In Defense of Old-Fashioned Political History (And What One School Is Doing About It)


Mr. Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of Ernest Gruening and the American Dissenting Tradition (1998). He has been a member of HNN's blog, Cliopatria.

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In late 2003, National Endowment for the Humanities chairman Bruce Cole wrote, “Today it is all the more urgent that we study American institutions, culture and history. Defending our democracy demands more than successful military campaigns. It also requires an understanding of the ideals, ideas and institutions that have shaped our country.” Coming off a fiercely contested presidential election, with U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan and a Supreme Court session promising to issue decisions on a variety of hotly contested social questions, it would seem self-evident that college students should learn about the history of American politics, foreign policy, and government institutions. To take one particularly prominent example, the final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States underlines the need for all citizens to understand how our government makes policy, processes information, and allows for oversight.

Yet, even the Education Department’s FIPSE program (Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education)—which is hardly known for its “traditional approach” to higher education—conceded in its recent guidebook that “many students know surprisingly little about the fundamental institutions and processes of American civic life. They lack a basic sense of the history and governmental theory of our country.” Over the past generation, accommodation to the teaching and research interests of previously excluded faculty has sometimes led to crowding out of fields that long dominated in the academy and that performed critical curricular services. Among the most directly affected offerings have been those in topics related to the study of political institutions, such as political, diplomatic, or constitutional history.

Regular readers of HNN know that I have been concerned about this issue for some time, and that I do not believe that budget concerns alone explain the profession’s response to this question. It certainly would be difficult to argue that important questions related to these topics have been fully explored. In his 1990 book On the Law of Nations, for example, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan termed the insufficient treatment of Congress the “scandal of American scholarship”; studies of the legislature published in the last fifteen years have not begun to dent the problem that Moynihan correctly detected. The richness of the Presidential Recordings Program transcripts alone compels historians, political scientists, and specialists in public policy to reexamine the political and diplomatic events of the 1960s and early 1970s—as the recent edited volumes of Ernest May and Philip Zelikow on the Cuban Missile crisis and Jonathan Rosenberg and Zachary Karabell on civil rights suggest. And the March 2004 opening of the Harry Blackmun Papers reminds us how much work remains to be done on legal matters. The appeal issued by William Leuchtenburg for more focus on the American state remains as compelling now as it did in his 1986 presidential address before the Organization of American Historians.

Yet while intellectual, curricular, and citizenship-training needs would seem to justify a continuing attention to political, diplomatic, and constitutional history in the academy, many departments at high-profile public institutions have moved in a radically different direction. Marc Trachtenberg commented a couple of years ago on what he “saw as a growing tendency to treat historical work as a kind of bludgeon for advancing political agendas,” with professors who adopted this approach seeming

to be the ones who were most interested in pushing fields like diplomatic history—and to a certain extent even political history as a whole, not to mention a whole series of other fields—to the margins of the profession. They talked a lot about “diversity,” but in practice they certainly did not embrace a live-and-let-live philosophy.

The social historians dominating many large departments’ Americanist contingents have proved Trachtenberg’s point, hiring professors whose interests mirror their own when they have deigned to fill positions in U.S. political, diplomatic, or constitutional history at all. This cross-pollination of sub-disciplines has proceeded only in one direction: I know of no department with more than ten Americanists that has staffed its social history lines exclusively with professors who specialize in, say, the social history of politics or women and foreign relations. Yet departments such as the University of Illinois, UCLA, the University of Washington, and the University of Missouri have exclusively hired practitioners of the “new” political or diplomatic history, whose work is often indistinguishable from women’s, African-American, or cultural history. The University of Michigan’s department, meanwhile, has all but eliminated the fields from its faculty.

At CUNY, we have attempted to address the problem by establishing the CUNY Free Institutions Initiative, based at Baruch College’s School of Public Affairs. The program, which came into existence with a grant from the Achelis/Bodman Foundation in late 2004, seeks to expand research and courses from CUNY faculty in themes such as the relationship between a democratic polity and the enactment of public policy; leadership in the policy arena; the constitutional separation of powers and system of checks and balances; the cultural and philosophical underpinnings of U.S. and western European political institutions; the relationship between political institutions and civic society; and the development of grand strategic thought for ordering international affairs.

As CUNY’s only educational institution devoted to the task of a better understanding of the procedures and outcomes of American governance, the School of Public Affairs is, by its very nature, the appropriate home for a program devoted to stimulating research and teaching regarding American political institutions. Moreover, the CUNY undergraduate population is almost uniquely well suited to be the targets of such an initiative. The University’s nineteen undergraduate institutions have an unusually high percentage of immigrants, who cannot be assumed to have received any secondary school education on the development of American political institutions or culture; and most of our other students matriculate from the New York City public school system, where coverage of such matters is sporadic at best.

The initiative would not have been possible without Chancellor Matthew Goldstein’s conception of CUNY as an “integrated university.” By creating an institutional environment that encourages cross-campus cooperation, Goldstein’s vision allows tapping into the intellectual strength of all of CUNY’s senior colleges. In addition, the “integrated university” concept ensures that all CUNY senior college students will have access to Free Institutions courses, regardless of the individual campus that houses the classes. I’m an example of the “integrated university” ideal—I coordinate the initiative, even though I’m on the faculty of Brooklyn College.

For the 2005-2006 academic year, the Free Institutions Initiative will offer grants of roughly $5000 in eight research projects, mainly on topics relating to public affairs and U.S. public policy. We also are providing comparable grants to fund development of six new courses around the CUNY system dealing (half at Baruch, half at other CUNY schools, including Brooklyn, Lehman, Hunter, and the CUNY Graduate Center) with topics such as the functioning of the American bureaucracy; American political development offerings in the presidency and U.S. political campaigns; and history courses in international grand strategy and the history of civil liberties in the United States. Over the long term, we hope to develop a CUNY-wide curricular minor in Free Institutions and to fund an endowed chair in the topic (to be filled by an outside scholar), although these goals will depend on our ability to obtain additional grants and raise the necessary outside funds.

Obtaining outside moneys to offer courses and fund research in topics that institutions of higher learning should be addressing in any case is, obviously, a less-than-ideal solution to the assault on “traditional” methods of studying the American past. And, as we’ve recently seen at the University of North Carolina, faculty members determined to drive more “traditional” approaches from the curriculum sometimes object even to this approach. Yet the Free Institutions Initiative is attempting to do its small part to fulfill the vision of the academy outlined by Cole in 2003.

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Kelly Cronin - 3/30/2005

As a secondary school teacher of college prep, honors, and AP courses, I find this discussion and the comments that have been made very interesting. I agree that students are not being taught basic government. But I'm interested in where you all would put it in the curriculum. In Ohio the 9th and 10th grade curriculum is now determined by the new 10th grade Ohio Graduation Tests. U.S. History post Civil War and World History from 1450 are the courses the state expects those students to have taken before that test. The best students then have to move into AP U.S. or AP European history in order to position themselves well for college admissions. So where would we fit a mandatory government class? The state of Ohio doesn't require 4 years of social studies. Most of our seniors do elect to take social studies as a senior but it's usually the other history they didn't take as a junior, the AP Psychology, or the Honors Research Seminar.
I read studies and articles about how high school seniors don't know enough basic history, or don't know anything about the world, or government, or economics, etc. etc. College professors talk about how we don't teach enough research writing and skills. I just don't know how I'm supposed to fit it all in.

So I guess my question is, if there were no state tests or specific requirements and you could design your own high school curriculum in social studies what would you mandate?

David Lion Salmanson - 3/29/2005

Seems to me the surest way to continue that trend is to make sure those things are part of a core curriculum thus guaranteeing student disinterest. You want kids to learn that stuff, tell them they should not learn it under any conditions whatsoever.

The reports of political hisory's demise is greatly exaggerated. Political history was among the largest sections (if not the largest) of new scholarship in the most recent issue of the OAH. Social, cultural, and labor were among the smallest.

Leo Edward Casey - 3/28/2005

I am not an opponent of traditional political history by any stretch of the imagination, but I do have to say that it is the particular conceit of historians that their subject -- and only their subject -- is central to education into civic values and ideals. One might think that Political Philosophy and Poltical Science had a role to play in the development of "knowledge necessary for self-government," and "appreciation and support of American democracy is limited."

mark w bauerlein - 3/28/2005

Departments that resist the teaching of traditional political history should take a look at some of the survey research on the civic and historical knowledge of young adults. One of them, by the National Conference of State Legislatures, concluded, "young people do not understand the ideals of citizenship, they are disengaged from the political process, they lack the knowledge necessary for self-government, and their appreciation and support of American democracy is limited."

Sheldon M. Stern - 3/28/2005

Prof. Johnson's effort to restore genuine political history to the City University of New York deserves the support of all serious (political or otherwise) historians. Indeed, as a 1961 graduate of CUNY, I worked with excellent political historians at Queens College before going on to graduate training. Unfortunately, in the sixties and seventies, CUNY instead went down the road of fashionable "isms" history. I would add one important point to Prof. Johnson's argument--this problem is even more pressing in secondary schools where political history has been swallowed up by social and "victim" history (for a discussion of this problem see my 2003 study of state US history standards for the Fordham Foundation (www.edexcellence.net).

Seth Cable Tubman - 3/26/2005

I agree with this article's controlling idea, though I find it's details lacking. When people talk about studying "history", they do not mean studying Jackson's Bank veto, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, or Truman's Fair Deal. Instead, they mean "social history", "women's history", "ethnic history" (whatever that is), etc. What they mean by "history", they mean political history. Rock on!