Let’s Run Away From The Girls! And Other Strategies To Make History Relevant To A Twenty-First Century Liberal Arts Education

June 11, 2009, 12:09 pm

Did Linda Kerber, Emily Rosenberg, Penny Von Eschen, Elizabeth Borgwardt, Nancy Cott, Joan Hoff, Marilyn Young, Ellen DuBois, Mary Dudziak and Mary Frances Berry die when I wasn’t looking?*

I was a little concerned about this when I picked up my New York Times this morning and saw that none of them were quoted in Patricia Cohen’s article, Great Caesars Ghost! Are Traditional History Courses Vanishing? I guess they just weren’t answering their phones yesterday when they weren’t called.

Tradition, as you guessed even before reading the article, would be represented by diplomatic, military, economic, constitutional and intellectual history. These fields a, the article asserts, are being crowded out of university history curricula by (you’ve guessed already, haven’t you?): the history of gender, and that other feminized field, cultural history. “Job openings on the nation’s college campuses are scarce,” Cohen writes, “while bread-and-butter courses like the Origins of War and American Foreign Policy are dropping from history department postings. And now, in what seems an almost gratuitous insult, Diplomatic History, the sole journal devoted to the subject, has proposed changing its title.”

Horrors. Change the title of a journal to reflect changes in the field? What else must the profession endure?

Aside from what you have already noticed — that “tradition”=”quality”=”what you really need to know to live in the world” — the association of “tradition” with “male” is sealed by the fact that not a single woman is quoted in the article, not even women working in the fields in question. Because, you know, once you add gender or race to your inquiry, you aren’t really in those fields any more. Tu comprends, mon chou?

In case you are still in doubt as to the destructiveness of women’s history to the profession at large, you have the helpful graphic pictured at left which demonstrates (without the appropriate gross numbers) that women’s history is eating the profession alive. And then, to provide appropriate pathos about the extinction of men from the historical profession, there is a lonely little petunia in an onion patch, a first-year (male) grad student whose name is being withheld by me out of mercy, who whimpers that he feels “a bit like the last woolly mammoth at the end of the Ice Age. ‘Being a young historian in this field is thus a rather lonely and sobering experience,’ he wrote, adding that some historians treat his chosen specialty with ‘genuine derision.’”

Do we have any doubt that these monsters are — women? No, we do not. Because why else would you ask a first year graduate student in any field for his or her opinion before consulting any one of the distinguished women in the fields in question?

Naturally, it is the permissiveness of the 1960s that is to blame for this travesty, not to mention the pervasive cultural rot that allowed women into the profession in the first place:

The shift in focus began in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when a generation of academics began looking into the roles of people generally missing from history books — women, minorities, immigrants, workers. Social and cultural history, often referred to as bottom-up history, offered fresh subjects. Diplomatic historians, by contrast, generally work from the top down, diving into official archives and concentrating on people in power, an approach often tagged as elitist and old-fashioned.

Over the last three decades the number of history faculty members at four-year institutions has more than doubled to 20,000-plus, said Robert B. Townsend, assistant director for research at the American Historical Association. Yet the growth has been predominantly in the newer specializations, spurring those in diplomatic, military, legal and economic history to complain they are being squeezed out.

In 1975, for example, three-quarters of college history departments employed at least one diplomatic historian; in 2005 fewer than half did. The number of departments with an economic historian fell to 31.7 percent from 54.7 percent. By contrast the biggest gains were in women’s history, which now has a representative in four out of five history departments.

The closest we get to women who actually teach in any of the fields under question being asked for their opinion is a quote from Anthony Grafton, who is now officially dubbed an Honorary Woman for trying to make this point, even though it didn’t affect the reporter’s perspective a jot. His perspective that these fields are not gone but have “shifted focus” is immediately countered by two other scholars for whom only “tradition” will do:

….critics like David A. Bell, the dean of faculty at Johns Hopkins University, argue that traditional diplomatic and economic history are still the specialties that are best suited to deal with America’s problems today.

Simply giving everyone a place at the table is just not affordable in an era of shrinking resources. “I’d love to let a hundred flowers bloom,” said Alonzo L. Hamby, a history professor at Ohio University in Athens (n.b.: note reference to the famously destructive Cultural Revolution that gutted intellectual institutions in the People’s Republic of China), but “it’s hard for all but the largest departments or the richest.” In his own department of about 30 faculty members, a military historian recently retired, triggering a vigorous debate over how to advertise for a replacement. (A handful of faculty members had the view that “military history is evil,” Mr. Hamby said.) The department finally agreed to post a listing for a specialist in “U.S. and the world,” he said, “the sort of mushy description that could allow for a lot of possibilities.”

You mean like gender?


*And these are just the Americanists. Lord only knows how the female Europeanists are faring in these days of want and strife. Phone home girls!

This entry was posted in Anthony Grafton, Apocalypse Now, blame the women, Dear God Not Again, feminism, Mary PLEASE, Political History, The Trouble With Normal. Bookmark the permalink.