Saturday, October 08, 2011

The historical profession and me

I have stayed away from purely academic issues for the most part here, despite occasional references to the state of the historical profession. I went into history to explore certain kinds of questions, and I have enjoyed doing so more than anyone will ever know. I am still at it and I will be, I trust, for many years to come. But it has been a struggle because of the Boomer-led transformation of the historical profession over the last 40 years, which, among other things, left no permanent place open in American university life for me. Regular readers might think a moment about exactly what that means.

I know some War College students read these posts, and one once took me to task in a comment for complaining about being there. I do not want to be misunderstood. In certain ways the War College was the ideal intellectual environment for me. It's the only place I know of where you have to know a great deal about a great many different things, and the only place where you are paid to think big. Since, as you know those were always my natural tendencies, that was a good fit. It does have its own problems, however, of which repetition is the biggest, and after 21 years, I will be leaving at the end of this year.

For the last 17 years I have been a regular participant on an internet discussion group called H-Diplo. I am reproducing, below, the post I submitted yesterday morning, which has now appeared. It is self-explanatory. Regular commentaries will resume soon.

In 1994 or 1995 I made my first post on H-Diplo, and I have certainly been one of the most active posters—perhaps, indeed, the most active—for the last 17 years. This was, at the outset, a rare and rewarding opportunity for personal expression within a very lively intellectual environment. It has also been a forum within which changes within the historical profession could be observed. Sadly, many vital aspects of the list have changed. Although the American historical profession was well into its great and disastrous transformation by the mid-1990s, it was still in a transitional phase. Many posters in those days had been born well before the Second World War. Nearly every university or liberal arts college still included in its history department at least one genuine specialist in American diplomacy, and very possibly, a scholar of European diplomacy as well. They had been trained to address, research, and study great questions of war and peace, and they had done so. They took their own and others’ opinions on those questions very seriously, and they enjoyed discussing these questions in a frank, if generally friendly spirit. I myself belonged, I can now see, to the dying days of that tradition, having earned my Ph.D. in 1976. By 1991 the vagaries of the historical profession had landed me here at the Naval War College. The internet in general, and H-Diplo in particular, arrived just in time for us to take advantage of it, and for some time, we did.

Those who take the time to go through the H-Diplo logs in the mid- and late 1990s will find, I think, a record of extraordinary intellectual vigor and curiosity. We had very long debates on major historical questions, including the decision to drop the atomic bomb, the origins of the Korean War, the reason that Pearl Harbor was such a surprise, and many more. In 2002-3 we had a long and heated discussion about the forthcoming war in Iraq. We were also joined, from time to time, by non-historians who brought something different to the discussions. The prominent neocon David Horowitz posted for an extended period. The convicted spy Morton Sobell appeared briefly at one point to proclaim his innocence—a position he has now recanted. Most importantly of all, perhaps, the historians and political scientists who posted regularly did not feel bound to confine their comments to their research specialties. We had been taught that historians have opinions on every major question, and we expressed them. Of the historians who made the list go in those days, only two seem to be left: Ed Moise and myself. And we appear much less frequently than we did then.

Later in the 1990s, if I am not mistaken, H-Diplo became the site of a series of very heated discussions about postmodernism, whose value I and some others sharply questioned. It was now clear that history was at a serious turning point indeed. I had been taught that historians used the fullest possible documentary record to make the best judgments they could about what actually happened. Now a new view was taking hold: that arguments about knowledge, as Joan Scott put it in a celebrated article, were about the interests of groups, not the opinions of individuals, and that everyone was free to reshape the past based in large part on identity politics. The arguments over this position raged for several years and I think they were intellectually productive. They have however now died down, as a younger generation that grew up with postmodernism has come to the fore.
Indeed, it seems that H-Diplo is no longer a discussion forum—it is an online journal. I do not in the least mean to slight the work of the moderators who have done a thankless job very well for all these years. The trouble is with the posters, not the moderators. A new view of history has triumphed, one which indeed denies the existence of any single truth. (I am not suggesting that truth is ever easy to find, but I do believe it exists and is well worth looking for.) Everyone, it seems, is entitled to his or her own small plot of intellectual land, within which he or she can develop a particular variety of history. A general non-aggression pact among the practitioners prevails. The idea that certain books are superior in research, argument, or scholarship to others has become most unfashionable. Dissent from these views has not in fact died out, but it has shrunk to the point that it can safely be ignored. I recall that sometime in the 1990s I tried to start a thread entitled, “What Makes a Great Historian?” I put forward some ideas of my own, but that post never drew a single reply of any kind. That question, however, has continued to interest me deeply, and that is probably the reason why I am now well into my seventh book, each of them on a very different topic from all the rest. It has occurred to me, by the way, that several of my favorite historians, including Henry Adams, W. E. B. Dubois, Charles A. Beard, and Luigi Albertini, had either a fleeting involvement in the academy or none at all. Perhaps there is a lesson there too.

The last time that I made a post questioning the conclusions of a book that had been the subject of a roundtable, I received six emails within 24 hours thanking me for what I had said. I asked each correspondent to think about posting their views on the list. Not one of them did. That is another feature of the current historical profession: historians (and political scientists) are afraid to take a stand. Having grown up with the idea that history is controversy, I am very sad about that. More recently, in a perfectly friendly spirit, I raised a serious question of fact arising from another roundtable. No one responded publicly or privately to that one. I am quite certain they would have 15 years ago.

I would like to close with two broader comments. First of all, it is a paradox that serious archival work involving exhaustive research has fallen out of fashion at a moment when the opportunities to do it are exploding. The digitization of history is a godsend to historians. The Proquest historical newspaper data base, for instance, could allow historians to write political history of a kind that would have been impossible in earlier ages. Other aspects of computer technology, particularly the excel spreadsheet, have enabled me, in my last project and in my current one, to collect, store, and organize data on a hitherto undreamed-of scale. I regret that I have had no opportunity to pass these new techniques on to younger generations of historians. On several occasions I asked friends in history departments if I might give a presentation about them, but that never happened.
My second point involves the relationship of the historical profession to politics. It is commonly asserted that left wing politics dominate the academy and the historical profession, and in a sense that is surely true. Yet I am convinced, as a lifelong student of American politics, that the changes in the academy have benefited the political right far more than the political left. Because the historical profession is no longer interested in the doings of the rich and powerful, but only in the lives of the marginalized, universities have turned out a generation of undergraduates lacking the intellectual tools to understand the world around them. One cannot understand the great crisis the United States and the world are now passing through without detailed knowledge of the American Civil War, or the Depression and the Second World War, but such knowledge is increasingly unavailable on college campuses. And because we do not understand those crises, we have been, to date, almost completely unable to cope with this one in a useful manner. The right has never lost interest in American politics and in how things actually work—and it shows.

H-Diplo probably made me better known within the historical profession than anything I have written. (My books made me better known outside it, of course.) I made more than a few friends here, and I know that many people found things I said useful and encouraging. (I would warn them against believing, however, that ideas like mine have any place in contemporary history departments.) I am continuing to write the kind of history I believe in and I am sure that I will do so for a long time to come. I also have an additional year of teaching at an excellent liberal arts college, where I know from recent experience that the students want what I have to offer, to look forward to. After that, however, my professional career—not my writing career-- will come to an end. I shall try to keep the best historical traditions alive, and I am very satisfied with what I will have left behind.

This will be my last post on H-Diplo.

Sincerely yours,

David Kaiser


Anonymous said...

I completely concur with you assessment of the profession of history today but, from a different angle. I teach IB and AP history courses in a public high school in Texas. Needless to say the past few years has been interesting and disturbing. The notion that everyone stakes out their own plot of ground for historical interpretation started rearing its head here about ten years ago. This was bolstered by the pseudo-historians that abound in our state that didn't like the version of history that seemed to draw into their dream of the way things should have been into question; that version of history that you and I would call practicing history. They didn't want facts and analysis get in the way interpretation. They have approached historical issues bass-ackwards, starting with the interpretation they wished were based in documentary fact and then make arguments as if they were based on facts and documentation. We now have a state wide history curriculum that is an embarrassment to historians. I am sure you have heard the bizarre twists to interpretation that we are suppose to present as history and will not go into those here but, suffice it to say that its approaching Orwellian.
Another notion you touched on seems to explain this phenomenon which I would call pseudo-history. (Or as Click and Clack say "folkloric") This is the role of technology. In my courses we do lots of research, documentation, analysis and writing. We generally use academic databases and our data is generally peer tested. But this research based approach is rare in Texas, in fact it is generally discouraged. What I see often times outside of academic databases is an echo chamber on the internet. The internet has not been used to uncover the truths we had hoped but to cloud it. One can find one's particular perspective reinforced, whether real or imagined, amply supported if not substantiated, and easily at one's finger tips on the internet with their favorite flavor of interpretation bantered about as if were tried and true.
Of course I don't mean to discount one of your central arguments that history has become deconstructed to the point that the big picture, big truths are being lost. And perhaps what I am arguing here is just one implication of the fragmentation of history that you have so cogently articulated.
In closing let me say that I look forward to your post each Saturday and like you I am feeling increasingly isolated in my own profession. But that is the very reason we both need to keep up the good fight, if you will. Someone has to keep the light that history provides burning. Thank you so much for carrying that torch so well.

David White
Longview Texas

idiotgrrl said...

An excellent post. I remember asking you if there were a single book that would give a decent overview of American history, and IIRC, there are none. It's not the difficulty of the task - I'm near the end of Jacques Barzun's lively, readable, and apparently very scholarly overview of *500 years* of Western cultural history.

I like the think that the excesses of postmodernism, which I think began with the realization that far more viewpoints needed to be taken into account than we were used to seeing, which is certainly true, will revert to that intent once the dust has settled. Certainly, other excesses have done so, once people started noticing their visible flaws. However -

"The human race is like a drunken peasant trying to ride a horse. First he falls off on the left side, and then on the right." Martin Luther. [Who must have seen that quite a bit back in any village in medieval Germany! ]

Keep up the good work.

Pat from 4T

galacticsurfer said...

Understanding why things happened in the past, knowing that we are just like those who came before and not better, not unique and that we can and will make the same mistakes if not cautious. People want to think people were dumber sometime way back when and we can't do things wrong or maybe the other way around we are worse and sometime long ago was a golden age. All nonsense but we have to be concrete and detailed in research. It is a shame if in a sound bite age we lose all seriousness and just live on short moods like ads and 3 minute pop songs instead of operas where we have to learn deep cultural and historical background and maybe some language skills to boot. My last history course was 30 years ago AP US history in High School but I have read a lot since then and need this to understand my own past and my family's and my future which is all connected to the great events (WWII for instance) intimately. We have power to influence the future if only we can understand where we want to go and why from the past then we will have success. God bless your efforts and give you luck into the future and for giving me a chance to comment on your blog which is more academic and deep and less sound bite opinionated than elsewhere.

lawrence serewicz said...

Professor Kaiser,
I am sorry to read that this is your last post. I am heartened to have discovered your blog. I will have to keep it on my regular reading list. I always enjoyed your posts to H-diplo and your books. I would not say we would agree on many issues within the Vietnam War, but I never ceased to learn from you.
I was particulary grateful for the time you provided in responding to my posts and the effort you made to clarify your views and the historical scholarship.
I am not, nor did I ever pretend to be, a diplomatic historian. However, I learned a tremendous amount from you and the other senior scholars who offered their views and scholarship on diplomatic history.
Interestinly enough, I never saw you or Moise on the right or the left in terms of politics because I never saw history as having a right or a left. To be sure, there is politics in history but I never saw that colouring your or anyone else's posts. I think the serious posts in that time were focused on the evidence and where it led.
One thing I am grateful for is how your work and those of Moises, Logevall and others, regarding Vietnam, gave me a fuller understanding of its nuance and the hidden connections missing in the common (read public) assumptions concerning the war and the decision making process.

In a small way, I am glad to have participated in one of the most intellectually stimulating periods on H-Diplo. I saw so many excellent posts and discussions with a high standard of scholarships. These exchanges were not simply slanging matches or posturing, they were senior scholars grappling with the literature and with each other in a serious and determine attempt to understand the issues. As a graduate student in a related field, I have to admit that my forays were often speculative or an attempt to sharpen my thinking on a particular topic. In each instance, I learned more and also learned to debate, prepare evidence, and go to original sources to buttress my arguments against the best. I can look back on my writings on that list and realize how fortunate it was to have such excellent teachers against whom I could test ideas.

I agree that H-diplo has declined and I would suggest three different items made for that decline. First, Hnet and the Hdiplo editors took a decisive step to reduce the types of discussions I, and others, initiated. I would never say it was censorship, but rather they ahd a direction they wanted to take it. Second, other media emerged such as blogging, to move people away from a moderated list where posters were always having to please the moderators to get posted. [The moderators were great in a very difficult job and they are the unsung heros of H-diplo. They did an outstanding job to make it work despite always being caught in the crossfire] Third, I think that September 11 2001 changed more than the international political landschape, it also changed the discussions on the list. I would say from around 2002 onward, the list continued to leak posters and serious topics. I continue to receive posts, but even when trying to elicit discussion I rarely get more than a response. In many ways, I think the students are no longer using it as a research area or an intellectual laboratory. I know I did because I had to find some way to test ideas and learn about USFP history and there was no other way.

I look forward to reading your blog.

Yours sincerely,

Lawrence Serewicz

PJ Cats said...

Dear Mr. Kaiser,

Neil Young once said 'real rock'n roll has gone completely underground'.
The same goes, I'm afraid, for true intellectualism. The ones who, as you say, try to pass a sound judgment based on facts and research, are confined to the margins and face threadbare existences.
Everybody else has sold out one way or another, mostly in the literal sense, by the way. I remember a radio interview I once heard with a dutch professor (I'm in The Netherlands), Karel van Wolfferen, who wrote a critical book about the demise of America, I think in 2003. He said that he had been offered huge sums to write a different book. You know... I mean, huge sums!
There are, of course, other ways of selling out, which come mostly in the form of 'settling down', as Steve Jobs put it in his 2005 speech in California. The way he put it, it means going with the system, taking for granted the current dogmas (there are a lot of those these days), pick up your paycheck and go home and shut down for the day.
To me, this sounds completely boring and stupid. As does the notion that people put their intellectual capital to work for political pressure groups. There's just something wrong with these folks that makes them twisted. Not that my life is great, but it's mine.
Thank you, professor, for the stuff you put up. You're a lone voice of reason in the wilderness. And always a fine read.

Bob in NC said...

I hope I understand you, that you're only ceasing posts on H-Diplo, and that you will continue the "History Unfolding" blog, which I have found very infornmative. (I didn't know about H-Diplo). Please don't leave us alone in the wilderness!

You are also correct in sensing the western world is going through a huge and destructive transformation. It's difficult to know whether any of us understand it, but you have the best handle on it. The intellectual collapse of the Democratic Party, caused ultimnately by corruption, but also because the "left intellectuals" of the 60's took the easy way out: pandering to modernism and money, and comfy pseudo-science at mostly 2nd rate universities.

Much of the business world, especially "finance", has adopted disturbing, often criminal practices, (selling phoney & fraudulent "products", stealing pension funds, for example), but an even more disturbing "Orwellian" tone and substance. Not only are we to believe the lies, but employees must actively collaborate in them to hold onto their jobs. Robotic managers and selfish executives use speed-up and stupid "costs-cutting" as a substitute for innovation, job-creation and real production of goods, to meet CEO dicta on short-term profits and bonus-generating manipulation of accounting and loopholes to appear profitable. Many of our formerly great corporations have become financial hollow shells (GE, for example).
The creepy feeling in business and politics today reminds one of the Nazi-takeover of German in the 1930's.
Please continue the History blog!

L Moore said...

You motivated me to write a piece about American intellectualism with quotes from your essay.

Bob Hallahan said...

Want to echo Bob's comment in urging you to continue to write here! This has been my major link to academia since NWC graduation, and it remains a very satisfying read for reasons independent of the college. Continuing good luck in your new pursuits.

R/Bob Hallahan

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure blaming postmodernism for the lack of people "taking a stand" is entirely correct, because conscious or unconscious self-censorship has been on the rise since 2001, especially online. Changes in the job market and the civil liberties climate may have contributed to this caution.

David Kaiser said...

Have no fear, posting here will continue as usual. . .


Anonymous said...

History is not the only victim. I taught The History of American Public Address for thirty years at a University in Northern California. My successor has eliminated all "dead white males" from the course with one exception--Harvey Milk. She teaches also that women don't talk--they quilt.
Lewis Bright
Las Vegas, Nevada

Gerald Meaders said...

Unfortunately, history has shown itself, apparently, to be no less susceptible to powerful trends, re over compartmentalization, specialization, call it even intellectual sectionalism if you will; and influences re experts and expertises of all kinds, that are seen in all disciplines increasingly now.

All the best,

Bob in NC said...

Dear Professor,
Please review Jeffrey Sachs' new book, "The Price of Civilization".
Hope it's a mea culpa, or at least an attempt to right wrongs, but based on our attendence in a semninar with him circa 1999, it doesn't sound like the same guy.
He's bright, and he's been at the pinacle, so if what he says now is what he really thinks, there's hope for America.
Bob in NC