In the 1986 comedy film Back to School, Rodney Dangerfield’s character, Thornton Mellon, a wealthy, middle-aged father, decided to attend college with his young son. Never serious about the endeavor, and more interested in women and parties, Mellon uses his vast fortune to hire experts to do his academic work for him. For his astronomy project, he hires scientists from NASA. For a lab report in psychology, he employs an expert psychologist.
But when he stumbles in his literature class, needing a paper on the works of Kurt Vonnegut, none of which he bothered to read, he goes right to the source, hiring Vonnegut himself to write an analysis of his own work. Amazingly, though, Mellon received a failing grade for his Vonnegut treatise. His literature professor, a lovely, elegant woman Mellon had the hots for, accused him of turning in someone else’s work, admonishing him with a stunning answer, “Whoever did write it doesn’t know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut!”
This story can tell us a lot about the current state of the history profession. Basically, there are two kinds of historians in the world today: Academic and Popular. Or, put another way, there are those within the establishment, mainly radical leftwingers, who are in line with the powers that be and who gladly push the radical “woke” agenda. All history is biased, we all know that, but most of the current crop of academic types are much more concerned with pushing this hard-left agenda than seeking anything close to historical truth. And then there are those who seek facts and are concerned with getting as close to the truth as possible. It is a battle between what I like to call Pseudo-Historians and Real Historians. And in history departments across the country, it is the academic historians who have appointed themselves the guardians of what true history is and what it is not. If you don’t believe that, just amble over to Twitter sometime and get in a spat with one or two (Beware: they usually travel in packs on social media). They’ll be quick to remind you of that fact.
The Thornton Mellon saga is academic history in a nutshell. The interpretation of history, that is the opinions of professional historians, what is called historiography, is more important than the history itself. It is, in essence, the history of history, or the history of historical writing. This represents one of two major problems with academic history, an emphasis on historiography over facts and primary sources, with the other issue being the prevalence of liberal indoctrination.
I once had a professor in a graduate-level seminar class tell us that graduate work was all about historiography and that historical facts are “something that every student should have gotten in their undergraduate survey courses.” I pushed back against it a bit, only to be told, “Well, Walters, that’s what we do!” Not surprisingly, my academic career began heading downhill.
So, what exactly is historiography? The history department at Queens College in New York City defines it as “the history of history. Rather than subjecting actual events – say, Hitler’s annexation of Austria – to historical analysis, the subject of historiography is the history of the history of the event: the way it has been written, the sometimes conflicting objectives pursued by those writing on it over time, and the way in which such factors shape our understanding of the actual event at stake, and of the nature of history itself.” In other words, graduate students, and academic historians, spend an inordinate amount of time studying what historians have said about Hitler’s annexation of Austria, rather than the facts of the event itself.
History then is little better than the field of constitutional law. As Kevin Gutzman has pointed out, and tried to correct, constitutional law has very little to do with the actual Constitution these days. The emphasis is now on case law, or what courts have said about the Constitution.
Beginning graduate work in history, a student is required to take courses in historiography. For American history, I had to take two basic courses – one class that ended with Reconstruction and the second part that finished with Reagan. In each one, the class had to read one book per week, on that week’s topic, and anywhere from three to five academic articles or book chapters, which might be 30 or 40 pages in length for each one. Then, in class, we would discuss each author’s interpretation of the events, not so much the events themselves. And this would take place over the course of three hours of classroom discussion each week. Some of it I found interesting; most of it bored me to tears.
The works we read, with very few exceptions, were of the academic variety, published by university publishing houses, which generally sell very few copies. One such book frustrated me to the point that I actually threw it against the wall. These are generally page-turners like: Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Woman and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920; Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917; and David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class.
That is not to say that historiography is not important and does not have a place in the curriculum, but it, along with theory, has come to replace an emphasis on facts. Try getting into a discussion with the above-mentioned “experts” on Twitter or Facebook, especially those who either have a graduate degree or are working on one. They will inundate you with books that you should read to better understand a historical event. Counter with primary sources and you’re likely to get told, as I once was, “Those aren’t facts.” Who knew! So rather than spend 90 percent of the time on historiography, I think we would produce better historians if we at least made it 50/50, if not 75/25 in favor of facts and primary sources.
The other major problem is that academic liberalism, today known as “wokeism,” has saturated history departments, and it’s getting worse by the day. As the older generation professors – those who had sense and, even if they didn’t agree with a point you might make, wouldn’t mind the argument so long as you could back it up with facts – are retiring, or dying off, the younger crowd of “scholars” are arrogant, hostile, and uninterested in having actual historical debates. They have preconceived notions about the issues and getting through their pointy-headed thick skulls is an impossible task.
Historian Alan Brinkley once said that conservatism is the “orphan of historical scholarship.” Such is true. Everything now must be seen and filtered through the prism of the “big three” – race, class, and gender. No more work should be done about “white men,” they say, or as they are often times referred “angry white men” or “dead white guys.” Any topic you present for a possible paper or thesis is often met with questions about the inclusion of race, class, and gender.
Today, social and cultural studies gain far more attention than political, economic, diplomatic, or military history. Many departments are dropping the latter all together, while vastly emphasizing the former. Now, this is not to say that I oppose the inclusion of social and cultural studies focusing on race, class, and gender, for I do not. But I do oppose the inclusion of them at the expense of everything else, which is what is happening all over the country. I always believed universities to be laboratories of expression, thought, and innovation. I would think most Americans would as well. But sadly, that is not the case at all. Far from it.
David Horowitz has done a phenomenal job in recent years exposing the sheer radicalism in higher education today. Now, allow me to point out the pure silliness of it all, at least as far as history is concerned. Instead of good, solid history books, which are full of facts as well as interpretation, we get such robust works such as Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880-1920; Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat; Babysitter: An American History; The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government, and great military studies such as an upcoming work entitled Constructing Pacification: Masculinity in the Vietnam War. And with such books come the classes based on them, like “Knee-high to a Grasshopper: A History of Youth in America,” “A History of Eating in America,” and “Out: A Queer History of America.” Root canals would sit much better with me than those topics.
Not to be outdone, Kansas University offers a “woke” history course called “Angry White Male Studies,” while other institutions offer classes on liberal protest movements like Occupy Wall Street. It gets sillier. UC-Santa Barbara even has a course on the history of surfing, while UC-Berkeley tops that with its history of weaving. Perhaps they could combine the two courses and one could actually take underwater basket weaving!
“History” courses like these are usually in addition to all of the anti-American diatribes one must also endure, like Francis Jennings, author of such works as The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest; The Creation of America: Through Revolution to Empire; and The Founders of America, which gives that notable distinction to the native peoples who first inhabited the North American continent. As one can easily conclude without ever picking up one of these titles, all of these works take a very negative view of America’s actual founding, to say the least. So, in the case of academic history, one should judge a book by its cover.
Seeing the current state of academic history that pervades most departments across the country, there’s little reason for anyone to attend, especially for conservatives. There are far better options, including private colleges. But, the fact is, you don’t need a Ph.D. to be a good historian. In many ways I think it’s a blessing that I don’t have one. I have no intention of ever teaching at a university and never have had any desire to do so, especially after my experience in graduate school. I love the fact that I have the option to say what I want, write what I want, and not have to worry that I might say the wrong thing, offend someone, lose my job, or, worse still, be denied an invitation to their fancy cocktail parties. Instead, I became a voluminous reader of good history, honed my research and writing skills, made important contacts, and learned from top-notch scholars like Don Livingston, Clyde Wilson, Brion McClanahan, and many others. These things proved far more valuable than additional time in graduate school.
Some say the solution to all of this is to drastically cut or even largely defund all colleges and universities; while others call for reform and more oversight. Some even say they need to be closed permanently, if not razed to the ground.
What is more troubling, and frustrating, is that the Republican Party has been asleep at the wheel while all of this has developed. There are 99 state legislative chambers in the Union (Nebraska is unicameral). As of 2021, Republicans control 61 of those chambers, Democrats 37, while one is split. What’s more, Republicans have 23 trifectas, that is control of the governorship, plus both legislative chambers. Liberal dominance of higher education could end in those states because Republicans have control of the budget. If there’s one thing universities understand it is money and the potential loss of it. Yet Republicans seem utterly paralyzed in the face of such a massive problem. In reality, they seem to have surrendered the field altogether. There’s very little pushback for such a major waste of taxpayer dollars.
Whatever transpires with higher education, there is one thing we must do: Fix history. As Cicero once said, “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history.”
Let us always strive to make history great again but to do that we need to make history history again.