The Fortunes of Political History
1) Be rigorous in the way we identify and verify trends in our discipline, and diligently consider the widest variety of possible hypotheses for those trends.
Maier’s complaint does something I find troubling about the weakest kinds of cultural and intellectual history, which is to construct a claim about trends without either an evidentiarily supported comprehensive sense of a particular form of writing or a reasoned claim about why several particular examples are keystones or exemplars of larger patterns (or even the progenitors of such patterns).
Alan Taylor has written a book called American Colonies, and for Maier this is sufficient reason to claim that the entire field of colonial history now assiduously avoids the political, largely to avoid white men. This is odd just as a characterization of Alan Taylor, let alone the whole field. There’s a not-so-little book he wrote called William Cooper’s Town that has both white men and political history in plentitude.
I think to identify a trend, you need some bounds on your claims (what’s the time frame that counts as a trend? Last year’s books? Ten years of books?), and a persuasively magisterial sense of the field based on something more than being a senior scholar. I’m confident, for example, that social history could be said to dominate African historical scholarship, because I think I could document that persuasively with a twenty-year overview of my field and the publications within it. On the other hand, I suspect that some of the more casual critiques I’ve leveled in conversations and informal presentations—that, for example, the canonical claims of postcolonial theory have become central to the writing of modern African history and anthropology—would require much more serious and careful documenting if I were going to make them in a strong or strident way, which is surely a reasonable description of the tone of Maier’s remarks. Minus that documentation, I might think it wiser to criticize singular texts as singular texts.
More important by far is that Maier considers but lightly discards what strike me as the most persuasive explanations for the movements and trends she identifies. For one, history is a discipline that requires revisionism, not merely for intellectual or academic fashionability, but as a central tenet of its practice. Particularly in a field like American colonial or revolutionary history, which is data-rich and where much of the data available has been read or examined by many eyes (as opposed to African history, where many archival records, archaeological materials and other evidence have been examined by few scholars, or sometimes none at all), all we can do is revise and reconsider, to try and see what we already know in new ways. So I am hard-pressed in this sense alone to see what’s so wrong with the new synthesis that Taylor and Foner propose in American Colonies: they’re asking, well, how does American colonial history look if we look at it comparatively, and as part of the early modern history of colonialism? I’m hard-pressed in this sense equally to see what ‘s wrong with Atlantic history per se: it asks, well, how does American history look different if we think about it in the context of the whole Atlantic world? Doesn’t it expand our knowledge to think about known histories in new ways and new contexts? Does thinking in new ways obliterate the possibility of thinking in old ones? Can’t this just be value-added? Does every single year of scholarly publication need to come with a fixed quota of works which reflect categories set in iron in order to properly constitute a field of study?
Beyond this, as Maier notes, but seems to weigh only lightly, there are basic structural pressures upon graduate students and junior scholars to create the impression of novelty in what they do, and to conform to the norms of more specialized scholarly writing. If newly hired assistant professors do not write best-selling biographies of Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton, that may have a small amount to do with the fact that they are still learning their craft and a much larger amount to do with the fact that senior scholars in the field—including, I would suspect, Maier—do not tend to encourage, permit or endorse junior scholars undertaking broadly communicative work intended for the general public. That’s a privilege reserved to senior scholars. I can’t say I’m happy about that myself, but on the other hand, some of this is about the life cycle of intellectuals, and about when people hit their stride and achieve their greatest confidence. For many, that’s not while the ink is still drying on their doctorates.
More signally, it means that observing what newly minted junior scholars are writing is probably a lousy way to decipher what the truly dominant trends in a field are. If Ellis, McCullough and others are writing best-selling biographies of the Founding Fathers, why not use that as the benchmark that defines trends in the field? If so, political history in Maier's preferred sense isn't just doing fine, it's utterly dominating the field. If you look at the most influential scholars in any field of historical specialization, I would submit that you often will not learn what was most typical or influential in their work by looking at their first monographs.
This would be something of my complaint against KC’s claims, as well. His argument with Brooklyn College in specific has long seemed well founded to me, and it’s not unconnected with deeper problems in historical scholarship and academic politics that I am also very concerned with. But there is a slippage between those documented issues and an assertion that trends against political history—if they in fact exist—are explained entirely or largely by hostility to dead (or living) white males, by the crudest kind of identity politics. There are at least other explanations as well as more complex readings of the trends themselves to consider in the overall context of the discipline of history throughout the American academy, and consider fairly before we give that hypothesis pride of place.
2) Be generous about how we categorize the specializations of our colleagues and their work, in recognition of the fuzzy boundaries between different specializations and the ways in which scholarship and scholars evolve over time.
This is an issue that’s come up before in our Cliopatrian discussions of KC’s arguments. What is a political history, and how should we know what defines that field? Maier draws a very tight set of criteria implicitly in her critique, though she doesn’t define the field explicitly. Would Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town be political history? If not, why not? Simply because it also has social history in it? Is a work which focuses on the colonial or revolutionary public sphere and the “republic of letters” in North America political or cultural? Seems to me that it’s both, and there’s quite a lot in this vein in recent years.
In my own field, there’s been a resurgence—promptly partly by political scientists writing in a historical vein—in the nature of the colonial state and British policies of “indirect rule”. That work does not follow an old and largely moribund scholarly template in which the policy history of particular imperial administrators was studied narratively, instead combining social, intellectual and political history to try and characterize the nature of the colonial state and its relations to African social life—but I’d say that this work could fairly be classified as “political history”.
If KC and Maier insist that political history is narrowly only the history of events, of formal politics, of elected leaders, and they do not classify historians as within their specialization unless the entirety of their scholarly output and teaching interests falls within that narrow bound, then I would say that it’s no wonder they see it in decline. I suspect anyone who defined their specialization in those terms might perceive it to be much smaller and less vigorous than it in fact actually is.
3) Put our intellectual cards on the table and let honest disagreements be honest disagreements.
One of my major frustrations with KC’s recent piece is that it substitutes what I think is the real issue on the table, namely, the substance of the meaningful, useful and generative disagreements between political and social history, for mere complaint about numerical underrepresentation. This gambit to me feels like an uncanny mimicry of the weakest and most problematic strategies of institutionalized identity politics, to translate the substance of intellectual conflict into an attempt to permanently reserve a fixed number of chairs at the table in the name of a constituency whose importance is taken for granted. I quite agree with KC that his antagonists at his own institution (and some elsewhere) are doing just that, and I find it repellant. But we shouldn’t do as they do in response.
There is a real issue involved in the old conflict between political and social history that is badly served when either side reduces it to being about the status of white men living or dead. Considered more thoughtfully, questions like, “How do we best know the past, by studying the broad patterns and structures of everyday life that shape the lives of most human beings in a given era, or by studying the particular events and actions of powerful individuals?” are real questions and not easily resolved. (They may of course not be antagonistic questions, which was the second point of my essay, already discussed.) You can’t just suggest that there’s something obviously inappropriate about deciding that the more important fact of American history is the imperial expansion of the United States as opposed to the history of the Constitution. That’s a real argument, and it has to be made in real terms, with satisfying rigor, with mutual respect and appreciation on either side. There’s too much snide eye-rolling on either side of that fence. Very little of what Maier or KC seem to regard as the self-evident virtues of political history as they understand it are in fact self-evident—a point which goes equally well for social history. You have to make the case for the kind of work you prefer: not just assert that it is owed a place at the table merely because it exists.
4) Abandon once and for all the charge that some other specialization is “politicizing” history, with the implication that one’s own preferred camp is not doing so.
If there’s one thing we should know—not the least due to the work of Peter Novick—is that history has in some fashion or another always been politicized. The craft of history is not a science, whatever else it is. It involves deeply humanistic judgements about what matters and why it matters, and it is always deeply related to the needs and sensibility of the present. The intellectual foundations of the modern discipline were deeply, powerfully linked to the rise of the modern nation-state. You can’t read Ranke and say that he was apolitical. The same is true for the political history of the American Revolution in the era that Maier evidently regards as more ideal and preferable to the present—to ignore the ways in which that historiography was powerfully linked to pervasive conceptions of citizenship and civic duty and pushed race and gender to the side is to have a hopelessly politicized concept of what constitutes “politicization”. The question is not whether our history has a politics, but what kind of politics it has. The valid complaint that KC can make, I think, is not about whether history is being “politicized”, but whether practicing historians are being fair and open-minded in their own work and in their evaluation of others’ work, whether they seek pluralism and variety in the field because those things are an intellectual good in and of themselves, whether they are being crudely instrumental in the choices they make as scholars. But this is something that I wonder about in regard to Maier’s complaints: is she reading the work of her compatriots generously, appreciatively, and with a strong belief that the diversification and pluralization of the discipline is always a good thing? It’s right to call other historians on their intolerance, but not if that threatens to become a mirror-image intolerance or parochialism in reverse.
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Jonathan Rees - 8/1/2004
How many Ph.D. granting institutions are there in history in the United States? For sake of argument, let's say 100 (although I think it's higher). If you get one of these things from the school ranked 100 on this list, are you going to keep it on your shelf and go back to work at the widget plant? No. There is probably a community college waiting for you somewhere that would love for you to come teach six sections of survey at a really low salary. If you take their proposition, you will probably teach a lot more students in one year than anyone at Michigan teaches in ten (except for the poor professor teaching the 500 person survey class).
Michigan alone is not a trend. There's a whole different world out there, and some of its representatives surface more than occasionally on this blog. But even if every school in the top-100 had the same faculty composition, I still don't think it's the death of political history because I don't believe anyone who studies race would dismiss the importance of WWII. They might teach it a little differently, but no one can tell the players without a scorecard.
Robert KC Johnson - 8/1/2004
I didn't mean to make an elitist argument--much less with regard to Ohio, where I know two other Ph.Ds (along with Derek) who are as high quality or higher than anyone I studied with. I chose Michigan for this dicussion simply because (a) the pattern of exclusion there is so extreme and (b) the school has such a rich tradition--Dexter, then Bradford, Perkins--in diplomatic history.
There are two other points that should be made with regard to the political/diplomatic/const'l trinity in US history. With regard to priorities, one item that we've discussed periodically since the start of this blog has been the need for professors to, increasingly, cover large amounts of ground. More so, it seems to me, than other subfields, good courses in these three approaches by their very nature cover virtually every subfield in US history (except, maybe, for cultural), and need to do so in depth. A course in constitutional history, for instance, almost has to conclude, in the post-1954 period, by focusing largely on issues of race and gender. That's not to say that students should take a const. history class in lieu of a class in African-American history, but the government related fields seem more easily stretchable than those that don't focus on the government.
Second, for better or worse, we live in the most powerful country in the world. The two world wars affected virtually all aspects of US history; ditto with federal policy at least since FDR; critical social (and, to a lesser extent) economic issues have regularly been decided by the Supreme Court. It's hard for me to see how any student could have a good education in US history without a foundation in the history of the government's actions.
Ralph E. Luker - 8/1/2004
Isn't elitism in the profession a very different issue than the one KC and Tim have been debating? Their issue, it seems to me, is about the allocation of resources to fields within given departments. Isn't your issue, essentially, about institutional discrimination against persons coming from less prominent institutions?
My doctorate is from UNC. It would rank below Harvard and Johns Hopkins, where KC and Tim studied, but probably higher than OU, where you did your work. In the economy of American higher education, I've known departments that wouldn't give a second look at a Harvard or a Johns Hopkins ph.d. because of their perception of elitist assumptions there. Moreover, you have the benefit of a very well-known and well-regarded dissertation director, whose word is much more likely to get a hearing than would some assistant professor in diplomatic history at Michigan, to take KC's example. In that sense, at least, you have "elitist" assumptions working in your favor.
Derek Charles Catsam - 8/1/2004
Much as I agree with KC on most of these points, as one of the apparent sad sacks coming from a fifteenth rate institution (Ohio University, whose hiring rate on the job market, by the way, I'd gladly compare with Michigan, apparently the standard from what I garner from this conversation, or even Harvard, the putative gold standard) I'd dare say that there are other schools out there. Most of the best colleagues I had at OU would gladly throw their record up against those at the Ivies or Big Ten, or wherever else. The problems at a place like OU relate to depth, to be sure. But I have never been convinced that it is better to be one of a Harvard advisor's second tier of ten students coming out in a given year as opposed to the best of OU's students coming on the job market. That the Ivies give too much credence to a 23 year-old entering their graduate programs ought not to be to their credit. My colleagues and I have been to a good number of conferences up to now in which Ivy League students floated on their advisor's name and yet delivered irredeemably flatulent papers. Perhaps elitism (and we all know that there are lots of schools that will give nary a look to folks if their PhD is not from the right place in the hiring process) ought to give way to an actual merotocracy, and then we'd see what might happen.
Much as I sympathize with KC's politics, I do have to say that neither the solution nor the assessment of the problem ought to start nor end with what what is happening at Michigan, Harvard, or Stanford. I may well have an inferiority complex, but I've seen enough Virginia grads who have not actually done anything hired over we second-rate folks who actually have to think that the profession's problems might be one of a misconceived aristocracy rather than an actual qualitiative one.
Timothy James Burke - 7/31/2004
I agree were it voiced as such (and you have colleagues who have). But it rarely is so clear. Suppose Michigan were to say, "Ok, we agree on the 11-0 thing: we're going to move 3 positions over the next three retirements into some other area of strength."
That's when you face the test of a tough argument, because political, diplomatic or constitutional history wouldn't be the only specialization to step up and take its innings at the plate. That's really the context in which the arguments have to be fair, and as fair arguments are very difficult to make for *everyone*, on all sides, because coming up with a metric that helps scholars to decide which of all the things they don't do are the most important things to do is truly difficult.
Robert KC Johnson - 7/31/2004
I'd agree that a department like Michigan's simply adding a "token" diplomatic historian would do it little good, in terms of graduate training--I, too, wouldn't recommend a talented student that was interested in the field to attend a place with such meager representation.
On the other hand, were I an administrator at Michigan, I'd certainly wonder whether it's a proper allocation of the university's resources to have 11 profs who describe themselves as focusing on race in America and 0 US diplomatic (or, for that matter, constitutional or military) historians. Might the university be better served with a blend of, say, 8 profs who describe themselves as historians of race in America, and 3 who work in some aspects of US foreign policy? Perhaps not. But in terms of relative value to Michigan, it's hard to see how there wouldn't be some better way to spend the university's money than on the salaries of historians 9, 10, and 11 on race in America.
US diplomatic history, much like US social history, features topics that are both arcane and of critical importance. For every published study of an arcane treaty, there is a book like Jeremy Suri's international history of the 1960s, or Fred Logevall's book on the Vietnam War, or--although not published in an academic sense--the 9/11 commission report, written by a staff composed mostly of diplomatic historians.
Justifying significance gets at the question of what the purpose is of a college education. When I was at Williams, my sense is that our fundamental goal was to provide a solid liberal arts background, and to prepare students for professional school. At Brooklyn, I'd still say the former, but less the latter, and more of a stress on preparing students for participation as democratic citizens.
In either case, it's hard for me to see how a policy of excluding or marginalizing political, diplomatic, or constitutional history can be justified on intellectual grounds.
Timothy James Burke - 7/31/2004
Let's stick narrowly then with the hiring issue.
I think a perfectly reasonable case can be made that a graduate department that aims for excellence and centrality to its discipline is vastly better off with a constrained mix of specializations, essentially to concentrate all its eggs in a few baskets.
Let's say Michigan listens to your pleas and adds a single diplomatic historian. Would you honestly advise an undergraduate that you'd like to see come out as a diplomatic historian to preferentially look for admission to Michigan? I wouldn't. Because what usually happens in a department that has just one person in a particular area is that they don't get any graduate students of their own, and end up the secondary readers of everyone else's students. Or they end up stressing secondary specializations and dropping their primary identity in order to fit in. Let's suppose your diplomatic historian stays pure and focused and he actually gets a few students of his own. Those students are in a really tough situation: they've got only one person they can really rely upon for training in their preferred field. If their relationship with that person is at all difficult, they're stuck. Even if that person is a mensch, they're still going to have a much narrower base of patronage when they graduate than the people who have four or five advisors in their area of specialization.
So just hiring one person would be to my taste purely gestural, *exactly* and *uncomfortably* like a diversity hire--just something done to appease. So suppose you say ok, Michigan needs two or three or four diplomatic historians. That takes you back to the entire larger argument of my piece: that's a major shift in resources. You can't justify it just on the grounds that diplomatic history is good, too: you have to argue that diplomatic history is more important than something else that Michigan is already doing. You have to tell Michigan what they should stop doing as well as what they should be doing instead, and you have to make that case as more than just "diplomatic history is good, too". You have to explain why diplomatic history is more important as an area to concentrate resources in than something else--a challenging, difficult and sometimes impolitic kind of argument, but one that if it is to be made, has to be made without the kind of quasi-cheap shots that Maier indulges in. It has to be made not as a negative case or a sly one, but forcefully as a positive case for the virtues of diplomatic history *as it has conventionally been done in the past*.
Were I in a department to whom that case was being made, I would have some counter-arguments to offer. Not the kind of anti-intellectual defense of social history that KC's colleagues have made, but some real questions about the overly tight heuristic boundaries that conventional diplomatic history sometimes makes for itself. I read through a stack of proposals last year for several funding agencies, and I did see a couple of very traditional diplomatic history proposals, one focused on an arcane treaty process between the US and another nation. Maier says the primal question of history is, "So what?", and this proposal had no answer that I could see to that question, because it made a fetish-object out of the process of diplomacy. On the other hand, I've read brilliant work that I think of as "diplomatic history", but I'm not sure that the central traditionalists of that field would regard it as such--work on the history of the passport, for example, or work on the history of imperialism and the discursive norms of the late 19th Century international system. If we look at Michigan, for example, I'd say that Geoff Eley's work sometimes travels into terrain I see as connected to diplomatic history, though his core practice is that of a social historian. So the argument about diplomatic history's limitations can be met--perhaps by saying that it's a mistake to view the dullest work as reflecting the core traditions of the field, perhaps by arguing that there is a virtue in the work I am imagining to be dull and I'm just missing it. But if you're going to ask departments--or the discipline--to reallocate resources in a substantial way, then you've got to make a positive case for that.
If you're just asking for one token figure at each top program, you're making the same mistake that the identity politics crowd does. When I think about a field like African History, I think I'd be happy if there were two top graduate programs in the country that had concentrations of strength in that area and many others with no one at all there, rather than asking all top programs to just have their one token representative.
This is a very different concern with thinking about representation in graduate programs for the sake of *undergraduates*, mind you--that's a different issue, and much more amenable to arguing that every department needs at least one person in every area of possible importance.
Robert KC Johnson - 7/30/2004
Jonathan's point is well taken--but with one important exception. If you look through job postings on H-Net or in Perspectives, most US jobs (and some European jobs) almost always have subspecialties listed. (This, of course, rarely applies for non-US or European positions.) Whatever we might say about increasing interdisciplinarity, US positions generally are posted in a manner similar to that of a decade or two ago.
To a certain extent, as Ralph Luker has noted before, Tim and I approach this issue from somewhat different perspectives, and therefore our differences in some respects aren't as wide as might appear. My concern is less with a critique of scholarly patterns (i.e., should we characterize a specific book or intellectual school as "political") than with what departments say they're looking for in hires. This is one reason why I have paid relatively little attention to recent developments in Revolutionary or colonial history--few, if any, schools advertise for positions in "colonial gender" or "revolutionary economic," etc., unlike the case for the national period.
As for the schools with big departments--Michigan, Wisconsin, the Ivies, Cal, Stanford--their choices have a long-term influence on the field. Given the tight nature of the job market--something unlikely to change--future tenure-track professors in US history are likely to come from an increasingly narrow band of institutions. To the extent that a school like Michigan no longer employs a diplomatic historian, there's no way it can train diplomatic historians. (Cal has moved in a similar direction.) It doesn't take many first-tier institutions to write out a field entirely to marginalize it in the long-term.
Timothy James Burke - 7/30/2004
Actually, I think even outside the most selective tier of institutions, specialization matters--but I think the kinds of specializations that are in this conversation matter vastly less to historians than geographic area and chronological era. It seems much less common for people to defend political history or economic history or cultural history per se, and more common to defend or argue about geographical and chronological specialization.
Jonathan Rees - 7/30/2004
This is an interesting and well-argued exchange, but I feel like we need a reality check here.
For the vast majority of historians, the question of their disciplinary specialty matters not at all. Whether they are in community colleges or small departments like mine, they have to teach just about everything in American history from the beginning to the end. If they get to teach their specialty once every two years or so, I suspect they consider themselves lucky. I also suspect the problem is even more acute in World History where you have thousands of years and the whole globe to cover.
In fact, for those of us who don't teach at Michigan, over-specialization will actually hurt job applicants because they have to be able to make a case that they can teach many subjects competently. Treating grad students like they are all going to teach at Ph.D. granting schools, like so many programs do in my experience, ought to be considered advising malpractice.
I also agree that most people at Michigan would probably argue with the assumption that they don't know anything about politics. And, of course, for all the students at Ann Arbor care, you might as well be arguing over how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.
Robert KC Johnson - 7/30/2004
As always, a very thoughful posting by Tim--much of which I agree with--and I'll try to respond.
First, as Tim points out, I am to a certain extent influenced by the situation at Brooklyn, an institution where a president would openly endorse a position that courses in political historically are suitable only for "a certain type of student, almost always a young white male" and that the department should feel free to exclude from consideration for hiring job applicants who either (a) write for conservative publications; or (b) study government institutions.
I can just imagine what the reaction within the field would have been had the president endorsed a view criticizing the offering of courses in "women's history, focused on figures out of power," as suitable "only for a particular kind of student, almost always a young black female."
That said, while I can't imagine that there are many colleges whose academic leadership is this extreme, there are a good many--especially those at non-elite schools that adhere to the dictates of organizations like the AAC&U--that would agree with the Brooklyn president in private, even if they wouldn't come out openly and say so.
I agree with Tim that "there are basic structural pressures upon graduate students and junior scholars to create the impression of novelty in what they do, and to conform to the norms of more specialized scholarly writing."
I think, though, it's important to stress exactly who and what determines "novelty," which is an inherently subjective term. What is one person's "novelty" scholarship is another's example of "old-fashioned" writing. For instance, while Maier (or I) might regard as novel studies in institutional history that make use of newly released documents (either the publications series that she mentioned in her piece, or, in the case of 20th century political history, material from the presidential tapes), adherents of the "new political history," which focuses almost exclusively on non-governmental actors, would not regard this type of work as "novel." "Novelty" or "newness," in this sense, becomes a cover for supporting interpretations that conform to one's pre-existing ideological or pedagogical preferences.
I also agree with Tim on the need to have data to back up claims. That said, one thing we all do as historians is use particularly illustrative examples to support broader claims. One thing that I've tried to do in my writings and comments about department hiring patterns is to provide hard data. We can quibble as to the specifics, but, again to use Michigan as an example, it's hard to maintain that something isn't askew when a major department has 18 historians who explore US women's or race history--quite apart from social and cultural history--and only 3 that do political, legal, and diplomatic topics combined.
Politicization: I share Tim's admiration for Novick. On this point, though, I think that much of the "political" opposition to political history extends beyond scholarly or pedagogical debates. This is a field, after all, that easily can--and has--incorporated issues such as civil rights and women's rights. Yet, for better or for worse, it's also a field more likely to attract scholars of differing non-scholarly viewpoints than, say, African-American, women's, labor, or cultural history. Eliminating positions in it, or redefining it in such a way to make it interchangeable with social history, is one way to impose an ideological conformity in departments where a particular mindset has assumed a majority.
Proportionality: I didn't mean to say that it's obvious that one should consider the Constitution more important than US imperial expansion. I do, however, think that it's obvious that one shouldn't cover imperial expansion to the exclusion of the Constitution--or interpret the Constitution solely through the lens of imperial expansion, which strikes me as reductionist history.
With regard to political history as a whole--or, more broadly, the history of American governmental institutions (which would include diplomatic and legal history)--it does seem to me obvious that colleges should offer courses and hire faculty in the field. To take one very recent example: the 9-11 commission report, which among other things is an astonishing piece of scholarship. If our goal in the academy is, in part, to prepare students to become democratic citizens, then we're under some obligation to teach them how the government has worked, processes information, and achieves oversight--the sort of themes evident in the 9-11 Report.
My general goal, throughout, is for colleges to give fair consideration to scholars of institutional history, not to exhibit an intolerance toward those who don't do this sort of history. Based on any reasonable survey of History positions at large schools nationally, we're not suffering from a surfeit of positions in social history.