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Feb 12, 2004 6:34 pm

More on Intellectual Diversity

Following up on my colleague Ralph Luker’s excellent posting on the issue of intellectual diversity at Duke, this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting debate on the subject between its most outspoken national advocate, David Horowitz, and University of Illinois-Chicago dean Stanley Fish. Unlike many critics of the concept, Fish makes his case against intellectual diversity openly, terming it the “Trojan horse of a dark design.”

To put it simply, intellectual diversity is not a stand-alone academic value, no more than is free speech; either can be a help in the pursuit of truth, but neither should be identified with it; the (occasional) means should not be confused with the end.

Now if intellectual diversity is not an academic value, adherence to it as an end in itself will not further an academic goal; but it will further some goal, and that goal will be political. It will be part of an effort to alter the academy so that it becomes an extension of some partisan vision of the way the world should be.

Such an effort will not be a perversion of intellectual diversity; intellectual diversity as a prime academic goal is already a perversion and its transformation into a political agenda, despite Horowitz’s protestations and wishes to the contrary, is inevitable and assured. It is just a matter of which party seizes it and makes it its own.

Fish, it should be noted, is by no means an extreme figure on this issue: he was one of the only voices to speak up against what seems to me the horrific agenda of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, about which I have written elsewhere, at the group’s recent annual conference.

There are two levels to the intellectual diversity debate—the political and academic—and Fish is right that opponents of intellectual diversity may very well have already lost the political debate. I wish Fish luck, for instance, if he wants to go to Springfield during budget debates on Illinois’ higher education funding bill and inform the legislators that they should give his school more money to be sure that it doesn’t hire an intellectually diverse faculty. Whether or not that position is defensible intellectually, it’s definitely not politically, one reason that the issue is a slam-dunk for any politician that wants to raise it. Thus far, as Fish notes, almost all such politicians have been Republicans, since the matter is fraught with peril for Democrats. Rightly or wrongly, a perception exists that the leading opponents of the academy are associated with the race/class/gender approach, translated into the political world as the civil rights movement, labor unions, and feminists—groups that Democrats surely do not want to alienate.

I am a strong believer in the concept of academic freedom—I almost lost my job defending the concept—and consider the party-registration approach to “intellectual diversity” employed by Horowitz or the Duke study to be, at best, simplistic. (On the other hand, it’s tough to argue with the thought experiment of Northwestern Prof. Jim Lindgren, writing in Instapundit: “imagine that the numbers were reversed and Duke’s faculty in the humanities or social sciences had 17 times more Republicans than Democrats. Would the education, research, and mentoring still be broad enough to make the existing Duke faculty feel that viewpoint diversity was not a problem?”) To take History as an example, there’s no reason that a department of 30 Democrats could not be as intellectually diverse in approaching the discipline as a department of 30 Republicans. This, by the way, is one reason professors should not be introducing political questions to the classroom—once they start spending good chunks of time discussing the war in Iraq or Bush’s tax policies rather than their academic subjects, then figures such as party registration do become relevant to the question of intellectual diversity. Moreover, as Erin O'Connor correctly points out, it seems as if"academic humanists believe, as a matter of principle, that EVERYTHING is meaningful, that there is absolutely nothing that cannot be interpreted, nothing whose significance is not deeper and more profound than surfaces may suggest. Everything, that is, except the overwhelming correlation between humanities faculty hiring and political affiliation."

My real concern regarding intellectual diversity and the History profession, however, comes in issues relating to the curriculum—where the data is much murkier than political registration (explaining why Horowitz and his ilk have avoided it) but nonetheless suggestive, particularly regarding the small proportion of Americanists specializing in fields perceived as “traditional”: political, diplomatic, legal, and military history.

For an exercise, I’d invite people to take a glance through the 15 courses in post-1865 US history being offered this term at UCLA. I pick UCLA not because it’s atypical—around 20% of its US history faculty have research interests in political, diplomatic, legal, and military history, about the average at large state universities—but because it, alone among departments I have encountered, posts most of its syllabi on the web. Two of the 15—offerings on 20th century American foreign relations and the historical effects of Watergate—address mainstream themes in diplomatic, political, or constitutional history; neither course, ironically, is taught by a full-time member of the department. The department’s survey has readings heavily weighted toward social history, while UCLA also features a gender history course masquerading as an offering in inter-American relations. Ten others are social or cultural history offerings: global feminism; recent African-American urban history; U.S. intellectual history; contemporary American Indian issues; history of the American West; American Indian history since the Civil War; popular culture and society in 20th century America; history of the Chicano peoples; monuments and national identity; and a course called “Introduction to Funk Studies.”

The last post-1865 US history course, entitled “Re-reading Politics in America: Democracy Before and After 9-11,” features a syllabus with language that many would consider propagandistic rather than academic: “Though many commentators have unthinkingly rehearsed the cliché that after 9/11 all is changed,” Professor Vinay Lal contends, “nothing has changed, insofar as the US remains on course in exercising its ruthless dominance over the rest of the world.” As a model for the required presentation, Lal suggests that students look into “what the election to California’s governorship of a movie star who has been charged by a dozen women with sexual molestation, drives perhaps the most environmentally unfriendly vehicle in the world, and appeared not to have a single idea about governance says about American ‘democracy.’” Other recommended topics include corporate ownership of the media, the rise of Fox News; the film “Bowling in Columbine”; the “assault on civil liberties”; the “indefinite detention of hundreds of Muslims without any accountability to notions of justice”; or “thousands of such phenomena.”

It may be, as Fish contends, that intellectual diversity is a “Trojan horse.” Tell that to students in Lal’s course.

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David Lion Salmanson - 7/19/2004

The above post should have been read after Jonathan's post. HNN editors, can you fix it?

Anne Zook - 2/16/2004

And yet, to be completely honest, I don't agree that such classes should differ to that extent. One issue doesn't lessen in importance merely because a different element is being placed in an artifical "center" of the course.

(Not that I don't understand and sympathize with the restrictions in teaching an organized, time-limited class on a topic, but I'm arguing from the comfortable perspective that it's not my problem to resolve that.)

I do agree that history isn't something that can be calibrated into objectivity and that a too-strict interpretation of what "belongs" or doesn't in a particular category is a mistake.

For one thing (speaking, again, from an "outside" perspective), it creates an artifical aura of superior legitimacy around some topics and consequently around some approaches.

At the same time, there does need to be honesty in the approach. Bias isn't the problem. It's the presentation of bias as objectivity that does harm. Understand that to us outsiders, :) a course that appears in a university curriculum automatically assumes a certain stature. It has legitimacy, regardless of how (ahem) crazy the topic might sound.

In any case, who gets to decide when a presenation is "exclusivist" and when it just "favors" a particular style?

Ralph E. Luker - 2/15/2004

Thanks, Tim, for your tip about your post over at Chun. I've responded to it there, but it does seem to me that the debate here is kind of artificial. I wrote some time ago on "Welcome to My World ..." that if I were hiring a liberal arts faculty _de novo_ you'd be among my first choices, precisely because of your willingness to think and stretch broadly. Swarthmore is undoubtedly vastly enriched by your so doing and would be impoverished were you to reverse course.
At the same time, KC has been directing his and our attention to major research institutions with very large history departments -- UCLA has 80 or so tenured or tenure track historians -- and there, it seems to me, the argument for the generalist is more tenuous. Even there, I think one could make the case for a generalist who is an extra-ordinarily fine teacher. But the evidence in Lal's case suggests that UCLA would be better served if it allowed him to be the specialist that he was prepared to be.

Timothy James Burke - 2/15/2004

I've just commented on this over at Chun's blog, but I think this is the weakest argument that could be made against Lal's syllabus in particular. I think that partly because I'm so insistent that academic intellectuals learn to teach and think as generalists as well as specialists, and what better place to do that than in your courses. I also think there's a real argument to be made for something like "recent US history as a South Asian specialist sees it" (not saying Lal's course is that, necessarily). The history of fascism and World War II, for example, looks radically different if you look at it from the perspective of African societies--for many African nationalists in the 1940s, the differences between England and Germany appeared (accurately or not) to be far more marginal than they might appear if you were teaching that history from the more standard angle. Beyond that, however, I think it's just enormously problematic to insist that people shouldn't teach outside a particular expertise that they can formally be certified as possessing--it freezes scholars in amber, and violates what I would take to be an essential component of academic freedom, the freedom to evolve, spread out, and to use your teaching to do that. Now that does take an exploratory spirit, and I agree that Lal's course, as described, doesn't appear to be that. But that's a different issue.

Timothy James Burke - 2/15/2004

I agree with that, Jonathan. Frankly, my biggest problems are with geographical boundaries, e.g., area studies, but that reflects the place I'm coming from, as an Africanist. I can easily agree that tightly drawn conceptions of specialization are a problem, along with an imperfect commitment to pluralism--but I feel as if KC is sounding more like the problem than the remedy in parts of this thread. The solution seems to me to concede the interpenetration of many different specializations, to be tolerant of approaches that seek to incorporate a range of strategies. In other words, to encourage each person to be pluralistic in their pedagogy (and even their scholarship) rather than to imagine a rigid quota system where each specialization gets a narrowly defined position allotted to it.

Timothy James Burke - 2/15/2004

I think that's the key point: either would be fine. I wouldn't object if I ran through a catalogue and saw either approach, or complain that the opposite strategy needed to be tried. I think that's my concern about KC's general position: it seems to me that he's insisting on far too precise a calibration for what would constitute balance in a history curriculum. If either approach was made in an aggressively exclusivist way, it wouldn't be healthy; but if either was made in a way that slanted or favored a particular style, what's the harm?

(I agree with Oscar, by the by: doesn't matter where, it's a very interesting comment.)

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/14/2004

Fine comment wherever you wanted to put it.

First of all you are right, social and political history intertwine.

However, course content would vary depending on whther one chose a social or political perspective as a starting point. As an example, you can approach the Populism in the 19th century by starting from the transformation of farm life and its role in the US mythos, but you still need to look at the elections from 1888-1896.

The reverse is equally true. Focusing on the Populist party requires considering its social and economic roots or the politics make no sense.

Still, the two courses would be considerably different. The former would require, for example, greater consideration of the history of farming, the transformation of the farm as work place, and the decline of the yeoman farmer ideal. The latter would require far more detail on the political system, political parties, and the other interests and issues shaping the elections.

But either course would be good--at least potentially.

Timothy James Burke - 2/14/2004

Actually, KC, I didn't say best work--I don't actually think that social history (narrowly defined) has dominated the best work in American historiography in the past 10-15 years. I agree that more innovative strategies and work are coming from other specializations in American historiography--though I also think that the truly best work combines multiple approaches, at least fairly frequently. But I would say that social history remains the dominant or most powerful field in the discipline as a whole at the moment, even if its influence is declining somewhat.

Anne Zook - 2/14/2004

I have absolutely no idea which thread this would be most appropriate in, so I'm striking out on my own.

My objection the the current trend toward favoring "social" or "cultural" history in education is that the few experiences I've had of such classes have shown me that they are too often very exclusionary.

(For one thing, the instructor's bias, which, 90% of the time can be guessed from the title of the course, excludes almost all students who disagree with the topic.

The example cited, Lal's course, is pretty extreme and signals nothing so much as it signals that signing up for the course is going to be a waste of time, but that's just my opinion. And, not being tenure-track (heh), I'll add the remark everyone here seems to be too polite to make, which is that Lal's course has nothing to do with 9/11 and everything to do with his view of the USofA as a proto-empire seeking to dominate and subdue the world. But, again, that's just my opinion.)

These classes tend to be exclusionary in another way as well. The focus of these classes is such that nothing but the primary topic can reasonably be dealt with. In my limited experience, context for the topic is what disappears first.

"History" keeps getting sliced into smaller and smaller "bites", targeting an ever-narrower audience as though college classes had one eye anxiously on their Nielsen ratings and what's getting lost is the actual history which is the flow and interrelationship of events and ideas.

(Listen to me lecturing historians on history. I'd be covered in shame if I had any sense.)

Seriously. It boggles my mind to think of learning "political history" without the "social history" that shaped the political climate. How is it possible to believe you can separate the two?

How it is possible to believe that "politics" and "society" aren't, in fact, the same thing?

David Lion Salmanson - 2/13/2004

Which gets to the heart of KCs methodology problem. He is basically assuming that anything not in his core is social/cultural history.

Jonathan Rees - 2/13/2004

KC, I am not making the nihilistic argument: "Since everybody's biased we should be as biased as we want." Rather, I am suggesting that every teacher is affected by their background, culture, values and priorities (such as thinking that political history is the most important part of history for students to know). I believe it is better to let students know where you're coming from so that they can take what you say with a grain of salt. That said, including the fact that you think Bush is some kind of genocidal babykiller in your syllabus is bad politics and bad teaching because all your students will think you're a loony and it will scare off dissenting students. There is a happy medium here. Most of us liberal professors know where it is.

Tim, I realize the figures I cited have to do with publication, but you should recognize that there is a support structure that goes with this. My field is American labor history. When I applied for my current job the words labor history appeared in all of two American history job ads the entire year. In American history, ads usually appear in lines similar to the categories we're debating. Once one of these slots (like women's historian) is filled, most departments won't look at anybody who does similar work again. They did their bit for intellectual diversity and feel free to move on. Here's an anecdote of my own: At my alma mater, Wisconsin, we were all rightfully proud of the strength of our women's history program. It had 3 professors out of 57. I don't know what the perfectly baked pie chart would look like, but politically historians are hardly an oppressed minority.


Robert KC Johnson - 2/13/2004

I would agree with Tim that any good course doesn't have precise boundaries--all draw from diverse approaches in the subject as is suitable for the topic. For instance, it would be very difficult for a good political history course not to deal with the ERA, or constitutional to deal with abortion, etc.

Yet the course patterns at places like UCLA, Michigan, etc.--which are representative of larger schools--reveal a pattern in which social/cultural courses tend to feature offerings that are straight social history and those (such as the Native American history class) that draw from other fields. On the other hand, we see few and sometimes no courses that are predominantly political, diplomatic, etc. That is my main concern.

Within the study of US history, I'd disagree with Tim that the best work in the last 10-15 years has occurred in social or cultural history. While the 1970s and early 1980s did feature innovative work in these topics, it seems to me that, as a whole, the more innovative work is now coming from fields once perceived as more traditional.

David Lion Salmanson - 2/13/2004

The actual quote is "If Hollywood wanted to capture the emotional center of Western history, its movies would be about real estate. John Wayne would have been neither a gunfighter nor a sherriff, but a surveyor, speculator, or claims lawyer. The showdowns would occur in the land office of the courtroom; weapons would be deeds and lawsuits, not six-guns." And it is chapter 2, that starts this way. The book is, of course, Patty Limerick's Legacy of Conquest.

Timothy James Burke - 2/13/2004

1. Jonathan's data come from the OAH Newsletter: they concern American historians. I think taken more broadly to include all geographical and era specializations, you're going to see social history take the top spot.

2. Jonathan's data concern publications, not the listed specializations of historians in tenure-track positions. If there is a gap between these two, that in and of itself is interesting, but isn't necessarily a sign that there are prolific political historians being excluded from tenure-track posts. For one, many faculty in political science departments publish works that the OAH would doubtless pick up as works of political history in their count, and probably a larger number than the number of sociologists who might produce work counted as social history.

3. Life course is an issue as well. What I have heard is that political history has become a more common specialization once again among recently minted historians--who tend to be disproportionately absent from tenure tracks for obvious reasons. In the middle to senior ranks, I feel quite certain that social history is numerically predominant, even in American history.

And as I said, there's a historiographical reason for that: if one has a beef with social history in this respect, one has to contend with the fullness of the reasons for its rise. I don't think formal head counts of courses taught in the here and now comes to grips with that historiographical evolution very usefully.

There are also interesting questions that come out of even a narrowly constrained exercise in seeking methodological diversity. What would the proper balance be in any of our eyes if we had a godlike power to reshuffle a department? How many courses in political history, following KC's quite precise sensibility about what is and is not political history, would be properly representative? What about intellectual history? Military history? Demographic history? and so on. What does the perfectly baked pie chart look like, and why? Not easy to answer.

I would add finally that KC seems to be most satisfied when specializations most conform to clear boundaries--when I would say that the best historical scholarship that I admire most, that makes the most interesting claims, is rarely so bounded, but instead incorporates the methodological styles and topical interests of multiple forms of historical scholarship. That being the case, why shouldn't most courses strive for the same thing?

Ralph E. Luker - 2/13/2004

I, for one, think that you handled the teaching moment very effectively.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/13/2004

I accept the points raised by David and Tim that I should have included intellectual history in the mix on UCLA. With regard to regional history, I can perhaps confess a regional bias--but my general point remains a concern that it's perfectly appropriate for regional, for social, for cultural history courses to be part of the mix--but that I worry about exclusionary patterns in which topics in political, diplomatic, and constitutional hsitory are taught largely or exclusively through the lens of other historiographical approaches. That seems to me the case in too many History Departments--something that, I thought quite interestingly, officials at Duke seemed to concede in the story that triggered my posting. All historians borrow from other approaches to history. But as long as we're trained in different approaches to the discipline, and departments hire in this fashion, turf does matter.

Tim and Jonathan R. present somewhat conflicting info. on whether social history or political/diplomatic history represents the area of greatest activity in the academy today. With regard to Ralph's point on Mills Thornton, I agree--making it two of 25 active Americanists at Michigan who specialize in political, diplomatic, and constitutional topics. That's still an appallingly low number in comparison to the number of Americanists they have specializing on issues of race and gender (16), and Michigan is far more the norm at larger departments--which have the size and financial flexibility to make choices--than, say, a place like OSU is. It seems to me that we can honestly debate what types of approaches to the study of US history are more important than others. It doesn't seem to me that we can maintain that ratios such as those that exist in departments like Michigan or Washington reflect an appropriately balanced approach to the discipline.

With regard to whether all aspects of constitutional history or political history should be considered "political," I would disagree. I think there's an enormous difference between teaching, say, the contemporary debate about gay marriage and teaching Lochner. Obviously current scholarly, and broader intellectual, trends affect how we view the past. But simply saying that everything is political and so therefore we don't have to worry about the issue strikes me as off the mark.

With regard to Lal's course, I wonder: does the UCLA History Department, or the university as a whole, not have a curriculum committee? Professors are not simply allowed to teach anything we want: I can't, for instance, go in and say that next term I'm going to teach a course on the history of Uganda. The Lal course strikes me as wholly inappropriate, just as a course taught by a non-US specialist that took the exact opposite political positions would be inappropriate. It seems to me that the academy itself has to perform at least minimum tasks in maintaining professional standards; when it does not, as I believe has occurred on the "intellectual diversity" question, it runs the risk of having the agenda set by non-academic forces who, I think most of us would agree, harbor values that are in many ways not pristine when it comes to intellectual life.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/13/2004

Is it possible that we are simply debating about turfs here? If so, I can readily understand KC's irritation with the decentralization of political history in recent decades and Tim's argument it is justified because social and cultural history has become the discipline's cutting edge.
KC may have overstated his case elsewhere (I agree with David that Mills Thornton is a very able American political historian and KC had overlooked that fact in earlier posts about the history department at Michigan), but in raising questions about Vinay Lal's teaching "Re-Reading Politics in America: Democracy Before and After 9-11," KC is right on target, it seems to me. Here is a very capable social and cultural historian of South Asia teaching what is essentially an American political history course and telegraphing to his students in advance on his syllabus the kinds of answers and the kinds of questions he expects them to address in the course.
There is surely some benefit in Lal's students reading large chunks of Tocqueville's Democracy in America; and probably some benefit in their reading the other book on Viet Nam, but this appears to be a waste of precious resources in Lal's area of expertise and an exercise in learning to tell the professor what he expects you to tell him. Sad. Sad. Sad.

Jonathan Rees - 2/13/2004


On teaching, it seems that you think there is a bright line where I think it's much blurrier. In constitutional history, for example, isn't everything you cover political since you are studying a document that is still at the center of nearly every controversial topic in American society today? Even the old interpretations are being resurrected today so that a case like Lochner is relevent again.

On political history, I think I'm confused. Do you think these figures speak to the problems of places like UCLA or Michigan or do they tell you something about the profession in general? Are you suggesting that an overwhelmed minority of academic historians can produce that much scholarship?


Timothy James Burke - 2/13/2004

Looking into this a bit more, and reading David Salmanson's comments here, I would agree with David's observations that it's not even clear that some of these courses are straightforwardly social history or cultural history. It actually seems to me, KC, that you have a slightly rigid view of the boundaries between methodological types of history. Sure, there are difference, but there are also monographs, scholars and courses that draw from diverse methodologies, and so bring into question the definition of "political" or "diplomatic" or "social" history. I have an instinctive aversion to formalist exercises that insist that there is and should be a strongly enforced distinction between such forms.

David Lion Salmanson - 2/13/2004

I still don't understand why a course in Native American History or Western History is by definition social history. Can you imagine trying to teach the diplomatic history of the colonial era without Richard White's Middle Ground? I realize we have been over this ground before, last time it was Mills Thornton and Southern history. In my mind, regional history is an alternative to the local study and national studies and a useful way of examining the inter-relationship between locality and nation. Political history, economic history, social history, diplomatic history, etc. are methodologies or groupings of methodologies, they are not exclusive categories from regional history. I think part of our differences have to do with an assumption over what is important. I think one of the most useful things a historian can do is expose hidden histories (like the role of the anti-Chinese movement in the formation of the post-bellum political party system). How do you decide what is important?

David Lion Salmanson - 2/13/2004

At least the course description would scare off anybody who wasn't already a convert. Incidentally, my high school students asked me today what I thought about the war in Iraq. we were in a discussion on what is Realpolitik, the unification of Germany, and the rise of nationalism and I asked for other examples of Realpolitik they could think of and one student came up with Iraq. We laid out several possible explanations for the causes of war in Iraq and discussed which might be Realpolitik. Then they asked, which did I think was the real cause. I answered, "As a historian, I would say it will be 10 years before I know what I think. I simply haven't seen enough evidence, but I suspect that it will be a combination of factors coming together at the right moment because history is messy and rarely is there one cause or effect." But then I added, "I have a gut reaction too, but we can talk about that after class." Would folks think this approach is appropriate for undergrads, is appropriate for high school students, is good teaching? Inquiring minds want to know.

David Lion Salmanson - 2/13/2004

I appreciate both KC's and Oscar's comments. It's funny, I was thinking of Indian Wars as fitting in with Diplomatic History (perhaps a quirk of having done a paper on Indian policy in Brad Perkins' Diplomatic History Class) but I don't think you can properly understand the shift from 1848 to 1898 without looking at the various solutions proposed to conflicts with Indians during that era. Likewise, allotment and relocation are telling examples of how Cold War politics played out in daily life for a group of people. Btw, they work great in lectures.
Oscar is absolutely right that I think water rights is going to be the issue of the 21st century and should get pride of place in any legal/political course. But I also think (like most Western historians) that Eastern history is overrepresented in syllabi, in part because "the traditionals" decided for no good reason that the West is marginal. Although this breaks down from time to time (Turner anyone) it continues to hold true today. Interestingly, what many people consider the foundational document of the New Western History which allegedly solely focuses on race, class, and gender, begins with the line (and I'm paraphrasing) "If Western's were true the heroes would be lawyers instead of gunfighters and the setting would be the courthouse rather than the OK corral."

Timothy James Burke - 2/13/2004

KC, I guess I wonder first off what you make of the count of classes that reflect "social history". Because that seems to me to be basically a pretty fair reflection of the actually existing distribution of historical specialization at this historiographical moment. Thirty years ago, diplomatic and political history were much more dominant: would it have been a bad thing if a history department reflected that then? No, it would have merely been a typical thing. I don't think a history department is required to have a balance of specialization that is significantly atypical of the methodological choices made by doctoral students in history, unless it perceives some very significant reason to be that way.

If your argument is that historical scholarship writ large should not be so significantly dominated by social history, then that is a much more complicated and messier argument, because it requires you to take very seriously the last forty years or so of historiographical evolution. Social history's rise is not a simple ideological artifact, to be dismissed as straightforward partisanship. It happened for a lot of reasons that run the gamut from profound methodological revolutions of the very best empirical sort to complex intellectual transformations to intellectual fashion.

Nor do I think you can propose that graduate students arrive for their first year of training a blank slate and are then molded by cunning professors into social historians. That's not giving very much credit to the people who pursue doctoral training. Most of the people I know who pursued some variety of social or cultural history did so from the outset, intentionally, with a reasonably clear understanding of the whys and wherefores of the practice they were pursuing.

I am more than willing myself on many days and in many ways to quarrel with social history both methodologically and theoretically--but I do so with a lot of respect for its contributions and with a knowing sense of why it became as predominant as it is. I'd also be very, very careful about assuming what the political or partisan content of social history is, exactly. Its rise is certainly associated with the New Left--but once it became methodologically orthodox, it became the province of historians who span the ideological spectrum. I have colleagues who are social historians who range from being highly "political" to those who evince almost no trace whatsoever of views that have a meaningful correspondence to American or global politics.

With Lal's class, it's fine to raise questions about the content, but it seems to me that you're conflating a disagreement with the content with a de facto argument that Lal is wrong to teach it. The ideal university, it seems to me, would still have a class like the one you describe--it would just have lots of other perspectives and approaches as well. Which UCLA's department may well have. I caution you not to commit the mistake that the Young America Foundation has, which is conducting heedless panty-raids through course catalogs and deciding from titles and course descriptions what the overall content and political perspective of a course might be. You're on safe ground inferring Lal's politics, but not in concluding much about a course in "the history of the American West" or "US intellectual history" by the mere fact of its association with social or cultural history.

A R Jacobs - 2/13/2004

Jonathan Rees asks, "Is it OK to introduce controversial subjects into the classroom as long as you don't take sides? Is that even possible?" I think it highly unlikely that any teacher will have no particular opinions about the material he or she teaches, and certainly the ideal of pure "objectivity" is an impossible one -- but the problem with Lal's class is not that he fails to be objective, it is that the most vital questions at stake (in a course on “Democracy [in America] Before and After 9-11”) are answered in the syllabus, before the class even meets. When Lal says that “nothing has changed, insofar as the US remains on course in exercising its ruthless dominance over the rest of the world," it's clear that any student who might consider the U.S.'s political actions in terms other than "ruthless dominance" is not going to get a hearing, nor will any alternative reading of the political scene be presented by the instructor. Lal is actually doing the opposite of "introducing controversial subjects" -- he is claiming that the character of America is not controversial at all, rather, it is so obviously evil that no time need be spent in class debating the matter. This is pure anti-intellectualism, and in my experience is usually practiced by people who fear that they don't have actual arguments for their political positions that would stand up under scrutiny.

Ophelia Benson - 2/13/2004

Also extremely ephemeral. Why bother to take a course to learn about the governor of California or 'Bowling for Columbine'? The word 'parochial' comes to mind too...

Robert KC Johnson - 2/13/2004

On Oscar's point, I would agree on all but water, reiterate that my basic point is that students should not be getting their political and diplomatic history primarily through social history classes--and add an important caveat, which is that adding items to any course requires the subtraction of other material (that's why I'd find it hard to imagine a course in US political history spending much time on water policy).

On Jonathan's points, my courses are all on the web:

In general, I teach history, as I assume most of us do. Political history isn't contemporary politics; diplomatic history isn't contemporary foreign policy. All of my courses (except for one undergrad elective) conclude in their last class with contemporary issues (assuming I haven't fallen hopelessly behind, which sometimes can be a big assumption). In that last class I always preface my remarks by saying I'm not addressing these issues as a "historian," and I organize my lecture around my guess on what issues from the contemporary period future historians might view as important. I never (as Lal does) have student presentations on contemporary topics--they're in my class to do history, not write comment on the 2003 California gubernatorial election. My problem generally is that there's more history that I want to cover than I have time for--not that I have too much dead time in class for discussion of politics or any other material. I often talk politics with my students outside of class.

Wasn't aware of these figures that Jonathan untracked--which are very significant, and reinforce my general point about the troubling nature of hiring patterns. Departments like Washington's, Michigan's, or UCLA's that have 10-20% political, diplomatic, constitutional, or military historians might be justified if they could point to figures arguing that social and cultural historians are much more prolific. That, as the figures Jonathan discovered points out, isn't the case.

Jonathan Rees - 2/12/2004


I'd like to direct you to the November 2003 OAH Newsletter. You can find it here:

Downlaod it in .pdf format and turn to page 19. The headline is:
"Political History Ranks at the Top of Recent Scholarly Production." In 2001 and 2002 there were almost 2000 articles, books and dissertations published on American political history listed in the OAH's Recent Scholarship database. Second place was international relations (another "traditional" subject) with over 1200 listings. Social and cultural history came in third in their category breakout with about 1100 listings.

Undoubtedly some of the people writing these political/international relations pieces were not university faculty, but these categories beat social history by approximately three to one. [There are other categories of social history like women's history listed in the accompanying chart, but there are as many traditional subjects not included in my comparison, like business and economics (5th place) and military history (7th place).] Independent scholars couldn't possibly explain this huge gap. More likely, contrary to your impression, traditional history is alive and kicking in the academy.

I also find it strange that with one hand you condemn the introduction of politics into the classroom and with the other you condemn the lack of political historians. Do your classes ever touch upon current issues? If so, why are you any different than Lal? Is it his actions or his position that bothers you? Is it OK to introduce controversial subjects into the classroom as long as you don't take sides? Is that even possible?

If you never introduce conteporary issues in your history classes, why should students care about what you teach? And why do you write for a web site whose very premise is that historians have something valuable to say about current events?

Jonathan Rees

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/12/2004

I think the exchange above over political topics makes a good place to consider just how much of the disagreement over what is important is legitimate.

I'll take this list of list of important but not vital topics from KC as a starting point: ""Plains Indians Wars, Cherokee Removal, the formation of tribal governments, or water policy" (By the way, these comments assume that we are discussing a course on American political history)

Cherokee Removal. Here I disagree with KC. I would argue that Cherokee removal is vitally important the formation of the Democratic Party. It was quite contentious. The passage of the Removal act and the pressure placed on the Cherokee secured the West for the Democrats. (Yes the West supported Jackson already, but would a prolonged conflict with Georgia have altered that?) The fight against also marks an early stage in the formation of the anti-slavery movement.

I can imagine a fine course that does not place this in a central place, but I think it would lose something by doing that.

Plains Indian Wars: This raises the definition of political history. Certainly it was not an issue of great contention nationally. But the consensus on the need, at minimum, to "civilize" the tribes provides an important insight into the values of the people engaged in politics. But if one focuses on political crises, it's less important. Which is right?

Tribal government formation: in a national history, I would tend to agree with KC on this. But I can imagine someone in an area with a number of reservations choosing to take time because of a local relevance.

Water policy. Here is a case of asking ourselves, how much do the needs of the present shape our explication of the past? Water rights were very important on the local level, particularly in the West of course. But it's likely that someone including the topic would be looking to the growing concern today over fresh water allocation both in the US and in the World.

Here ideology might matter a lot--as this topic has gotten little play outside of environmental circles. But if one concluded that this will become a major part of American politics, one might give it a higher priority than its past importance would suggest.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/12/2004

I agree with much of what David has to say. Any good women's history course would spend a significant amount of time on the topics that he mentions, just as the constitutional history class I am teaching this term spends a significant amount of time on issues of race (throughout) and class/gender (mostly in the 20th century).

At the time time, I think it's naive to claim, to use an example from above, that a topic such as, say, abortion, is taught in the same fashion in a women's history class and a constitutional history class--for perfectly appropriate pedagogical reasons. To take an example from above, relatively few political historians would consider issues such as "Plains Indians Wars, Cherokee Removal, the formation of tribal governments, or water policy" to be among the most vital to the field--although they are critical, obviously, in a course on Native American history or the American West. My problem comes with situations like UCLA's where political, diplomatic, and constitutional topics are taught exclusively or overwhelmingly through social history classes. In this environment, the only political history students definitely get are on the political/diplomatic history topics that social historians consider necessary for their courses. To take the reverse: would women's historians be happy with departments in which students overwhelmingly received coverage in women's history from what was covered in constitutional or political history?

I'm not saying, either, that departments should decide that political, diplomatic, constitutional, etc. history should "come first"--although, to be quite candid, I'm a political and diplomatic historian in part because I believe these are the most vital aspects of American history for students to know--but I am saying that they should come in roughly equal proportion to social and cultural history. When they don't, a course array like UCLA's results.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/12/2004

If you check Professor Lal's webpages at UCLA, you'll see that he is a rather accomplished historian of south Asia. It's a little hard for me to understand what the heck he is doing teaching an American history survey. It strikes me as a serious waste of his talent and expertise; and it could account for the superficial, propagandistic character of his syllabus.

David Lion Salmanson - 2/12/2004

I looked at the syllabi in the areas where I have expertise (American West, Native American) and I would say that on those syllabi (assuming the lectures are at least close to what the lecture topics are) range anywhere from 30 precent to over 50 percent political, diplomatic, legal, and military history in terms of content. Issues covered included the Plains Indians Wars, Cherokee Removal, the formation of tribal governments, the Mexican American War, water policy etc. etc.. If these are not traditional topics what are? And why do these categories count as traditional topics? If we say that "OK every department has to have one of these folks teaching in thier field and these fields come first" you are going to wind up with an arbitrary grouping of courses that freeze the field in unhelpful ways. Take the 1865 division for the survey. I think most scholars recognize that this is not a good way of organizing the US survey (a three part survey makes much more sense) but we are stuck with this crummy system because of department inertia and the fact that it would mean more teaching of (egads!) undergraduates. You are significantly undercounting the amount of political history taught. Let's do a thought experiment. Imagine a women's history course that spends significant time on abolitionism, sufferage, and ERA. Under your methodology, this course gets zero credit for being in the traditional realm. Or are these topics not political history?

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