American History Is Falling Down

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History did not become a profession until the formation of the AHA in 1884. For a long time its membership was not dominated by those who had undergone graduate training, which was an exotic import from German universities. As late as 1911 less than 30 percent of the members were college academics. In 1912 the association’s president was a “layman” named Theodore Roosevelt.

The discipline of history became more fragmented and less “accessible.”

The 1960s professors were as heedless of the future as investors in 1929. They ignored obvious danger signals. One was demographic: it was self-evident that the bull market for future teachers would end with the baby boom, but there was no sign of self-restraint in the production of Ph.D.’s. On the contrary, history departments at institutions like Wayne State and Rochester, where I taught, either started or enlarged Ph.D. programs. They claimed it was important to break the “elitist” domination of the profession by the handful of universities— Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, Chicago, Penn, Wisconsin, Hopkins, Berkeley—that awarded almost all the nation’s history doctorates. Such democratic rhetoric was irresistible in the optimistic 1960s. Once, during a 1962 AHA convention at which I was present, W. Stull Holt of the University of Washington rose, like the Ancient Mariner, to detain the revelers with a question: “What happens to all these programs when the money runs out?” He was more or less ignored as a graybeard, out of touch with the times.

There were also booby traps in the rapid changes of curriculum that the good times brought about. The “equality revolution,” as it was called, spurred demand for studies in the history of previously overlooked groups—women, blacks, immigrant workers, Indians. Computers made it possible to analyze transfers of people, property, and votes with a subtlety that made older investigations seem as crude as shooting sparrows with a blunderbuss. Young historians, fresh from graduate school, arrived on campus eager to teach what they had learned in so-called relevant—and undoubtedly intriguing—new researches into the psyches of the Founding Fathers, or the ecological and sexual practices of the Age of Jackson.

Courses in these subjects shouldered aside old-fashioned staples of the history curriculum—the frontier, the Constitution, American diplomacy, the Civil War, Progressive politics, the rise of Big Business. Such changes were especially easy in the iconoclastic sixties. Good enough; change is the law of life. But those older courses did have some connection with themes already familiar to students from childhood—cowboys and Indians, covered wagons, great inventors and builders, the march of democracy. And they could be fitted into some kind of coherent pattern.

The newer courses, more accurate in some ways, nonetheless aroused neither echoes nor pride, and were somehow disconnected from one another. Since it did not matter in what order they were taken, departments began to drop requirements for sequences and prerequisites. Many also gave up their sweeping introductory surveys for freshmen as hopelessly unsophisticated and probably unnecessary. But it had been those very courses that had offered a common historical ground for all college graduates. It gave them something to stand on. Survey courses were also magnets for recruiting history majors. Often they were conducted by the most forceful, humorous, and exciting lecturers. Abandoning them not only had educational ramifications; it weakened history enrollments. “When departments dropped the Western Civ or the U.S. surveys,” said one of my former students at Rochester, “they lost the barkers in front of the carnival tent.”

The discipline of history was becoming more fragmented and—to use the jargon—less accessible. The process was described to me by Clyde Griffen—a friend and colleague at Vassar, where I taught part-time for most of the 1970s—when I spoke to him in his home in Dutchess County one chilly afternoon last spring. Griffen had come to Vassar from Columbia, where Richard Hofstadter—the best-known intellectual and political historian writing in the 1950s—had supervised his dissertation. At Vassar, Griffen became interested in studying social mobility. With money from the Ford Foundation, he and his wife—also a Columbia-trained historian—undertook a formidable, computer-based study of what people worked at and where they lived in nineteenth-century Poughkeepsie—a sketch of the ladder of opportunity, as they called it.