The rewriting of American history

The study of US political history is disappearing from American campuses. But bestselling books on the subject give cause for hope

Dominic Green

“The earth belongs always to the living generation,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in September 1789. The living generation are no longer sure who Jefferson and Madison were. In 2016, a study for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that only 28 per cent of American graduates know that Madison was “the Father of the Constitution”. Nearly 60 per cent attribute its paternity to Jefferson, who was in Paris when it was written in Philadelphia.

Nor are most Americans familiar with the details of the Constitution. In the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s annual Constitution Day survey for 2018, 74 per cent affirm that they can name the three branches of American government. Once questioned, however, only 32 per cent can name all three, and 33 per cent can’t even name one.

At least the Americans still believe that Jefferson and Madison existed. In Britain,  a 2008 survey found a quarter of under-twenties believing that Florence Nightingale was a fictional character. Though one in five refused to be tricked into believing in the existence of Winston Churchill, more than half believed in the reality of Sherlock Holmes. Just under half thought Eleanor Rigby a real person, and that Richard the Lionheart was a fictional character.

The shift from a textual to a visual culture began in the early 20th century with the advent of cinema and was completed at the other end of the century by the arrival of the internet. In 2010, a survey on the 70th anniversary of Churchill’s first prime ministership found that while 97 per cent recognised a photograph of Tony Blair, only 19 per cent recognised Churchill. The only consolation amid this dazzling ignorance is that, on current progress, Blair will be “extinct” in public consciousness by 2075.

“The historian is a prophet looking backwards,” Schlegel wrote in 1798. Looking backwards, the timing of our digitisation was unfortunate. After the limbo of the Cold War, history returned in the 1990s along with its old friend geography. But in the same decade, our attentions drifted online and our social presences dematerialised. The historical sequence since the 9/11 attacks has been so heavily mediated that, according to a 2016 report by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a third of American millennials believe that George W. Bush killed more people than Stalin.

History has always been divided between a popular, recreational mode and an executive, instrumental mode—between those who enjoy a good story or simply don’t care at all, and those who agree with Polybius that history is “in the truest sense an education and a training for political life”. Recent data confirms that the study of history is declining in the United States, as in the United Kingdom. But the public remains fascinated by history in the factual sense, and the past as a reservoir of memories and images.

In the universities, history is decoupling from the disciplines that train the elites who manage our political systems. Yet history remains persistently popular with readers and viewers. The balance of power in history is changing. The good news about history is that, as with political populism, the news is not all bad.

In the decade after the crash of 2008, the number of American undergraduates choosing a history major declined by 30 per cent, from 34,642 to 24,266. Though the undergraduate body continues to swell, history majors now constitute a smaller share than at any time since 1950. In the late 1960s, 6 per cent of male undergraduates and 5 per cent of female undergraduates majored in history. Fifty years later, those figures have collapsed to 2 per cent and 1 per cent. These numbers declined notably in 2011-12, the first year in which students who had witnessed the effects of the 2008 financial crisis could choose their majors.

The post-2008 decline has been sharpest at the private, elite universities. These are the educational anterooms to the chambers of government, and they possess the resources to sustain teaching, research and graduate training in history. While student demand falls, political fashion continues to transform the nature of academic history. Together, these trends threaten to collapse the profession.

Between 1974 and 1984, the number of history PhD graduates from American universities fell from nearly 1,200 per year to less than 600. From the mid-Eighties, the number rose for three decades on the economic updraft of the university business, where fees have grown ahead of inflation every year since 1980. By 2014, the number of PhDs was just short of 1,200 again. But the number of academic job openings in 2014 was less than 600. Between 1974 and 2008, the number of job-seeking PhDs tracked the number of job openings with a lag time of about five years, the time an effective student requires to complete a doctorate. In 2008, however, the number of jobs halved instantly. Though graduate schools continue to produce more than a thousand history PhDs a year, the job market has not improved.

The five-year lag time between enrolment and graduation means that the decline in the number of PhDs that began in 1974 derived from falling enrolments in the late Sixties. This correlates to the cultural revolution of those years, in which the living generation did its best to cast off its parents and its past, and to change the orientation, if not the function, of higher education, especially in the Humanities. Instead of training little capitalists and bureaucrats, the university now trained cadres of resistance. In the 1970s, the Gramscian graduates began their march through the institutions. They hired their friends, blocked their enemies, and reshaped curricula to reflect their radical chic. Eventually, they succeeded in severing Polybius’s link between history and government, albeit by the Pyrrhic strategy of dissuading undergraduates from going anywhere near their lectures.

In 2014, the American Historical Association advertised 587 university teaching posts for historians. Only nine were in the fields of diplomatic or international history. In 2015, that number fell to three out of 572. American political history, once the dominant pursuit of American historians, is disappearing from academia. Three-quarters of American colleges and universities no longer employ full-time researchers and teachers in the field.

Once, academics like William Langer, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Ernest May and Richard Pipes advised presidents. Books by Schlesinger, Daniel Boorstin and Richard Hofstadter influenced public opinion on topical issues and the nature of the American political tradition. Since the Sixties, American academia has dumped those ideals of public service, and exchanged constructive engagement with policymakers with “speaking truth to power”. The policymakers no longer bother to listen.

“The historical profession is committing slow-motion suicide,” Hal Brands and Francis J. Gavin wrote in 2018. “It is not surprising that students are fleeing history, for the historical discipline has long been fleeing its twin responsibilities to            interact with the outside world and engage some of the most fundamental issues confronting the United States.”

In 2016, the American Historical Association noticed a decline in both the number of jobs and the number of applicants. Academic history in the United States has entered a death spiral.

The academics’ abdication has returned history to the people. The demotic taste remains resolutely Carlylean: great men and women, swords and sandals, emperors and battles, the costumed fantasy-land of Downton Abbey, The Queen and, in its most degraded and ahistorical aspect, Game of Thrones. But the American public remain, as it did in Jefferson’s day, students of history.

Alexander Hamilton was the forgotten man of the American Revolution when Ron Chernow’s Hamilton was published in 2004. The success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical adaptation has made Hamilton the most-remembered of all the Founders. Every American child now knows who Aaron Burr was, and why it is that New York City is the capital of finance but Washington, DC is the capital of government. Hamilton introduces  children to difficulties of documentary interpretation once reserved for graduate seminars in political history: “No one else was in the room when it happened.”

Consider the spring bestsellers by Victor Davis Hanson and Ben Shapiro, The Case for Trump and The Right Side of History. Hanson has retired from teaching Classics to heavily Hispanic new Americans at Fresno State in California, which is as low on the totem pole of academic snobbery as you can get while keeping your health insurance. Shapiro excels at the online polemic whose purpose, in the millennial argot, is “owning the libs”. An Orthodox Jewish conservative, he requires a police escort when he speaks on campus. Both writers have bypassed the academic gatekeepers of historical discipline, Hanson though his longstanding column at National Review, Shapiro through digital ubiquity.

If a historian can be permitted a prophecy that looks forward, I predict that reading Hanson’s The Case for Trump will become obligatory for anyone seeking to understand the late-Roman mood of the Trump presidency. Even those who detest Trump are starting to admit that Trump’s “traditionally non-presidential behaviour” and “personal excesses” may have been “valuable in bringing long-overdue changes in foreign and domestic policy”. Hanson places Trump in the tradition of the tragic hero who produces social transformation as much because of as despite his “obnoxious and petty” character. Oedipus was also “rudely narcissistic”, and Sophocles’s Ajax complains about “a rigged system and the lack of recognition accorded his undeniable accomplishments” like Trump on Twitter.

It is not necessary to approve of Trump or of Hanson’s argument to appreciate the democratic value of a bestseller that expounds hamartia, the tragic flaw, in a modern political context. Shapiro’s The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great is a similarly uncompromising work of popular education. Like Hanson, Shapiro is determined to recover the linguistic and theoretical materials abandoned in the academic historians’ retreat from society. The reader is served generous self-helpings of the grad-school terminology of telos, critique and ancien régime, along with accurate and informative summaries of pale, stale and male has-beens like Saint Augustine, Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, as well as true      giants like Fromm and Marcuse. 

As the title suggests, Shapiro has his telos, but he is erudite as well as enthusiastic: “Like Kinsey, Marcuse rejected Freud; instead he posited a world of liberated eros, and called for ‘the concept of a non-repressive civilisation, based on a fundamentally different relation between man and nature, and fundamentally different existential relations’.” This is a fair summary of Eros and Civilization, and much fairer than Marcuse’s hooligan heirs are to conservatives like Shapiro when they come to campus.

The once-compulsory “Great Books” curricula is now a rarity, due to its terminal caucasity. The Right Side of History may be the first time that the holder of a bachelor’s degrees has encountered the “narrative” of “Western Civ”, in which the clashing harmonies of the “Judaeo-Christian tradition” are reconciled with “Greek reason” by Jefferson and company—a reconciliation which their modern heirs must continue if their democratic polity is to survive.

Books such as The Right Side of History and The Case for Trump sustain the American tradition of democratic self-education. Intelligent, readable and useful, they connect political history to current affairs, and provide non-specialists with the “education and a training for political life” that is the inheritance of all modern citizens. When the academy wrote itself out of American history, it passed history back to the American people, populism and all. As Jefferson said, “Every generation needs a revolution.”

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