We can usefully look on History as manifesting in three modes: pedagogy, publishing, and public engagement. I’m not sure if piecemeal remedies will suffice or a more wholistic approach will be necessary, but I suspect that without a fair amount of more concentrated attention, each of the legs of our tripod will fail.
The way we teach students is beset with serious difficulties, particularly from those—both within universities and across the general population of students and their parents— who see history as disposable or ignorable as an essential part of education. Enrollments continue to drop (as do departmental FTEs) as universities increasingly emphasize vocational training at the expense of the “liberal arts.” Students’ media-reduced attention spans undermine our traditional emphasis on serious reading and analysis. We still have too much superficiality and name/date memorization in our assessments, especially in the “coverage”-based intro surveys that constitute and increasing percentage of our undergraduate butts-in-seats. We spend too much time training graduate students who can’t find jobs.
Most of us love to research and to write. Exploring and extending our understanding of the past is an essential part of what we do. However, a large portion of our time is spent chasing minutiae, often in the context of dissertations, that, after years of labor, show up in uncited articles or rarely-read monographs. The incentives for much of this work comes from our guild mentality and from the demands of an academic publishing industry each of whose three arms—journals, monographs, and textbooks—are seriously dysfunctional in its own right. Hundreds of hours of research, writing, and editing are effectively unpaid. Increasing prices tax the budgets of our libraries who are their only (& captive) customers. And don’t get me started on the racket of textbook prices, frequent “new” editions, and electronic bells-and-whistles.
The nature and purpose of history is under sustained attack across our society. We all remember the era when “deniers” were pretty much confined to the issue of the Holocaust, but now they’re widespread, reflecting not only an apparent existential angst, but also a disdain for “experts” of any flavor and truth in general. “Woke” wars and “cancel” cultures put a premium on controversy and performance; relegating a calm consideration and balanced judgment to the sidelines. This phenomenon threatens our political culture to be sure, but it also reinforces the disregard for academic history. Moreover, if “everything has a history,” and we understand that history is a set of constructed stories then the selectivity of the data points behind much of what passes for popular history, particularly in the media (but also the judicial penchant for “originalism”), undermines the judgment and balance which we Historians try to bring to the process.
All this (admittedly daunting) situation leads me to wonder about our viability as a discipline/institution/profession. I have to wonder who’s trying to rethink the publishing model. I have to wonder how many members read about efforts like the AHA’s “Freedom to Learn” anti-censorship initiative and think “Grossman’s got that covered; I don’t have to do anything on that front.” I have to wonder whether we’re spending too much time in the archives and too much time enjoying our intra-disciplinary intellectual debates and not enough figuring out how better to teach—in the classroom and out.
Nor are we well positioned to deal with the crisis. We are an undisciplined discipline. Our professional brains aren’t well wired for strategic thinking and enterprise management. We’re more apt to ponder than to act. Jealous of our “independence,” we view group work (aka “service”) as a requirement of academic employment, made all the more difficult by COVID, the time-suck of university governance, and the ever-shrinking roster of tenured faculty whose pro rata burden inexorably edges up. On top of all that, our senior members have job security and a short-enough career runway that there is little incentive to lift our eyes beyond the horizon. With rare forays into significant national projects, most of our time in “service” is spent either within the futile confines of departmental politics where more effort is put into rewriting by-laws or with the slightly broader framework of similarly-situated humanities departments or university Senates than coming up with better ways to engage our students and the public.
Since we’ve chosen to work in a discipline/institution/profession that isn’t hierarchical (or even managed), most of us who are concerned toil away in our own way, working on our own projects; noble and perhaps incrementally useful, but neither together nor coordinated. If these efforts don’t prove enough to change how we teach, and communicate with the public soon enough, then our independence and academic freedom will be cold comfort.
Few of these concerns are new, but they are piling up. As with humanity amid the climate crises, History is much akin to the proverbial frog in the pot of heating water. We like to think we’re smarter than the average schnook; we’ll see….