The Future of the Historical Profession

Richard H. Kohn, November 1989

During the last few years, a sense of unease has been growing in the historical profession. From many sides come warnings of a profession in decline, part of a larger lament about the state of American learning. From Ernest Boyer, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, we hear of "undergraduate colleges" as "troubled" institutions that "have lost their sense of purpose," peopled by passive students and conflicted faculty, isolated from the schools below them and from the larger world beyond the campus. From critics E. D. Hirsch and Allan Bloom we hear of a university system hopelessly adrift and an educational system so deeply and genuinely flawed that it fails to impart the concepts and information that together constitute a shared culture. Closer to our concerns as historians, the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities tells us how neglectful this educational system is of history and literature. This point is confirmed in numbing detail by Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn in a longer work, and more recently, in terms of content and method in the curricula of the schools, by the Bradley Commission—and how arcane and disconnected from society scholarship in the humanities has become. Professors Gertrude Himmelfarb and Theodore Hamerow have focused specifically on how we historians pursue our profession, one arguing that some of our newest passions—particularly social history—are dangerously flawed and incomplete, the other that our field has diminished dramatically in importance and relevance in academe and society at large. All in all, few periods in memory can rival this last two years for the sheer volume and consistency of the attacks on higher education in general and on our discipline in particular.

Now, while much of this critique may be exaggerated or simply wrong, and while many of us might disagree in whole or in part with some of this literature, we still have a nagging sense that the criticism contains considerable truth. There is much evidence to support the interpretation that history has declined, whatever the reasons. The number of history majors graduating from American colleges dropped precipitously between 1970 and 1986—a whopping 62 percent, from over 43,000 to 16,500. Masters degrees awarded in our field suffered a similar drop, and Ph.D.s almost a 50 percent contraction. What this implies is a loss of audience both in a core clientele and in a prime source of jobs for our profession, college students, and faculty positions. At the same time, people seem to know less history. While we do not have a basis to compare Professors Ravitch's and Finn's work on what our 17-year-olds know with other periods of time, the results just by themselves are troubling to say the least, and the Bradley Commission has only reiterated what we have suspected for some time—a twenty-year trend of less history taught and required in our schools and colleges. Professor Hamerow would argue that history has given way to newer fields in the social sciences that seem to be more practical or useful in addressing today's social issues. But whatever the cause, the result is the same: history has declined dramatically in popularity as a field of knowledge in American education.

At the same time, however, the interest of the American people in history seems to have moved in exactly the opposite direction. The humanities as a whole have flowered in the same twenty-year period, according to National Endowment Chairman Lynne V. Cheney: greater numbers of people are participating in State Humanities Council's sponsored programs; more library reading programs; there is more spending on admission to cultural events in comparison to spectator sports; there is increased attendance at the National Gallery of Art in Washington; and other evidence, statistical and anecdotal. Cheney points out that there are nearly "10,000 historical associations...in this country, more than half of them...organized in the last twenty years." The amount of history on television and on movie screens shows no sign of decline. Hundreds of corporations have apparently undertaken in recent years to have their histories written, either to orient and inspire their own employees; to market their goods and services; or as necessary to provide context and support for planning and decision-making at the topmost management levels.

In the realm of fiction, the American public's appetite for historical novels from such authors as James Michener, Gore Vidal, and John Jakes seems insatiable. The topic of World War II, whether in the form of novels, memoirs, battle and campaign histories, biographies, or budget-busting television extravaganzas like "War and Remembrance" has become something of a cottage industry all its own.

Interest in historical museums and reconstructions and the preservation of historic buildings and sites has skyrocketed. Beginning in 1966, under the stimulation of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, over 50,000 places have come to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Public history—the related activities of archives, cultural resource management, and policy analysis or support in government and business—has also emerged in the last decade to become a major source of employment for historians, archaeologists, archivists, and others.

The decline—the crisis—does not seem to reside in the discipline or in the demand for, and interest in, the study of the past but in the profession itself. The fundamental problem lies in ourselves, in the way we conceive our role and the way we orient our professional interest and activity; specifically our narrowness and specialization. Our narrowness comes in many forms; it pervades not only what we do, but how we do it, and how we identify ourselves and our role in society. We define ourselves by the Ph.D. and while we recognize that there are historians doing legitimate work who do not possess the degree, and that there are historians doing quality work in government, business, cultural institutions, and elsewhere, when we speak of "the profession" we really mean the professoriate. Even then it is restricted to people with Ph.D.s teaching in four-year, postsecondary institutions. We define ourselves not as a body of individuals with common training and expertise, devoted corporately to a common purpose, but as a field of knowledge or a subject matter.

Our work has grown increasingly narrow in scope and technical in character, written to advance knowledge in small segments and addressed to other scholars rather than to a broad audience. Most of our work is so technical that it is even unsuitable for assignment to our own undergraduates. Our graduate training which focuses on original research, rigor of method, and the dissertation rather than on training, has become the standard by which we judge not simply the quality but the worth, or usefulness, of almost all historical writing.

Our reward structure is based almost exclusively on such writing; our very concept of productivity is writing. We have as a profession come to see our purpose as adding new knowledge to the base, rather than advancing an understanding of the past in society. We have come to confuse our product with our purpose. Certainly, we have forfeited the public audience for our writing to those writers and journalists who are skilled at repackaging the scholarship of others into broad syntheses, readable narratives, or exciting biographies. In short, we have succeeded in largely divorcing ourselves and professionally-done history from the public, both in the schools and in the general population at large.

Now, I do not want to overstate our crisis or draw a completely negative picture, for there are hopeful signs amidst these problems. The attention paid to the decline of history in the schools is itself a positive development and between the efforts of the NEH, the Bradley Commission, and the National Commission on Social Studies, there seems to be gathering a wave of reform. In 1987, the California State Board of Education revised its "history framework" to emphasize and increase history and geography (instead of "social studies") and late last year the The Atlantic Monthly magazine sensed enough interest in the subject to devote a long article to a critique of our high school history texts. At the college level, the number of majors and graduate degrees awarded seems to have bottomed, and on some campuses students seem to be coming back to history. At the University of New Mexico, to cite one example, history enrollments have undergone a dramatic increase. Public history seems steadily to be expanding its clientele, with government agencies opening new history offices, more businesses contracting for histories or establishing archives, historic preservation continuing to boom, and a general sense in the public prints that history possesses practical usefulness not only as a tool for transmitting culture and informing decision-makers, but as a virtual necessity of citizenship in a democracy and, in inchoate ways, a fundamental measure of our health as a civilization. Even in the Soviet Union, where history has long been abused as a tool of propaganda and control, there seems to be a recognition that an honest rendering of the past must accompany glasnost and perestroyka if those progressive initiatives are to have any lasting effect and the Soviet Union as a nation and society is to modernize.

But whatever the signs, our narrowness remains an obstacle. The issue is whether professional historians can or will respond to the interest of our citizenry in the past and the demand for more and better history in the schools. The consequences of failure are immense. If we do not reconnect the profession to the schools, the reading public, and the diverse historical activity that has burgeoned in our communities, we run the risk of being further displaced by amateur history buffs and other social scientists, with the result that the history Americans receive will be inaccurate, misleading, politically-biased, or useful only for civic celebration or mass entertainment. Most corporate histories, for example, are authored by writers or company insiders rather than by professionals rigorously trained in historical method and committed to our standards of veracity, balance, objectivity, and interpretation.

Extraordinary sums of money are devoted in America today to primary and secondary education, to television and to movies, to museums, to historic reconstruction, and to decision-making in business and government. Should not these enterprises have history every bit as professionally sound as the instruction our college students receive and our research monographs contain? The audiences to be reached far outnumber those in our classrooms and those who read our monographs. If we are shrewd about it and attempt to mold our own future instead of experiencing it passively, we have the opportunity to improve our nation and advance our society far in excess of present efforts. If we as a profession want more and better historical understanding of the United States, we had better take the steps necessary to make that occur ourselves.

Our first task is to reconnect the profession with our clientele in the educational world and amongst the public—those reading books and imbibing history from media, museums, and local and regional historical organizations across the country. Historians in our colleges ought to get involved more in film and television production, with museums, as consultants to historic preservation, in school curriculum planning, and in writing sound, interpretative works in a style and on topics that the public wants to read. None of this requires prostitution of our standards or values. Quite the opposite; it is precisely to spread our standards of balanced, accurate history that such initiatives are needed.

One effort needed at the local level is for academic historians to take the lead in connecting together primary and secondary school history instructors with the historic sites and organizations nearby. History can be more lively if it is interactive and relevant to everyday life, if it can be seen and touched as well as read. In What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know, Professors Ravitch and Finn point out that of their sample of 7,812 high school juniors, fully 93 percent never visited museums or exhibits with their history classes and 44.5 percent never used documents or other original sources. But 84.2 percent watched films or listened to oral histories, one-third of them once a week! Almost 60 percent used a history textbook daily! Why could not historians at colleges publish through the medium of history texts, lesson materials, videos, and films? Why could not history departments connect school teachers and curricula designers with the curators of local museums, the administrators of historic sites and buildings, local individuals who have relevant oral history experiences to relate, and archivists with documents that could be used to create innovative units and lessons to supplement traditional classroom methods?

If we want to influence history we must assert our leadership and make the first effort, for it is we who have defined ourselves as "the profession." It is we who differentiate ourselves from others who teach below the college level; who do not possess the Ph.D.; or who cannot or do not choose to study or disseminate history within the framework similar to that of the university professoriate. Until we reach out, the other groups will continue to ignore us.

Our second task must consist of a concerted effort to broaden the economic base of the profession beyond college and university teaching. The rise of public or applied history—its expansion in business and government—indicates there may be a market for history beyond the classroom and publishing. Mostly we historians see ourselves as teachers or writers, iconoclastic individualists even though most work as salaried employees of large institutions. However, an enterprising few, exercising imagination and inventiveness, have managed to make a living selling historical service to the public. Perhaps history could break out of its academic mold and, like psychology and economics some decades ago, develop a client or customer base for individual or group practitioners. The only way to find this out is to undertake a detailed and systematic market analysis of the American economy to see if significant numbers of historians could make a living in such a manner. As former chairman of the National Council for Public History Neil Stowe has put it, "We are not, after all, a growth industry, but we have growth opportunities."

Historian Shelley Bookspan, writing in the February 1989 OAH Newsletter, has noted a tremendous opportunity open to historians created by recent environmental legislation, which has caused there to be "site assessments" on virtually "all property transactions." Courts use history often; perhaps historians could be employed full-time or on a fee basis to give our judges and lawyers professional history. Newspapers employ art, film, TV, architecture, and theater critics. Perhaps media could be induced to employ historians to review the history content not only of art, film, and books, but of the use of history by politicians running for office. Bookspan believes the OAH ought immediately to establish a marketing committee, but that is only a first step and it ought to be underwritten by all of our professional groups or by the AHA acting for all. The possibilities are only limited by what is economically viable and by our imaginations.

Such a future requires significant change in the way we define the profession; how we train historians; how we see our role in society; and how we organize and operate our professional organizations.

To begin with, we must define the profession inclusively rather than exclusively, to include everyone who makes their living researching, writing, teaching, or otherwise advancing or disseminating historical knowledge regardless of their place of employment or source of income. At the same time that we reach out, we ought to work as hard as possible to insure that all of these practitioners, where at all appropriate, have at least college, and quite likely, graduate education in history. Such a step may well require us to insist on certification, as a way of protecting the public against biased, inaccurate, or otherwise shoddy work.

Our present system—essentially footnotes and peer review—is utterly inadequate to cover historical work in museums where history is not presented in written formats and in the media or in government and business where the results of research are not usually disseminated very widely. Nor have we any adequate procedures, as recent cases of alleged plagiarism or other unethical behavior reveal, to identify malfeasance and enforce sanctions against professional malpractice.

Certification or licensing will be difficult to establish and will undoubtedly elicit charges of elitism. But a test of basic field knowledge; of writing competency; of familiarity with research techniques and methodologies and other expertise we take for granted (but which many amateurs and publicly-accepted practitioners lack or ignore) may be more just, fair, equitable, and democratic—and less elitist, exclusive, and restrictive—than requiring a Ph.D. By not acting to enforce standards or to require a level of education or expertise, the historical profession tells the public that quality history is not important and that the analysis of the past is not a profession which requires special training, knowledge, expertise, or method.

A broadening of our role will also require a change in the training of graduate students along with the reward structure in colleges, universities, and the profession generally. If we are to engage the schools and extend our activity in American life, we are going to have to recognize the disseminating of history on an equal basis with the creation of new historical knowledge. In other words, a concerted effort will be needed to alter the "culture" of the profession, to make respectable and even desirable the practice of history beyond the classroom as a service activity for individual profit and social betterment. Graduate students will thus need training not just in historiography, a chronological or national specialty, and research, but in "applying" history in a wide variety of settings with a diverse set of methodologies. Masters and doctoral programs need to introduce students to the profession as well as the discipline, with one or more courses in applied history that teach the use, uses, and practice of history in all its diversity in American society.

In short, we must both prepare our successors and encourage many of them to pursue history as a service or product activity. Whether we modify the Ph.D. substantially remains to be seen, but certainly the period of timing will need to be regularized and made more standard. And colleges and universities will have to develop ways of measuring and recognizing excellence and productivity that will reward faculty for advancing historical knowledge and understanding in ways other than classroom teaching and archival research.

Lastly, if the profession decides to break out of its isolation and broaden beyond its academic base, our professional groups, particularly the AHA, will have to provide leadership. In almost every instance, our organizations were founded and continue to operate as associations of scholars—oriented primarily toward original investigation of sources, issuing research reports, publishing scholarly journals, meeting annually to share the results of specialized research, awarding prizes for the publication of archival discoveries, devoting attention to access to archives and issues of academic publishing, and other such activities for college teachers who have the time, support, and inclination for research and publication. Only a handful of our organizations make any effort to include history activity beyond the academy, and even those have hardly made a dent in becoming attractive to, serving, or including teachers in schools and community colleges, much less colleagues in other work settings. There is no program underway to establish criteria for competence in our discipline or to enforce professional standards of education, entry, or practice for the various work settings in which historians are employed. Our entire profession possesses but one full-time lobbyist. Efforts at the state and local level, in school curricula battles, textbook publishing and selection, historic preservation, and other issues outside postsecondary education are haphazard and inconsistent at best. Membership drives focus on academicians, not a wider clientele. Little thought or effort is being made to study the economics of a client-base rather than a classroom- or salary-based profession. Our organizations are not engaged in any systematic efforts to promote the utility or image of the discipline in such a manner that will broaden our role in American life or our opportunities for employment, with the exception of a recent push to strengthen and advance precollege history education.

When all is said and done, our organizations are not as much professional associations as they are learned societies, pursuing overwhelmingly the same programs and activities as did their predecessors at the turn of the century. The difference, as Leonard D. Goodstein of the American Psychological Association recently explained, is that professional organizations "actively intervene in the development of the discipline and work to advance and protect the interests of the discipline in any and all arenas."

Our profession stands today at a critical juncture. For generations, in order to achieve rigor and increase knowledge of the past, we have narrowed ourselves, to the detriment of advancing historical study as widely in American society as possible. Other alternatives exist, and the present loud complaints about the state of the profession and state of historical learning in America present us with an unusual opportunity to reevaluate ourselves, and if we wish, to extend our influence and strengthen our effectiveness. But we must seize control of our own future in order to do so. Roughly, the choice is between developing a broader base and expanded role in society, like the psychologists and economists, or continuing to talk primarily to ourselves within the confines of the academic world, like the philosophers. In either case, we ought to confront the choices openly, and debate them. It is after all our own future that is at stake, and perhaps more important, the quality of historical understanding in the United States as a whole.

Richard H. Kohn is Chief, Office of Air Force History and Chief Historian of the United States Air Force. From 1968 to 1984, he served on the faculties of the City College of the City University of New York and Rutgers University, New Brunswick. As a member of the AHA Council, he cochaired the Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of the AHA (Perspectives, September 1988).