Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Political History is alive and well, and matters more than ever

Mary L. Dudziak

Since Mark Graber discussed yesterday’s New York Times op-ed about the alleged death of political history, and explained the he and others in political science are still deeply engaged in it, I thought I’d share how historians reacted. I was greeted with a tweet yesterday morning from historian Claire Potter who said, to me and others: “According to the @nytimes we don’t exist.” The twitterverse then ricocheted with criticism of the oped.

Fred Logevall and Ken Osgood, the authors of the op-ed are very fine historians who I count as friends. They argued that there is “a crisis” in the history profession.
American political history as a field of study has cratered. Fewer scholars build careers on studying the political process, in part because few universities make space for them. Fewer courses are available, and fewer students are exposed to it. What was once a central part of the historical profession, a vital part of this country’s continuing democratic discussion, is disappearing.
As for the reason for this development, they invoke an old, tired argument: diversification of the field of history, in part, displaced “traditional” fields like political history.

A chorus of voices exploded across the scholarly twitter community, explaining that political history remains vibrant. The op-ed “misses the resurgence of political history,” noted Leah Wright Rigueur, author of TheLoneliness of the Black Republican (2014). People began tweeting their favorite political history books, many very recent, and eventually tied together with the hashtag #poliscihistory (see also #thisiswhatpoliticalhistorylookslike).

There are two different reasons the op-ed’s argument fell flat. The first is that political history now appears in different forms than in the 1950s, so that much political history appears in those new, more diverse fields. It is always the case that scholarly fields evolve, of course. Nowadays, scholars of African American history, women’s history, queer history, disability history, environmental history, legal history, U.S.-and-the-world history and other fields are doing political history. One can write political history and succeed in a women’s and gender history “slot.”

But even on its own terms, the authors’ argument did not hold up. Caleb McDaniel tweeted American Historical Association data showing that political history has not declined over the previous 35 years. Instead the percentage of historians identifying themselves as primarily political historians has remained constant, as is clear from this chart:

Jim Grossman, Executive Director of the AHA chimed in to say that the oped had relied on the wrong source in drawing its conclusions. The AHA is the source of the most complete hiring data.

Political history is, in my view, more exciting than ever in departments of history, political science and law schools. But Logevall and Osgood make an important point that their critics will agree with: political history matters beyond the academy.
Knowledge of our political past is important because it can serve as an antidote to the misuse of history by our leaders and save us from being bamboozled by analogies, by the easy “lessons of the past.” It can make us less egocentric by showing us how other politicians and governments in other times have responded to division and challenge. And it can help us better understand the likely effects of our actions, a vital step in the acquisition of insight and maturity.

Older Posts
Newer Posts