Henry Ford is reported to have once said, “History is bunk.” Upon Ford’s death, the eminent historian Arnold Toynbee remarked, “Henry Ford is history.” Touché!
But I wonder if Henry Ford isn’t having the last laugh on this question, at least when it comes to academic history. I’ve been making mischief for the last few years among academic historians by asking the simple question, “Why is it that nearly all of the best-selling histories and biographies these days are being written by journalists and other non-academic writers [i.e. Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, etc.]?” There is huge demand among readers for narratives and biographies about America’s founders and especially our conflicts, both internal and external. Academic historians will sometimes candidly admit that writing a popular book will actually hurt your academic career. And then they wonder why student enrollment in history has been in a long-term decline.
For my sins this year I enrolled as an adjunct member of the American Historical Association, and just received the program for their annual meeting in Washington DC coming up in early January. The first thing I notice is how thin the program is compared to the annual program of the American Political Science Association. The next thing you notice is how narrow and politicized so much of the program is.
Herewith some panel titles:
The #NoDAPL and Water Is Life Movement and Historians [because the Dakota Access Pipeline, just barely completed, is an important historical subject already]
Teaching Queer Themes and Experiences in World History
Race, Sport, Spectatorship
Dancing Reformers or Reformed Dancers? Dance, Religion, and Gender in the Reformation
Sex, Gender, Intimacy, and Race and Lingering Questions of Justice in World War II’s Southwest Pacific Theater
Queer Contortions: New Directions in the History of Race, Sexuality, and the Body
Race and Empire in Global Music History, 1500-1800
Insects Histories: Contested Boundaries in Human-Insect Interfaces, 17002-1950s [Not sponsored by Terminix or Raid, for some reason]
Total War and the Genesis of Industrial-Scale Recycling
Here is it worth taking in some of the individual papers on this panel:
“Skimming Off the Fat: Industrial-Scale Recycling in Nazi-Occupied Europe,” by Anne Kristina Berg
“Toward a Zero Waste Economy: Scope and Impact of the Nazi ‘Recycling Regime,'” by Heike Weber, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology
Good to know the Nazis were concerned about sustainable warfare. Funny, though, how sensitive environmentalists are when you observe that the Nazis were the first 20th century environmentalists.
A few other individual papers deserve notice:
“Sex and the Colonial City: Mapping Masculinity, Whiteness, and Desire in French Hanoi,” by Michael Vann, California State University, Sacramento
“You Are What You Eat: The Gendered Politics of Francoist Nutrition,” by Suzanne Dunai, UC San Diego
Almost nothing on the entire program about history in any sensible way—almost nothing on presidents or the presidency, very little on war in any direct way, nothing on legal history, nothing on traditional literature in history, etc.—but strangely, there are several organizational meetings about what to do to increase enrollment in history courses. Here’s a novel idea: how about teaching history instead of trendy ideology?