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The End of (Academic) History

History, as a discipline, needs to return to its roots.

History by Frederick Dielman (1896)

I feel compelled to read about the implosion of academia, having myself quit higher-ed as a profession in favor of more hands-on policy work. Any destruction is morbidly fascinating; self-caused ones, even more so. 

The latest hit in this newly evolving genre was a queer little essay in Jacobin magazine, titled “I Love Higher Education. It Isn’t Loving Me Back.” Unreciprocated love from the (supposedly) highest echelons of detached meritocracy is a relatively new form of blues, flourishing due to the mass democratization of higher education. But among other tedious examples, this essay was oddly moving. A bit twee, it became the subject of much discussion


The authoress, Hannah Leffingwell, is a Ph.D. aspirant in history at New York University, whose dissertation is titled, “Becoming Lesbian: Sex, Politics, and Culture in Transnational Circulation, 1970-1998." According to NYU, her dissertation "examines the proliferation of transnational lesbian networks in late twentieth-century Europe and the United States.” Leffingwell explains how she was confused that her favorite professor could be leaving academia, despite being “brilliant — an incredible instructor and a perfect fit for the student body.” She further explains that she rolled through a master’s program as it was a “safe space to land” and figure out life before the usual academic motions: second master’s, Ph.D. program, field research, and dissertation. She writes: 

I have now spent my entire twenties in graduate school. In many ways, I have been one of the lucky ones. When I graduate from my doctoral program next year, I will have a PhD from a prestigious private research university, recommendations from top scholars in my field, experience teaching some of the nation’s smartest undergraduate students, and an impressive list of fellowships and grants I have been awarded based on the quality of my research. My CV is, as they say, sparkling.

And yet, she is worried that she will earn “poverty wages” as an adjunct after a lifetime of sacrifice. The academic job market is broken, as “hundreds of highly qualified PhDs compete each year for a vanishingly small number of tenure-track jobs.” It is not fair, she argues, considering that they contributed “cheap labor to the university for years just to get their degree, contributing research, service, teaching, and grading to the university…”

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I once wrote a short essay on the direction of historical and political research in which a couple of throwaway sentences caused some mild uproar. “One has only to look at the history departments in British Universities to see how seriously interdisciplinary research has diluted the discipline. Today, a historian of World War I studying fleet tactics is considered to be on an equal footing with someone exploring post-structural erotic subtexts in letters from the trenches.” The crisis in the discipline of history isn’t new and will only get worse, given that, as Jon Lauck recently wrote, “between 2019 and 2020, 1,799 historians earned their PhDs and only 175 of them are now employed as full-time faculty members.” The job listings in history are the lowest since American Historical Association started keeping records. But it is somewhat stupefying how one can not see all of this as a simple supply-and-demand issue. The harsh and unsaid truth is that not every subject or topic is worth studying, at least not professionally, in the academy.  

Both Leffingwell’s essay and subsequent discussions refuse to address what is fundamentally a moral question of our times. At what point do we tell the great mass of starry-eyed Hufflepuffs that you shouldn’t pursue higher education, and instead should learn some daily trade as an apprentice, get a steady job, learn how to make good coffee, have a house and a vegetable garden, and, maybe, a family? When do we say that the subject you think is interesting, the topic you are “exploring,” or all the experience won by years of semi-monastic precarity on borrowed money, isn’t worth the paper you’d type your thesis on, and that there is no need for “perpetuating an ‘illusion of hope,’” as Leffingwell poignantly wrote? That it is a systemic scam that you’re willfully party to? That no one of the right mind thinks that teaching seminars during a Ph.D. is “contributing free labor,” and if you think that, this field might not be the best for you? 

University students can be forgiven for imagining academia as a mix of Indiana Jones and Theodor Mommsen. But the specific socio-temporal dynamics they evoke are now lost. Fewer than 10 percent of history grads will be professors, most of the half-decent ones will be culled under a DEI regime, some others will end up adding to the bloat as some form of DEI Borg in a system that is already about to burst at the seams. Most of their “research” is perhaps fine to study as a pastime or a hobby, but practically worthless socially, civilizationally, or materially. A handful might end up writing a coherent book, but even fewer will be remembered for any rigorous and scholarly contribution in the coming decades. Most “peer-reviewed” papers in history and international relations go uncited or even unread. 

The academic discipline of history was always a courtly subject. One, it needs an emotionally detached and occasionally amoral temperament to be done right. There is a reason cardinals and monks were often great historians, as were adventurers and soldiers. Two, it needs patronization. History as a subject was never egalitarian, but in a paradoxical way it used to be a lot freer. Statesmen posted in far-off colonies during peak Victoriana were free to travel around and study a subject or a civilization. They did it as a hobby, were unbiased about their subjects, and were usually under no financial pressure to toe a political line, the human and social biases of those times notwithstanding. Those who were not in a position for that, but were still exceptionally talented or meritorious otherwise, were patronized individually or through an institution, yet with little scholarly pressure. That changed gradually after the Second World War, and especially with the rapid institutionalization and mass-democratization of the discipline in the 1980s and ’90s. 

But one obviously can’t mass-produce AJP Taylors or Hans Morgenthaus. Much less can one produce a peer-reviewed and DEI-certified Edward Gibbon or Rammohun Roy. An oversupply of mediocrity stopped creating its own demand. There was a time when I thought “public” academia could be reformed. Perhaps my biggest “red pill” so far in life: I no longer think that. Incendite eos, novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius. The most meaningful scholarship, historically, came from outside the institutional academy. It is time to return. The discipline of history will survive in silos outside the sovietized cathedrals. Meritorious, rigorous, hierarchical, individually patronized—it will survive the way it was always meant to be. 


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