American History Is Falling Down

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Not in 1986. Now a subdued pessimism hung in the air. There were fewer young faces. The booming academic “slave market” had shrunk to a job directory on a single bulletin board that offered lean pickings. There was, for example, a one-year nontenured opening at the University of Connecticut, mainly to teach Western Civilization, doctorate required, publications desired. Another one-year slot in Constitutional and Early National History at the University of Toledo was posted. There was one plum, a department chairmanship at Drexel University. Other openings were for public—that is to say, nonacademic—historians. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Foundation in Hyde Park, New York, and the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society both were looking for executive directors. In New York City, the Fiorello H. La Guardia Archives was seeking an administrator who was expected to have “superior interpersonal communications skills, experience in grant writing, public relations, preparation of fund-raising materials and copy for public speeches, exhibits and correspondence.” I tried to imagine some giant of American history like the reclusive Brahmin Francis Parkman exercising superior interpersonal communications skills.

The convention program gave notice of roughly a hundred sessions, not counting lunches, workshops, and walking tours. Many of the subjects were intriguing, but many others seemed remote from what I, in common with most people, had once thought of as history. On the agenda were such offerings as Historical Perspective on Middle-Class Formation; Changing Sexuality in a Changing Society; The Social Construction of Domestic Space in the Early Twentieth Century; Computer Graphics and History; Gender and Technology; Exploring Important Issues on the Micro Level—Southeastern Pennsylvania in the Eighteenth Century.

Micro, indeed. I left the hotel in a far different mood from the buoyancy of the night before. The atmosphere of the convention seemed to be that of a gathering of medical and legal specialists around the body of a very frail patient named history.

Best-selling and academic historians seemed to live in different worlds. And neither group showed much connection with the resounding battlefield dwelt in by thousands of high school and elementary school teachers. The news from that front was not good either. One of the papers presented at the convention was by Diane Ravitch, professor of the history of education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Ravitch had already revealed, in an article in The New York Times Magazine, that we are losing the struggle to keep historical knowledge alive in the schools. According to her, the amount of time given to history in all schools is steadily declining. And what students do learn is frequently presented by teachers without historical training. Ravitch cited a study showing that among a sample group of seventeen-year-olds, most of whom were taking an eleventh-grade U.S. history course, “about two-thirds could not place the Civil War within the period 1850–1900; a third did not know that the Declaration of Independence was signed between 1750–1800; a third did not know that Columbus sailed for the New World before 1750.”

How did we come to such a pass? How do the worlds of popular history, the graduate school, and the elementary classroom mesh, if at all? What is the place of the nation’s past in the nation’s future? My efforts to find out took me not only to offices and libraries but on a trip through parts of my own past. I have been in this business a long time. If I speak here in the first person, it is not out of vanity but as a witness to change.

Let’s start with some history. Hardly ever did a profession ride such a roller coaster of boom and slump as college and university instruction in United States history during the forty-year period following the end of World War II. Before that, in the 1920s, history Ph.D.’s were produced at a rate of something like fifty to sixty-five per year. There were few historians, but their prestige and status were considerable. As late as 1950 there were fewer than a thousand undergraduate history majors in all the colleges of the United States. But suddenly the number of majors—and the doctor professors to teach them—began to climb: 881 Ph.D.’s were granted in history in 1969; the following year some 45,000 students enrolled as history majors. The graduate schools rolled on like World War II assembly lines—1,183 Ph.D.’s in 1973 and 1,157 in 1975. Almost half of all Ph.D.’s in history between 1920 and 1980 were awarded in that last decade.

 

And then the great collapse. Enrollments in all the liberal arts fell. The number of history majors sank to fewer than 20,000 by 1979, and the ebb continues in the 1980s. Production of Ph.D.’s was cut back—to 932 in 1977, then to 665 in 1981. But the job market shrank faster, and it was already too late for many of those who had finished their degree work. Thousands of highly trained historical specialists were stranded by the receding tide. As one of them told me, “The country hasn’t experienced anything like the Depression of the 1930s, but our profession sure did.”