This year is the centenary of James Harvey Robinson’s bookThe New History: Essays Illustrating the Modern Historical Outlook, which made a case for teaching and writing about the past as something other than the record of illustrious men gaining power and then doing things with it.
“Our bias for political history,” he wrote, “led us to include a great many trifling details of dynasties and military history which merely confound the reader and take up precious space that should be devoted to certain great issues hitherto neglected.” The new breed of historians, such as the ones Robinson was training at Columbia University, would explore the social and cultural dimensions of earlier eras -- “the ways in which people have thought and acted in the past, their tastes and their achievements in many fields” – as well as what he called “the intricate question of the role of the State in the past.”
One hundred years and several paradigm shifts later, this “new history” is normal history; it’s not obvious why Robinson’s effort was so provocative at the time. You can see how it might have upset turf-protecting experts concerned with, say, whether or not Charles the Bald was actually bald. But it also promised to make connections between contemporary issues and knowledge of the past -- or threatened to make those connections, to put it another way.
Hold that thought for now, though. Jumping from 1912 to the present, let me point out a new collection of papers from the University of Georgia Press called Doing Recent History, edited by Claire Bond Potter and Renee C. Romano. (Potter is professor of history at the New School, Romano an associate professor of history at Oberlin College.)
There’s something puzzlingly James Harvey Robinson-ish about it, even though none of the contributors give the old man a nod. It must be a total coincidence that the editors are publishing the collection just now, amidst all the centennial non-festivities. And some of Robinson’s complaints about his colleagues would sound bizarre in today’s circumstances – especially his frustration at their blinkered sense of what should count as topics and source materials for historical research. “They exhibit but little appreciation of the vast resources upon which they might draw,” he wrote, “and unconsciously follow for the most part, an established routine in their selection of facts.”
As if in reply, the editors of Doing Recent History write: “We have the opportunity to blaze trails that have not been marked in historical literature. We have access to sources that simply do not exist for earlier periods: in addition to living witnesses, we have unruly evidence such as video games and television programming (which has expanded exponentially since the emergence of cable), as well as blogs, wikis, websites, and other virtual spaces.”
No doubt cranky talk-show hosts and unemployed Charles the Bald scholars will take umbrage at Jerry Saucier’s paper “Playing the Past: The Video Game Simulation as Recent American History” – and for what it’s worth, I’m not entirely persuaded that Saucier’s topic pertains to historiography, rather than ethnography. But that could change at some point. In “Do Historians Watch Enough TV? Broadcast News as a Primary Source,” David Greenberg makes the forceful argument that political historians tend to focus on written material to document their work: a real anachronism given TV’s decisive role in public life for most of the period since World War II. He gives the example of a sweeping history of the Civil Rights movement that seemed to draw on every imaginable source of documentation -- but not the network TV news programs that brought the struggle into the nation's living room. (The historian did mention a couple of prime-time specials, but with no details or reason to suppose he'd watched them.) Likewise, it’s entirely possible that historians of early 21st-century warfare will need to know something about video games, which have had their part in recruiting and training troops.
Besides the carefully organized, searchable databases available in libraries, historians have to come to terms with the oceans of digital text created over the past quarter-century or so -- tucked away on countless servers for now, but posing difficult questions about archiving and citation. The contributors take these issues up, along with related problems about intellectual property and the ethical responsibility of the historian when using documents published in semi-private venues online, or deposited in research collections too understaffed to catch possible violations of confidentiality.
In “Opening Archives on the Recent Past: Reconciling the Ethics of Access and the Ethics of Privacy, “ Laura Clark Brown and Nancy Kaiser discuss a number of cases of sensitive information about private citizens appearing in material acquired by the Southern Historical Collection of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For example, there's the author whose papers include torrid correspondence with a (married) novelist who wouldn't want his name showing up in the finding aid. Brown and Kaiser also raise another matter for concern: “With the full-text search capabilities of Google Books and electronic journals, scholarly works no longer have practical obscurity, and individuals could easily find their names and private information cited in a monograph with even a very small press run.”
The standard criticism of James Harvey Robinson’s work among subsequent generations of professional historians is that his “new history” indulges in “presentism” – the sin of interpreting the past according to concerns or values of the historian’s own day. In Robinson’s case, he seems to have been a strong believer in the virtues of scientific progress, in its continuing fight against archaic forms of thought and social organization. With that in mind, it’s easier to understand his insistence that social, cultural, and intellectual history were at least as important as the political and diplomatic sort (and really, more so). Students and the general public were better off learning about “the lucid intervals during which the greater part of human progress has taken place,” rather than memorizing the dates of wars and coronations.
None of the contributors to Doing Recent History are nearly that programmatic. Their main concern is with the challenge of studying events and social changes from the past few decades using the ever more numerous and voluminous sources becoming available. Robinson’s “new history” tried to make the past interesting and relevant to the present. The “recent history” people want to generate the insights and critical skills that become possible when you learn to look at the recent past as something much less familiar, and more puzzling, than it might otherwise appear. I'm struck less by the contrast than the continuity.
Robinson would have loved it. In fact, he even anticipated their whole project. “In its normal state,” he wrote one hundred years ago, “the mind selects automatically, from the almost infinite mass of memories, just those things in our past which make us feel at home in the present. It works so easily and efficiently that we are unconscious of what it is doing for us and of how dependent we are upon it.”
Our memory — personal and cultural alike – “supplies so promptly and so precisely what we need from the past in order to make the present intelligible that we are beguiled into the mistaken notion that the present is self-explanatory and quite able to take care of itself, and that the past is largely dead and irrelevant, except when we have to make a conscious effort to recall some elusive fact.” That passage would have make a good epigraph for Doing Recent History, but it’s too late now.
A new obstacle has emerged for the business school of the University of California at Los Angeles, which has been pushing a "self-sufficiency plan" for its M.B.A. program, in which it would give up state funds in return for more independence. The plan, seen as privatization by critics, has been debated for some time. A vote by the UCLA faculty in June appeared to clear the way for final approval by the University of California system.
But a committee of the systemwide Academic Senate has now tabled the proposal to approve the plan. According to the committee, the system does not currently have any policy that would allow a program that is not self-supporting to become self-supporting. Lacking such a policy, the committee declined to approve the UCLA plan. Officials of the business school could not be reached to discuss the implications of this development.
The top two leaders of the agriculture college at the University of California at Davis (an institution long known for its agriculture programs) have resigned, The Sacramento Bee reported. Neal Van Alfen, the dean, and James D. MacDonald, executive associate dean, quit after Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi started a search for a new dean with two years left in Van Alfen's term as dean.
Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2012/08/31/4774485/key-leaders-at-uc-davis-ag-college.html#storylink=cpy
The American Political Science Association annual meeting should have been going strong today, but was called off because Hurricane Isaac hit the location, New Orleans. Some political scientists will not be deterred, however, from sharing their papers. Some are using the meeting's #APSA2012 hashtag to do so, while others are using a new hashtag, #VirtualAPSA2012. Still others are planning to use Google + "hangout" features to share and discuss papers. The Johns Hopkins University Press, which would have been in the exhibit hall of the meeting, created a virtual book exhibit.
For generations, American conservatives have had an uneasy relationship with higher education. Although most recognize the importance of a college degree for employment, many conservatives are convinced that college campuses are indoctrination mills, designed to convert impressionable students into lifelong supporters of the Democratic Party. Republican concerns about higher education have become so serious, that the party delegates specifically address the issue in their 2012 platform:
“Ideological bias is deeply entrenched within the current university system. Whatever the solution in private institutions may be, in state institutions the trustees have a responsibility to the public to ensure that their enormous investment is not abused for political indoctrination. We call on state officials to ensure that our public colleges and universities be places of learning and the exchange of ideas, not zones of intellectual intolerance favoring the left.”
Beyond their vague demands for the careful oversight of public colleges and universities, conservatives actively work to counter the influence of liberal academia, promoting right-leaning institutions like Liberty University and Hillsdale College. For impressionable youths already drawn into academia’s web, the right creates alternative centers of learning like Prager University. This website, created by nationally syndicated radio talk show host Dennis Prager, offers five minute courses designed to “undo the intellectual and moral damage” done by a traditional college education.
As fellow conservatives who study the politics of higher education, we recognize elements of truth to the conservative critique. Virtually every study of higher education finds that college professors, regardless of their field, lean left. Furthermore, even those few professors who do identify as Republicans tend to hold views well to the left of Republican voters. Anecdotally, we know that some faculty use their classrooms to promote an ideological agenda. However, judging from the strong language included in the GOP platform, it seems clear that many conservatives overstate the problem. Whatever the long-term effects of a college education, there is little evidence that it has a dramatic effect on most students’ political beliefs. For example, the authors of The Still Divided Academy provide evidence that over time students’ views are remarkably stable. Additionally, relatively few conservatives feel victimized by their status as a political minority.
Yet even if liberal professors do not oppress conservative students, professorial ideological imbalance causes problems. While conservative students benefit from hearing alternative worldviews, liberal students at many institutions are rarely exposed to ideas challenging their core beliefs. Furthermore, without a critical mass of conservative faculty to challenge their liberal colleagues, social scientific research is inherently skewed to support leftist policy positions.
We argue that, rather than abandon American colleges and universities to the Left, conservatives need to “infiltrate” higher education, joining the faculty and thus reinvigorating higher education. In our recent article for the American Political Science Association's journal PS: Political Science and Politics, we synthesize more than a decade of research on politics in academe to provide conservatives with a roadmap for success. While conservatives in academe often face special challenges, with hard work, caution, and humility many can prosper in universities seemingly closed to the right.
For conservatives bold enough to consider academe, it’s important to select a field that is relatively tolerant of dissent. Obviously, fields like chemistry and engineering are less hostile to conservatives than sociology or women’s studies. Our own political science is a field already accustomed to political disagreement, with a solid seventh of political scientists leaning right. Whereas political scientists sometimes delve into ideologically charged debates, its practitioners often pride themselves on examining controversies like Congressional voting patterns, voter turnout, and judicial decision making that transcend the traditional liberal-conservative divide.
Conservatives who aspire to work in academia must recognize that, to succeed in academia, they must be intellectually rigorous, particularly since many peer reviewers will lean left. To guard against the onslaught of criticism that may follow work contradicting liberal orthodoxy, conservative scholars must do excellent research rooted in facts, and devoid of extraneous political commentary.
Furthermore, conservative academics must be both resilient and good-natured. Academic life is full of setbacks. Articles submitted to top journals are generally rejected, notwithstanding their political content. Just as women in business ought not blame every problem on sexism, and African Americans should resist the instinct to see every slight as racist, so conservatives must not play the victim, blaming every setback on politics. The ability to work diligently and happily, despite the normal travails of academic life, will ensure that conservatives don’t give up when the road to tenure seems bumpy.
Finally, if conservatives are to "infiltrate" academe they should leverage the power of the free market, moving from colleges or universities that prove inhospitable to political dissent. While some institutions will not tolerate right-leaning faculty, many others welcome a fresh perspective.
With boldness, persistence and patience, conservatives can make inroads into academia rather than simply abandoning higher education.