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Part 3: The Methodological Connection to the Campus Climate: A Clue from History

The Brief

This is the third in a series of articles from BPC Fellow Steven F. Hayward on the decline of intellectual diversity among higher education faculty. The opinions expressed reflect those of the author and not necessarily those of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

There is a curious thing to be observed about popular biographies today: the reading public can’t get enough of them. Biographies especially of presidents and figures from the American Founding, but also generals and major business leaders, have not only rocketed to the top of the best-seller lists, but even spawned Broadway musicals. And yet very few of them are written by academic historians. Instead, they tend to be written by journalists or professional non-academic writers like Ron Chernow (George Washington, Andrew Hamilton, Ulysses S. Grant, and J.P. Morgan), James Grant (Bernard Baruch), Doris Kearns Goodwin (Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln), or David McCulloch (John Adams, Harry Truman). There are some exceptions such as Yale’s David Blight, author of recent biography of Frederick Douglass, but these tend to be exceptions that prove the rule. The few academic historians like Blight who have written popular biographies are older, and withdrawn from the mainstream of academic history, like Douglas Brinkley, H.W. Brands, Andrew Roberts, Joseph Ellis, and the recently deceased Jean Edward Smith.

The twists and turns of academic history may offer another clue to the deeper causes of the campus conformity that have come to stifle freedom of expression and ideological diversity today. It was not that long ago that academic historians, and leading academic presses, produced lots of biographies and narrative histories with crossover appeal to both academic and general public audiences, like the best-selling biography of Lincoln from Harvard’s David Herbert Donald back in 1996. But today biographies and general narrative histories are mostly out of fashion in the academy, though Jill Lepore’s These Truths is a significant exception, as are all of the works of John Lewis Gaddis and Sean Wilentz. I should note that both Gaddis and Wilentz are nearing retirement age, while Lepore is a crossover figure as a staff writer at The New Yorker as well as a Harvard professor—a specialist/general audience combination that was once more common.

The decline of political biography and other once-thriving subfields may be related to the fact that undergraduate majors in history have been dropping through the floor over the last 20 years. In addition to shedding a public audience, academic history is shedding some of its student audience too. History is a discipline that, like political science and economics, attracts the interest of conservatives, but unlike political science and economics where conservatives are frequently found on faculties, conservatives in history departments are scarce and dwindling. This is not necessarily evidence of ideological bias. Once again, the larger story of changing trends in methodology may be more important.

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Evolving Methodology and Focus

But there were also some distinct methodological changes in academic history that contribute to this constant generational overturning. To take a long sweep again, in the 19th century there was great enthusiasm especially in Europe for both philosophical history and scientific history—the first owing to the influence of Hegel and German historicism, the second to Darwin. Henry Steele Commager wrote that: “Almost every historian of that [19th century] generation felt that he was on the verge of some discovery that should do for history what Darwin had done for nature.”

Philosophical history has not gone away, but in the 20th century the strong influences of social science and Marxism went a long way toward instigating new methodologies for historical investigation that paid more attention to social and material forces, a “history from the bottom up,” and often explicitly scorned the “great man” style of Thomas Macaulay and Thomas Carlyle. A pre-eminent example of this methodological innovation is the famous mid-century Annales school clustered around the French historian Fernand Braudel, with its fine-grained syntheses of how material and social forces shaped historical change over the long run. In the U.S. there was a period in the 1960s and 1970s when “cliometrics”—historical investigation rooted in detailed statistical analysis—was ascendant in many history departments. Cliometric history could be a mind-numbing exercise in statistical trivia, but some made significant contributions to widening our historical horizons. The controversial analysis of southern plantation slavery by Stanley Engerman and Nobel Laureate Robert Fogel in the 1970s arguably prepared the way for the 1619 Project, for example.

Along with the impulse to be more scientific and cross-disciplinary came attention to the social history of minorities and underrepresented groups. Social history is partly cliometric, but also partly linked with demands for justice and recognition from overlooked minorities. The pendulum swings of academic history make it difficult to draw clear lines between overdue revisions and inclusion of neglected voices and perspectives, versus an ideologically distorted emphasis that starts to affect the discipline as a whole. To be sure, there are still many academic historians who specialize in “big events” or specific subfields like the French Revolution, imperial Russia, Victorian Britain, Latin America, Africa, or dynastic China, but some once-prominent subfields, like military history and constitutional history, have largely disappeared, along with, as mentioned at the outset, conventional biography of prominent political figures. Today’s humanities and social sciences tend tofocus on race, class, and gender, often. framed through colonialism to the point it seem the imperial phase of the European powers in the second half of the second millennium is the most important period of all human history.

Similar to the dynamics within political science discussed in the first two installments of this series (here and here) conservative-minded historians are likewise alienated from both the ideological center of gravity and the dominant methodological focus of American history today. A self-reinforcing feedback loop deepens. One of the strange paradoxes of academia today is that the fierce competition for academic jobs and pressure for university departments to climb up the coveted U.S. News rankings actually stifles innovation and risk-taking within many disciplines, as no one wants to be “out of the mainstream.” Set aside possible ideological biases; few history departments will want to hire—or even have a subfield position for—someone who wants to specialize in military history or presidential biography. Methodological and ideological homogeneity harden further, aggravating what Cass Sunstein of Harvard Law School calls “the dominance of conformity” in which individuals with strong points of view become even more extreme when they deliberate only with others of the same point of view. The effect of this is not simply a further narrowing of campus orthodoxy that sometimes aggressively marginalizes non-left thinkers and ideas (the “cancel culture” phenomenon); the “mainstream” of academia is becoming even more remote from the mainstream of America.

There is no obvious remedy for this state of affairs, but the trend ought to be more widely recognized. The sudden uncertainty about the immediate future of universities amidst the COVID-19 crisis might provide some opportunities for thinking about how to shake up campus cultures. That will be the focus of the next installment in this series.