Bonfire of the Humanities: How did History Abdicate its Role of Inspiring the Longer View


David Armitage and Jo Guldi in Aeon (Photo by Ara Guler/Magnum Photos):

The mission of the humanities is to transmit questions about value – and to question values – by testing traditions that build up over centuries and millennia. And within the humanities, it is the discipline of history that provides an antidote to short-termism, by giving pointers to the long future derived from knowledge of the deep past. Yet at least since the 1970s, most professional historians – that is, most historians holding doctorates in the field and teaching in universities or colleges – conducted most of their research on timescales of between five and 50 years.

The novelist Kingsley Amis satirised this tendency towards ever more microscopic specialisation among historians as early as 1954 in Lucky Jim, the work from which all later campus novels sprang. Jim Dixon, an anxious junior lecturer, frets throughout the book about the fate of a well-polished article meant to jump-start his career. Its topic? ‘The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485’. ‘It was a perfect title,’ the narrator tells us, ‘in that it crystallised the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems.’ Within only a couple of decades, any PhD supervisor on either side of the Atlantic would have discouraged a topic of such breadth and complexity, spanning almost four decades, as foolhardy in the extreme.

When historians first became professionalised in the late 19th century, it was still possible for them to tackle subjects of genuine breadth and ambition. In the US, Frederick Jackson Turner – later famous for his ‘frontier thesis’ of American national development – wrote his PhD thesis in 1891 on frontier trading posts from the 17th to the 19th centuries. In 1895, W E B du Bois, the first African-American to receive a PhD from Harvard, studied the suppression of the African slave-trade from 1638 to 1870 for his doctoral research.

A recent survey of some 8,000 history dissertations written in the US since the 1880s has shown that the average period covered in 1900 was about 75 years; by 1975, that had shrunk to about 30. (Matters were even worse in the UK, where PhD students had less time to undertake their research and writing than most US students, and timescales were even more abrupt.) Only in the past decade has it rebounded again to somewhere between 75 and 100 years.

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