Blogs > Cliopatria > Intellectual diversity and the end of British History at PCC

Dec 1, 2004 5:54 pm

Intellectual diversity and the end of British History at PCC

I've been following the debate between our own Robert KC Johnson (n this post here at Cliopatria and at ,Adam Kotsko's weblog on the subject of conservatives and academic diversity.  Johnson quoted George Will:

Many campuses are intellectual versions of one-party nations -- except such nations usually have the merit, such as it is, of candor about their ideological monopolies. In contrast, American campuses have more insistently proclaimed their commitment to diversity as they have become more intellectually monochrome. They do indeed cultivate diversity -- in race, skin color, ethnicity, sexual preference. In everything but thought.

Johnson agrees, adding that the problem is less an overt one of "only hiring progressives", but rather (especially in history) a problem of crafting "new lines" of history that are more likely to attract only leftists -- such as gender history, race history, and so forth.  He writes:

That college faculties are imbalanced between Democrats and Republicans is not a problem in and of itself. It is, rather, a symptom of the problem: the academy increasingly crafting new lines in such a way to skew ideologically, with a strong emphasis on positions that stress race, class, or gender.

As I’ve noted previously, (the University of Michigan History Department) is a department that has crafted recent job descriptions in U.S. history to hire its 9th, 10th, and 11th specialists in race in America, even as it has hired no professors in U.S. diplomatic or military history, fields perceived (sometimes inaccurately) as more conservative. That job descriptions have been crafted to stress not a department’s curricular needs or intellectual balance but instead fields considered ideologically acceptable by the department’s majority means that the critical decisions have been made even before the search committee first sits.

I hadn't given that line of argument much thought, but it certainly rings true here.  When I was hired full-time at Pasadena City College in 1994, I was one of two Europeanists on the faculty.  (The senior man had a background in 17th and 18th century cultural history; my background, if not my passion, was in medieval England and political history).  In 1994, we didn't have any "world history" classes; we just had "western civ" courses, US history,  and some regional specialty classes (Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, East Asia). 

Over my objections at the time, my colleagues voted to create courses in "world history" in 1995.  Initially, while the senior Europeanist and I were both teaching, our courses in western civ far outnumbered those in world history. But when he retired in 1998, he was replaced by a young Latino scholar whose specialty was, of course, in world history.  Indeed, our last three hires in the division have been for TWO positions in world history and one in Latin  American history.  I've been told more than once recently that on a campus of almost 30,000 (with only 11 tenured historians), "one Europeanist is enough."

At four-year colleges, they don't offer positions that simply ask for a specialty in world history.  But at the community college, that is the "hot field" -- and it is stacked with progressives.  World history seeks to dismantle what it sees as the myth of "western" uniqueness.  My two colleagues who teach world history are fine people, but thoroughly accepting of the tired old "Black Athena" theory.  Indeed, they have acquired a reputation (one is Latino, one is Asian) as being "anti-white", as reflected in student evaluations and comments on web-based teacher rating sites.

I can't say I've helped the cause much.  When I was first hired, I taught five sections of Western Civ and a section of British History.  My now-retired friend taught another five sections of Western Civ, and a section of Humanities. Now, I teach four sections of Western Civ (with one other section taught by an adjunct), while my other courses are in Women's History and "men and masculinity."  Thus, the number of course offerings in Western Civ has been neatly halved in the last decade, while the student body has grown by 20%. My own shift towards gender work has further reduced the number of offerings in the division.  Indeed, sadly, my decision to develop courses in Gay and Lesbian History and Men's History has meant that no one has taught British History since I last did so in the spring of 2000.  I'll get back to it again, but a decade or two ago, it was taught every semester without fail. 

30,000 students, and not one lecture on Boudicca, the battle of Bannockburn, or Bonnie Prince Charlie.  But lots and lots to say about medieval Mali.

We are asking for funding for two new hires in 2005 in history; our official requests are for a second East Asia specialist and a modern US social historian.  At times, I feel guilty for having left the more conservative field of British History (which I taught from a decidedly political, narrative perspective) for the sexier, hipper world of gender studies.  Student demand clearly leans towards these edgier classes. But something is surely being lost, and I suspect intellectual diversity is perhaps it.

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Jonathan Dresner - 12/3/2004

Mr. Mutschler's comment was directed at faculty in Ph.D. programs, so I can dodge that. But I do advise senior theses: I was second reader on a US-UK WWII diplomatic/military thesis last year and I have a student who is in preparations now to do a thesis on WWII Pacific military history (who is also, interestingly enough, working on a paper for another class on a Republican governor); I have a student now doing a directed study on wartime Japan.

And my dissertation was advised by several fine historians, none of whom had done any research in migration studies or, for that matter, social history as a discipline. My principle advisor recently retired after a career in which he brought dozens of students through Ph.D.s without producing hardly anyone who replicates his own research (I can think of one who sort of fits).

My satirical comment was not intended to denigrate military or diplomatic historians in any way, and I think my support of the idea that we should have topical and methodological diversity (in large departments, at least) is reasonably clear. I was trying to point out the idiosyncratic nature of our production of historians and our research, and problematize the question of consistent and even progress in all fields at all times.

Carl Patrick Burkart - 12/3/2004

But does it do a student any favors to have an advisor outside of their field? What would Dr. Dresner, an Asia specialist if I recall correctly, have to offer a study of a Republican governor in the United States? Perhaps he would make a good reader on the committee, but the student would be better served by working with an Americanist with a specialty in political history. We can bemoan specialization all we want, but in order to advise something as specific as a disertation an advisor needs to be very familiar with the secondary sources in the subfield. It would be even better if he or she were familiar with some of the primary sources.

Charles V. Mutschler - 12/3/2004

I can't speak for you, Jon, but I got into the field because I was interested in aspects of the past. We do not all have identical interests, which is probably a good thing, or we would have a lot of monographs re-studying the same subject. My point was, there are a lot of people out there who are interested in military history, and there seems to be a lively discussion on H-DIPLO. so why do we see so few people getting hired to do military or diplomatic history in tenure track jobs? Some of this may be how departments draw up the job description. Some of it also may be how we encourage or, conversely, discourage, areas of graduate study.

Question for you foolks in graduate programs. You are approached by a student who asks you to be his thesis or dissertation advisor. He expresses an interest in writing a thesis or dissertation on the life and political career of one of your state's Republican governors, who had strong ties to a major industry in your state. Will you accept his project, and advise the student, or not? Why or why not?

This is not really academic. The point is, I think we all like to study the areas of history we are personally interested in, and are less likely to examine areas that are outside our personal interest. On the other hand, there is no reason one cannot do a fine job of supervising a thesis or dissertation outside your area of personal interst and specialization. Such a project can be an opportunity for both professor and student to widen their areas of knowledge. Would you accept the challenge? If the answer is "No," then I think we are seeing one reason why we are not seeing more military, diplomatic, or political historians coming out of graduate programs.

I would address your last point, Jon. My graduate training did not try to specify which fields in history were appropriate to study. It did not try to suggest that only military / diplomatic / economic / political history were appropriate, nor that only race / class / gender / environment approaches were valid.


Jonathan Dresner - 12/2/2004

[satire]You mean we're supposed to make these choices on some sort of sound, logical basis? Plan ahead based on historiological gaps and ensure that scholarship only happens where it's "needed" or "deserved"?

That wasn't part of my graduate training....[/satire]

Carl Patrick Burkart - 12/2/2004

I apologize in advance if no one is interested, but I've found a couple of cites that argue for the importance of diplomatic history in one way or the other. Notice how most of the articles are found in specialist journals. I think that Ernest May was complaining about the decline of diplomatic history in the early 70s, but I can't remember the cite:

Hogan, Michael J. (2004)
The "Next Big Thing": .
Diplomatic History 28 (1), 1-21.

Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, “Diplomatic History and the meaning of Life: Toward a Global American History,” Diplomatic History, Fall 1997, vol. 21, no. 4, pp. 499-518(20)

Goedeken, Edward, “DIPLOMATIC HISTORY AS INTERDISCIPLINARY HISTORY: A CITATION STUDY OF THE JOURNAL LITERATURE,” Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. Newsletter 1992 23(4): 1-8.

Hunt, Michael H. “THE LONG CRISIS IN U.S. DIPLOMATIC HISTORY: COMING TO CLOSURE,” Diplomatic History 1992 16(1): 115-140.

Ninkovich, Frank, “THE END OF DIPLOMATIC HISTORY?” Diplomatic History 1991 15(3): 439-448.

Carl Patrick Burkart - 12/2/2004

By the way, I wasn't asking for cites for essays about the importance of diplomatic history as a form of snarky point scoring. I really want to read them. Since my field is not diplomatic history, I'm having trouble locating any and would appreciate suggestions. Thanks in advance.

Jonathan Rees - 12/2/2004


I wasn't accusing you of practicing conservative political indoctrination, I was pointing out that at least someone who's getting published at the Heritage Foundation was attacking academics for that purpose. Sorry for the confusion.

I haven't heard about the Fort Lewis story. Does anyone have any links?


PS I think the last time there was a dust up at Fort Lewis it was over a teacher who did a special topics course on pornography where she showed example films in class. Now, everyone in the state has to get their special topics courses cleared by the administration. I hate paperwork.

Charles V. Mutschler - 12/2/2004

By the same logic, where are the articles, essays, etc that make a sound intellectual case for the replacement of diplomatic history with social history? Or is this simply a case of justifying working in an area that interests the faculty member? If that is really what is happening, then why do we seem to have such a limited field of offerings in colleges and universities, as compared to the history sections of large book stores? Military history sells by the carload, yet it is harder and harder to find it on campus. Again, this seems to back up the thesis offered by Johnson and Bauerlein.

Charles V. Mutschler

Robert KC Johnson - 12/2/2004

I'm not a Europeanist, and so I'm not necessarily saying it is wrong to replace European diplomatic history lines with European social history lines. I don't know, however, that such replacement is what's being done in departments: along the lines of Hugo's post and the way in which curricular changes have led to the overall decline in the teaching of European history, I was just saying that one field in which many departments hired 20 or so years ago has all but vanished from the American academy (except for at places like Harvard or Columbia). If I had to do so, I think I could make an argument that students should know about the diplomatic patterns of Metternich and Bismarck, the alternatives presented by figures like Vattel or Grotius, the diplomacy and military history of the two world wars, and the Cold War from a European perspective, since almost all of these issues have a direct relevance on the current international environment in which we live in a way that hiring a specialist in, say, Polish social history doesn't.

Carl Patrick Burkart - 12/2/2004

Why is it wrong to replace European Diplomacy lines with, say, European Social History in the same time period? Does anyone have links or article cites for an essay that lays out the intellectual case for diplomatic history as opposed to other kinds of history?

Robert KC Johnson - 12/2/2004

All of my courses are on the web:

If this represents "conservative indoctrination," I'd say that the ideological spectrum of US history has narrowed even more than I've feared. But I can certainly see why many of the current occupants in the academy disagree with me on the need for greater intellectual diversity.

Hugo's post is a very interesting one: I have devoted little attention to exploring the teaching of European history, but it seems quite logical that the same sorts of changes are occurring there as well. On the only aspect of the field close to my training, the last 15 years or so has seen the all but total elimination of lines in European diplomatic history, once a position that many medium and large-sized History Departments possessed.

I agree that budgetary concerns play a role here. I'd like to think that if History Departments had more lines, they'd keep up their traditional offerings plus expand into newer fields. But even at the places with sufficient funds (Michigan, UCLA, Illinois, etc.), that pattern generally hasn't held.

Charles V. Mutschler - 12/2/2004

It probably is. If the book really is like what is quoted, I'd say it is another very poor survey text. But unlike Zinn's "A People's History," this one is unlikey to get rave reviews in academic journals or end up on the assigned reading lists of a large number of US survey courses. Which, I think does tend to support Mr. Johnson's and Mr. Bauerlein's theories.

Speaking of conservatives in academe, and piggybacking on Mr. Rees' post last week, did anyone notice the articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education and on line elsewhere ove rthe past couple of weeks about the fracas at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado? Interesting because the students there who are objecting to their professor's politics, teaching style, and methodology are not, apparently, card carrying conservatives.

Charles V. Mutschler

Ralph E. Luker - 12/2/2004

Jeez, Jonathan, the book sounds about as bad as Zinn's A People's History.

Jonathan Rees - 12/1/2004

And speaking of conservative historical indoctrination, read this:


Adam Kotsko - 12/1/2004

I think that your unconscious use of the word diversity (I imagine because that's just the word that gets thrown around in this debate) is a brilliant example of how the right ends up taking over words. They say they want "intellectual diversity," but there already is intellectual diversity in absolute terms (i.e., number of conflicting opinions and approaches) -- but they're hijacking the word "diversity" to talk about the kind of diversity they like. It's like the general human tendency to deploy the word "fair" when what you really mean is "favorable to me" -- except it's been turned into such an art form in the right wing in our country that I almost suspect that there's some kind of class that Republican-hack pundits have to take called "Hijacking Liberal Terminology 101: Basic Parameters."

Jonathan Rees - 12/1/2004

There is only a limited amount of time in any given class to cover a particular subject. There is also only a limited number of subjects that a finite number of faculty can teach. This whole politics in the classroom discussion centers around what people actual cover in class or how many people in a given department teach a particular subject. Liberals are supposedly shortchanging the really important stuff, but it's all history isn't it?

I'm actually sympathetic to the idea that American historians need to cover particular touchstones in order to help their students get along as citizens. Therefore, I try to balance the political history with the social and economic history that I find most interesting. That balance, no matter if you go all political or all social is a political decision in the sense that you are prioritizing one kind of history over another. That ought to be the professor's prerogative.

On my last campus, every student needed one intro US History course to graduate for citizenship purposes. In Colorado, they need to take one intro in any history, presumably for similar reasons. But how much of this stuff will they remember in 5, 10, 20 years? I know this sounds cynical, but I don't think its the facts per se that justify the existence of professional historians, it's the critical thinking skills we want to promote.

I come from an educational background in big schools where the undergraduates got lectured at from the front of the classroom. When I started my career, I taught classes the same way. As I realized that my students lacked critical thinking, reading and writing skills, I began to do more and more in class involving these aspects of history even though it just killed me to drop various historical actors from my lectures [For example, I have a killer Herbert Hoover lecture which has been relegated from my survey to my 1877-1945 course, but the same thing goes for my lecture devoted solely to women in the late- Nineteenth Century].

I don't really think it matters what facts you are using in order to teach students to be historically-minded critical thinkers. And it certainly doesn't matter what your politics are. It's like that scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian where Brian shouts at his followers, "You are all individuals!" Nobody is learning anything if they all shout back, "We are all individuals!!!" at the same time.

If more conservatives want to join our underpaid profession in the thankless task of getting more students to think critically I say bring 'em on. But if the point of this discussion is to replace alleged liberal indoctrination with conservative indoctrination, then it's not hard to imagine why so many people in academia are less than thrilled with K.C.'s cause.


Hugo Schwyzer - 12/1/2004

Actually, if I were to rewrite this post, I would change the word diversity in my last line. I think it might have been better to say that an appreciation for the uniquely valuable contributions of European civilization has lost.

And you're absolutely right that diversity is thriving in gender studies.

Adam Kotsko - 12/1/2004

that intellectual diversity is being "lost." I wonder if there is a net loss or even a net change in the real diversity of areas studied and taught -- for instance, lots of stuff on medieval Mali, on Latin America, etc., etc., seems to have replaced a lot of stuff on Britain. And of course, within a field like gender studies, there are a lot of people fiercely opposed to each other.

I'm not sure how we measure this.

(And I say this as one who would rather take a Western Civ or British history course any day of the week.)

Julie A Hofmann - 12/1/2004

A note to all, especially to Jonathan D. My comments should not be seen as a slam against any particular field of study, World History or otherwise, but more against the idea of 'progressive' fields at the expense of traditional fields that often incorrectly perceived to be bastions of conservatism. I just re-read my comments and realized they might not be as clear as I thought they were.

Julie A Hofmann - 12/1/2004

but that's crazy talk. Most of the folk here know I teach Western Civ. My background is in institutional-social history (they kind of overlap in the Early Middle Ages, what with kinship and marriage, etc.). And I have to admit that one of the reasons I love teaching Western Civ is that I get to talk about the relationship of the individual to the state (and the reverse). I get to talk about social changes and fights for the franchise in both ancient and modern society. I get to talk about notions of race, class, and gender and how they differ and sometimes change over time. In short, I get to talk about issues that often make my students more politically and socially aware. I'm very careful not to draw analogies to the present, partially because I think that they can detract from students from fully understanding the past, and partially because I just think it's inappropriate. In many people's books, that could be seen as a liberal agenda.

I often wonder if students of these "progressive" professors in these "progressive" subjects end up feeling more aware of their own rights and responsibilities in society, or less. Is it a liberal agenda to create a system where more people feel victimized, and even more disconnected to society than they did before?

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