by PhDinHistory | 3/15/2008 06:13:00 PM
Cross-posted at PhDinHistory:

I think history had a golden age and Richard White disagrees. It guess it all depends on which criteria we use when making this determination. I happen to think historians should be evaluated on how well they connect with the public.

Sam Tanenhaus got us thinking about this issue about a year ago with his claim in the New York Times that, after the death of Arthur Schlesinger, there was not a single "great public historian" left in America. Probably the most direct response to Tanenhaus came from Barbara Weinstein, the president of the AHA, in an essay titled "The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Historians?"

I tried to read the presidential responses from White and Weinstein with an open mind. I think they both make some really great points about how historical scholarship has become a lot more sophisticated over the last several decades. But I found myself wondering if I could trust their claims about history's relationship with the public. I kind of doubt they could have been elected presidents of major historical associations if they had spent most of their career trying to write for the public rather than for other historians.

So I did some more checking. I used WorldCat to determine what proportion of history books published annually by university presses are purchased by at least a thousand libraries. I then combined that data with some stats on bachelors degrees in history that I found in an article by Robert B. Townsend and in the Digest of Education Statistics.

As I combined these two data sets into a chart, I multiplied the proportions for academic history books by three so that it would vertically line up better with the line for degrees. I then shifted the data for history bachelors degrees back by four years, so that it would more accurately represent when the students who received bachelors degrees in history first decided to major in history. The results appear in the below chart.

I was somewhat surprised by the degree of correlation between the lines for history books and history degrees. Apparently there is a relationship between these two things. When academic history books sell well, public interest in history increases, and more students decide to major in history. When the sales of academic history books slump, the public and students become interested in other things. It looks to me like this is evidence that the golden age in history lasted from the early 1950s through the early 1970s.

There could have been another factor at work. Was there something about the activism and movements of the Sixties that made people at the time feel like they were witnessing the unfolding of history? And is that why the public became relatively interested in academic history books at the time?

Then again, the labor market could be the explanation. Maybe a bunch of students got interested in history during the 1960s, a considerable number of them decided to pursue doctorates, and the result was a large surplus of history PhDs on the job market during the 1970s. Maybe they saw the writing on the wall and decided that, in order to be competitive on the job market, they had to write dissertations that were more likely to impress historians and less likely to become books that the public would want to buy. Could this be why the golden age of history ended in the early 1970s?

What do the rest of you think? What did you find useful in the essays by White and Weinstein? Do you share their confidence about the state of history? Do you think history passed through a golden age? Do we need to recapture the interest of the public and of our students? How concerned are you about the apparent nosedive in the sales of academic history books over the last few years?

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Blogger Ahistoricality on 3/15/2008 8:01 PM:

Another set of very direct responses can be found in the Cliopatria Symposium on Tannehaus's article.

The problems of correlation and causation are rife, but it's entirely plausible to suggest that the golden age of history was when historians were engaging with live political issues, and including those politics in their teaching. Now that we're "professionals" and above that sort of thing (lest the wrath of D-Ho Descend), we're withering on the vine.

So, let's all commit to at least one good historico-political rant in each of our classes this semester, and see if we can't shift those numbers....


Blogger PhDinHistory on 3/15/2008 10:30 PM:

Thanks. I think I missed the symposium. Are you sure politics is the main way to connect with the public?


Blogger Ahistoricality on 3/16/2008 2:27 PM:

Are you sure politics is the main way to connect with the public?

No, actually military adventurism, hero-worship, soppy feel-good biographies and muckraking are actually better for popularity but if you want to inspire people to action, then politics is your best bet.


Blogger Unknown on 3/16/2008 3:44 PM:

My post in the symposium is no longer at the link shown there, but is available here. As I recall, I was the only respondent to substantially endorse Tanenhaus' article. I think this post of yours is a very important one.

I don't quite remember what I said in that piece, but I actually think a more relevant one of mine is The Value of Informed Opinion. If you don't want to read the whole thing, I'd particularly recommend the Stephen Dunning quote at the end. Dunning takes the issue beyond politics and says very simply: the purpose of scholarship in the humanities should be to speak to basic human needs and interests. That's what I believe fundamentally, and it's what animates me in my desire to write history.