It’s been a persistent theme on this blog that college faculties, with their relentless focus on racial and gender diversity, have neglected another kind of diversity that is also important: Intellectual diversity. And by that we usually mean (following our friends at Heterodox Academy) that academic departments at elite institutions, especially in the social sciences and humanities, often have few or any members with right-of-center political opinions, and that this tends to harm their public standing and the quality of work they produce.
But political diversity is not the only kind of intellectual diversity that is relevant to a college’s pedagogical and research mission. Equally important is the (related) question of disciplinary diversity: Namely, that a range of fields of study, styles of inquiry and modes of analysis are represented—that academics don’t all study the same things in the same ways, leaving out vital subjects and perspectives.
A recent op-ed in the New York Times from Fredrik Logevall of Harvard and Kenneth Osgood of the Colorado School of Mines argues that that is exactly what is happening in the field of history. The fad for “bottom-up” historical narratives, they say, has marginalized one of the field’s most storied traditions: American political history—the study of presidents, diplomacy, and high-politics more broadly:
American political history as a field of study has cratered. Fewer scholars build careers on studying the political process, in part because few universities make space for them. Fewer courses are available, and fewer students are exposed to it. What was once a central part of the historical profession, a vital part of this country’s continuing democratic discussion, is disappearing. […]
How did it come to this? The trend began in the 1960s. America’s misadventure in Vietnam led to broad questioning of elite decision making and conventional politics, and by extension those historical narratives that merely recounted the doings of powerful men. Likewise, the movements of the 1960s and 1970s by African-Americans, Latinos, women, homosexuals and environmental activists brought a new emphasis on history from the bottom up, spotlighting the role of social movements in shaping the nation’s past.
In a blog post, KC Johnson of the City University of New York concurred with these arguments, citing his own experience as a historian of Lyndon Johnson and the Cold War:
As someone who almost lost his job in part because (as a former colleague put it in a then-secret letter), my scholarship took the “old-fashioned” approach of focusing on “figures in power,” I obviously share the concerns raised by Logevall and Osgood.
It’s clear that the decline of American political history is very much intertwined with the political homogenization of the academy. Many of the post-1960s left-wing academic movements scoffed at studying the work of “dead white males.” The departure of conservatives from humanities departments left fewer scholars who might have a natural interest in such topics. And the dominance of historical subfields focusing on marginalized peoples likely made many bright conservative undergraduates reluctant to go back for their graduate degrees.
It is a shame that it has come to this. As Victor Davis Hanson has said, “[the] persistent continuity of the human experience is why studying history remains about the only way to understand who we were, are, and will be.” A historical establishment that fails to chronicle for the great drama of American high-politics is abdicating an important element of its responsibility to itself and to the public.