- Historic Sites
American History Is Falling Down
If the historians themselves are no longer interested in defining the structure of the American past, how can the citizenry understand its heritage? The author examines the disrepair in which the professors have left their subject.
February/March 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 2
What accounted for the extraordinary growth after 1950 was a shower of prosperity that descended on every campus, thanks directly to World War II and the Cold War. First there had been the GI Bill, bringing into the classrooms a tidal wave of government-financed students; that was the wave I had ridden. In 1958, the year after the Soviets had launched their Sputnik satellite, the federal government opened the sluice gates of the Treasury again and provided grants and fellowships for defense-related advanced studies—a definition that charitably included the history of potential enemies and allies around the globe.
Demography did its work too. Approximately two years after Sputnik, the advance guard of the postwar baby boom poured out of the high schools to occupy the heights of higher learning. Swarms of them majored in history, and United States history was especially popular. It was attractive to learn how we had come to be what we perceived ourselves to be—the world’s treasurer, workshop, success model, and armed guardian of liberty.
Historians with Ph.D.’s were soon so freely available to college administrators that it was automatically assumed that only those with, or on the verge of, the doctorate were qualified to teach undergraduates, which up to then had rarely been the case. The Ph.D.’s themselves had additional ideas. Their proper function, it was taken for granted, was to rise above grading sophomores, to continue advanced research within a major university if possible, and to select, encourage, and train successors. With plenty of money available for libraries, publications, fellowships, and faculty enlargement, the professors dreamed big. They saw themselves as part of a permanent and self-perpetuating guild, with few responsibilities outside the academy.
Meanwhile, professional societies like the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians did little to attract, hold, or promote members who taught at the pre-college level or who worked in museums, libraries, historical societies, and archives around the country. And although the holders of leading chairs wrote high school and college textbooks that presumably reflected what the academy thought was the essence of history, few of the major professional journals reviewed these works. Since texts for grade schools and high schools were, of necessity, highly condensed and simplified (and profitable), it was considered bad form to scrutinize them too closely. A colleague had the right to supplement his salary without embarrassment. Thanks to this lack of criticism by one’s peers, defined by the current executive director of the AHA, Samuel R. Gammon, as “lamentable politesse,” professional historians—which meant, overwhelmingly, college-teaching historians—shook off any responsibility for what American children were being taught about their past.
At the same time, most of the success-flushed, textbook-writing professors were not very hospitable to those who wrote for a general audience. In faculty clubs, authors without doctorates who had the temerity to write history and biography were referred to, unflatteringly, as “laymen.” It did not matter whether the books were trashy—as some undoubtedly were—or meticulously researched. I remember a loud and contentious lunch where I failed to impress anyone with the argument that if such outsiders were laymen, we were priests, and was that really how my colleagues imagined themselves? A few top-ranked professors did challenge the two-culture theory. Among them was Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., whose sins included bestsellerdom, two Pulitzer Prizes, and service in the White House. To boot, he had not taken a Ph.D. And there was the tireless and venerated Allan Nevins (likewise un-doctored), who labored to bridge the gap by helping to found the Society of American Historians and who acted as a godfather to American Heritage in 1954. In common with such other exponents of lucidity and literacy as Richard B. Morris, Samuel Eliot Morison, and Henry Steele Commager, Nevins wrote frequently for American Heritage. In fact, many well-regarded academics contributed articles to the magazine at one time or another.
But the word for such efforts was popularization, intoned with a sniff of condescension and the implication that the author was buying into the fat life at the expense of integrity and virtue. One night, during an AHA convention in Philadelphia, a distinguished professor from the University of Pennsylvania told me amiably but firmly that it was a betrayal of my training to waste time writing for this magazine, whose circulation then was around three hundred thousand. Our job as social scientists was to find and shape data to be used by others trained to interpret and analyze it. The public be damned.
Busily talking to themselves, the mandarins forgot some important lessons from their own past. The great nineteenth-century historians—Richard Hildreth, William Hickling Prescott, George Bancroft, Francis Parkman, Henry Adams—had not been professors, though Adams did put in a stint of teaching at Harvard, where his colleagues bored him. But he, like the others, thought of himself as a man of letters and an independent scholar—a proud title. He believed in a science of history, but one to be presented with the maximum of art. Historical writing still straddles those two camps.