I seem to have struck a nerve among historians with my Feb. 20 column on the waning popularity of history as a major among college students. You would think that most historians would approve of an article calling on students to study their subject. But 90 percent of the reaction focused on 10 percent of the article — namely, my contention that historians “bear some blame for the increasing irrelevance of their discipline,” because many “have retreated from public debate into their own esoteric pursuits,” neglecting the study of political, diplomatic and military history.
The History News Network website devoted a whole article to the brouhaha. A few of the more polite tweets: “Omg. Get out from under your rock! Meet some of the many historians doing exactly that. Quit trading in outdated assumptions about what we do or don’t do. It’s tiresome.” “I love that today is the day we watched a Dutch historian shred Tucker Carlson into tiny little tantrum pieces and it’s also the day Max Boot told us historians hiding in broom cupboards are to blame for everything in the world.” “Max, I don’t think this is accurate. There has been amazing work in all of these subfields, indeed as good as the ‘classics.’ Yes, political/diplomatic/military history have been reimagined, but the publications and classes are as good as ever.”
A number of historians pointed to their own work as relevant to the public debate. They’re right! I never suggested that all historians engage exclusively in esoteric pursuits. I’m delighted to note that there are prominent exceptions, such as Harvard’s Jill Lepore, who is a writer for the New Yorker, and Princeton’s Kevin Kruse, who regularly skewers Dinesh D’Souza on Twitter. The Post’s own Made by History column brings historical research to bear on current events. “Public” historians working at museums, archives, foundations and historical sites do a wonderful job. But the historians who are on Twitter are, by definition, more likely to engage in public debate. They are not necessarily a cross-section of the profession.
I was struck by a lack of introspection among my critics. If historians are not to blame for the drop-off in history enrollments and the lack of historical knowledge among Americans, then who is responsible? Some suggested that the explanation is economic: Ever since the Great Recession, students have flocked to what they view as more marketable disciplines. That’s true, but it’s not the whole story. The decline in history majors since 2008 is only an acceleration of a long-standing trend: The percentage of college students majoring in history has dropped by roughly two-thirds in the past 50 years.
A number of historians emailed me privately to confirm that my concerns are justified — but they are afraid to say so publicly. “I agree with you about the history profession but didn’t want to get into the growing rage-tweeting from defensive professionals,” one scholar wrote. “Sure, there are historians who reach out to the wider public. But most don’t.” Another historian, who specializes in diplomatic history, wrote: “If I respond to this on Twitter noting I agree with you, I’ll get kicked out of my current job and will never be able to get a job in academia again.” A third told me: “The promotion system at universities and colleges doesn’t incentivize historians to engage with the public even if we would like to do this.”
These emails comport with what I have seen since the 1980s. The academy disdains “popular history.” Working with the government is viewed by many as selling out. Civics education is frowned upon as a ratification of an unjust power structure. Even being too good at teaching is risky at research universities; the joke is that a “teacher of the year” award is the kiss of death for non-tenured professors. You gain tenure by publishing articles in academic journals and books with academic presses. A historian friend was once told that he was hurting his prospects by publishing in a “popular” publication — Foreign Affairs.
It’s little wonder that many of the best-known historians today — Jon Meacham, Walter Isaacson, Robert Caro, Ron Chernow, David McCullough, Rick Atkinson, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss, Andrew Roberts, et al. — aren’t academics, and that few academic historians are found in the halls of power. This wasn’t always the case. As historians Hal Brands and Francis J. Gavin note in War on the Rocks: “Eminent scholars such as William Langer, Arthur Schlesinger, Ernest May, and Richard Pipes served in or consulted with government while retaining their academic positions during the Cold War. Schlesinger, Daniel Boorstin, C. Vann Woodward, and Richard Hofstadter wrote widely read books that drove public debate on issues such as political reform, populism, McCarthyism, and the broader American political tradition.”
Recent decades have seen a welcome focus on many facets of history — and in particular on many disadvantaged groups — lamentably absent from older scholarship. But they have also seen an unfortunate decrease in that kind of public engagement, along with a decrease in the academic attention devoted to subjects unfairly derided as the preserve of “dead white men.”
Brands and Gavin note that only 3 percent of historians in 2015 identified as diplomatic specialists, down from 7 percent in 1975, and that only three out of 572 jobs listed in 2015-2016 by the American Historical Association were in diplomatic or international history. Historians Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, writing in the New York Times, note a similar neglect of political history. They point out that “three-quarters of colleges and universities now lack full-time researchers and teachers in the subject,” and that “a search of the leading website advertising academic jobs in history, H-Net, yielded just 15 advertisements in the last 10 years specifically seeking a tenure-track, junior historian specializing in American political history. That’s right: just 15 new jobs in the last decade.”
Americans are in vital need of the instruction that historians can provide. Instead of responding defensively to criticism, historians would be better advised to think about what all of us — I include myself — can do to counter the abysmal ignorance that has made so many people susceptible to a demagogue like Donald Trump.