Historians Change at a Slower Pace Than History

Glen Jeansonne, April 2006

It is Karl Marx's specter "haunting Europe." It is Betty Friedan's "problem with no name." It is the question history students from junior high through graduate school asks: "Why do my history courses never reach very close to the present?"

It is time to face the question and confess: historians change less rapidly than history. Because I am an American historian I will direct my arguments chiefly at the American history courses, although the issue has implications for most other fields of history as well. The reason we do not come near the present is because most courses are backloaded—the courses contain more years and events in the second half than in the first half.

This applies especially to courses that are open-ended. When I took the second half of the American history survey course as an undergraduate in 1964, the dividing line in the surveys was set at 1877. The course covered about 87 years. Today, in 2006, the dividing line is still 1877 and the course covers 129 years. In addition to the sheer weight of time, there are more people doing more things and leaving voluminous records.

When I began teaching my course, "Modern America, 1945–Present," in 1973, it covered 28 years, almost the same number of years—24—as my 1921–45 course. The former course now covers 60 years while the latter remains at 24.

My students no longer laugh at the jokes I borrowed from Bob Hope. The Beatles are a form of insect and Elvis is a man on a postage stamp.

I hear weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth as if my "modest proposal" resembles English satirist Jonathan Swift's "modest proposal" that we eat our young to control the population.

My proposal may get no further that Swift's at this point in history, but it is an idea whose time will come and we might as well begin to anticipate it. Most baby boom professors such as me simply don't try to reach the present, trailing off in the 1970s or 1980s. When we do cover these periods we do a better job at covering the politics than the popular culture because it is easier to name the great books of the 1920s and 1930s than to judge and rank more recent cultural artifacts such as rap music. Yet these are the kinds of things many of our students are interested in.

A century and a millennium have recently passed and we baby boomers are out of sync with our students. I expect my students in the 1945–present course to have some knowledge of Hiroshima, John Kennedy, the Great Society, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and Ronald Reagan; yet many of them complain that their high school history courses never went further than 1945.

Those of us who teach open-ended courses are shooting at a moving target. Historians, of all people, need to recognize the necessity of changing with the times. Nonetheless, we have to be nudged toward the present.

I say these things not because I am gifted with second sight but because I do them myself every semester. I seldom get past the Jimmy Carter administration in my 1877–present course and end with the Reagan administration in my 1945–present course. The social and cultural history is thin because I know more about Peter, Paul, and Mary than about Faith Hill.

Historians of the recent present, including those who teach the American history survey, can hardly be expected to restructure their course on a pinhead nor cull their lecture notes from Time magazine. Perhaps the best we can do is conduct discussions on such issues as the war on terrorism, set against a brief lecture on events of September 11, 2001.

It might be possible to create additional courses to cover the additional years. Perhaps a three-part American history survey with students required to take any two courses would be a possibility. This might require additional staffing, and additional money to hire, but it is one option. Two American historians might teach a course in U.S., 1945–1973, and 1973 to the present, which might require additional hiring. Another option would be to slice courses differently but teach them in alternate years to conserve the financial strain of hiring more personnel.

I would also suggest that we move incrementally and gradually rather than rush to judgment. I could, for example, change the dates of the courses I teach to 1919–1952 (rather than 1921–1945); 1890–present or 1900–present (rather than 1877–present). Other courses could be adjusted accordingly, as well as textbooks. Though such changes are entangled in more theoretical questions about defining periods, I would still argue to make a beginning by at least shifting cutoff dates for courses."

The most obvious obstacles to such changes is that there is unlikely to be unanimity at where to break courses in which more than one section is offered by different professors, such as the American history survey course. More seriously, those who teach by the lecture method will find the additional reading and writing required highly labor intensive. I would suggest teaching reductions at the rate of a few per year for professors to update and revise courses. This work should also be rewarded by merit pay.

Moreover, a whole new generation of historians has already begun to replace us baby boomers, whose lecture-writing or discussion-creations are still in process and might lend insights unthought of by us, the young adults of the 1960s. We might even think of the process as having a dialogue with ourselves, our younger colleagues, our students, and our children. Otherwise, we might fall into the category of the kings "who learned nothing and forgot nothing."

—Glean Jeansonne is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.