The Sad State Of History Today

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - April 29, 2009

In my day job, I teach history. I teach at a small school, the University of Hawaii-West Oahu, in, until recently, a two-person history concentration. So I’ve taught all kinds of history: Pacific Islands history, Hawaii’s history, world history, American history, even Russian and modern European history.

But American history is my field, and at a small school I specialize in ... well, every single aspect of it. Thus I try to attend the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians, where historians gather from hither and yon to talk about their craft.

This year they met, three weekends ago, in Seattle - chilly, overcast, wet Seattle. I had sufficient Hawaiian Airline miles, so I went.

It was not a heartening experience. “History,” that not-so-famous historian Henry Ford once said, “is bunk.” If my experience in Seattle means anything, the famous car maker may have been right.

There was, for example, evidence that America’s college and universities don’t consider history of much importance anymore. The meeting’s numbers were significantly lower than normal - largely, I’m sure, because state university budgets have been drastically cut by the nation’s economic recession and private college endowment income ravished by those wily investment managers. That means fewer dollars for faculty travel, and history isn’t much of a competitor for scarce dollars on a full-service university campus.

But then there’s what young historians, nay, young university scholars in almost every field now study: Trivia.

It’s the academic’s Catch-22: Young scholars must do original research. Now remember, the modern American university emerged in the second half of 19th century, so for approximately 150 years young scholars have been studying from this angle, that angle and every other angle every topic worth studying. Thus, there isn’t much virgin scholarly soil left - and what there is, isn’t worth plowing.

For example, a young woman at one of the panels I attended gave a paper on “Visualizing Bleeding Kansas.” She showed a well-known Harper’s Weekly illustration of the brutal caning of abolitionist Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner by South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks. It took place on the floor of the Senate; Sumner lies on his back, and Brooks stands over him, cane raised.

The young scholar spoke of the “sexualizing of the illustration,” pointing out how the artist darkened lines accentuated Brooks’ loins, obviously implying homosexual rape.

Homosexual rape? Huh? Duh? Fortunately, when the panel’s critic - an older, grayer, methinks wiser scholar - was allowed his turn, he pointed out to the young woman that “Sometimes a line is just a line, not a loin.” To be sure.

If too many sessions ran to the ridiculous, the exhibition hall where the book publishers displayed their wares quieted any tendency to laugh. Historians can sell books to large, required university lecture courses, so publishers usually show in force.

Not this year. Their numbers too were down and the traffic among their display booths sparse. Usually, in the 25 years or so I’ve been going to these things, two or three of the larger publishers pay for wine-and-cheese receptions for the book-ordering professors. There was none in Seattle.

I spoke with the president of a small, family owned publishing house noted for keeping good books in print and bringing out risky, challenging works of scholarship. He’s a tweedy, dignified man in his early 70s. He stood alone in his booth, waiting for a browsing professor to come by. I did, and with great originality, asked, “How’s business?”

“F%)&!#@+ awful!” he replied. I slunk away.

But even more depressing was a session on “Designing and Teaching the U.S. History Survey.” It was packed with young scholars, old scholars and everyone in between. To a teacher, they looked confused and unsure. How do you teach U.S. history to young people in the age of the Internet, the cell phone, television and the eternal now?

Cautioned one presenter: “Students’ understanding of chronology is often not there.” Bemused another: “I’m not sure about the value of using a textbook. A textbook is a lot of reading.” And yet another: “I really don’t have any idea how to get the students to read.”

With all that wisdom, I came home.

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