"History Under Attack:" Tony Grafton is spoiling for a fight.

Anthony Grafton

Incoming 2011 American Historical Association President Anthony Grafton, the distinguished early modern European intellectual historian at Princeton University, has published a stemwinder of an article in the January 2011 issue of Perspectives, called “History Under Attack” (sorry–subscription required!  I’ll do my best to capture its essence here:)

It’s not easy to think straight—not easy to think at all—when you are under attack. And we historians—like many other humanists—have been receiving more flak than flowers over the last few decades. . . .

For all their disagreements on detail, almost all of these critics agree, not only on the symptoms but also on their causes. They have met the enemy, and he is us. We professors have shed our basic responsibility, teaching, in favor of research. Instead of grounding eager young people in the liberal arts, nine or twelve or fifteen hours a week, we barely enter the classroom. Instead we are off-campus, secluded at home or in a library or archive, pursuing specialized research. Every year we write more and more about less and less, filling libraries with unread books and articles and babbling at pointless conferences. And every year we are rewarded for this dereliction with higher salaries and more privileges.

(Oh, if only!)  As I have argued here before, premier dailies like Kaplan Testing’s house organ and the New York Times write as though all universities are run like the Ivies or top-ten flagship state unis.  They only publish op-eds from people who are affiliated with those top institutions, and those are the disciplinary experts they like to quote in their stories.  But of course, that’s not the life of most U.S. American faculty.  A lot of you readers are in fact in classrooms nine or twelve or fifteen hours a week, and you’re sure as H-E-double-hockey-sticks not enjoying “higher salaries and more privileges” for your troubles!  Grafton continues:

Most serious, from the standpoint of the American Historical Association, this barrage is aimed at us and our immediate neighbors in the humanities and the social sciences. Most critics don’t seriously maintain that the life sciences or engineering have become too technical. Like everyone else, they hope to benefit from the new medicines and technologies that are incubated in specialized labs and departments.Many of them clearly take an interest in the findings of economists and psychologists, demographers and political scientists—all those highly specialized articles without which there would be no readable books and articles by David Brooks and Malcolm Gladwell.

The real targets of the invective are the disciplines that create and teach qualitative ways of interpreting the past and the present, art and literature, religion and society. We’re the parasites, who don’t bring in large outside grants that help to cross-fund other departments and disciplines. We’re the pedants, who don’t produce anything that can help society solve its pressing problems. We’re the superfluous men and women, whom hard-pressed university administrators have to support even though our politicized scholarship and teaching has led to a calamitous loss of student enrollments, and neither they nor their trustees nor anyone else can quite see why they need to do so. . . .[Ed. note:  this is not true everywhere.  Baa Ram U., although founded as the state Aggie school, is struggling to fill Education, Engineering, and Agricultural Science classes–whereas the College of Liberal Arts is second-largest in numbers of majors across the university, and the History department has 600+ majors now although we have only about 20 tenure-track faculty!]

Grafton is of course most immediately concerned with the effects of these poisonous conversations on history:

For history has its own special place in these indictments. Critics rebuke historians for drawing politicized conclusions from their research—and even, in some notorious cases, for deliberately distorting or inventing the evidence to support their own left-wing views.They criticize authors of textbooks and public historians for subverting patriotism, claiming that they emphasize violence, inequality, and oppression in European and American life at the expense of more positive qualities, and by arguing that America has waged war not only to defend itself, but also to gain territory possessed by others—and that it has waged war with special ferocity against opponents who were not white. A set of canonical incidents, endlessly and inaccurately retold—the controversies over the National History Standards, the Enola Gay, and Arming America—are wielded as weapons. Meanwhile political actors of many stripes retell history to support their programs—and denounce the professionals for doing their best to obscure or conceal what they identify, sometimes wildly, as the truth.

.   .   .   .   .  

[T]he indictment is hydra-headed. . . . It’s here that the real difficulty arises.  The real nub of the criticism is not financial but scholarly and ethical: it’s that our research and teaching are nothing more than sterile pursuits of mind-numbing factoids, tedious and predictable exercises in group think, or politicized exercises in deploying the evidence to prove predetermined conclusions. If we can’t answer those criticisms convincingly, we will lose on all fronts: history positions will disappear, and so will neighboring departments in foreign languages and other fields, without which we can’t function.

I think this is right–Grafton knocks down some of the arguments about humanities departments being “too expensive” or unpopular purveyors merely of Gen Ed courses, but as I see it, the ressentiment aimed at us is driven by two fears, one real and one imaginary.  The real fear is that university faculty have power–even those of us who teach at community colleges, “directional” universities (you know, those with “Northern,” “Southern,” “Eastern,” or “Western” in the university’s name), and large state unis, because we are the people who can either hand out tickets to the middle class (in the form of degrees) or withhold them.  Faculty in universities have always been and continue to be decisive in this process–and we’re living in an era in which college graduates face a 5% unemployment rate whereas those without bachelor’s degrees face twice the rate of unemployment.  And so far, because of the protections of tenure, we’ve remained largely unaffected by attempts to hobble K-12 teachers and teacher’s unions, although we get tarred rhetorically by the broad-brush attacks on all teachers.

Well I ain't got it, anyhows.

U.S. Americans are scared, so it’s easy to resent university faculty–who, if you read most American newspapers or watch American news programs–all teach at elite institutions, when we can be bothered to teach at all, and make somewhere in the low- to mid-six figures for our troubles.  (Again–if only!)  This is the second (and imaginary) fear driving these conversations:  that professors are somehow members of an economic “elite.”  Most people don’t understand that while being a professor is a decent middle-class job (on the tenure-track, anyway), it’s hardly a ticket to a lavish lifestyle.  Most people don’t realize that only about half of us are eligible for tenure, and are laboring as adjunct faculty or lecturers for $30,000-$40,000 a year.  Friends, that means that some of my colleagues will be eligible to send their children to Baa Ram U. at half-price under the new tuition plan for middle- and lower-income families.  Yes, Baa Ram U. faculty are paid so little that many of us would qualify for this program–and it’s not just non-tenure track lecturers.  There are tenure-track faculty in my college who are making less than $57,000 a year–and I myself escape qualifying for the tuition break by only $3,000.

What’s to be done about this?  The current recession has encouraged some of our foes to dust off some of the old kulturkampfen arguments from the 1980s and 1990s and marry them to real concerns about the price of higher education to students and their families.  In my next post, I’ll write about why I think historians are rather poorly positioned to take on the larger scholarly and ethical questions Grafton wants us to engage.  I agree with Grafton that we must fight back instead of retreat or fold–but it’s going to be a real challenge for historians as individuals and for the profession at large because of our training and our intellectual style.  Short preview:  can splitters be polemicists?

53 thoughts on “"History Under Attack:" Tony Grafton is spoiling for a fight.

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