Should Academic History Survive?
State of the Union: True and good historical research will survive outside the corrupt ivory towers—as has been the historic norm.
Can Academic History survive, at least in its current form? Or should it?
If you ask Joel Kotkin, the answer is a cautious maybe. Kotkin writes in an interesting essay, that:
History has moved to the front line of social conflict, but rarely has it been so poorly understood and sketchily taught. After decades of declining interest, only 13 percent of eighth graders achieve proficiency in the subject today. The New York Times reports that “about 40 percent of eighth graders scored ‘below basic’ in U.S. history last year, compared with 34 percent in 2018 and 29 percent in 2014.” This phenomenon can be seen across the West.
He adds that history is so neglected in the UK, that it has almost disappeared.
Study of the 19th century, meanwhile, seems to be vanishing from European classrooms. “We are in danger of mass amnesia, being cut off from knowledge of our own cultural history,” noted the late Jane Jacobs in her 2004 book, Dark Age Ahead. When I show my students a picture of Lenin, barely one-in-ten of them recognize it.
Kotkin isn’t the only one. My friend, David Randall of the National Association of Scholars, wrote something similar recently for the Martin Center.
“A continuing flow of conservatives into law and the judiciary has preserved a remnant body of tradition-minded law professors to make the case for originalism, natural law, and precedent. Tradition-minded political theorists also survive, as do tradition-minded economists. History departments, by contrast, have become almost entirely a left-wing preserve,” Randall observed, citing the 2016 study showing that the ratio of “Democrats to Republicans was 4.5:1 in economics, 8.6:1 in law, and 33.5:1 in history.”
Readers know that one of my pet peeves is the decline of academic history. I have written about that again and again in these pages, as well as in academic papers. I’d be a lot more sympathetic to the arguments that academic history departments 1) are actually producing good research, and 2) are providing everyone with decent jobs. Currently, they are doing neither. As a historian myself, I often tell starry-eyed young students that one shouldn’t go to study history as a profession unless one is independently wealthy and is interested in doing research out of a love for the subject, or is smart enough to have acquired a full doctoral scholarship, or already has a secured job offer in a related field—or preferably a combination of all three. There simply aren’t enough jobs for historians doing good history, and the academy doesn’t do good history anymore.
On the second point, consider the latest example: a “historian,” from a prestigious Russell Group university in Britain (the British version of the American Ivy+), essentially argued without evidence that the British scientist and engineer Henry Cort, widely credited for inventing the groundbreaking iron-making that quadrupled Great Britain’s iron production and fueled its ascent to a globe-spanning empire, stole his idea from Jamaican slaves. This argument was published in a prestigious journal—of course, given the academy’s lax review standards and given the ideological priors of academic journals to prefer diversity over merit, rigor, and quality. It was, of course, proven wrong. The UK Telegraph reports,
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Last week, this newspaper disclosed how rival scholars had trawled through the primary sources Dr. Bulstrode based her theory upon and claimed there was no evidence of grooved rollers or a new iron-making method ever existing at Reeder’s Pen, the foundry at Morant Bay in Jamaica established in 1772 by an Englishman, John Reeder, which forms the focal point of her thesis.
Yet Jenny Bulstrode, the historian slash activist in question, is still arguing for “monetary reparations” for the “simultaneous theft and denial of black innovation.” She also blocked everyone on Twitter for pointing out that she is an utter imbecile who shouldn’t teach or be anywhere near a history department at a Russell Group university.
To argue that History departments at universities should or must survive after this is intellectually indefensible. In fact, one should start from the scratch. The academy is corrupted beyond reform. No good scholar will pass the ideological gatekeeping in academia. One cannot imagine a lowly uncredentialed historian simply observing and chronicling events or societies without any ideological color passing peer-review. It is therefore time to defund and destroy the ideological edifices and echo chambers before building new institutions. True and good historical research will survive meanwhile, outside the corrupt ivory towers—as has been the historic norm.