Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who chronicled the first four years of the New Deal while trying to keep its principles alive in contemporary political life.

The new trends in the history and the humanities that have had such extraordinary impact began in the late 1960s, in large part as a reaction to the Vietnam War. They consisted largely of focusing upon groups who had supposedly been “left out” of earlier histories, including minorities, women, and, by the 1980s, people of different sexual orientation or gender identity. The most charitable thing one could say about the attitude of the new historians toward their parents’ and grandparents’ political, social, and historical achievements was that they took them entirely for granted. They apparently assumed that they would live forever in a world of economic security and peace among the great powers, allowing them to focus on other issues. Many of them, however, went much further, and bluntly repudiated some or all of the principles of the civilization of the Enlightenment, including the idea that objective truth might be distilled from primary sources. As the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s went on, any study of political institutions or of the impact of government upon society became increasingly suspect. It has now become fashionable in academia to declare that “the Culture Wars are over.” So they may be—but if so, that is because one side won.

It is obviously impossible to convey exactly how much history has changed in a brief article of this sort, but because most non-historians and nearly all lay people lack any idea of what has happened, it is necessary briefly to try. Let me simply list the titles of the articles in the last four issues, at the time of writing this piece, of the American Historical Review (AHR), the flagship publication of the American Historical Association. The December 2013 AHR includes the following articles: Owen Stanwood, “Between Eden and Empire: Huguenot Refugees and the Promise of New Worlds”; Michel Gobat, “The Invention of Latin America: A Transnational History of Anti-Imperialism, Democracy, and Race”; Vanessa Ogle, “Whose Time Is It? The Pluralization of Time and the Global Condition, 1870s–1940s”; and Daniel Magaziner, “Two Stories about Art, Education, and Beauty in Twentieth-Century South Africa.” In February 2014 the articles include Peter Guardino, “Gender, Soldiering, and Citizenship in the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848”; Michelle Tusan, “‘Crimes against Humanity’: Human Rights, the British Empire, and the Origins of the Response to the Armenian Genocide”; Carina E. Ray, “Decrying White Peril: Interracial Sex and the Rise of Anticolonial Nationalism in the Gold Coast”; and Brooke L. Blower, “New York City’s Spanish Shipping Agents and the Practice of State Power in the Atlantic Borderlands of World War II.”

The April 2014 AHR includes Jan Rüger, “Sovereignty and Empire in the North Sea, 1807–1918”; Shellen Wu, “The Search for Coal in the Age of Empires: Ferdinand von Richthofen’s Odyssey in China, 1860–1920”; Julia Phillips Cohen, “Oriental by Design: Ottoman Jews, Imperial Style, and the Performance of Heritage”; and Gavin D. Brockett, “When Ottomans Become Turks: Commemorating the Conquest of Constantinople and Its Contribution to World History.” And the June 2014 issue gives us two articles: Colin Jones, “The Overthrow of Maximilien Robespierre and the ‘Indifference’ of the People,” and William G. Rosenberg, “Reading Soldiers’ Moods: Russian Military Censorship and the Configuration of Feeling in World War I.” Then follows a long AHR Roundtable, “You the People,” which appears to focus on the experience of Europeans teaching history in the United States. (It is another fundamental principle of modern academic history that the proper study of historians is other historians, and sometimes, themselves.)

Let me make some observations about these fourteen articles. To begin with, none of them deals directly with a major political event. Those that do touch upon major events (specifically the U.S.-Mexican War and the French Revolution) obviously deal with them very tangentially and with a very specific agenda. Second, several articles obviously cannot be understood by anyone not well-versed in certain postmodern concepts such as memory, the “invention” of geographical constructs, the idea of “borderlands,” or the “configuration of feeling.” Present-day historians tend to write only for each other, and they are unconcerned that the vast majority of educated lay people will not be interested in or understand their discussions, even if they try to work through them. Let me assure you that an examination of any four random issues of the AHR from the last decade or so will yield similar results.

The premises of this kind of history have become accepted in academic departments over the last thirty years. To begin with, it is much more focused upon how the past has supposedly been viewed, and how it might be viewed differently, than upon the past itself. History is seen less as a contest among actual political entities—using armies, ideologies, and economic power to expand and contract—than as a struggle of viewpoints, of hegemonic ideas, always contested by marginalized groups. It is as if the political world has been reduced to an academic department riven by clashes between competing worldviews. Concepts such as citizenship, memory, gender, and sexuality are weapons deployed in an endless struggle between hegemonic views—essentially, the values that made Western civilization what it was around 1965—and marginalized alternatives. Indeed, practitioners of this kind of history have regarded their mission as uncovering the thoughts and feelings of the marginalized. Unfortunately, rather than rely upon research, which is often very difficult to do on such groups, they have typically put their own views in their subjects’ mouths. Someday, perhaps, an intellectual historian of a more traditional sort will trace not only the origin of this kind of history, but how it came to dominate the historical profession. Two older historians, Theodore Draper and Arthur Schlesinger, did notice the emergence of a new kind history in the 1980s and 1990s, and an Australian, Keith Windschuttle, analyzed several key new approaches at length nearly twenty years ago in The Killing of History, but no one managed to arrest the trend.1 I shall confine myself to some discussion of what this has done to the teaching of history, its role on campus, and its role in the world.

The effect of this change in focus, first of all, has been to make the discipline of history much less important within our major colleges and universities than it used to be. Harvard in recent years has had between thirty-five and sixty history majors a year. When I taught there as a junior faculty member in the late 1970s, we had over 150 history majors a year. Meanwhile, the number of full-time faculty has increased from forty-two to fifty-one, so that the ratio of history concentrators to faculty in a given year has fallen from about 4 to 1 to about 1 to 1. When I was a visiting member of the Williams College history department in 2006–2007, I was somewhat astonished to hear leading professors in the department tell colleagues that they had less than half a dozen students in some of their courses, without showing a shred of embarrassment or disappointment. (My own courses, dealing with American foreign policy, drew many more students.) And this situation is about to get worse. Many leading institutions such as Yale, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, and Williams still have one or two historians who teach lecture courses on major periods of American and European history, and whose enrollments constitute a very large portion of the total for their departments. But these professors, for the most part, are between sixty-five and eighty years old. Because it has been so difficult to get a job based on a dissertation on a traditional topic for so long, such individuals cannot be replaced. When they retire, their courses will die, and enrollments will drop further.

To explain why this is important to American politics, it behooves us to compare the situation to that prevailing approximately one hundred years ago, in the midst of the Progressive era. The most influential historian of the first half of the twentieth century, without question, was Charles A. Beard, who in a series of books reinterpreted American history as a conflict among economic interests. Beard’s most sensational work, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913), argued that the Founding Fathers were primarily concerned with reestablishing the value of the securities issued by the young national government rather than in creating a democratic constitutional republic. Although Beard’s methods and conclusions were subsequently tellingly criticized, he did help to keep historical focus on the relationship of government policy and economic life. Like several other giants of the American history profession, including Henry Adams, Beard was not very comfortable in academia. He resigned from Columbia in 1915 in response to a controversy over a colleague’s academic freedom, bought a dairy farm in Connecticut, and devoted himself, together with his wife Mary, to writing textbooks and histories for a general audience.

Beard’s high school text, The Rise of American Civilization (1927), sold millions of copies in the middle decades of the century and told the story of American history in terms of conflicts between moneyed interests and the people. Beard and many other historians, in short, did a great deal to shape the views of the GI and Silent generations, and undoubtedly helped create the intellectual climate that favored the New Deal, the vigorous enforcement of anti-trust laws, the growth of organized labor, and other reforms passed from the 1930s through the 1970s. These measures, as French economist Thomas Piketty has now shown, made the United States a more egalitarian nation than it has ever been.2 Reversal of that trend began in the 1980s, and inequality in America has grown concurrently with the advance of new trends in history.

The baby boom and X generations of historians (born 1943–1981) who have turned their back on such scholarship are undoubtedly mostly Democrats, and they would still pay lip service to the values of the New Deal and its major reforms. Yet it is clear that they have taken those advancements in Western civilization (as I see them, at least) completely for granted. Very few of them have found it necessary either to study or to teach how those reforms came about, what countervailing forces Progressives had to overcome, and how many of the New Deal advances have been rolled back during their own adult lifetimes. Instead, these historians have insisted on focusing upon those who, in their view, have been “left out” of the “mainstream narratives” of American and world history, including the view I have been putting forth in the last few paragraphs. This has led to some fascinating anomalies. Recent historians of the New Deal tend to emphasize that Roosevelt and his administration had to make many compromises with white Southern politicians that limited the New Deal’s impact upon Negro Americans, as they then called themselves. This is how boomers in particular maintain their stance of superiority vis-à-vis the earlier generations who created the world in which we have been lucky enough to live.

As I found writing my latest book, No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War,3 black commentators during the New Deal saw things very differently. While they certainly asked for more to be done about segregation and for a more equal place in American life, they also felt that the New Deal had done their community, as well as the rest of the nation, enormous good, and in the North and Border States they expressed their support at the polls. They may have felt marginalized, but they wanted to participate in the great enterprise of American political life that FDR had set in motion. And historians were among those who encouraged them to do so. Today’s historians have clearly done a great deal to encourage students to see themselves in terms of their race, gender, and sexual preference rather than as citizens with common interests. That has had enormous consequences.

Yes, today’s history courses make students extremely sensitive to the marginalization—at many times and in many places—of women, minorities, and those of different sexual orientation. Thus they have undoubtedly contributed to the advances of women and minorities in the upper tier of the workplace, as well as to the growing acceptance of gay rights. But the vast majority of today’s history courses do nothing to educate students about the sources and consequences of growing economic inequality in the United States. There is indeed a parallel between the practices of boomer historians and boomer financiers. The latter in the 1990s decided that they could make much more money without the restraints, such as the Glass-Steagall Act, imposed by Roosevelt in the midst of the Depression, and discounted the dangers of an unregulated system. The result, within less than a decade, was the worst economic crisis since 1929, one from which we have not yet emerged. Their contemporaries in the academic world took power earlier, and they cared equally little about the legacy of the middle of the century, which they took completely for granted. As a result, today’s history departments not only have much smaller enrollments, but their students graduate without the knowledge or the analytical tools they need to resume the fight for more economic equality and a more just society.

It is natural for Republicans to complain about leftism in academia. Many of them, too, criticize current practices on sound intellectual grounds rather than partisan political ones. But to this New Deal Democrat it is obvious that the trends that have dominated academic history for the past thirty years have worked powerfully in favor of the new conservative movement that has overturned so many regulations, taken away so many of the rights of organized labor, and rapidly enriched the highest reaches of our society while doing little for anyone else. Neither today’s history departments nor, indeed, the rest of today’s universities, are doing much to provide their students with countervailing values that could dilute the profit motive in our society. Having left the political battlefield to their adversaries, most of today’s liberal academics have no right to complain about how the fight is going.

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