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Americans Are Fighting Over History While Historians Disappear

When I received my Ph.D. in history in 2013, I didn’t expect that within a decade fights over history — and historiography, even if few people use that word — would become front-page news. But over the last few years that is precisely what has happened: Just look at the recent debates over America’s legacy of slavery, what can be taught in public schools about the nation’s founders and even the definition of what constitutes fascism. The interpretation of the American past has not in recent memory been as public or as contentious as it is now.

Maybe it started with The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which sought to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative” and which accompanied a national reckoning around race. That provoked, perhaps inevitably, a right-wing backlash in the form of “The 1776 Report,” a triumphalist, Donald Trump-directed effort. Then came a raft of laws in conservative-governed states across the country aiming to restrict and control how history is taught in public schools.

History, as the historian Matthew Karp has written, has become “a new kind of political priority” for people across the political spectrum, a means to fight over what it is to be an American: which values we should emphasize, which groups we should honor, which injustices we should redress.

The historical profession has likewise been roiled by controversy. Last August, James H. Sweet, the president of the American Historical Association, published an essay in which he argued that present-focused narratives of African slavery often represent “historical erasures and narrow politics.” The piece engendered a firestorm of reproach, with scholars variously accusing Dr. Sweet of attempting to delegitimize new research on topics including race and gender; some even accused Dr. Sweet of outright racism.

Yet as Americans fight over their history, the historical profession itself is in rapid — maybe even terminal — decline. Twelve days after Dr. Sweet published his column, the A.H.A. released a “Jobs Report” that makes for grim reading: The average number of available new “tenure track” university jobs, which are secure jobs that provide living wages, benefits and stability, between 2020 and 2022 was 16 percent lower than it was for the four years before the pandemic.

The report further notes that only 27 percent of those who received a Ph.D. in history in 2017 were employed as tenure track professors four years later. The work of historians has been “de-professionalized,” and people like myself, who have tenure track jobs, will be increasingly rare in coming years. This is true for all academic fields, not just history.As Adrianna Kezar, Tom DePaola and Daniel T. Scott note in their book “The Gig Academy,” about 70 percent of all college professors work off the tenure track. The majority of these professors make less than $3,500 per course, according to a 2020 report by the American Federation of Teachers. Jobs that used to allow professors to live middle-class lives now barely enable them to keep their heads above water.

What is to blame? In the past generation the American university has undergone a drastic transformation. To reduce costs, university administrators have dramatically reduced tenure. And as the protections of tenure have withered away, the size of nonteaching university staffs have exploded. Between 1976 and 2018, “full-time administrators and other professionals employed by those institutions increased by 164 percent and 452 percent, respectively,” according to a 2021 paper on the topic. Professors have been sacrificed on the altar of vice deans.

At the same time, in an effort to fund research that might redound to their financial benefit and to demonstrate their pragmatic value to politicians and to the public, universities have emphasized science, technology, engineering and math at the expense of the humanities. As the American Academy of Arts and Sciences reported, citing data from 2019, “spending for humanities research equaled 0.7 percent of the amount dedicated to STEM R.&D.”

The humanities, including history, are often considered more an object of ridicule than a legitimate lane of study. Look no further than statements from politicians: Rick Scott, the former governor of Florida, assembled a task force in 2012 that recommended that people who major in history and other humanities fields be charged higher tuition at state universities. In 2016, Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky said that “French literature majors” should not receive state funding for their degrees. Even more recently, in 2021, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida mocked people who go into debt to “end up with degrees in things like zombie studies.” And it’s not just Republicans: President Barack Obama remarked in 2014 that “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree,” implying that if a degree didn’t make money it wasn’t worth it. (Mr. Obama later apologized to a University of Texas art historian for his remarks, clarifying that he did believe art history was a valuable subject.)

These material and ideological assaults have engendered a steep decline in undergraduate humanities majors. In the 2018-19 academic year, only 23,923 graduating undergraduates received degrees in history and related fields, which, the A.H.A. notes, is “down more than a third from 2012 and the smallest number awarded since the late 1980s.”

Private groups, which traditionally provided significant financial support to budding humanities scholars, have taken the hint and increasingly stopped supporting the humanities and soft social sciences. The Social Science Research Council recently ended its International Dissertation Research Fellowship program, which in the last 25 years funded over 1,600 scholars exploring “non-U.S. cultures” and “U.S. Indigenous communities,” declaring that the program “accomplished many of the goals it had set for itself.” The Ford Foundation has similarly decided to conclude its long-running National Academies fellowship program for historically marginalized scholars in order, the foundation’s president declared, “to invest more deeply in movement-building work.”

It’s the end of history. And the consequences will be significant.

Entire areas of our shared history will never be known because no one will receive a living wage to uncover and study them. It’s implausible to expect scholars with insecure jobs to offer bold and innovative claims about history when they can easily be fired for doing so. Instead, history will be studied increasingly by the wealthy, which is to say those able to work without pay. It’s easy to see how this could lead American historical scholarship to adopt a pro-status-quo bias. In today’s world, if you don’t have access to elite networks, financial resources or both, it just doesn’t make sense to pursue a career in history. In the future, history won’t just be written by the victors; it’ll also be written by the well-to-do.

If Americans don’t seriously invest in history and other humanities disciplines, we encourage the ahistoric ignorance upon which reaction relies. Many Republican politicians support “divisive concepts” laws that try to regulate what college professors teach. Are they aiming at an easy target in the culture war? Perhaps. But it’s also true that a humanities education encourages thinking that often challenges xenophobic and racist dogma. Progress depends on studying and arguing about the past in an open and informed manner. This is especially true in a moment like our own, in which Americans use history to fight over which vision of the country will dominate politics. If there are no historians to reflect meaningfully and accurately on the past, then ignorance and hatred are sure to triumph.

Without professional historians, history education will be left more and more in the hands of social media influencers, partisan hacks and others unconcerned with achieving a complex, empirically informed understanding of the past. Take, for example, Bill O’Reilly’s 12-books-and-counting “Killing” series — the best-selling nonfiction series of all time, according to Mr. O’Reilly’s publishers — whose very framing sensationalizes the past by focusing on “the deaths and destruction of some of the most influential men and powerful nations in human history.” The same could be said about Rush Limbaugh’s “Rush Revere” series for young people, in which a time-traveling and tri-corner-hatted Mr. Limbaugh teaches “about some of the most exceptional Americans.” Or consider Twitter, where debates over history regularly erupt — and just as regularly devolve into name-calling. If professional historians become a thing of the past, there will be no one able to temper these types of arguments with coolheaded analysis and bring a seriousness of purpose, depth and thoughtful consideration to discussions of who Americans are and who we want to be as a nation.

Americans must do everything in their power to avert the end of history. If we don’t, exaggerations, half-truths and outright lies will dominate our historical imagination and make it impossible to understand, and learn from, the past.

Daniel Bessner is an associate professor of international studies in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington and a co-host of the foreign affairs podcast “American Prestige.”

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