Fireside Friday, December 23, 2022 (W(h)ither History)

Happy Holidays to everyone, however you observe them! I normally take this week off every year but since we had the whole of last month off and I had some things I wanted to expound on, I thought I would do a Fireside instead.

Percy getting into the holiday spirit.

In particular, I want to talk about the current state of the field of history, particularly in the United States though frankly my sense is things are little better (and in many cases substantially worse) elsewhere. Of course this is an issue I’ve been focused on for some time, but what drew it into relief recently was finding out about a data-set of 14 Midwestern US university history departments, charting the change in their permanent faculty. It’s a messy data-set in that each school reported figures over different time frames, but they all point in the same direction:

SchoolSince YearThenNowPercentage
University of Iowa20122616-38.5%
University of Missouri20123021-30%
University of Kansas20173524-31.4%
(The) Ohio State University20087962-21.5%
University of Minnesota20124640-13%
University of Illinois
University of Illinois
Emporia State201274-42.9%
University of North Dakota201774-42.9%
Grand Valley State20123127-12.9%
University of South Dakota2017107-30%
South Dakota State2017105-50%
University of Nebraska Omaha20121511-26.7%
St. Cloud State State University2016106-40%
St. Olaf College2012127-41.7%
Central Michigan University20152215-31.8%
Kent State20081512-20%
University of Missouri2016178-52.9%
Minnesota State University
University of Missouri
St. Louis
Truman State2013154-73.3%
Indiana State20151613-18.8%
University of Toledo, OH2012125-58.3%
Again, figures are not mine but come from this article by Jon K. Lauck. I’ve briefly exchanged tweets with him since tweeting about this and he says that he is working (with others) on creating a larger and more robust data set.

The figures are catastrophic. The average department declined by some 34.2%; because small departments have been hit harder, the decline to the total number of permanent faculty historians is merely 29%. That’s nearly a third of the discipline in this part of the country vanishing.

And the hit is clearly not just regional. Permanent faculty in history departments are shrinking nationwide. I used to muse in years past that if the lethargic hiring in history continued, we’d see a fairly sudden and rapid decline in the size of departments as the last sizeable hiring periods (the 90s and the aughts) began to retire. That future is now. Despite the fact that graduate admissions have begun declining (peak PhDs granted in history was 2013, for students admitted likely in 2007 or so; it has fallen every year since), placement rates – the number of PhDs in a permanent teaching position in higher education – have plummeted. For that 2013 cohort, the four-year placement rate was 54%. For the 2017 cohort, the figure is just 27%. The current placement rate for the 2019 and 2020 cohorts? 9.7%.1 Some of these lost positions have become contingent, short-term positions, some have disappeared altogether; the data is insufficient for now to tell which is which.

What happened? I think there is a story to tell here where the move away from requiring history courses as part of the general education curriculum in many universities caused a decline in enrollment and then universities responded by gutting history departments. At the same time, enrollment largely stabilized post-2017 and has remained roughly steady since then, yet universities continue to cut history (and of course more broadly, removing history GenEds was a university leadership decision, so even this story is, “university administrators create their own excuse to cut history and then do so.”) It is the case that students have moved away from the history major into disciplines they think are more financially secure, but that hasn’t actually reduced enrollment; students still want to take history classes. And while we’re here, it is worth noting that history majors actually do fine in the broader economy; the idea of history as a degree that can’t possibly pay for itself is false.

Whatever the reason, the decline is shocking, especially continuing in spite of stable enrollment in history courses and remarkably strong public interest. And that’s part of what frustrates me so much; my sense is certainly that the public broadly understands the value of history. I really wonder how many voters would have approved of cutting out the history general education requirements; I rather suspect a ballot measure saying that ‘all college graduates in [Your State/Country Here] shall have taken at least a survey course on both World History and [Your Country Here] History before graduation’ would probably pass in most places. Indeed, I’m fairly sure it would in the United States because some of that polling has been done; 84% of respondents indicated that history was at least as important as business or engineering to learn.

And I think we can dispense with the facile response that moving history out of the university may prove to be good int he end; as we’ve discussed the sort of research work that forms the foundation for all of the rest of historical education relies on university resources and will not happen in any meaningful amount without them. The public thinks they are paying for top notch history research and instruction, while the university leaders and politicians they entrusted with this job are in fact strangling the history of tomorrow in its crib.

At the same time, some of the leadership in the field have been fiddling while it burns. As this absolute catastrophe is slowly mulching the entire field, the president of the American Historical Association is over at The Atlantic complaining about ‘presentism’ and the death of the monograph (the field-to-field research-focused non-general audience book); my God! he warns, pretty soon blogs might even count as scholarship. The public believes in history, but someone needs to tell them that the field is dying and yet when the president of the AHA has a platform at The Atlantic he hasn’t a word about this problem. You may well imagine my reaction to that.

Meanwhile hiring committees continue to prioritize field-to-field research instead of the sort of full-court-press public communications focus necessary to salvage the field or the sort of teaching skill necessary to expand enrollments. But I think this issue in turn loops back around to the fecklessness of the professional associations. Hiring committees are run by professors who haven’t been on the job market in decades, so they’re naturally going to be a bit ‘old fashioned,’ even when they mean well. Getting them to change course would require some sort of unified message that the field needs to change course, which would probably need to come from the AHA, but again the AHA is asleep at the wheel.

Alternately, you have parts of the field that absolutely have a plan to save history, if only they can win the culture war first. History is often going to intersect with contemporary politics; so many of our debates about the present have roots in the past. So I don’t necessarily feat politicizing the discipline, but I do fear the partisanization of it, wherein the public broadly perceives historians as adjuncts to a specific political party. The problem is that all Americans pay the taxes that support higher education and thus our field and so we must in turn serve the whole public, not merely our half.2 More broadly as I’ve discussed before, engagement is how we build support for a field, whereas activism spends support; an ‘all activism’ strategy will just serve to squander whatever limited auctoritas the discipline still has.

A great deal of the issue is the structure of the field. The professional societies are led and hiring is done primarily by tenured academics who are insulated from the worst of the decline. Indeed, for most of them the last and only thing they will do in this story is retire and when their tenure line isn’t replaced, contribute one more negative figure in a long tally of negative figures. They have no personal incentives to change course and while in past generations we might expect concern about field and their own legacies to motivate changes, that clearly isn’t happening. I shouldn’t be sharp with the more senior members of the field (who will, after all, sit on hiring committees) but I feel I must: this is a failure of stewardship by some senior academic historians who refuse to change course because the storm won’t affect them even as the rest of the crew drowns.

I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush here, there are certainly senior academic historians who recognize the problem and are trying to do something about it and I suspect others who would do something about it if they felt they could, but there’s also a lot of ‘learned helplessness’ when it comes to institutional decline. And there’s also a disconnect here between institutions: smaller privates and state schools feel a lot of this more keenly than the most prestigious schools, which is a problem because it is those latter schools that both churn out most new hires and also supply most of the leadership for the professional associations.3

To my eyes, the solutions are clear but hard to implement because they require those very senior tenured academics to either implement them or for leadership in departments and professional associations to change over. I think the basic steps to save history are:

First, we need data. We need to know what strategies work to sustain student enrollment and majors and what doesn’t and we need to understand the scale and nature of the challenge. That means we need nation-wide (and international) data on the number of faculty (tenured, tenure-track and contingent), enrollments and majors. There are some really promising efforts to produce this data locally, but the AHA should take the lead in organizing and accomplishing this on a nation-wide scale. Data collection needs to become part of our discipline’s best practices, so that every department is collecting the same data: we need to know how many jobs we have, which ones are contingent, how many students we have, the courses they take and so on. Because then we can use that data to refine our battle plan as well as to shame universities that cut functional programs.

Second, prioritize publication which communicates to the public, both sharing our historical knowledge with the public but also work that lets the public know our dire straits and aims to develop their support. As I’ve noted before, engagement is not activism; we first must save the field before we can try to use the authority of the field to argue for other social or political changes, whatever they may be. Prioritizing this work will in turn demand changes in how we make hiring and tenure decisions. The structure of academia is such that academics do what their hiring and tenure committees incentivize. Right now, that is narrow research aimed at an ever-shrinking audience of other historians. That research is important, but it will be useless if the field collapses on itself. To get historians to practice, develop skills, become effective communicators and then rally public support, we have to incentivize it in hiring and tenure. That means hiring and tenuring historians for their robust public engagement in addition to their research.

Third, a greater priority needs to be placed on teaching, especially on job candidates with proven teaching records. As a discipline, especially at the R1 level (which is a huge proportion of our total enrollments because research universities are very big) we continue to prioritize research wildly over teaching in our hiring, to the point that the latter is effectively a non-factor in many searches. The result is that teaching quality is wildly uneven; some of the most spectacularly gifted teachers I’ve had were in history departments, but so were some of the worst. Bad teachers negatively impact enrollments and majors; good teachers positively impact them. Departments under siege need good teachers more than they need prestigious researchers. Don’t misunderstand me: research matters; I am a ‘research first’ historian in my scholarly profile (although I get stellar student evaluations, if I do say so myself). But teaching excellenceactual teaching excellence, not empty words – should be what departments are hunting for, because teaching excellence buys the enrollments that buy future tenure lines. That in turn suggests they should hunt for candidates with teaching experience (typically as adjuncts) that provide the evaluations and enrollments to back up claims about teaching quality, since there’s little way for a committee to assess the teaching abilities of a candidate with little teaching experience.

Alas, I think the chances of any of this happening, beyond perhaps the first point, remain remote. Instead the more likely result is more of what we’ve had over the last decade: the effort to save history will largely be one led by grad students and adjuncts, joined by only a handful of permanently employed academic historians, while many4 of the senior professors who enjoy the lion’s share of the field’s resources and clout whistle past the graveyard, singing ‘après nous, le déluge‘ (and preferring to hire only historians who share the same attitude).

But history, as a field, is worth saving for the future and so I am determined to try; thanks to all of you I am in a position to keep trying. As historians we stand not alone but as one link in a chain stretching back to Herodotus and Thucydides on one end and forward into the future on the other; doing our best to preserve the discipline for future generations is a sacred trust, one which we hold not for the sake of other historians but for the sake of the public.

On to Recommendations!

First off, more of me! I joined Roel Konijnendijk and Steelcan909 (since he goes more often by his nom de plume) for a long and wide ranging discussion of public scholarship and outreach. It’s a great discussion of the topic, especially because though r/AskHistorians and ACOUP are structured very differently, in the end we’re aiming to achieve many of the same goals in terms of public history.

On the contemporary security issues front, I think this brief over at CSIC by June Blanchette and Gerard DiPippo on what a Taiwan crisis ‘gone hot’ from a PRC invasion on Taiwan might mean in a broader global context is quite informative, especially for those who haven’t been tracking this issue closely and so might not have a sense of the stakes. The brief frames these impacts as a series of points, each led by the assumption (in bold) that supports the impacts that follow, which is a really useful way to guide the reader through things that might happen. A war over Taiwan would be a catastrophe, which is why it hasn’t happened yet and why deterring it remains a major policy goal for the United States, but then Putin’s War in Ukraine has also been a catastrophe, not the least for Russia, and it happened anyway.

Meanwhile over at War on the Rocks, Stephen Biddle (the fellow who coined the concept of the ‘modern system’ of war I use so frequently) has written on “Ukraine and the Future of Offensive Maneuver.” It’s both a good place to get your feet wet in some of the debates about the (un)changing nature of maneuver in war and also a good antidote to some of the more breathless takes about the ‘death’ of this or that system of tactic. Also to note at War on the Rocks, if you really want to be tracking military affairs in Russia and Ukraine, Michael Kofman now has a podcast there, The Russia Contingency, though it is behind the members paywall; it was certainly worth the price of admission for me.

And for this week’s book recommendation, I’m going to recommend S. Ogilvie’s The European Guilds: An Economic Analysis (2019). Ogilvie attempts in this book an almost comprehensive, cross-regional treatment of guilds in Europe from the High Middle Ages through the early modern period. It’s a great first step either for students looking to get a handle on guilds (and the debates about them) or for worldbuilders making medieval worlds who want their towns inhabited by realistic guilds who need a good sense of how these organizations functioned and what they were for.

While Ogilvie’s work is pretty technical in nature, the barrier to entry is substantially reduced by the opening chapter, “The Debate about Guilds” which does a good job both in setting up the questions the book will answer but also grounding a new reader unfamiliar with a lot of this debate in what guilds have generally been understood to be. From that introduction then each chapter tackles an aspect of the regulation of guilds (guilds and markets, guilds and women, guilds and barring entry for some producers, guilds interacting with governments). Ogilvie’s approach is in turn relentlessly data-driven and comparative: this isn’t a discussion of one guild, but rather a comparison of lots of data from many guilds over a wide range of time periods and countries. That means lots of charts and tables (be still my heart!) but fortunately Ogilvie’s text does a pretty good job of walking the reader through what those charts and tables are saying. At the same time, it’s easier for a reader to pick out outliers and to get a sense of not merely the norm but also the range of variation.

In terms of general readability, I think this may be a slower, more challenging read than some books, not because it is poorly written (I think it is quite well written) but because the topic is technical and data driven. Nevertheless Ogilvie does a good job of walking the reader through those dense topics and I don’t think a non-specialist will have any problem working their way through (medieval European guilds are, after all, hardly in my specialty). That said, this really is an economic study of guilds; some points are illustrated by colorful examples but this is an analysis of guilds rather than the story of them (and thus the attention is often on what guilds are generally rather than on their development and decline or on the details of individual local outliers). The result is a really useful study of a form of social and economic organization that is often only thinly described in surveys of this period but is nevertheless prominent in the public imagination of it.

Also there are so many charts!

I hope everyone has a good holiday season. Next week we’re going to have a bit of an odd post as I want to address some of the controversy around a public-facing Classics publication.

  1. Of course part of this stings because I am part of the great big mass left out in the cold by these numbers, still looking for a permanent academic appointment, despite having articles in global top-tier journals and a public scholarship program discussed in places like The Atlantic. At some point what you do simply stops mattering because placement rates are so low that the system becomes almost entirely random. We passed that point a while ago.
  2. And to be clear that doesn’t mean we just tell everyone what they want to hear. The public may choose the questions, but we have to give accurate answers, even – perhaps especially – when they are unpleasant.
  3. It is immediately striking to me that the smaller professional associations, like the Society for Military History (SMH), the Association of Ancient Historians (AAH) and the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS) both tend to have more diverse leadership in terms of institution and career-stage and also tend to feel more worried and responsive to these changes. Unfortunately by their very nature as smaller organizations, they generally can’t move their fields the way the AHA (or in Classics, the SCS and AIA) can. Also, while I’m here military history in particular is in an odd place in all of this because hiring demand from the military itself (for teaching roles in the service academies and PME institutions) is disconnected from broader trends in academic hiring. So long as cadets must become lieutenants and majors must become colonels, Uncle Sam will need military historians to help teach them.
  4. But by no means all

157 thoughts on “Fireside Friday, December 23, 2022 (W(h)ither History)

  1. Are any of your academic (university) lectures online? You’ve mentioned a few times what they’re like but I’d love to actually see you in action.

  2. This was an interesting and sobering read, though (perhaps understandably) a bit US-focused.

    When it comes to guilds, I wonder how similar those of the Mediaeval period were to similar associations of Antiquity? I would also be curious if the author goes into similar institutions in for instance the Islamic world

  3. Maybe it’s because many historians just aren’t that good – certainly nowhere near as good as Devereaux?

    This is something I’ve been wondering about: why is it that Devereaux is a capable writer and thinker and yet he seems to recommend other writers that just aren’t up to snuff?

    Example 1) Carlin Barton. Having devoured with interest the sequence on the Universal Warrior (lack thereof), I bought Barton’s _Fire in the Bones_, being eager to find out about the different Roman sources of legitimacy. Instead, I found sentences like this:

    “Roman honor was, at its best, a homeostatic system, but it was always a homeopathic system, and the body was the axis of the balancing systems that invested every aspect of Roman emotional life.”

    Read that, re-read it, print it out and stick it on the ceiling and lie on your back to stare at it and it becomes none the clearer. And the whole book is like this.

    That’s not that there isn’t valuable information in the book, but it all seems to come from letting the ancient sources speak for themselves.

    Example 2) Dr Eleanor Janega. I came across her because Deveraux links to the following essay describing her as “letting loose”.

    I appreciate the metaphor, because it suggests voiding the bowels. Devereaux corrects her on the historic record, and I could tell from my own research that she is peddling junk stats.

    But I poked around her site, and saw her unloading other essays like this one:

    You can read, and read, and read her work and never get the slightest sense that early Islam was an imperial project relying on the oppression and exploitation of the non-Islamic conquered people (technical term: dhimmi, look it up – and you won’t find it in her writing). This is on a par with erasing the Helots from Sparta, something Devereaux rightly decries.

    Actually, it’s worse than that. It’s worse than even the Cult of the Badass or the Eternal Warrior. This is history in the school of the Institute for Historical Review. Because the kind of oppression that is wished away in these ‘writings’ is still very much a real thing. And if you speak to, e.g., Yazidi refugees from Iraq or Hindu minorities in Pakistan, they will tell you (and I know this because they tell me that) that one of the biggest barriers to getting their stories out is lazy, wicked nonsense peddled by Janega. Feminists struggling in the Islamic world, or within Islamic communities in the West, will say the same thing, and you’ll notice that Janega also peddles that line of tripe.

    So maybe this crash is simply that a lot of young people take the courses, are disgusted by some of the types they see teaching, and say “Thanks, but no”. Doesn’t mean that they don’t value history. It does mean that they think that an academic path is a waste of time, energy and integrity.

    1. So, I decided to dig into that quote, and while it is filled with jargon — a problem with many academics –, it basically means that Roman honor was a self-regulating system based on vibes, but that it also had physical repercussions. Any doubt about this was supplied in the footnote or just reading literally the next sentence:

      “When more fragile symbolic circuitry failed, when the expressive and defensive codes by which one lived deserted one or were simply inadequate (as is so often the case), it was the body itself, and its postures and attitudes, that emerged as both the chief target of those who
      would break one’s spirit and the chief weapon against the loss of one’s spirit, one’s
      being, one’s honor.”

      Now, as for your issue with Dr. Janega, I would agree that her blog is more polemic than outreach. However, this does not seem to be your main issue with her, value-laden buzzwords like “wicked” are hardly the result of dispassioned critique. In her article, “Islam was the party religion, or, why it is lazy and essentialist to say that Islam oppresses women”, an article filled with generalisations, her greatest sin to you seems to be that she doesn’t see Islam as “an imperial project”.

        1. Maybe it’s my personal background, but I don’t think it’s *that bad*. Clunky sure, but it’s in the preface, and the rest of the book is better.

      1. I will defer discussion of Barton for another day. To Janega then:

        1) Polemical writing is just fine. I will quote the late Christopher Hitchens:

        “History, especially as written by historians in the English tradition, is a literary and idiosyncratic form. Men such as Gibbon and Macaulay and Marx were essayists and polemicists in the grand manner, and when I was at school, one was simply not supposed to be prissy about the fact. We knew that Macaulay wrote to vindicate the Whig school, just as we knew of the prejudices of Carlyle”

        So far, so fine. However, polemics do not justify laziness or lies. Nor do they allow you to justify the unjustifiable (the Hitch goes on to cite as “going too far”, Carlyle’s _Occasional Discourse_)

        2) There is a reason I use the term “wicked”. It isn’t a buzzword, it is a factual description.

        You’ve read Devereaux sequence on the Dothraki? He, quite rightly, points out that the lazy stereotypes about steppe nomads supports the oft shameful treatment of native Americans in the United States and of the Mongol minorities in China.

        This is worse, since it doesn’t even have the fig leaf of fiction. I made the comparison with the Institute for Historical Review, but, in some ways, this is still worse. This isn’t just a denial of historical atrocity; it amounts to a defence of actual existing, present day atrocity. Once again: If you talk infidel minorities in the Islamic world, or feminists in the same, you will always hear that their struggles are made a thousand times more difficult by lazy, evil nonsense like this. I know this because I do, in fact, talk to them.

        And that is why I use the adjective “wicked”.

          1. Well, yeah. One is the denial of unspeakable atrocity. And the other is Holocaust denial.

            Flippant? Maybe, but also factually supported flippancy.

        1. I think it’s notable that you refer to the american genocides of native americans as “often shameful treatment” while Janega’s position that Islam is not a singular thing but rather is denying atrocity.

          So, a bit of the pot calling the kettle black.

          Was Islam an Imperial project? Yes, at times. At times no. As was christianity, the United States of America, and many other things. I do note that she is not denying any of those things: She is saying that Islam is a complicated subject (which duh, it involves millions of people, a good bit over a thousand years of history, and covering most of the world)

          “Now I’m not trying to say that it was a free-for-all for Muslim women in the medieval period. Their lives, like the lives of most women then (AND FUCKING NOW) were limited ”

          Which is… About the same level as your statement about US treatment of native americans, though with a lot more ground to cover (the US after all, has a continuity of statehood and institutions that islam really doesen’t have)

          She’s flattening things, because life is complicated yo, and insofar as the status of women has varied over time it’s often much more granular than something you can talk about on the level of entire religions.(even insofar as you can even make the comparison, was banning divorce a net win or loss for women’s rights? How does informal social practices like village councils and such compare to formal legal powers?) but since the point is to argue against a stereotype she only really needs to point out a few counterexamples.

          1. In point of fact, in referring to the treatment of Native Americans as “shameful” I was consciously using Prof Devereaux’s words, in the third section of his excellent sequence on the Dothraki horde. And I referenced it because he, quite rightly, notes how people conceptualise the past plays into how they behave in the present – what they do and do not tolerate.

            As for the rest of this – it’s the same tedious and offensive excuse making I know so well. Yes, yes, Christianity could be an arm of Imperialism, so that entirely justifies wiping away the history of Islamic imperialism and atrocity – and, hey why not, the current, present-day barbarity and atrocity. Because something something America something Christianity, let’s close our eyes to the Yazidi slave who is the only survivor of her family, the 14 year old Pakistani Hindu stolen from her family and forcibly converted and married off. Because of the barbaric transatlantic trade of African slaves, let’s ignore the present trade of African slaves in the Sudan and Libya etc. etc. ad nauseum.

            I have heard it before, and it is too boring for words.

    2. But again, the problem genuinely doesn’t seem to be crashing enrollment nearly so much as it’s a matter of crashing numbers of tenure positions at the universities. Plenty of college undergrads are still signing up for history classes, after all! It’s just that many of those classes are now being taught by expendable adjunct positions, and even the adjunct positions are precarious.

      Furthermore, some percentage of history classes being taught by people with problematic opinions or bland, impenetrable language isn’t a new problem. If that were the core of the matter, history would not be rapidly declining in the modern US in particular, because there’s no special force that has made only American professors more boring or more problematic in specifically the last 5-10 years, nor have students become all that much more likely to be deeply allergic to boring lessons or teachers with opinions out of touch with the beliefs of the typical college-qualifying 19-year-old during that time.

      So no, I think the issue genuinely is with how stewardship of the field is being handled by powerful people wearing suits, not a sudden discovery by students that (gasp!) some history is taught by unlikable or incomprehensible people, or contains opinions you strongly disagree with.

      1. All, I can do is restate and summarise my point: I suggest that there is a negative feedback loop going on. You have enrolment of those who like history, and the best are driven from the field by loathing of what they encounter. Who would stick with it? You’d have a bias, and it wouldn’t matter how much, just that it existed, to select for those who got on or fitted in. Which means those that rise make the situation worse – and so on. And the result isn’t history being taught by “unlikable or incomprehensible people” who teaching “opinions [I] strongly disagree with” but by pretentious frauds telling lies. It’s a kind of Gresham’s law

        Yes, you have outstanding talents as Devereux or Ada Palmer, but this is at least a worthwhile hypothesis when looking at the whole field.

    3. I mostly agree with Evan and Simon here, whose comments aligned quite well with my thoughts on this subject. Rather than repeat their points, I can instead recommend looking at r/AskHistorians, being in Bret’s recommendations this week. Since anyone can write an answer there he quality and writing style can vary quite a lot, but the Flaired User Profiles tend to have quite a lot of great discussions collected

  4. Just testing something – it seems some comments vanish off into the ether here. Wondering if the commenting system works, or if there is a queue I don’t perceive

    1. There is a moderation system that sometimes holds comments in limbo until Professor Devereaux approves them or rejects them. Don’t know the criteria.

      1. Fair enough, I guess.

        I just wrote a post suggesting that the reason that there is this drop off is there are many historians who just don’t rise to his level.

        1. I think posts with hyperlinks in them have to be approved before they are visible, probably to combat spam.

  5. Honestly I’m finding the article on Taiwan very optimistic on its predictions, especially those that expect the non US major trade parterns of China to cut trade and impose sanctions, considering how ineffective the sanctions against Russia seem to be (and how the US seems ineffective in offering alternative energy sources to replace the Russian exports).

    Seeing how European countries are apathetic to a conflict that close, I wonder if they’re going to care about a conflict in Asia.

    1. I think you’re confusing ineffectiveness of trade sanctions with lack of commitment to them. Europe is absolutely all-in on them, but with the US and Europe and Japan and South Korea are not the whole world economy.

      Similarly, European energy policy has been a wild success; Russian gas imports have fallen by some 75%, and yet their storage is full to the brim because of successful acquisition and conservation programs.

      There is an inherent difficulty in substituting US gas, because gas is not an easily-transported commodity like oil, but all in all they’re doing just fine.

      1. I’m not sure I’d call that a success considering how energy prices have gone through the roof here in France and the government has announced the possibility of rolling blackout. As for gas, it can be transported abroad, when liquefied.

        And as for the effectiveness of trade sanctions, I was also thinking of the efficiency (or lack thereof) in blocking European export vital to the Russia military industrial complex (starting from machine tools and similar components)

        1. This comes from a bunch of factors though, not just our over-reliance on Russian gas in the past (and I am more concerned about the Italians there).

          Speaking of which, between the crash of Russian (German-built) pipeline gas and the increase in Russian (French-built) liquefied gas, the imports of both in EUrope are now about equivalent, rather than the liquefied being an order of magnitude smaller than the pipeline one. The late Christophe de Margerie might have found this amusing…

          Machine tools, replacement parts, and the machines they are used for last a while, I would expect the worst of the effects to take months if not years to manifest.

  6. It seems to me that what is left out of this discussion of the trends in history faculty is data on the numbers of non-permanent faculty teaching history classes. The trend to adjunct, lecturer, and similar time-limited contract positions is happening throughout the universities, in many fields. This is both a failure of public support (which is a far smaller portion of public university budgets than it was 40 years ago) and of university administrations to avoid shamelessly exploiting pat-timers.
    The randomness of whether a good Ph.D. student will find employment in the field of study rings too true for me. The last academic job I applied for – years ago – had 500 applicants (and that at a decidedly non-prestige institution). I was told I was in the top 10, but they could only interview three, so I was out.

    1. It seems so strange to me that academic employee has such a stark two-tier system. As in, you are either tenure-track and therefore on a path to lifetime employment in a single university (and very difficult to fire past a certain point), or you are a month to month contractor. This… just isn’t how normal jobs work, at all. The fact that my employment is “at will” doesn’t mean that either I or my employer *expect* me to leave in six months… in some ways it just feels like a real failure of the whole system to adapt to modern systems of employment. If university budgets can’t sustain full tenure-track positions, that doesn’t mean they can’t sustain something better than essentially contract work.

      1. My understanding is that most US universities are largely forbidden to actually hire permanent non-tenure track faculty by various agreements with professional societies and unions.

        If you want independent researchers, then it makes sense to have tenure (I might question the premise that independence is all that valuable, but if you like it, then you should like tenure). And the moment you decide that you want tenure track possitions to exist then you need to basically force the Universities to use them, because given the choice they would not offer tenure. Which means that permanent non-tenure hiring isn’t allowed as a way to try to compel universities to offer tenure.

        Unfortunately, many universities today are going the other way, and deciding that they can live without permanent faculty if that’s the way to avoid offering tenure.

        You have to more or less kill tenure (except for the relative handful of endowed chairs) to allow them to offer something much better than contract work. It’s one or the other.

        1. I’ve been in the academic system for 9 years post-PhD in the US in mathematics and I’ve never heard of unions or professional societies enforcing a “no permanent non-tenure track faculty” rule. In fact, I’ve seen quite the opposite. A number of universities (e.g., Virginia Tech, Colorado School of Mines, Tufts) have recently started two-tier system for research and teaching faculty. The exact details differ, but generally teaching faculty are not “tenured” but put on long term contracts with an expectation of renewal. (In the VT system, at the top of the teaching faculty rank ladder, it is 5 year contracts.) The main difference is only research faculty are expected to bring in grant money.

          PS: What union would be a candidate for enforcing this rule in the US? None of the schools I’ve worked in have had a faculty union and the grad-students and post-docs have only recently started organizing.

      2. I think the difference is the number of people who are very passionate about doing the work. People will study and write even without getting paid; hence universities can get away with really quite exploitative employment practices, relying on their workers’ innate passion to carry them through. (A similar situation prevails in, e.g., acting, which a lot of people are similarly passionate about, and which also has a few successful big names and a much larger number of poorly-compensated and underemployed people hoping to make it big one day.) On the other hand, whilst you (generic you) might find your job as a middle manager at the widget factory to be enjoyable and fulfilling, chances are you don’t love it enough to do it as a hobby, so your boss has to actually pay you and offer you secure employment to keep you showing up.

  7. The humanities are being destroyed by a failure to mechanize.
    I am a research scientist, working with historical data, so I meet academic historians – they are often individually awesome, but collectively negligible.
    The transformative change over the last few decades is the rise of the computer, and it has revolutionized the STEM fields: It’s no longer about individual scientists – but large-scale international collaborations, big databases, even bigger (computer) models. This mechanization is efficient – you don’t need to be a genius, regular people can contribute usefully to the system, so we can use everyone; and it is scalable – give us more $$ and we’ll make the system bigger and more powerful.
    The academic historians of my acquaintance are artisans – they don’t want to participate in a world-changing machine, they want to work on their own for a few years and write a book to share with a few dozen of their colleagues. A small fraction of lucky geniuses produce high-impact work this way, but it isn’t efficient (most of the books don’t get read) and it doesn’t scale. So they are being out-competed by the STEM juggernaut. The war between the two cultures is over, and the humanities have lost – sorry guys, you are mighty warriors, but the other side have got the tanks, and jets, and satellites.
    Given the choice – mechanize, or die – the academic history community has chosen death. Hence the numbers in the table above.

    1. To a certain extent, and particularly where archaeology is concerned, the idea that online databases are the future is fallacious. The problem is, it encourages people to confuse data within the database with data as such. Paleontology provides a few case-studies in the failure states of the system you’re discussing.

      For example, online databases have an incredibly difficult time dealing with ever-changing terminology. Paper does as well, but since a published paper is dead (it doesn’t change once it’s published) we’re used to that. For online databases we expect the data to be reasonably accurate and reasonably free of errors due to the ease of updating the information. In fields where terminology is constantly updated–or, gods forbid, something like taxonomy where we’re still debating how to build the terminology in the first place!–this disconnect can result in some very serious errors on the part of naive researchers. It would take a team of full-time researchers constantly updating entries in the PaleoBiology Database (the most commonly used one) to even pretend to keep up with the constantly-changing taxonomy landscape. Who’s going to pay for it? Anyone sufficiently knowledgeable to do the work is going to be a professional; amateurs aren’t sufficient. And the scale of the problem is tremendous, far beyond what we could reasonably rely on volunteers for. Remember, the Cambrian Explosion was discovered by a group of researchers looking into back rooms and describing never-before-described specimens. The problem has only gotten worse since then. To provide the data to feed to volunteers would require a major full-time effort by literally every museum. The archaeology collections I’ve seen are likewise backlogged.

      And ultimately, what do these databases record? Names, dates, some basic info. We simply don’t have the time or money to provide 3D tomographic data for every artifact, or even every major artifact. For something that’s very well-known that may be sufficient–you’re unlikely to identify a sword as a pottery shard–but when you’re looking at changes through time it can cause problems. There’s a rather infamous example of elephants being used as an example of Punctuated Equilibrium because a taxa arises very abruptly in the fossil record. Using the info in the databases it looks remarkably sudden. If you plot the skulls, on the other hand, the transition appears far more gradual, with the point at which a new taxa is identified more or less arbitrarily placed within a broad transitional period. The combination of these factors would quite predictably lead to some extremely bad ideas being pushed. And remember, this is merely an example, not an exhaustive list of potential errors.

      For that matter, a major failure state is “The institution is too remote/poor/backwards/backlogged to log their info into a database in the first place.” We are at the START of this sort of thing; it’s not a mature methodology yet. There remain a tremendous number of institutions that simply can’t both operate as intended and manage data the way your method would require. Things like the xBox Kenect (which can be turned into a low-resolution 3D Tomography machine with some open-source software) help, but not enough. Data that aren’t “in the machine” are unavailable to folks who work largely within that machine.

      Maybe history as such is different. We’re not constantly discovering a large number of new writings, the way we are new fossils or new artifacts. But the increasing utilization of archaeology by historians (which our host has discussed on several occasions) means that the field is subject to these sorts of errors.

      This push for big data and online databases and crowdsourcing and whatnot reminds me a lot of how trigonometry was viewed at one time. Read Thomas Paine to get a sense of what I’m talking about. It was considered the biggest and best sort of mathematics–the war was won, trig had the tanks and jets and lasers. For a while. Then they realized that it was a dead-end. Useful, but the possibilities were quickly exhausted and now it’s relegated to a board high school teacher’s domain. At the end of the day, “the machine” is merely a means to facilitate communication. You’ve gotta have something to talk about for that to help, however. And that means digging trenches, sharpening stakes, packing rations–the unglamorous operational work and grunt work that makes the tactical work possible. Electronic databases have their place, sure! I love things like the PaleoBio Database and the National Geological Map Database! But they are, will only ever be, and only CAN POSSIBLY be a single tool, useful in some cases but worthless in others. And without basic research to feed into “the machine”, the machine is like the new mill in the Shire–belching smoke and fumes without providing anything useful.

      1. I have trouble even thinking of how databases could be a huge help to historians. The information involved in history isn’t nearly as mechanizable: How do you define “the way a society does warfare” (or even something much narrower, like “what kinds of helmets did infantry wear in this society in this period”) in a way that makes it easy to categorize into a database?

        1. There are absolutely things that a database can and is useful for; demographic data like censuses and church books, records of guilds and courts, etc.

          That said, there are still incredibly large problems both with getting the information into the database, and then the problem of what that database actually *is* (hint: It’s not a complete picture of reality) but they are absolutely important tools, especially in more quantitative types of history.

          1. “more quantitative types of history”

            That’s a good phrase; it’s easy for us lay folk to fail (as I just did!) to grok that there are very different approaches to history, for us lay folk. But yeah, one historian could definitely take a much more numerical approach (and of course stick only to the things that can be easily numerically quantified) versus others who look at things that aren’t so easy to quantify, like cultural beliefs.

          2. For a simple example, there are a number of medieval records with names like “John Robinhood” or “Will Robynhoode” — which is a very unusual construction for a last name, and these in fact predate even the first literary reference to Robin Hood. Many (not all) are recorded in the context of a crime.

            Nevermind figuring out what it means and how it came to be assigned and what its connection to the legend is — we don’t even have enough of the records in a database to talk about regions and quantity.

          3. The problem is, far too many people believe that the database is the be-all, end-all of the research. They don’t look beyond the database. It’s lamp-post thinking: Databases make asking certain questions easy, so people stop asking other questions. Our society has a very, very strong drive towards the use of technology–just pull out a flip phone and you’ll hear what I’m talking about, despite it being literal Star Trek tech–and this influences funding. Make a history database, even one of dubious quality, and inevitably you’ll get the question “How will you integrate [database name] into this research?”

            They’re useful tools, possibly important tools for answering certain questions, but like any tool they have limitations and hazards associated with them.

            And it’s telling that the best examples of how to use databases in history are examples that could easily be done with a shared spreadsheet program–those advocating these tools are doing so more as a general “These tools are awesome!” advocacy than they are “This is how this tool will solve this problem” advocacy. This is super common in tech: The user is expected to figure out how to make the tech useful.

            Until someone can give specific ways in which history can be improved via the use of such tools–by the standards of historians and those of people who interact with historians–this isn’t a viable solution.

            The ironic thing is that the author of this blog demonstrates every week what such a solution looks like. He has embraced a form of technology (the blog) to reach a very wide audience. There was a problem: Reaching non-historians in meaningful ways. He found a solution: Make readable, interesting articles about history stuff, frequently using pop culture (starting from what people know, and leading them to more interesting stuff they don’t know).

            Can someone present a similar use case for databases and “mechanized” history? If not, this is a solution looking for a problem, rather than a serious attempt to fix a known issue.

      2. I’m a bit puzzled – you say that artifacts and fossils are constantly being discovered, yet your conclusion is that we need to finance more digs to discover more of such?
        How much information about the items we have already uncovered has been disseminated? How useful is a fossil sitting in a drawer in the back room of a warehouse with no information available about it?

        1. Most of the information about artifacts is collected during the dig itself. (this is why archeologists get so angry about artifacts that show up outside of their context)

          And yes, this means newer generations of archeologists inevitably are angry/sad/depressed becuase older generations of archeologists didn’t record things because they didn’t have the technology/didn’t know what future archeologists would want.

    2. With respect, I think this may in part be due to your “outsider’s perspective”. Although historians could certainly do more to mechanize, it’s not always useful.

      In any case, lots of historians already do. Just a few weeks ago, I was working on a collaborative project involving tens of scholars from different fields and interested undergraduates. We worked together on a common question, each approaching it from a different angle. Such projects aren’t uncommon. The difficulty is finding something appropriate for collaboration. While some historians could certainly be faulted for working on research questions with minimal general interest, there are also many worthwhile research questions not suited to wide-scale collaboration. Because historians often analyse particular cases of things or exceptional events, “large-n” sets are of little use. You may criticize this tendency – I certainly do, to an extent – but it remains a fact about the discipline at current.

      Basically, when people are mostly doing descriptive-analytical work, more cases doesn’t necessarily help. Historians don’t tend to work through meta-analyses and aggregating larger and larger datasets. Again, whether or not you like this (and I don’t), it’s how the field works. Most historians are not trained to do anything else, and rarely see the point in it. I think, then, your suggestion would benefit from looking a little further into why there seems to be less mechanization. It’s not conscious obstinacy. Rather, it’s a widespread difference on perspective on what valuable work is.

      Of course, calls to look deeply at what history is and should be ought to be phrased tactfully. Most historians these days will roll their eyes at the idea that history could be a social science. (In some ways, we’re trained to have this reaction.) But that’s not a problem to which I have an adequate solution.

      1. But lot’s of PoliSci Ph.D’s are employed in building quantitative models based on historians work. As an example, they will cite a bunch of historians work on, say, urban unrest across various regions in Ireland during the Great Hunger, and then quantify various parts of that and then load it into their database of unrest in response to natural disasters. Then they find sources on France in 1794, and start coding up that. It’s not within the history department, but it is surely a major part of academia none-the-less (most historians I’ve met accuse the polisci’s of simplifying and flattening their work, which is naturally required in building these sorts of comparative datasets). I don’t get the impression that Poli Sci is any more secure as a department than History, honestly, though I’ve no basis for the comparison other than listening to professor gossip.

        One important difference is that political science Ph.D’s have an easier time getting alt-ac jobs, because of their much greater exposure to statistics. “Industry” is much more interested in people who have strong R backgrounds than strong ancient Greek. So the eclipse of the humanities inside the academy isn’t quite as painful for political science grad students as it is for historians. But trying to give all history Ph.D’s two years of statistics isn’t going to save the department- it’ll just make each individual’s transition to life outside easier.

        1. Definitely. As I say, I’m strongly in support of more quantitative, formal, and social-scientific methods in history. It is worth saying that political scientists often make a mess of the sources they’re working with by disdaining historians’ work too much. B. B. de Mesquita’s work is a good example of this. He uses patently unreliable datasets (something any modern historian could’ve told him), ignores scholarship more recent than the 1910s, and treats his statistics very poorly. (For instance, he constructs a model that predicts “negative nepotism”, whatever that means.) However, his errors aren’t necessary errors due to a political-scientific approach to history. Some historians treat it that way, and I view them as wrong.

          What I was saying wasn’t that social scientific methods can’t be used in history, and more that historians often aren’t equipped to deal with them. That, or they reflexively distrust them. That’s the first barrier in the way of a more mechanized approach. There are arguably others, as other posters have said. I agree to some extent that it might not necessarily save history as a discipline, but I think it could contribute. Making the historian’s skillset – good source criticism, verbal argumentation, statistical analysis, and some modelling skills – more valuable can only have good knock-on effects. Adding more obvious relevancy through generalizability could contribute to funding and outreach. I agree, though, that on its own this wouldn’t do much.

          1. The problem of a data-driven approach is the old “garbage in, garbage out” problem, and historians often struggle with the problem in that while we have data, what we have is the equivalent of a single letter of a novel, so trying to figure out anything about what that means is often more likely to be misleading than not.

            Because even when we have actual data (say a government census) that data is often flawed, not easily comparable with other data, etc.

            I don’t think anyone serious is strictly against data-driven approaches, but rather historains tends to be (hopefully) immediately aware of how precarious the data is.

            I did some demographic history in uni, which is probably THE most data-driven and data-reliant bit (except perhaps some types of economic history) and as a simple thing there wasn’t even a sensible consensus about the popualtion of Sweden during the middle ages. Much less more complicated things like demographic structure, etc. Even by the 1600’s (when swedish demographic data is literally world-class) the gaps can be frighteningly large.

          2. Arilou, afraid I’m having to reply here.

            While there’s definitely a threat of “rubbish in, rubbish out”, I tend to think it’s a risk worth taking. After all, you equally have risks in an idiographic mode. You can end up saying nothing about anything at all by specializing so much. You can end up concluding something very general on the basis of an atypical exemplar. You can miss the forest for the trees, or turn history into metaphysics.

            I think the gains from a quantitative/formal approach outweigh the risks, as long as historians are cautious. We cannot apply the techniques of other social sciences blindly, but that doesn’t mean they’re unusable. It just means they need sensitive handling and perhaps some modification. It’s not like modern social scientists have perfect data either. They’re perfectly capable of handling it. Moving outside of the social sciences, palaeontology manages perfectly fine. Not every single historical problem can be analysed quantitatively or formally, but I suggest a great many of them are.

            Basically, my provlem is not with reasonable cautions around data. I would like to say I’m reasonably cautious myself. My problem is with historians being provincial and insisting that history is categorically different to any other social science. This is often implied but not really justified, or at least not taken to its logical conclusion. (That is to say, that social science is impossible.) There’s also, I find, something of a problem with mathematical literacy. Lots of historians will claim they “don’t do” numbers and refuse to have anything to do with them. Mathematics is neither magic nor obfuscation. It is so often treated one way or the other, sadly.

            My other major problem is people who will happily apply informal models across historical contexts and then instantly dismiss formal models.

            In general, basically, I dislike historians who dismiss social science methods from a place of poor understanding. I know quite a few who have those sorts of opinions. There are also lots of people with reasonable or at least reasoned disagreements; I don’t mind them.

    3. Our gracious host has responded to this spurious criticism before (possibly in commenting on some of Turchin’s stuff?) You’re proposing historians do not-history, to a first approximation. But we actually want history.

    4. (I’m assuming that “mechanize” is a mistake and you meant automate, or some verb made from cyber- or digital-. Mechanized infantry have switched from moving by foot/horse to using mechanical vehicles; mechanized farming uses industrial engines and machinery in place of human or animal energy; etc.)

      The humanities and history have **already** been revolutionized by the use of computers and the Internet in the past twenty or so years. 21st C historians have resources and ways of working that were barely imaginable to previous generations.

      Before the middle to late 1990s doing historical research wasn’t much different from Gandalf in an early scene in the Fellowship of the Ring movie, or Galadriel visiting that library on Numenor. Physical access to sources required, just as had been for thousands of years.

      Now museums have digitized their collections and made the scans / photos available to anyone online. (If you thinking paying a download fee for access is excessive, trust me it beats the heck out of an airline ticket and accomodation.) Google have scanned and converted into searchable text every book, newspaper, magazine they can get their hands on and again it is easy to access from anywhere in the world.

      And example I’ve used before is Sydney Padua, writing a book in the 21st C about Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace in 19th Century Britain. She wanted to know if Ada Lovelace could have met mathematician George Boole. A minute at the computer: both their names are on the reported guest list for a dinner party at such-and-such on this-date, so it’s possible and there’s a location and date to follow up on.

      Another example is the YouTuber Shadiversity. He made a video about shooting arrows held against the right side of the bow with the two/three fingered grip, which orthodoxy insists won’t work. Not only did he try it himself, but, living in rural Australia, he was able to search through dozens of illustrated medieval manuscripts to find primary sources showing medieval archers doing so, in enough resolution to also be able to check the historical accuracy of other elements in the picture.

      As with so much of modern technology, it’s easy to assume that we’ve always lived like this and that there are grand improvements to be made. There probably are, but I doubt there’s much more to do with digitisation and the Internet.

      1. Librarians rave about such systems because, on top of the intended purpose of letting people know where resources are, they give librarians give a very clear indicator of the rarity of books.

        The librarian whom I heard on this had picked up a book somewhere and brought to the library where she ran it through the system and found that the library in Milan where it had been published had a copy. And besides that, there was — her copy.

        Remember the blog posts about copying old books or they would be lost, until they were copied to parchment? This system is producing major consequences in a similar way?

  8. I am not an academic at all, and my first indication of the outright collapse of academic history as a field was from one of your earlier articles. I remember thinking it was right after a series on WW1 and found it right up there with trench warfare as depressing things I’ve read here. So this article of yours just leaves me with one question. Is there anything that people outside academia can do to bring this sort of disaster to the attention to the more senior people in the field? To say that we do want history to thrive and indicate our support?

  9. There is considerable interest in history, and many people who make their living writing history for popular consumption. That said, if a public poll question were phrased as, “Should each college student spend at least one semester listening to left-wing polemics from a tendentious ideologue?” which seems like a fairly accurate description of the average academic historian, the poll results might not be what Prof. Devereux wants.

      1. My characterization is based on reading the work of academic historians, most recently, “The Republic for Which It Stands,” by Richard White.

        1. So, you’re basing this view of classes at universities in general on the mass-market work of the subset of professors who can actually make money off of that?

    1. I’m not sure “left-wing polemics from a tendentious ideologue” is the full picture. But I do believe bias is a problem, and possibly the reason that people lose interest in history. Just a wild guess, but this is a main reason why I will drop a history book or a text.

      Full disclosure, I have no idea about academia and methodic approaches historians take. But more often than not, when reading a book, I have a feeling the approach of the author is not “I want to investigate a topic and see what the results are”, but rather “I want to arrive at a desired result concerning the topic, and will skew evidence as much as possible to arrive at that result, while conveniently ignoring evidence to the contrary”. The “desired result” being typically ideologically-laden (in any given direction)..And TBH, quite often it’s not just a feeling but a declared intention of the author. I believe this is harmful to the reception of historians’ work.

      1. Even at the high school level bias is a problem.

        I loved my history courses up until I moved to a “progressive” school in California and had a teacher who was more interested in blasting the establishment and making sure that the students who supported socialism received preferential treatment. This was back in 1967, so I have no doubt that the problem has only gotten worse from there.

    2. Yeah, I think that is why he differentiates engagement (which builds public support) and activism (which spends public support).

      However, I think that there is a tragedy of the commons here. If you are a tendentious ideologue, then public activism is the rational thing to do: the benefits accrue to you (fame and maybe a little fortune), but the costs accrue to your field (erosion of public trust in academia).

      In the spirit of carbon taxes, maybe there should be an activism tax? For example, for every left-wing polemic that one tweets, one has to write a survey article contextualizing a current event?

      1. Your assumption is that there is somehow an easy distinction there (in fact, “contextualizing current events” tends to be where I see the most outright bias)

    3. I could not agree more. I would give examples, but I am deciding to let discretion take the place of politeness

    4. This hasn’t been my experience at all. Soviet history lessons have highlighted the USSR’s many failings, for example. I’m not going to say indoctrination never happens, but all I’ve heard are a handful of far-flung examples and a lot of statements that just take it as given that it’s rampant.

      1. Right-wing trolls tend to take stuff like “Hey, slavery was pretty bad” as “leftist indoctrination.

        1. Oh, there are some like that.

          Usually, though, what people actually take issue with is more along the lines of “The Constitution is a white supremacist document.”

          And if you think that said statement is self-evidently true, then you’re part of the problem.

          1. It’s not self-evident, no, becuase deciphering how it is a white-supremacist document requires some degree of context involving both slavery and the slave trade (and how that was codified, and ommitted, from the constitution) and the realities of settler-colonialism, the ideas that would later become manifest destiny, etc.

            If it was self-evident we wouldn’t need history education now would we?

          2. People needed training to become augers. It wasn’t as if the birds’ movements would reveal omens to commonplace, uneducated people.

          3. It’s not enough to establish that your interpretation as a white-supremacy thing is possible — which, I add, I have not seen yet — but you must also establish that other, simpler interpretations are impossible.

          4. Thank you for making your biases clear. It’s much appreciated. The fact that nearly everyone involved was kind of figuring that slavery was going to go the way of its own accord eventually, of course, has escaped your notice.

        2. And left-wing trolls tend to assert that they are just saying “slavery is bad” when they are pretending that it was an exclusively white master/black slave thing.

        3. What are you doing here is poisoning the well. Why bother engaging charitably and seriously someone fighting strawmen? Whatever right wing trolls do, they are not here and their actions do not negate anything raised by others.

          1. If they even exist. I have literally seen defenses of telling white primary school children that they are harming their black classmates by existing on the grounds that slavery was bad.

            I’ve seen the school worksheets.

          2. Which school district?

            The US has a very large number of school districts, and no centralized standardization of history curriculum. It would not be particularly difficult for a specific district to run up a curriculum that required teachers to say anything the district (or the individual private school) wanted to say, nor would it be difficult for some isolated individual teacher to run up worksheets that say something 99.99% of other teaching professionals would not say.

            For that matter, it wouldn’t be too hard to run up a hoax worksheet, in the same general vein of sentiment that led to the creation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Though that last is me being over-paranoid, in light of the observations in the previous paragraph.

            But a worksheet that was used in a single district, or a single school, or a single classroom, or even outright fabricated could very, very easily go viral in the “SEE WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST” sense, given that there are millions of people excitably jabbering about how “critical race theory” is terrible now that they’ve hijacked that particular term to mean something other than what it means in academia.

      2. Maybe Soviet history lessons now highlight the USSR’s many failings. Academics are generally power worshippers and conformists, so naturally they criticize the Soviet Union since it collapsed. But such was not the case when I was a college student. For an example, try Paul Kennedy’s “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers”: he certainly doesn’t portray the Soviet Union as an obvious failure or as having larger problems than any other contemporary great power. And again, this is not some random nutjob, but a full professor at perhaps America’s most prestigious educational institution.

        1. That’s not that surprising, how much trouble the Soviets was in wasn’t all that clear to the Soviet experts in the West at all. And to be fair to them, how much trouble the Soviet’s were in wasn’t at all clear to the top Soviet leadership cadre either. It was a deliberately opaque system.

          1. It was clear to Ronald Reagan: “A sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.” Written just about the time Kennedy’s book came out.

          2. And oh, the laughter at his failure to realize that the USSR was in for the long haul. . . .

          3. Yeah, the Cold War really presented a barrier to understanding of the USSR, and the (unfortunately brief) opening of the Soviet Archives post-collapse really helped shape an understanding of the Soviet Union because previously both detractors and supporters really didn’t have much to work with.

            The end result of that is that pretty much any pre-mid 90’s (given some allowance for people to go through the archives and write their stuff) book on soviet history is… not worthless, but certainly needs to be viewed with an eye towards the limitations they had to work under. (and sadly, the collapse back into right-wing autocracy has made it harder, though not *as* hard, again)

    5. That is an interesting take. And certainly it could be true in some cases.

      However, could it also sometimes be the other way around? That a lot of people seeking out history have political tilt towards the right, and so find the “neutral” (such as it is) view to be “left-wing polemics from a tendentious ideologue?”. There is certainly a lot of this happening in the US when it comes to understanding contentious issues such as for example the civil war. The myth of the lost cause has been so incredibly effective, that when historians point out that actually it was about slavery they are quickly accused of political bias.

      Put plainly, a lot of people expressing interest in history do so expecting the mythology of the strong and virtuous man. When they are then offered the complexities of actual history, they cry foul and say cultural marxism and postmodernism and what-have-you has ruined academia. They say politically motivated ideologues are changing history. And, in a sense, they are completely correct. So much of popular history has been shaped by politically motivated ideologues, most of whom are not historians and most of whom are certainly not spouting left-wing polemics. Yet, when historians try to course correct – such as in trying to dispel the lost cause – it is they who are accused of politically motivated revisionism.

      Some historians – same as some nurses, some business graduates and some carpenters – are certainly tendentious ideologues. But is the average one, really?

      1. No, I know how to read. When Richard White (op. cit., p. 338) writes, regarding Indian killings of whites, “They initially killed selectively . . . . But once the violence started, anyone found with the guilty parties died, too,” and within a few sentences adds, “American soldiers slaughtered dozens of Indian women and children,” I notice the tendentious rhetoric, in which Indian killings of innocents are simply agentless deaths, while white killings of Indians are “slaughter.”

        Entirely typical contemporary academic historiography, from someone at the pinnacle of the profession.

        1. I do not own a copy of White’s book, so I cannot comment.

          But nearly anyone can be accused of being a tendentious ideologue if one has a sufficiently keen and finely developed sense of when one is being microaggressed against. And it is easy to develop such a sense when one has firm enough opinions on what context all future scholarship, history, and rhetoric will be placed into. That way, anyone who undermines the desired narrative can be scanned for such microaggressions. Meanwhile, rhetoric that does not undermine the narrative is simply shrugged off and not worried about.

          1. Counterexamples are much more valuable to prove some kinds of thesis than others.

            The underlying claim being made here is something along the lines of:

            “The real reason history education in America is collapsing isn’t because of decisions made by superficially individuals such as university administrators. No, it’s because the professors themselves are an out-of-touch elite of left-wing ivory-tower fanatics.

            “Now, naturally, they are bad, biased historians who spend all their time doing things like believing in global warming, inciting students to riot, promoting Stalinist genocidal purges, thinking Joe Biden is an okay president, and advocating hatred against all white people. Because as we all know, if you are not a real American who votes properly (R), then those are the things you do, all at once, for some inexplicable reason.”

            “And of course, these bad historians make up an unspecified but plainly dominant majority of the profession, so much so that they can control what ‘college campuses’ and ‘history education’ as a whole do, and are a primary force responsible for the otherwise inexplicable shifts in political beliefs among the younger generations.

            “This is clearly shown by my interpretation of the very illustrative wording of this specific history book I read. A book whose text I cannot possibly have cherrypicked and cannot possibly be reading with a close eye to any potential microaggressions against my own beliefs. For I myself am a very unbiased arbiter of historical truth with no axe to grind.”

            Even if we grant Paragraph Four with all its implicit assumptions, such a piece of evidence simply isn’t suitable for illustrating the intended claims in Paragraphs One, Two, and Three. What would be needed would be results that involve polling or meta-analysis. Some kind of broad assessment of the state of history as a discipline. That would at least be a starting point.

            Because the claim here is not “one teacher somewhere in America made a worksheet that makes me go yikes, I saw the worksheet being passed around by some shocked like-minded parents I know online.” Nor is it “I had a professor who was supportive of student protestors some time last century.”

            It is something along the lines of “all or nearly all the history departments of American universities are secretly front operations for a bunch of Maoist guerilla cells, and Americans have noticed and are righteously abandoning history as a field of study for this reason.”

            Any attempt to prove this by “illustrating” one’s claims from a single specific book simply cannot mean much.

          2. Well, Simon, I personally believe that close readings of leading thinkers are more informative than broad surveys.
            So for example reading “Capital” will teach you more about 19th century socialism than a survey of mid-century European socialists, if one existed. But if your methodological presuppositions differ, the leftist mau-mauing of James Sweet described in Prof. Devereaux’s link should count as a fair representation of the state of the broader profession, and it is incumbent on you either to defend the behavior of those involved or else to admit that there is, indeed, something wrong and bad in academic historiography, such that any person of judgment and intelligence would steer clear of the field.

      2. Given the things I have seen people drag race snd sex into, I doubt it.

        Given the number of people I’ve seen or read who do not know that slavery is world-wide, predates the written word, and does not consist of invariably white masters of black slaves, they have a lot more work to do.

        1. This is changing the topic, effectively. The fact that slavery existed in other societies and continues to exist de facto in several locations in the world doesn’t mean that American slavery has to open with an explanation of the history of global slavery. In the United States of America, the slaves have almost always been of African descent. Not always, but almost always. “Slavery” in the context of USAmerican history is a “white master, black slave” thing. You can’t even begin to seriously contextualize American history without looking at American slavery, and you can’t look at slavery without looking at race because in the US, it was a racial system. You can’t call that “dragging race in”. Why does focusing on the form of slavery that shaped the history of the country that both the professor and the student are living in and talking about make it “politicization”?

          1. A person who knows only the history of the US is grotesquely uneducated. That there are people who want to limit students’ education thus for political power is certainly politicization.

            And I know for a fact that such people exist. I have seen them advocate for it

          2. (Replying to myself here since WordPress)

            But that’s not the claim being made or advocated. I agree that the general public is undereducated on history, but I’d rather people learn the parts of history most directly relevant to their own society first since most people will never become properly educated on history. By arguing for some type of “everyone must learn a bit of everything” you just run into the problem that history rejects general rules beyond such vague concepts as “slavery existed”. You need to choose a focus to reach any level of detail, and the majority of people are never going to learn about all of those cases. In fact, dedicated specialists whose careers are within the field aren’t going to usually speak far outside of their own speciality. Expecting the general public to be equipped with some incredibly nuanced and detailed understanding of the role of slavery in human society is a pipe dream. You can’t teach anything detailed about “slavery”, but you can teach about “American Slavery” or “Slavery in the Caribbean” or “Ottoman Slavery” ideally with the caveat that it isn’t the only form and the offering of further education.

          3. On the contrary, the point of history is to broaden their experience and make clear their society is a limited and contingent thing, to give them a degree of perspective. To focus on the ‘relevant’ is to deprive it of its value.

            This even in situations where the point of relevance is not to cloud their perspective, which is very rare indeed.

          4. As a practical matter, “slavery existed in the United States, now it’s over” is about all you want American schoolchildren to learn… if you very much don’t want to risk having an awkward conversation with your children about whether there were any lasting consequences to a certain… peculiar institution that is now deemed distasteful in polite American society.

            It is far more convenient if they spend as much or more time being told to meditate on how to avenge historic wrongs committed against a notional unified ‘Christendom’ (the vast supermajority of them not Americans) by the Ottoman Turks or other Muslims. That keeps their attention nice and firmly focused on a convenient out-group that can be pounded on without having to change anything.

            Especially if they conveniently never learn much about the history of the Muslim world post-1800 when the balance of power flipped decisively in favor of Europeans and the kickings starting going the other way instead of bouncing back and forth between the two groupings.

          5. Awkward? Not if you don’t beg questions.

            The people whose basic premise is that blacks suffered irrevocable damage such that reparation can’t ever be made have not really thought it through.

        2. It’s almost impossible for something that involves humans to be unrelated to the constructs of race and sex (that does not mean these aspects cannot be more complex than is often thought, but to find something that is *unrelated* entirely is going to be *extremely* hard)

          Even in cases where it was not relevant for the people in question at the time, it almost certainly becomes so through historiography.

          Race, Sex, Religion, Politics, Class, etc. are just things that are part of humans living in a society. They can never be disentangled entirely.

          1. “See, that’s the sort of insular mindset being bred.”

            That’s not what insular means.

    6. Oh $DEITY, the culture war returns.

      I find this discussion, like most, tiresome and on the level of Taylor Swift fans debating with Ariana Grande over who’s album is the best. So much IS NOT! and IS TOO! and so little What Happened Because? and Why Would This Change?

      Critics of progressive / polemic / activist education, why did this lead to progressive academic history departments being decimated by progressive leadership and administration? (Correlation is not causation.) What do you expect to happen if historians stop being so progressive?

      Supporters of progressive / polemic / activist education, so the decimation of academic history at US universities is necessary if not beneficial for social improvement? Do we need to reduce the number of positions even further?

      1. If academic historians became less hostile and dismissive towards the American enterprise and Western culture, their work would be more popular with the general public, who would buy their books, encourage their children to study history in college, and urge their legislators to fund history departments at public universities.

        Safe predictions, since they will not be tried in my lifetime.

        1. If people who know about the subject becomes hostile to it that might have something to do with the subject itself. (though in general people who know the most about a subject tends to be jaundiced towards it, comes from actually knowing the nooks and crannies of it)

          1. No, I know just as much about America as Richard White. In fact, I know quite a lot more about certain fields, e.g., law, finance, and economics, where he tends to spew ignorant, readily refuted snark. His hostility comes from ideological preconceptions, not deeper knowledge or higher intelligence than I have.

            That said, now I’m reading David Fischer’s “African Founders.” It’s a much better book, though so far it doesn’t really persuade me of its main thesis.

          2. Academics being hostile to the west is a recent (second half of the twentieth century) development, and I’ve not seen any indication that this was correlated with a greater knowledge of western history and culture.

          3. Ah, but they know how horrible it is!

            Like augers reading omens in bird flight. You can’t expect just anyone to manage to see it!

    7. We should keep in mind that to the conservative, any deviation from established canons of tradition is offensive. To them, history is the worship of tradition, and must always reinforce the present hierarchy. Considering the history of opressed groups is heresy, because it implies that such injustice exists in the first place. What these people want history to be is an uncritical, glorious celebration of the staus quo.

      1. That might be true of some sorts of conservatives, e.g., Victorian Tories, but American conservatives are whigs, who celebrate the American Revolution, the defeat of the Slave Power, Schumpeterian capitalist destruction, etc. Reagan loved to quote Thomas Paine’s line: “We have it within our power to begin the world all over again.”

  10. In my head I heard ‘learned helplessness’ pronounced the other way, as the adjective ‘learn-ed helplessness’. Presumably people who are very eloquent in explaining why they can’t do anything 🙂

  11. Proofreading:

    “And I think we can dispense with the facile response that moving history out of the university may prove to be good int he end” -> “in the end” (I’m glad I’m not the only one for whom ‘t’s have a tendency to migrate to adjacent words)

    “So I don’t necessarily feat politicizing the discipline” -> “fear”

  12. Kinda reminds me of my own time at university here in Germany. Studied history at Humboldt University till 2019 and the university management did everything it could to de-fund the humanities in favour of the sciences. For example when a federal grand ran out that had been used to hire some physics professors, there was an attempt to get rid of some humanities profs instead.

    So when one of our tenured profs in medieval history retired, the historical institute had to fight the university tooth and nail for three straight years to finally hire the replacement… which was already there and chosen and stuck in some temporary “junior professorship”. Luckily you couldn’t accuse our professors of indifference. Every one of them would fight for each of his employees down to the employed students to either renew the temporary contracts – which were already the norm at the time – or for immediate replacement.

    Tellingly, the professor who took care of the institutes finances – Prof. Babarowski of eastern European history – once came into a lecture and spend the first fifteen minutes venting to a full lecture hall of students of his meeting with university management who where not the slightest bit interested in “do we get value for out money” but only in “how much external funding did you get this year” and “how can you get more external funding next year”…

  13. I generally agree with the perspective you’ve laid out here, but I wanted to highlight one thing:

    “So I don’t necessarily feat politicizing the discipline, but I do fear the partisanization of it, wherein the public broadly perceives historians as adjuncts to a specific political party.”

    This is beyond the control of history as a discipline, because we have half of our current political system and public discourse–a significant minority of Americans–who at present have deep-seated, fundamental, identity-defining ideological commitments to a set of objectively historically false assumptions.

    Such people–and those even slightly sympathetic to them–are automatically going to reject any discipline that *engages with facts* (because of reality’s known liberal bias–which I say as someone who would not describe myself as a liberal) as being a hotbed of subversive communist lies. You’ve already seen it in an earlier comment on this article. And yet the accusation undermines itself–for history has been abandoned just as much by the bean-counting austerity champions of modern “Third Way” liberalism as by the people who make accusations of ideological indoctrination. I say with great confidence that the higher-education administrators who slash these departments are themselves generally liberal!

    But we live in an era where *taking basic steps to not promote the spread of a disease* has become “partisanized”, where people have *proudly died* rather than do what they were urged to do by authority figures they consider ideologically suspect. Can we expect the contingent answers, complexities, and self-doubt introduced by the harsh light of good historical analysis to find more fertile ground in this public? We are seeing major political movements that want to ban the teaching of some of the most fundamental facts about our country–such as its historical and ongoing discrimination against members of certain racial/ethnic groups, including but by no means limited to genocide of the land’s original inhabitants and enslavement of another continent’s population to work the land thus cleared. Just as evolution is the fact without which none of the rest of modern biology makes sense, so too is the joint process of genocide and (forcible) population transfer the fact without which American history makes no sense. But a lot of very vocal (and violent) people want to mandate exactly this nonsense history, because to do otherwise would call into question their entire political worldview.

    This is not surprising and is not new. Nationalism and hierarchical social structures are never ideologies that can survive reflection from well-informed minds, because they’re ideologies based on lies. But too much, and too prominent, a part of the public knows there is power in those lies and is all too happy to shut down any educational process and reject any discovery of facts that contradicts them. History as a discipline is incapable of accommodating these people, and historians should not self-censor and reframe their understanding of their role in an attempt to do so.

    Instead, any plan to solve the smothering of the profession will have to proceed on the regrettable assumption that a lot of people will still view any effort to produce critical knowledge as ideologically suspect and will oppose it at all costs.

    1. Very true. But the people who look at the death toll of Stalin and Mao and say but we will do it right can’t be saved by further partisanship by historians.

      I have literally read someone ranting that Communism is fine, Stalin was a rightwinger who infiltrated, as was every mass murdering Commie. It did not dawn on her that were Communism invariably infiltrated by mass murdering rightwingers that would indite it as strongly as reality does.

      She has a lot of company that’s very close.

      1. Thing is, that type of leftism is far less prominent than the internet would have you (or the people preaching it) believe. They’re not really any better, but their historical misconceptions come similarly from finding the thing that needs to be believed. It’s not the product of indoctrination by the capital-L Liberal establishment, it’s the product of concluding (justifiably) that they are flawed and then deciding that the ideology which they committed all their worst acts fighting against must have been good. History certainly teaches that the propagandized version of the Soviets and their descendant states was false, but no serious historian of these states would come to the conclusion that their atrocities weren’t reflective of the flaws of their idiosyncratic ideologies. Certainly there’s a lot of argument over what it was about these specific ideologies that caused these outcomes, but “secret infiltration” is obviously a conspiracy theory. It’s not the product of how these topics are being taught generally.

        1. Now, THAT is leftist indoctrination. Their atrocities are the necessary result of their ideology . They will happen when you attempt the impossible, to make over humanity as you want, and punish humans for failure.

          1. “Their ideology” being Marxism-Leninism and its offshoots, which isn’t what most American leftists are about.
            And “to make over humanity as you want, and punish humans for failure” seems like a pretty general trait for ideologies depending on how you interpret it.

          2. Nah. Many ideologies grasp that the ability to reform humanity is strictly limited and both try to work around that and accept that it will mean not everything can be dealt with.

    2. I would respond, for instance by pointing out that we live in an era where liberals believe that defunding the police will somehow improve the lives of black people, and resolutely ignore the increased number of black murder victims and the decreased of retail establishments in poor neighborhoods that results, but I know that Prof. Devereux doesn’t like the comments taken over by extraneous political invective, so in a preteritionist fashion I will say nothing.

    3. where people have *proudly died* rather than do what they were urged to do by authority figures they consider ideologically suspect

      You’re thinking of Jesus Christ, I presume?

    4. “But we live in an era where *taking basic steps to not promote the spread of a disease* has become “partisanized”, where people have *proudly died* rather than do what they were urged to do by authority figures they consider ideologically suspect.”

      At this point, one thinks of the public health authority figures who told people that Trump rallies were dangerous because they could spread COVID, but Black Lives Matter rallies were to be encouraged. Apparently viruses cannot spread among people whose hearts are pure.

      We have the word of the authority figures.

      Strange how the authority figures in other countries did not seem to realise that. Think how different the response in those countries might have been.

  14. Hello, I had asked you almost a year ago if I should go to Grad school and I wanted to tell you that I decided to go for an MA in IR and just finished my first semester. It was difficult but I enjoyed it. I’m also through a school program spending two semesters studying in Japan next year which I’m very excited about. I share your concerns about the state of humanities right now my school is looking at loosing a program to a STEM school due to university concerns about undergrad enrollment and the Liberal Arts college is looking at having its Political Science, Economics, and Sociology departments transferred into a new college.

    1. I should point out that the hiring situation in political science/IR essentially is as bad as it is for history. According to APSA figures over the last few years, about 28 percent of political science PhD grads found a full-time academic position. This in fact probably is overly optimistic because it doesn’t incorporate people who have been on the market for multiple years. This should be combined with a study from a few years ago that found that 11 schools provide over 50 percent of those hired for tenure track positions. It is not uncommon for schools (whether top-tier or not) to receive over 100 applications for an open position. This is not a new situation: when I was getting my PhD in 2000, we had people already being forced into the adjunct universe. None of this should discourage you; if you are enjoying grad school (which I certainly did), that is worth it in its own right. Please just be realistic about the academic world.

      1. Interesting. Is the number of poli sci majors declining, the way the number of history majors is? Or is it a problem of overproducing poli sci Ph.D.’s? Or something else?

  15. Much of the problem is with the students, who are desperate to be employed at the end of college. I think that the humanities (history, English, philosophy) etc. might benefit from some collective action, engaging with CEO types, who are less reflexively STEM-my than you might think. (As the updated saying goes, IIT-Kanpur men work for Harvard women.) There is some corporate pro-humanities propaganda, but it is weak stuff.

    I don’t think that the message is “humanities are okay.” The message: “Our business works in a competitive world of radical uncertainty. Therefore, our management hiring preference is for humanities people who can cope with this, and did well in an undergrad accounting course or two. They turn out much better than the sheep who hid behind an economics degree.”

    1. Students are desperate to be employed because they’re desperate to pay off their student loans. The economic structure of the academic system in much of the world specifically incentivizes students to get degrees that directly promise jobs and salaries of a certain level (even if those promises aren’t true). Students will be more likely to take a “useless” degree purely out of love of the subject if they don’t risk having to pay it off for the next 30 years.

      1. Even in countries where higher education is state-funded (like here in France), if it looks like the only outcome to humanities degree is to become a high school teacher, the fact there’s no loan to pay back doesn’t change the outcome much: people still prefer to have a degree that (seems to) give better jobs

        1. Even when tuitiion is free, there are usually still costs to education (you stil have to eat during the period, which is usually financed either by loans or relatively low-level grants)

      2. So in other words, the problem is capitalism. 😛

        College costs are higher in large part because public (government) funding is less, to be sure sure. But let us not forget that in the last few decades we have seen a lot fo colleges restructure to be much less academic and much more corporate. Administrative staff have balooned even as actuall teaching staff have shrunk and costs risen.

        When you run a college as a business, academics will always take a backseat to money. The University will spend money on a new athletics stadium or a Lazy River (entertainment facility), because those are more marketable than “more faculty.”

        Indeed, some universities (and, for that matter, high schools) in the US now increasingly resemble NFL feeder programs with vestigial educational organs attached, rather than anything that is primarily a “school.”

        1. Student loans allowed colleges to capture the marginal value of the degree. Consequently, they did not allow student to attend, but colleges to raise tuition.

    2. Maybe that’s my STEM background that’s talking, but I find the idea that STEM people can’t deal with uncertainty baffling. I mean in my field (software development), rarely anything is certain, starting with the requirement of what we’re building.
      Maybe that’s not the case in some field, but even then the example of economics doesn’t really fit, since it’s a field where multiple theories are in competition and it seems no one agree on the least wrong.

      On the other hand, I’ll argue that STEM tracks need some humanities (I did and I think I benefited greatly from those courses).

    3. “Our business works in a competitive world of radical uncertainty. Therefore, our management hiring preference is for humanities people who can cope with this…”

      I feel for this argument to convince, you have to have some convincing evidence that humanities people are better at dealing with “radical uncertainty”. It is not obvious to me what that evidence would be. Or why it should be true.

      It might be more reasonable to argue that the humanities should be about the study of humanity, and most businesses find themselves dealing with humans at some point.

  16. I received my bachelor cum laude in history a few years ago and went into public education, but what I really want to do is public history. I worked at a museum previously, and enjoyed it because it interfaces directly with people and allowed me to answer questions that they had, occasionally, as you say, with responses they didn’t like.

    But I was able to engage.

    Unfortunately everywhere I look the jobs in public history seem to either be heavily certification reliant (need to have 5+ years in this exact field, sometimes the specific museum type, with a masters) or they don’t pay enough to live and have the requirements of having a highschool diploma. The realities of being where I’m at make pursuing a master’s a scary prospect, especially since many want museum studies rather then history.

  17. I doubt that the UK public would back “a ballot measure saying that ‘all college graduates in [Your State/Country Here] shall have taken at least a survey course on both World History and [Your Country Here] History before graduation’. UK Universities are more specialist than this. If you study a science, engineering, or medicine, or law, or maths, or business studies, (etc), your degree will not include any humanities. You may be able to take one or two modules outside your core subject; if so, these will be voluntary. (When I did my computing degree, several decades ago, I took a couple of philosophy courses out of general interest).

    1. Same happens where I live. “General culture” as it’s called is what high-school is for. University is for getting deep, down and dirty into your chosen speciality, not for sampling unrelated topics. Which makes sense, I think.

  18. I’m hopeful that some of this will be helped by having a lower unemployment rate in general. For the last, oh, 20 years or so, unemployment has been so high that almost every job opening attracts a large stack of applicants. It makes it easy for the hiring manager to pick and choose whatever they want, so they throw away the applicants with generalist, liberal arts-type backgrounds and choose only people with a degree and experience directly in that field. It’s even a problem in software engineering, where young people with a general computer science degree are overlooked in favor of people with professional experience in the exact specific technologies that the job is using, and not given a chance to learn on the job.

    But things are changing. Maybe not in academic jobs, but jobs in general are a lot more desperate to hire now that the unemployment rate is down below 4%. Anecdotally, I see a lot of people working retail who would normally be considered bad workers. EG teenagers who can only work limited shifts, or people with disabilities, or just people working really slowly and with an unfriendly attitude. But you know what? They show up, and they get the job done, and that’s all we can reasonable expect for someone in a thankless minimum wage job. So I think hiring managers will become less picky about who they hire, and realize that people can actually learn new things, especially people with a college degree proving they can learn lots of different things.

    1. Jobs are willing to hire, yes, but they’re not willing to pay real living wages, while cost of living especially in big western cities continues to go up. That’s how you see teenagers (living with parents, getting discounts on some stuff) or people with disabilities (disability money) or antisocial people (no family = less to spend on, probably working way more than 40 hour weeks). Or the voluntarily homeless. *You can’t afford to do these jobs without additional factors in your finances. Just work yourself to death. It’s a modern kind of subsistence farming, except there’s no physical justification for it.*

  19. Your enemies are less the senior historians than the university administrators (admin positions and costs have grown faster than tuition over the last few decades, while faculty positions and costs have shrunk). These people prefer STEM not because it is more useful, but because they think it can make them money – their sole metric. I see no cure for this but time, which may bring the realisation that a university is not there to make money. Alternatively, the present university system will collapse, bled white by the administrators, and something new (old – in the sense of a return to lost values) arise in its place.

    1. “These people prefer STEM not because it is more useful, but because they think it can make them money”

      They might reasonably argue that if some branch of knowledge can be used to make more money, that is evidence that it is more useful. Granted that STEM can make you more money, how is that compatible with it being less useful?

        1. Money is useful for any goal you might have which can be aided by getting other people to voluntarily do something for you, or for that task.

          For all I know, you might have no goals which another person might voluntarily aid. But most universities do have such goals, and anything that allows them to make money makes it easier for them to reward people for so aiding.

  20. “admin positions and costs have grown faster than tuition over the last few decades, while faculty positions and costs have shrunk”

    This would seem to be the pattern expected of a monopoly whose rents can be creamed off by the people with power over said monopoly. It suggests you really need more competition among providers. But for competition to be meaningful among providers of education or research, you need to have some way of judging the quality of education or research provided by the providers.

    In other words: Is there any objective way of telling if the the education provided by University A is better than that of University B? If not, money is just going to flow to the most powerful and prestigious institutions, and to the most powerful people within them.

    If those people happen not to be History Professors: sucks to be them.

    1. Such research as I have seen, for example comparing the careers of high school graduates with similar credentials who went to different universities for extraneous reasons (such as finances) suggests that there is little if any difference in value added by one university over another (e.g., Harvard vs. flagship state university).

      Now of course a person’s life might be subjectively richer by virtue of attending Harvard–not counting the psychological of being able to spend your life telling everyone you went to Harvard, though of course that’s not nothing. I mean maybe your appreciation of the life of the mind is subtly enhanced by four years in Cambridge versus Ann Arbor. But maybe not.

      1. This sounds like something the lower tier universities could make use of, if they put right spin on it: “Go to the University of Wherever, where graduates have the same prospects as those from Harvard, but a fraction of the debt.”

        But it is not quite what I wanted – that does not tell you if any one university is better at teaching than another. I was thinking about something more like Progress 8. A few years ago the British education system started comparing students exam scores when they were old enough to leave secondary school, with their test results before they started at secondary school. So if a student had an average score before attending a school, and an above-average score after attending that school, that would suggest the school was better than average at teaching people. They called this measure Progress 8, and started ranking schools by it.

        COVID has rather disrupted things but you can say, for example, that Michaela Community School has a rating of ~ +2, meaning that students generally get exam results a couple of grades higher if they attended Michaela, than if they attended the average school. (So a straight-C student at the average school, would get straight-As if he had attended Michaela instead. Or rather, since they have shifted to numerical grading, a straight-7 student would get straight 9s instead.)

        I gather this is information the system does not necessarily want to get, as the way to teach a lot is not necessarily the way the education system wants to teach:

        However, this approach relies on students from different schools sitting the same, externally moderated exams. So long as universities are setting and/or marking their own exams, it is not obvious how to make comparisons between them. That is why people boast about the university they attended, rather than the grade they achieved there.

        And as long as that is true, the system has no way to tell if one university is better than another at teaching, much less reward them for being so. You get what you reward; so if you can’t recognise and reward better teaching, you won’t get it.

        The money will just stick to the fingers of those closest to the money spout. And those fingers are not especially likely to belong to the people doing most of the actual teaching.

  21. As a generally interested layman, and a worldbuilder (SFF author), I picked up the Ogilvie book on your recommendation a while ago and couldn’t be happier about it. It’s an excellent overview (with serious detail) of the entire topic at just the right level of nerdery for me.

    Re: your main topic, can’t say I’m at all surprised, though seriously depressed remembering my excellent educational browsing experience at Yale in the early 70s, just before the deluge started getting serious.

  22. Merry Christmas and a Happy New year, Percy. I hope that your servant and his relatives were appropriately respectful to you, and made appropriate demonstrations of their gratitude to you and to Oliver for your permitting them to be graced by your presence.
    Matters of cat etiquette duly dealt with, Percy, please convey to your servant that on the United Kingdom shore of the Atlantic, I believe that the general public value history as a form of entertainment. History is a series of fantasies played out on the small or big screen about the lives of characters such as Henry the serial marrier of the sixteenth century, or David the maker of things going boom in North Africa circa 1942. Actors populate ‘living museums’ such as The Black Country Museum in the West Midlands of the United Kingdom, or retired armed forces personnel put on red and gold uniforms that echo those of their predecessors and guard the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London. Antiques are auctioned off in daytime TV shows with commentary about the makers, or Tony Robinson gabbles enthusiastically whilst people dig holes in the ground or theorise wildly about something someone has just found.
    And occasionally someone with a surname like ‘Hastings’ or ‘Beevor’ will write a book, which the UK public has the tremendous good sense to ignore in favour of historians who produce works of a much more readable nature with titles such as ‘Wolf Hall’.
    This being Christmas, I shall leave off there, giving you (and Oliver) season’s salutations again.

  23. I think the Issue is that science is much more profitable, most everyday people aren’t going to buy cutting edge history. But the technology produced by science can be commercialized very easily.

    Hence Universities as profit maximilizing institutions deprioritize what they see as a resource sink and focus on all those important prestigious nuclear fusion tests and GMO programs.

    But even in my Chemistry degree course Lecturers complained about barely being given enough resources to teach and being expected to push out both graduates and research papers simultaneously. One lecturer went on a tear about the university prioritising prestige projects and getting more students in than having a enough Lecturers to actually teach.

  24. I just want to observe and emphasize how MUCH bad history is out there – Youtube channels, podcasts, video games, subreddits, fantasy events like Renfaire, not to mention mainstream things like news outlets, Friends of X societies, Daughters of the Confederacy .. because all of this shows authentic, genuine DEMAND for history, because history really does matter to people. It’s a demand that’s being profitably filled by people who are not in any way trained historians

    A good midpoint example is the podcast “Tides of History” by Patrick Wyman. He did a phD in history, so he’s got the chops, and he’s also got this insane knack for conveying accurate information in a way I understand it. I don’t know if there’s any recognition or awards program or anything for public history, is there? That podcast deserves some recognition.

    1. G. K. Chesterton once pointed out that if by “doing X” you mean “doing X at a professional level”, your society no longer does X. Take sports. Every sports team has to be the best these days, and only the best players can be on the teams, starting at kindergarten in some areas. We don’t play sports as a culture anymore; we enjoy them as spectators. Average people simply don’t play sports anymore, not past the grade school level; when we talk about “playing football” we mean playing at a professional level, which excludes 99% of the population.

      Similarly, if by “dong history” you mean doing it at a professional level, you don’t value history as a culture. When large segments of a culture value history, you’re necessarily going to get a lot of bad history–because you’re going to have a lot of people learning as they go. A lot of folks who show up in elf ears and chain mail bikinis at Ren Fairs at first, who transition into more historically accurate garb as time goes by. A lot of folks who start blogs/YouTube channels about stuff they’re excited about that get stuff wrong at first, but as they go develop deeper and deeper understandings of history. Everyone starts out a new task being bad at it. They have misconceptions, lack necessary skills, and generally make fools of themselves. We should accept this as a normal, expected part of the process.

      (To be clear, I think Bret does a FANTASTIC job of this. Especially in his treatment of history in pop culture. I knew a little about Roman fortifications, and a bit more about Medieval culture, but he’s able to lead you from well-known entertainment (LOTR, GOT, various games) into the literature of history in a way that makes you enjoy the things more because you understand the context. He does a fantastic job of assuming that his audience is reasonably well intelligent but largely ignorant of his specialty, which is what this sort of thing requires. The other example of this is the better-run groups in the SCA–they accept that you start from ignorance, and encourage you to do better in ways that make the whole thing more enjoyable. Obviously such groups are not universal.)

      Would it be better if everyone had time to devote to posting the way Bret does, with in-depth research and citations and the benefits of several degrees behind them? Sure. But we shouldn’t discourage the plumbers and surgeons and lawyers and artists and truck drivers from engaging in the subject by demanding perfection! That’s a sure-fire way to ensure that history dies as a discipline.

  25. The way I see it, the biggest question here is what the point of studying history is in the first place. You don’t need to win me over. I’m already convinced about the value of history, and I’ve got no problem paying for good libraries and competent historians. Maybe you and I are going to argue about what a “good” library and a “competent” teacher are but at least I’m not going to tell you to junk the whole discipline. You historians need to win over the administrators more than anybody else. You need to talk to them in their language. Students are always easy to win over. So are members of the general public. A few generations ago you needed to win over parents too. The reality is, parents don’t get that much of a say in what they’re paying for anymore. That’s just the way it is now. Instead of parents, you have to understand how to talk to employers, and donors. Donors have got more influence over administrators than anybody else. How are you going to convince these two groups, donors and administrators, to keep on funding you historians?

  26. As someone who currently works in higher ed on the administrative side, this was a facinating read. I think it well-encapsulated many of the problems facing not only history departments, but many Arts & Sciences majors. The STEM focus of the last few decades has led to students choosing more “lucrative” majors that offer an obvious pipeline to jobs, and as a result university administration is forced to allocate resources as appropriate, with some of the core humanities taking the hardest hits. Not only is it unfortunate, as some of these majors are the core of historical university learning, but it also contributes to the perperetration of the cultural crisis Bret speaks about above (insert cheesy quote about learning from the past or being doomed to repeat it here). It was particularly interesting to me that the blame was being put on archaic focuses within departments and on entrenched professors who do not see the need to change because it doesn’t directly affect them. I think there was strong self-awareness of systemic problems and the disconnect between how the departments work and how the university as a whole works within the two different systems they inhabit. I’d be interested to see if research on history departments specifically is being looked at from the Higher Education lens, as well, or just from the history lens, and will be excited to look into that now. I know that similar research is being done from the Higher Education lens on other small departments (language departments, other small and specific arts & sciences majors, etc.)

  27. If you’re planning on pursuing this further, it might be useful to break down which parts of the problem are specific to History, which are general humanities problems, and which apply to all of academia.

    For instance, when I was an undergraduate and graduate, I saw the exact same problem of devaluing teaching, across the entire university. The best teachers were almost inevitably junior faculty who left for other schools after failing to get tenure-track positions. The best grad student teachers were in the same boat. There were a handful of senior professors who were brilliant lecturers and who had intro-level courses that anyone could take, but it’s not like they ever had much direct interaction with their students in those courses; grad students led sections of the class and did the grading. Even in the hard sciences, teaching was usually viewed as a necessary evil, and the introductory courses were passed from professor to professor, a new one every year, none of them very good, none of them building the experience to be good. The tutelary side of the department was held together by one older professor who managed the undergraduate program and taught the two core courses that everyone had to take. He was a good teacher for me, but other people had different experiences. And that was grad school; my undergraduate major in a soft science was filled with mediocre teaching at best. (Not to say anything bad about the people; they just weren’t particularly good at teaching, probably because they weren’t selected for that.)

    There’s also the problem that, last I checked, there are many more humanities grad students than available positions. PhDs in the currently-lucrative sciences at least have the option of going into research, either at a university or in the private sector. But there doesn’t seem to be much of an equivalent in the humanities (or the other sciences). Things like museums and astronomical observatories and art galleries are about it. And the result is that the staffing situation in humanities departments (etc.) seemed to be based on creating false hopes in grad students and junior faculty, getting them to do jobs by dangling unrealistic hopes of advancement. I personally find this to be extremely distasteful.

    I have no idea whether these problems are simply worse in History, or whether there’s additional stuff going on, but I’d urge you to cast a wider net and talk with people in other departments and other schools.

    1. The best teachers were almost inevitably junior faculty who left for other schools after failing to get tenure-track positions.

      Not really surprising, TBH. Academics are generally quite over-worked, so I’d expect a lot of them have to choose between “doing enough research to get published regularly” and “doing enough teaching prep to teach classes well”. Since hiring committees generally only look at the former, it makes sense that academics who prioritise teaching would fail to get tenure.

  28. I wonder how much of this situation differs depending on the prestige of the school in question. I went to an Ivy, and it certainly did not feel like there was a precipitous drop in people studying history in particular or the humanities in general. But that might be because there is a sense amongst the student population that we already had succeeded, that there was no question about whether we’d find gainful employment, that we, for better or (I would argue) for worse are the next Big Things. When you already think that you’ll be successful, you can make otherwise seemingly suboptimal choices, like studying Roman law.

    To be clear, I am not saying this is fair, or just, or good. I am not even saying that Ivy graduates are better than those who did not go to Ivies. I make no moral claims whatsoever.

    1. The Ivies are insulated from the decline. That’s…not great, frankly, because it means that as history declines it becomes increasingly the province of students at elite private schools. And while not all students at elite private schools come from wealth and privilege, as the data in the recent Harvard supreme court case show, most of them do.

      Edit: To be clear, I don’t want the departments at the Ivies to experience the same decline, I want the field to not decline.

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