In History—the Obsession with Race, Class and Gender

KC Johnson

The University of Michigan history department has 28 tenured or tenure-track professors whose research specialties in some way relate to U.S. history after 1789. Race is the favorite topic; at least eleven of the department’s professors indicate that their research in some way deals with race in America. Gender is the next prominent area of specialization; at least seven of the professors offer research in this area (with some overlap with race). Race and gender are, obviously, important themes in U.S. history. But are they of such importance that they should dominate to this extent the Americanist wing one of the nation’s major departments? And is Michigan fulfilling its mission of preparing future citizens by offering such a limited view of the nation’s past?

With the rise of the race/class/gender approach, subfields perceived as excessively “traditional" or overly focused on “dead white males” have gone into decline—or, in the case of political history, have been “re-visioned” in the hopes of transferring focus to topics oriented around themes of race, class, and gender. Since (at least in large departments, or at elite institutions) U.S. history hires in the national (post-1789) period come in subfields, looking at personnel specialties can give a sense of exactly how a university does—or does not—fulfill its obligation to train future citizens in the foundational events of their nation.

Most of Michigan’s handful of active scholars researching historical topics deemed “traditional” do so in a way that conforms to the department’s preferred view of the American past. Michigan has no U.S. military historians on staff. (It does have several specialists in Native American history.) The department’s sole specialist in U.S. foreign relations, Penny Von Eschen, describes her research interests as “transnational cultural and political dynamics, and race, gender, and empire” and “the political culture of United States imperialism”; her most recent bookSatchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War, certainly would not be confused with traditional diplomatic history. The department’s political historians tend to focus on themes of race and politics—again, an important theme, but obviously not an all-encompassing one.

The department has five assistant professors—offering perhaps an indication of fields in which the department might consider worthy of promotions to tenure, but at the least a sense of topics that the department considers insufficiently addressed in the curriculum or in personnel. Instead, Michigan doubled down on the race/class/gender approach. One assistant focuses on African-American cultural history, a second on African-American religious and intellectual history, a third on “race and ethnicity in the Americas,” a fourth on “Black Feminism(s).” (The fifth doesn’t list her research interests on her website.)

What about the next generation of historians? The departmental website lists 17 students currently earning Ph.D. degrees in U.S. history. Seven of the seventeen are working on topics related to gender or sexuality. Four are working on topics related to African-American history, two to Native American history. (Cultural history is another common topic.) On the other hand, only one is exploring institutional history (of the U.S. Southwest), another is looking at politics and the law, in the context of 20th century Jewish history. No students are working on diplomatic or military history. U.S. history, as it will be taught by future graduates of the University of Michigan, is a history dominated by specialists in race, gender, and ethnicity. Even class seems to take a back seat to the politically correct consensus.

Michigan is an extreme example of a broader pattern, one that’s been evident for more than a decade—the academy’s conscious decision to narrow the range of questions explored about the American past, to conform to campus racial, pedagogical, and ideological concerns. The mission of training future citizens can take a back seat.

This article was originally published here in Minding the Campus.

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