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The dangerous decline of the historical profession


These material and ideological assaults have resulted in a sharp decline in undergraduate majors in the humanities. In the 2018-2019 academic year, only 23,923 undergraduate graduates earned degrees in history and related fields, which the AHA says is “down more than a third from in 2012 and the lowest number awarded since the late 1980s”.

Private groups, which traditionally gave strong financial support to aspiring humanities scholars, took the hint and increasingly stopped supporting soft humanities and social sciences. The Social Science Research Council recently ended its International Dissertation Research Fellowship program, which over the past 25 years has funded more than 1,600 scholars exploring “non-American cultures” and “Native American communities,” stating that the program “achieved many of the goals it set for itself. The Ford Foundation also decided to end its long-running National Academies Fellowship program for historically marginalized scholars in order, the foundation’s president said, “to invest more deeply in movement-building work.”

It’s the end of the story. And the consequences will be significant.

Whole swaths of our shared history will never be known because no one will be paid decent wages to discover and study them. It is implausible to expect academics with precarious jobs to come up with bold and innovative claims about history when they can easily be fired for it. Instead, history will increasingly be studied by the wealthy, that is, those able to work without pay. It is easy to see how this could lead American historical scholarship to adopt a pro-status quo bias. In today’s world, if you don’t have access to elite networks, financial resources, or both, it just doesn’t make sense to pursue a career in history. In the future, history will not only be written by the victors; it will also be written by the haves.

If Americans do not seriously invest in history and other disciplines of the humanities, we encourage the ahistorical ignorance on which the reaction is based. Many Republican politicians support “divisive concepts” laws that attempt to regulate what college professors teach. Are they aiming for an easy target in the culture war? May be. But it is also true that an education in the humanities encourages thinking that often challenges xenophobic and racist dogma. Progress depends on studying and discussing the past in an open and informed way. This is especially true at a time like ours, when Americans are using history to fight over which view of the country will dominate politics. If there are no historians to reflect meaningfully and accurately on the past, then ignorance and hatred will surely triumph.

Without professional historians, the teaching of history will increasingly be in the hands of social media influencers, partisan hacks, and others uninterested in achieving a complex, empirically informed understanding of the past. Take, for example, Bill O’Reilly’s 12-book “Killing” series – the best-selling non-fiction series of all time, according to Mr. O’Reilly’s editors – whose very framing sensationalizes the past. focusing on “the death and destruction of some of the most influential men and most powerful nations in human history. The same could be said of Rush Limbaugh’s ‘Rush Revere’ series for young people, in which the time-traveling, three-cornered hat-wearing Mr. Limbaugh teaches “about some of America’s most exceptional. Or consider Twitter, where debates about history regularly erupt — and turn. just as regularly turn into name-calling. If professional historians are a thing of the past, there will be no one left who can temper these kinds of arguments with cold analysis and bring seriousness, depth and thoughtful consideration to discussions of who is nt Americans and who we want to be as a nation.

Americans must do everything in their power to avoid the end of history. If we don’t, exaggerations, half-truths and outright lies will dominate our historical imagination and make it impossible to understand and learn from the past.

Daniel Bessner is an associate professor of international studies at the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies and co-host of the foreign affairs podcast “American Prestige.”

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