Has Political History Fallen Out of Favor?


Do we need another Theodore White?

Frederik Logevall of Harvard and Kenneth Osgood of the Colorado School of Mines think so.

In a piece in yesterday’s New York Times these scholars lament the fact that few colleges and universities are teaching traditional political history anymore.  They define “political history” as a specialization in “elections and elected officials, policy and policy making, parties and party politics.”

Here is a taste:

But somewhere along the way, such work fell out of favor with history departments. According to the American Historical Association’s listing of academic departments, three-quarters of colleges and universities now lack full-time researchers and teachers in the subject.

There appears to be little effort to fill the void. A search of the leading website advertising academic jobs in history, H-Net, yielded just 15 advertisements in the last 10 years specifically seeking a tenure-track, junior historian specializing in American political history. That’s right: just 15 new jobs in the last decade.

As a result, the study of America’s political past is being marginalized. Many college catalogs list precious few specialized courses on the subject, and survey courses often give scant attention to political topics. The pipelines for new Ph.D.s in the subject, and therefore new faculty, are drying up, and in many graduate programs one can earn a doctorate in American history with little exposure to politics.

How did it come to this? The trend began in the 1960s. America’s misadventure in Vietnam led to broad questioning of elite decision making and conventional politics, and by extension those historical narratives that merely recounted the doings of powerful men. Likewise, the movements of the 1960s and 1970s by African-Americans, Latinos, women, homosexuals and environmental activists brought a new emphasis on history from the bottom up, spotlighting the role of social movements in shaping the nation’s past.

The long overdue diversification of the academy also fostered changing perspectives. As a field once dominated by middle-class white males opened its doors to women, minorities and people from working-class backgrounds, recovering the lost experiences of these groups understandably became priority No. 1.

These transformations enriched the national story. But they also carried costs. Perceived “traditional” types of history that examined the doings of governing elites fell into disfavor, and political history suffered the effects (as did its cousins, diplomatic and military history).

Read the entire piece here.

Are Logevall and Osgood correct?  Has political history fallen out of favor?

Should we measure the fate of political history by courses taught or by books published?

If we measure success by courses taught, Logevall and Osgood may be correct.  For the last half-century historians have criticized the old-fashioned practice of teaching American history as one political election after another.  But I wonder if political history has ever really left.  The turn toward social and cultural history has, in many ways, reinvigorated the field.

But even if political history is defined narrowly, the last decade has seen some great works in the field.  I am thinking here of Heather Cox Richardson’s To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party, Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of Amercia, 1815-1848Edward Larson’s A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800; Rick Perlstein’s work on American conservatives; a slew of presidential biographies; and I could go on an on.  And what about “Hamilton” on Broadway?