Charles Kenneth Roberts

Politics, History, Culture

Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Present of History

Robert Zaretsky writes “The Future of History” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, and I find much with which to disagree.

The just world fallacy is an expectation that a person’s behavior necessarily results in fair or deserved outcomes. Things which happen to any individual are the natural and just consequences of that person’s actions. Lose your job and your house? Should have worked harder and saved more. Hit by a car? Should have been watching where you were going. This is a fallacy, because in this world evil is not punished and the good not rewarded, but it is a natural human inclination to believe that this is so, because we are constantly confronted with the reality that rewards and punishments are more or less random. The just world fallacy is an error by which people try to reconcile the world that they see with the one that they imagine.

How else could Robert Zatersky count the decline of academic history jobs as the result of “our self-inflicted ills”? The slow-moving pace of graduate school and academic publishing are part of the problem, Zatersky asserts, and the increasing focus on arcane subfields and jargony monographs has left history out of touch with the ever-hurrying modern world. This should sound familiar, because people have been complaining about a decline in the style and readability of historical writing since the Jazz Age at least. Just because something is cliched doesn’t mean it’s wrong, of course, but seeing these tired tweed jacket stereotypes trotted out again is a bit dispiriting.

I find the (what I think is supposed to be critical) picture of academic life quite appealing – an unhurried trip through graduate school, a book contract, “lassitude” and leisurely completion of a second book and tenure. I’m not sure who it is aimed at, though, and seems largely imaginary to me. We all know that most academic historians work in teaching-oriented institutions, right? There’s a whole bunch of community and state colleges in America, and the pace is going pretty quick for those of us working here.

There’s a lot wrong with the discipline of history and academic publishing, don’t get me wrong – some of Zaretsky’s criticisms are exactly correct. But I’m not convinced specialization into subdisciplines is an important part of the problem. I’d at least appreciate a bit more specifics as to what subfields of history Zaretsky thinks we could cut. “Years spent in reading rooms and graduate seminars have misled us to the only audience that matters,” Zaretsky writes, “those who read us because they want to, not because they have to.” If you write in certain fields, say, some kinds of presidential or military history, this seems like good advice, but I doubt its applicability to the entire endeavor. I would think historians, of all people, would recognize that what is good is not necessarily popular and what is easy is not necessarily good. I like narrative history and a good story – it’s what got me into history in the first place – but there’s a place for dense analytical monographs, too.

Here is the thing: History as a field right now, in terms of the work being done especially by young scholars, is amazing. Go to a history conference, and if you don’t find smart people doing smart things in new and interesting ways, you’re not looking. And it’s not just the Ivies or big name programs, either. There are lots of people doing fantastic work, writing well-written and important books, and not finding work doing it.

Zaretsky’s article reminds me of an NPR piece I first saw on Eric G. E. Zuelow’s twitter feed: “On Campus, Older Faculty Keep on Keepin’ On.” Amazingly, presumably an adult human being reported that the real problem in academic budgeting is old faculty who won’t retire. Faculty, who are along with students the victims of corporatized Big Education, must be made into the agents of their own hardship.

There is not an overproduction of history graduates, or at least not one serious enough to significantly influence hiring numbers. There is not a shortage of students who want to take history classes. There is not a shortage of the general public who want to read and engage with history. The culprit is an institutional and cultural one, a refusal to invest resources in higher education generally and the humanities and social sciences in particular. Instead of hiring full time, permanent faculty, colleges prefer to hire part-time adjuncts or variously disposable lectures, Visiting Assistant Professors, and the like. I’d actually prefer it if the real problem were out-of-touch specialists so focused on their own tiny niches that they can’t write engaging history; that would actually be much easier to fix. The real problem, I’m afraid, is something much larger.