Thought for the Day: Me, on the Decline and Fall of Academic History

I have a chapter on “When Reason Replaces Wisdom: How the Neglect of History and Statesmanship Has Diminished Political Science,” just out in a multi-author collection from Bloomsbury Academic entitled Applied History and Contemporary Policymaking, edited by Robert Crowcroft of the University of Edinburgh. Here’s an excerpt:

Today academic history is going through something of an identity crisis, with the number of undergraduate majors in the discipline plummeting while its academic practitioners descend further into esoteric or narrow investigations that have little appeal or importance beyond a tenure review committee. One sign of this identity crisis can be seen in the fact that Harvard classifies history as a “social science,” while Yale places history in the humanities.

Another clue comes from this curious fact about biographies of major historical figures: The general reading public can’t get enough of them. Biographies especially of presidents and figures from the American Founding, but also generals and major business leaders, have not only rocketed to the top of the best-seller lists, but even spawned Broadway musicals. And yet very few of them are written by academic historians any more, unlike the 1950s and 1960s when leading academics such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Arthur Link, and James Macgregor Burns produced multi-volume works on American presidents. Academic historians today still write often about presidents, but usually confine themselves to a narrow aspect rather than a synoptic biography, i.e., “President X and Civil Rights,” or “President Y and Latin American Policy.” Instead, today best-selling biographies tend to be written by journalists or professional non-academic writers like Ron Chernow (George Washington, Andrew Hamilton, Ulysses S. Grant, and J.P. Morgan), James Grant (Bernard Baruch), Doris Kearns Goodwin (Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln), or David McCulloch (John Adams, Harry Truman). There are some exceptions such as Yale’s David Blight, author of recent biography of Frederick Douglass, but these tend to be exceptions that prove the rule. The few academic historians like Blight who have written popular biographies tend to be older, and withdrawn from the mainstream of academic history, like Douglas Brinkley, H.W. Brands, Andrew Roberts, Julian T. Jackson, Joseph Ellis, and the recently deceased Jean Edward Smith.

If you’re interested, you can download my chapter here.

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