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Who Killed History? An Academic Autopsy

[clock] 22-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Autumn 1995

In May 1993 David McCullough, the Pulitzer-prize winning biographer of Harry Truman, warned the graduates of the University of New Hampshire that we are becoming “a nation of historical illiterates . . .losing our past, losing our story.” “To aspire to quality citizenship demands an understanding of our background,” McCullough cautioned, adding that “Truman once said the only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know.”

McCullough is hardly the first to sound an alarm about our shrinking understanding of the past. Every few years, a new report appears, a major voice is heard, ominous data from standardized tests make headlines, and not just in history but in science, geography, basic literacy.

But if McCullough’s message isn’t altogether original, it warrants attention for the character of the messenger himself. David McCullough, after all, is one of the foremost historians writing in the United States today. Before the triumph of Truman, he was already widely admired for books on Theodore Roosevelt and the building of the Panama Canal. Undaunted by big subjects and grand scale, McCullough also writes in revealing detail about “Teedy” Roosevelt’s asthmatic childhood. A master story teller with broad, humane vision, he is also a careful researcher whose work stands up to expert scrutiny. In all, McCullough serves as a true public educator, not only satisfying but actually helping create a national appetite for fine books of history.

Yet David McCullough represents a vanishing species. Like California condors or Florida panthers, his is a noble breed which we haven’t lost yet but which isn’t reproducing in adequate numbers, even in habitats where it ought to thrive—namely, the hundreds of college and university history departments across the country. There, a talent for writing for a broad audience is considered secondary at best, a mark of intellectual deficiency at worst. In major academic departments, the Civil War historian James M. McPherson of Princeton told me, the trainees quickly learn that “theory and methodology are the most important professional requirements,” which means attending far more to “Foucault, Derrida, post-structuralism, and the like, than . . .to writing accessible prose.” The colonial American historian Page Smith puts it less kindly: not only do academics “have a vested interest in bad writing, [but] writing well for . . .a large audience will immediately raise the suspicion among your colleagues that you are not a ‘real’ scholar but a popularizer (about the worst thing that can be said about a young scholar).”

Is it unfair to ask if our cloudy awareness of the past is partly owing to the scarcity of professional historians committed to educating the public—the same public, that is, which supports scholarly careers through tuition, government funding, grants, loan guarantees, and endowments? What responsibility does the history guild have for widespread historical illiteracy and for the estrangement of professional academics from citizens who comprise the reading public? What lessons should we derive from free, independent practitioners like McCullough? Can the incentives they live by, linked inexorably as they are to the marketplace, help reorient the faculty of universities?


No serious research challenges the grim finding reached in report after report since A Nation at Risk in 1981 that there has been a prolonged, precipitous decline in knowledge of history among American students and, by extension, the general public. This is not simply a matter of ignorance of schoolbookish “facts”—the dates of wars, the chronology of presidents—but a lack of awareness of history’s intellectual and moral contours, as reflected in misunderstandings of epochal events like the civil rights marches, in the rise of Holocaust deniers, and in the proposed (and thankfully cancelled) Disneyland Civil War “theme park” in Northern Virginia.

The most comprehensive study of historical illiteracy is What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?, by Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn, Jr. (with help from the National Assessment of Educational Progress). Educators love to hate Ravitch and Finn because they worked for Republican administrations and criticize the excesses of multiculturalism, but no one attempts to refute their studies, where they in fact advocate a “socially inclusive” curriculum and reject the “kings-and-battles” staple of yore. Ravitch and Finn found that even though most llth graders are taking a course in American history, only rarely can two-thirds of them answer basic questions accurately—questions asking the half-century in which the Civil War occurred (32% correct), the regions of Europe from which turn-of-the-century immigrants came (38% correct), the red hunting of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (43%), the meaning of the term “laissez faire” (51%), the significance of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision (64%). Just as distressing, the strongest 17-year-olds make a lackluster showing. “The average score for all top quartile students,” Ravitch and Finn report, “was in the 70s . . . certainly not an impressive performance by our best students.” When even the most dedicated young readers— the next reading public—begin with such a spotty comprehension of the past, it’s hard to maintain an historically informed citizenry.

The weak performance of the best students continues through college, according to data I obtained from the Graduate Record Examinations, or GRE. Some educators, of course, are quick to pooh-pooh standardized tests: the tests favor mainstream students, bits of information loom larger than conceptual understanding, “skills” and “content” are falsely separated, some bright students don’t test well, and so on. All of which is true to a degree; but these criticisms hardly obviate the results of the GRE Subject Test in History. First, the questions asked on the test aren’t tricky or trivial, but substantial and interpretive. They deal with things that students of history could reasonably be expected to be reading, thinking, and writing about. Here are two sample questions (the correct answers are A in the first and B in the second):

The Reconquista refers to which of the following?

  • (A) The expansion of Christian Spanish states into Islamic Spain

  • (B) The expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492

  • (C) The tolerant, multicultural society of thirteenth-century Spain

  • (D) The Portuguese exploration of the Atlantic Ocean

  • (E) The union of Aragon and Castile in the fifteenth century

  • Which of the following offers the best evidence of the influence of Keynesian economics in the United States during the 1930s?

  • (A) President Roosevelt’s commitment to a balanced budget in 1932

  • (B) The adoption of a deficit budget after the 1937 recession

  • (C) The institution of a federal Securities and Exchange Commission

  • (D) The passage of the Glass-Steagall Banking Act

  • (E) The imposition of rigid production controls under the NRA

  • Second, the college students and graduates who take the History Subject Test are a self-selected bunch posting strong academic records. Virtually all are applying for graduate study in the field. Even so, this most promising group of all replicates the deep drop of younger students. In the last three decades, the mean national score on the History Subject Test has fallen 61 points, from 564 to 503. Clifford Adelman of the U. S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement notes that potentially vindicating factors like the numbers of test-takers and standard deviation units (the range of scores on either side of the mean) don’t make student performance look any better. On the contrary, they reveal a tight march downward. In an Education Department report, Adelman shows that student performance in history ranks third from bottom in all tested disciplines. Only in sociology and political science have the results been worse. Even the much-maligned field of education makes a better showing.

    Some of the blame for sliding scores must settle on changes in college course offerings. The promotion of “diversity” in the curriculum—the begetting of courses on narrow, politically fashionable topics conveniently related to the instructor’s own promotion-earning research—tends to force students into rarefied areas before they have anything like broad knowledge. Fewer and fewer institutions require meat-and-potatoes survey courses before students move on to cuisine minceur offerings. But whatever the causes, the available statistical evidence, to say nothing of anecdotal evidence, confirms a broad deterioration in historical knowledge, which in turn points to ominous consequences for the future reading public—and even the professor class itself.

    What are we to make, given this backdrop, of the veritable explosion of historical research in academia? Here we confront a grim, overarching irony. As with public schools, public welfare, and public health, we observe once again how immense resources, when poured into a self-interested professional culture, can produce little of value for those who provide the resources. We currently spend hundreds of millions of dollars maintaining thousands of professional historians at colleges and universities, only to have their vast output directed inward.

    One gauges the stupendous scale of the academic enterprise in the American Historical Review, flagship journal of the American Historical Association, which boasts 18,000 members and a century-old charter by the United States Congress. In the AHR for June 1991 (a typical issue), counting only those in English, 263 new book titles are considered. The list of “books received” (but not reviewed) accounts for 134 more, making a total of nearly 400. Once in a great while one of these books seems aimed at general readers, but much more commonly they are extraordinarily arcane and/or politically trendy. Titles like these proliferate (at an average cost of $45): Fleeting Opportunities: Women Shipyard Workers in Portland and Vancouver during World War II and Reconversion (State University of New York Press), Land, Liberties, and Lordship in a Late Medieval Countryside: Agrarian Structures and Change in the Duchy of Wroclaw (University of Pennsylvania Press), The Path to Mechanized Shoe Production in the United States (University of North Carolina Press), and Rebels with Causes: A Study of Revolutionary Syndicalist Culture among the French Primary School Teachers between 1880 and 1919 (Peter Lang). This is not for a moment to say that historians shouldn’t write about remote subjects or reflect on current political problems. But such activities shouldn’t be conducted to the near exclusion of writing general history and history aimed at nonexpert readers, as is the case with nearly all 2000 titles noted in AHR in an ordinary year. (And as is the case with the dozens of articles published in dozens of specialized journals each year, the hundreds of papers presented at academic conferences, and the annual harvest of 500 or more Ph. D. dissertations on microfilm.)


    All this makes for lots of what academic professionals are fond of calling “knowledge.” The celebration of this dizzying level of productivity—expressed in catchpenny phrases like “a major contribution to our understanding,” “a genuine breakthrough [for scholars] in the field,” “a vexing challenge to current knowledge production”—is easy to understand in the humanities, which have long toiled in the shadow of the sciences. And in some ways the celebration is warranted. This extravagant supply of printed matter does provide a record of hitherto-unknown or unexamined information gleaned from archives, a body of original research carefully evaluated by scholarly peers for its impartiality, methodological consistency, and adherence to canons of evidence. Here is laid a vast foundation for future inquiries impossible to number. So yes, the wealth is extraordinary, and we should all be impressed, as we are, say, by a Mercedes-Benz showroom.

    But as Vice President Al Gore somewhere remarked, there comes a point when unused or unusable knowledge becomes a kind of pollution. Although scholarly treatises are generated in lemming-like profusion, most will never know readers. It’s a safe guess that many are seen by no one beyond the scholar’s promotion committee at a university. The pedagogical value of professional research is slight as well, according to Richard H. Kohn of the U. S. Air Force Academy, who writes in the AHA newsletter Perspectives that “[m]ost of our work is so technical that it is even unsuitable for assignment to our own undergraduates.” Academic historians have followed the trajectory of professionalization so far that, like poets in creative writing workshops, they now produce more writers than readers, a veritable literature without an audience.

    The magic word “knowledge,” then, needs to be “problematized,” to indulge in a current academic phrase. If knowledge is being produced as never before and yet there are so few knowers, we have to ask: is this really knowledge? By routine definition, of course, it is. But can it rightly take on the dignity of the word, its aggrandizing rhetorical powers, if this “knowledge” is all but unshared? The question brings to mind Bishop Berkeley’s famous challenge: if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If you say that a sound must be heard to be a sound, that it requires a perceiver, then the answer is No. Similarly, if knowledge is “created” and no one—well, almost no one— knows it, is it knowledge? If you say that knowledge requires knowers in a meaningfully plural sense, the answer must again be No. Now the sound of the tree is a one-time thing, whereas the knowledge in question can reside in a book awaiting knowers. But unless knowers appear, which they won’t for all but a few books among many thousands, that knowledge is consigned forever to the realm of potentiality and never exists in a consequential, concrete sense. To adapt John Dewey’s argument about the triadic nature of language, knowledge “exists only when it is listened to as well as spoken. The hearer is an indispensable partner. The work of art is complete only as it works in the experience of others than the one who created it.”


    According to the late educational historian Lawrence A. Cremin, knowledge in this sense—pragmatic, active, communicated, unabashedly serving large populations, “democratized without being vulgarized”—has always constituted “the genius of American education.” Without public value, the pursuit of knowledge at universities would never have earned long-standing, generous public support. Jacques Barzun, a prominent academic historian who has written prolifically for a broad readership, put the matter bluntly to me: “I have never understood how merely storing scholarship on library shelves could justify the social expense of paper and print, let alone that of supporting the scholar at a university.”

    The professionalization of any sphere of human activity has always entailed a social contract. In exchange for special license, internal control, and other privileges, professions provide recognizable goods which benefit others. The early movers and shakers of the American Historical Association, understanding this, proclaimed three worthy goals: to improve historical education in the schools, to gain a dominant role in colleges and universities, and to capture the market for historical writing for the laity. While the control of university history departments came quickly, the first and last goals are now forgotten.

    In fact, the American Historical Association has rejected nearly every opportunity to devote talent and resources to schools and general readers, as Peter Novick shows in That Noble Dream, a fascinating history of the profession. Efforts to renew the founding aims of the AHA brought great discord—for example, a mid-century rebellion led by Allan Nevins, who founded the Society of American Historians to bring professors, journalists, and “amateurs” into fruitful contact. But such efforts were rare, and as Novick notes, few “dramatic controversies marked historians’ abandonment of the aspiration to achieve a dominant position in providing history for the general reading public. There was merely a continuing decline, accompanied by occasional, and increasingly ritualistic, headshaking.” The early professional ideal of “service . . .in return for licensed monopoly” disappeared as historians turned inward toward an “academicized . . . sensibility.” The European intellectual historian David Gress is less charitable. Writing in The New Criterion, he contrasts recent European historical writing, which “explicitly addresses itself to an enlightened and curious public,” to the writing of academic “American historians [who] sneer at those who undertake this task, which was formerly considered an essential cultural activity.”


    If academic historians spurn the reading public, is anyone filling their void? Fortunately the answer is Yes, as anyone can confirm by what I call the Dalton-Walden Test. To perform this test, enter a book shop in a city or shopping mall, walk to the “History” section, and one by one check who wrote the books. You’ll find it’s mostly journalists and independent writers. (I first performed this test unwittingly several years ago when I was looking for a history of the Philippines at an excellent book shop in a university town. Even this establishment didn’t carry any of several histories written by academicians, but on prominent display was In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines, by Stanley Karnow, a veteran print and broadcast journalist who got his start at Time.)

    It’s not hard to come up with further empirical evidence of the dominance of “non-professionals” and “amateurs” in the public market for history. In the first half of 1993, only one in four biographies of historical figures under consideration in the New fork Times Book Review were written by professors. This, it should be said, reflects the academic orthodoxy of social history, which holds biography politically suspect. It turns out that Ralph Waldo Emerson got it dead wrong—dead white male wrong—when he said, “There is properly no history; only biography.” Those in-the-know know better: “There is properly no biography; only social forces.” In professional argot, Emerson is guilty of “methodological individualism.” Yet it should be said in strong defense of social history that in the right hands it can attract a broad audience, as shown by Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only festerday as far back as the 1930’s to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Midwife’s Tale in the 1990’s.

    Yet more empirical evidence of the superior service rendered by “nonprofessionals” can be gleaned from the History Book Club, the preeminent source of history books sold to American readers. Of the 106 titles offered in a recent standard mailing, only 19 were authored by university faculty affiliated with the American Historical Association. Of the 28 biographies, only four. Overall, less than 20 percent of books offered in this common reader’s agora were grown on the state-subsidized farms of the American academy. The remaining 80 percent sprang from the bounteous private plots of journalists, “amateurs,” and outsiders.

    The causes of this imbalance aren’t far to seek. Academic writing itself—the Fourth Monograph in B-flat Minor—often poses insurmountable barriers to broadly educated readers. Its flattened verbs, incessant abstractions, disregard for rhythm and sentence balance, expert-oriented asides, and occasional political tendentiousness all serve to drive away a general audience just as surely as they identify the author as one of the elect.

    Topics of immense interest to outsiders often are anathema to career-minded academics. The best example, and a huge one at that, is the study of wars. These historical events, which affect thousands and millions of people, hold little attraction to the academic constituency, despite its professed concern for the masses. Wars are the subject of one in four books offered by the History Book Club, yet hardly any major academic departments hire a professor of military history.

    Most dismayingly of all, academic historians have largely abandoned narrative, the great storytelling craft practiced by the honor roll of historians extending from Herodotus, Thucydides, and Tacitus through Macaulay and Parkman to Mattingly and Shelby Foote. Narrative, among other virtues, keeps readers interested. It recreates—imperfectly of course— the gripping moral dimensions and the sheer excitement of past events. Compare the effect on the reader of the first two sentences from two books about the Philippines. Here is social history by Daniel B. Schirmer and Stephen Rosskamm Shalom in The Philippines Reader:

    Integral to the history of the Philippines in the 20th century has been its relation to the United States. From its very beginning in the closing years of the 19th century this relationship has been marked by contention between those Filipinos who desired their country’s full independence and sovereignty and those in the United States who favored a policy of intervention in Philippine affairs to further U. S. interests.

    Here is Stanley Karnow:

    By September 1986, after four years as secretary of state, George Schultz had grown accustomed to presiding over official dinners of foreign dignitaries visiting Washington: the rigorous protocol, the solemn oratory, the contrived cordiality. But he could not recall an occasion equal to this night.

    In Schirmer and Shalom, history looks to be merely the fulfillment of a predetermined political thesis. In Karnow, history is dramatic. We want to know what happens next. Chapter by chapter, Karnow carries the expectant reader through events set forth in rich chronological complexity.

    In fairness, storytelling survives today in the work of some historians with academic careers: Daniel Boorstin, Natalie Zemon Davis, William McNeill, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., are prominent examples. But calls from within the discipline for the revival of narrative have been like stray clouds over a desert. Once the “subject of history became other historians,” Simon Schama writes, “[s]torytellers . . .became aggressively despised.” According to Louis R. Harlan, AHA President in 1989, the specialized academic monograph remains “the sine qua non of professional recognition and reward,” even while it “leaves out in the cold all of those historians whose primary work is teaching undergraduates, informing the general public, or helping social studies teachers do a better job of enlightening the young.”


    Is this predicament necessarily permanent? Must we accept—which is to say pay for—an arrangement in which the study of history both declines disastrously and flourishes as never before?

    If reform is to come, we must first recognize the decline of history as the consequence of an unfree intellectual economy within academia, an economy which binds the feet of talented scholars even as it confers advanced degrees, lifelong employment, and subsidized publication. Only by altering incentives and granting new freedoms can we hope to bring scholars into greater contact with nonacademic intellectuals and the reading public for the benefit of all concerned.

    It is no accident that it is mostly historians outside universities—the David McCulloughs, William Manchesters, and Barbara Tuchmans—who preserve the art of narrative, engage us in the stories of unusual men and women, make our places and pasts meaningful. These writers are in fact freer than the professors who dismiss them as nonprofessionals. They aren’t forever slotted by job categories like “19th-century British labor historian,” “women’s history 20th-century,” or “18th-century American political historian.” Instead they can follow fresh interests—the ultimate freedom for an inquiring mind. They must earn publication and prosper or decline by the quality of their writing—the ultimate responsibility for a full intellectual citizen. Unfortunately, their freedom can exempt them from the rigors of expert review, and sometimes the result is grossly inaccurate, irresponsible history (happily noted by academics after the fact). But nonacademic historians do have marketplace incentives for writing responsible history: the better publishing houses, for example, can deny future contracts to writers who embarrass them. Besides which, bias and slipshod scholarship are no strangers to the Academy, especially when New Left ideology is at stake. Witness the case of Princeton professor David Abraham, accused of massively manipulating evidence from German archives to support a Marxist thesis on the advent of the Third Reich.

    Sadly, the connection between intellectual freedom and economic freedom is often lost on intellectuals themselves, who are nursed in a tradition of hostility to the marketplace that goes back to Plato. In the late 20th century, however, the marketplace is increasingly understood as the agent of freedom rather than its enemy. This vision now needs to be applied to the culture of academic research, for as the late W. W. Bartley III wrote in Unfathomed Knowledge, Unmeasured Wealth, a probing analysis of the sociology and economics of knowledge, “The idea that there is a free market of ideas in the university is a fantasy.”

    The incentives that drive current academic careers contribute little to the enlargement of individual liberty or democratic culture. As some wag irresistibly put it, academic freedom has degenerated to the freedom to be academic. Young professionals are neither trained nor encouraged to write for the educated public, to become freely functioning intellectual citizens, to be teachers in any expansive sense. They must obey an agenda set by “the profession” and function as committee-directed workers rather than autonomous minds. If subjects that interest them are politically sensitive, they may be shackled by New Left notions of acceptable lines of inquiry. They are cut off from “non-professionals,” “amateurs,” and “journalist-historians,” to everyone’s impoverishment. In short, academic history is a closed shop.

    This shop now needs to be thrown open, and sanitizing sunlight let in by every window and portal. This can only happen if influential institutions and powerful individuals insist on change over angry protests of the guild. Academic historians must begin by emphasizing the craft of writing, including especially biography and narrative, in graduate education and in hiring and promotion. Literary merit must be a prime criterion of evaluation. The floodtide of book publication must be stemmed, starting with the knee-jerk publication of dissertations as books (which are always already published—on microfilm). Publication in trade presses and general circulation magazines must be encouraged in addition to—at times instead of—publication in scholarly venues.

    A much wider array of activities must “count” in a new conception of professionalism. These would include teaching outside one’s field, thereby encouraging thinking and writing that is aimed at nonexperts; working with community organizations and libraries; collaborating with schools and with education faculty (both desperately in need of help); writing textbooks and contributing to radio, TV, and video.

    On institutional and governmental levels, a smart first step would be to make grants from foundations and state and national humanities agencies contingent on significant audience beyond academia. To that end the representation of publishers, editors, and freelance history writers should be sharply increased on judging and advisory panels. Finally, a “diversity requirement” should be introduced to boost dramatically the number of nonacademicians through all levels of the American Historical Association—if necessary, as a condition for the maintenance of its U. S. Congressional Charter.

    The hope of reform is the agora, the realm of the common reader, the messy, marvelous marketplace of ideas. For freelance and independent intellectuals, reform would mean healthy scrutiny of their work and better access to scholarly research. For the professors, it would mean fresh incentives, revitalized civic purpose, and an opportunity to earn public support.

    Voltaire once said that history can only be written well in a free society. His dictum is borne out today by our better writers of history, who are also our freest. Perhaps it follows from Voltaire that if history is not written well, its writers are not free. By liberating them and giving them public voice, we can renew the populist genius of American education, and the word “knowledge” will no longer need to be “problematized.”


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