American History Is Falling Down

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Griffen then drifted further away from conventional history by doing work at Yale on how to teach American studies from an interdisciplinary point of view. “After all those years digging in the Poughkeepsie records,” he explained, “I wanted to get out of the tunnel.” Now his courses at Vassar deal heavily in family, work, and leisure patterns among urban and rural Americans and are flavored with a strong brew of geography, statistics, economics, and sociology. He is a dedicated and popular teacher but admits that such courses do not enhance the appeal of history to the student looking for a broad picture. At Vassar the department of history largely has given up on synthesis. There are no longer comprehensive examinations for senior history majors that make them pull together what they have learned in their diverse courses. Meanwhile, Griffen notes, “it is no longer assumed that there are certain historical works that the generally literate population ought to know.”

Griffen is not apologetic about the new order of things. “We’ve reached a level of sophistication,” he argues, “where close analysis of social data is indispensable.” But he recognizes that a greater challenge lies ahead: “It takes art of the highest kind to interweave that kind of analysis with narrative.” Griffen is convinced it can be done. Still, he admits, there is a “hunger for an old-fashioned kind of history.” A hunger that goes unappeased in an age of specialization.

The economic shrinkage of the seventies compounded the problem by chasing more and more students from the humanities into professional and business courses that qualify them for jobs. Ph.D. candidates now tended to be more dedicated—and more frustrated. The end of the long, sleepless road of seminars and dissertation preparation—often involving years of costly travel—was a stone wall. There were few careers open to talent. Departments were already full of professors in early middle age who had achieved tenure, the guarantee of lifetime employment. Designed originally to protect academic freedom, tenure had turned into a bottleneck as soon as growth no longer created new jobs. In order to guarantee quality, colleges and universities had adopted an “up or out” rule: a young scholar not promoted to tenure within a reasonable time span—usually six years—had to leave. But without tenured slots to fill, quality was irrelevant; the good and the mediocre alike were told, like loitering bums, to keen moving.

For Ph.D. candidates, the end of their long, sleepless road was a stone wall.

By the late 1970s, when thousands had given up, it looked as if the future of history as an academic discipline could be summed up in a scene from some novel of a post-doomsday future—a handful of very old gurus teaching an even smaller handful of disciples the secrets of an art that nobody cared much about. In 1980 the critic John Lukacs, in the pages of Harper’s, charged the historical profession in America, which had allowed the “virtual elimination of history from American public and other secondary schools, as well as the elimination of history requirements from colleges and universities,” with being “gnarled and ossified.” Joan Hoff-Wilson, now the executive secretary of the OAH, could even ask in a 1980 article: “Is the historical profession an ‘endangered species?’ ”

But six years later, plenty of people insist that the patient is alive, hungry, and kicking off the bedclothes. Samuel Gammon for one. He is the cheerful, bespectacled head of the AHA, and he thinks it possible that history enrollments have “bottomed out.” He believes that “in the 1960s the Vietnam misadventure and technological hubris led to a disenchantment with the wisdom of the elders” but that the negative mood is passing. John A. Garraty, chairman of the Department of History at Columbia, said much the same thing a few weeks later. “When the country is in bad odor,” he observed, “then U.S. history is in bad odor.”

Gammon also argues that the battle is not over and lost in the elementary and high schools. It is true, he says, that traditional nuts-and-bolts history was elbowed out of school curricula to make way for social studies, whose content is more elastic and therefore more susceptible to pressure for the inclusion of trendy themes. “A secondary school curriculum,” he notes, “is a political act. Hispanics vote. Constitutions don’t.” What is Gammon saying? That the American people have voted themselves the kind of inadequate history curricula their children are stuck with? If so, it would be news to the populace at large. Nevertheless, the AHA and OAH are no longer indifferent. They have joined, along with the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), in the History Teaching Alliance to improve pre-college instructional programs in history by bringing together college professors and secondary teachers.