MICHAEL KAMMEN's admirably edited collection of essays is most informative -- though in ways the contributors may not always have intended. It provides a detailed, up-to-date, insider's guide to the current activities of the historical profession: who does what, with what and to whom.
Seven of the essays cover time periods and different areas of the world. Phillip D. Curtin, for example, discusses African history, and Charles Gibson deals with Latin America. Their names are enough to guarantee alert, judicious surveys. A few other essays are devoted to the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge. There is one on oral history (nothing to do, of course, with dentistry or sex), and another on secondary and college-level history teaching. The author, Hazel Whitman Hertzberg, reviewing the experience of the 1970s (declining eorollment, division of aims), sees a need for broad, comprehensible and energizing new principles. But she recognizes they would "require profound changes in the structure and direction of the profession."
Professor Hertzberg's is the final piece. Possibly the editor felt she should have the last word. Possibly he recognized how little her comments accorded with the main body of contributors. This is not to say that the general tone is of self-satisfaction. Several writers mention the recent slump in student numbers, both for undergraduate majors and for history PhDs. We are offered wry assessments of particular fields whose vogue appears to have passed, at least for the time being. Robert Darnton of Princeton University announces at the outset of his essay on intellectual and cultural history: "A malaise is spreading among intellectual historians in the United States." Charles S. Maier of Duke University concedes that his field, international relations, has in the past decade produced little sense of "being at the cutting edge of scholarship."
At least the specialities of Darnton and Maier are still given space, along with comparative history, psychohistory, labor history, black history, women's and family history, urban history and so on. But some of the more traditional categories are missing. Biography sneaks in only under psychohistory. There is no section on military history, church history, art history or literary history. The sort of historian who wins Publitzers tends to be ignored, or mentioned only in other contexts.
Does this mean that the editor, or the American Historical Association for whom he labored, have followed too narrow a brief? I do not think so. Kammen is himself a prizewinning historian of verve and versality. He seems to have felt his task was to present the sort of work that is "in" among active scholars and young researchers. In that respect the report is accurate -- and perhaps a suitable graduation gift for someone who has acquired a taste for undergraduate history and might want to go further. The book may bruise the egos of a number of practitioners who will not find themselves listed in the index. Fair enough, though, if the criterion is contemporary publication.
The "cutting edge" of new historical scholarship is clearly identified. The key names and concepts are by no means all American. From England, E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm are respectfully cited. France has been an even greater influence, especially the Annales school with its emphasis upon "mentalities" in given societies. The new terminology, in part transatlantic, is very much that of the social sciences rather than the humanities. OK expressions include the "paradigms" of Thomas Kuhn and the "thick description" of Clifford Geertz. There is a chapter on political history, that old standby ("history is past politics"). Significantly, however, it focuses upon "The New Political History," and as if to stress that the new is really new, the author Allan G. Bogue adds "in the 1970s."
What is new, and confident, and apparently a winner, is social history with a keen attachment to whatever can be quantified. Cliometricians dominate the scene. They are not susceptible to arguments for history as an art. They urge rigor, exactitude, the study of whole societies. They condemn "impressionistic" judgements (e.g. of the type derived from reading novels of the past), or absorption in exceptional individuals or "elite" groups.
A few of the articles in Professor Kammen's book are belligerently cliometric, and tempt the reader to side with W. H. Auden ("thou shalt not commit a social science"). The essay most insistent upon quantification has the greatest quantity of misprints. But that is an inadequate response. There is in truth a great deal to be done through computer analysis. Work in historical demography, for instance, has already shown that in addition to "manifest" history, there is a "latent" set of tendencies in past eras which we may recover and which may not have been evident to participants. By the same token, there are changes over long periods of time that may have eluded previous historians because full use was not made of relevant source material.
The prospect is intriguing. Yet a degree of skepticism ought not to be taken merely as uncomprehending prejudice. Fashions come and go. Each vogue -- as 20 years ago with intellectual history -- is confident to the point of cocksureness. Great advances are promised. After a while they usually fail to live up to expectation. Again, quantification cannot embrace every sort of historical problem; nor is its types of evidence the only brand worthy of respect. And, as Hazel W. Hertzberg asks in effect, who but those versed in multivariate regression will want to listen to or read the cliometricians? As with other social-science and humanities subjects, the danger is of a professionalism so hermetic that it loses touch not only with the general public, but even with its own potential recruits.