Not quite The Muppets.

Whoever on Sesame Street thought it was a good idea to have Richard Pryor teach your children the alphabet was obviously right.


Moar numberz, please.

Steve Kantrowitz raises an important point in the comments on this post at my personal blog: majors aren’t the whole story. It would be helpful to have access to a longitudinal study of enrollments in the humanities. Although it seems to me that enrollments may be shaped as much by changing university requirements as by student interest, I’m still curious to see that data. Does anyone happen to know where I might find those numbers?

A crisis of confidence, redux.

If you’re a fan of what looks like it may well be innumeracy*, the latest installment from The Times in “crisis in the humanities” concern trolling is pretty darned good.

In all fairness, I’ll grant a couple of the author’s premises: many people, including leading humanists, really do feel** like there’s a crisis in the humanities. And there does seem to be a crisis in the humanities at Stanford. Heck, I’ll go one further: in time, that crisis well might become a self-fulfilling prophecy for universities around the United States!

But the numbers, linked here***, suggest that for the moment the crisis largely remains one of confidence. So maybe The Times should write an article about how humanists are neurotic and see doom and gloom wherever they look. The author can interview me!

Really, though, I’d read an article about who’ll benefit from an actual crisis in the humanities and whether those interests are implicated in drumming up this fake crisis.

* Without footnotes or links at The Times, I can’t know if the author is actually innumerate, just confused, or has access to numbers I’ve never seen (and suspect don’t exist).

** Because they read The Times? Because they listen to the Secretary of Education natter on and on and on about STEM? Because their funding is being cut? Who knows?

*** Nobody clicks links these days (because of the crisis in humanities blogging), so here’s the relevant information: Table 289 in The National Center for Education Statistics’s “Digest of Education Statistics” shows degrees granted by field of study for selected years between 1970 and 2010. That table reveals that in 1970-1971, 17.1% of students who received BAs in the United States majored in a humanities discipline. Three decades later, in the midst of the crisis in the humanities we hear so much about, that number had plummeted to 17%.

It’s worth adding that the number of students receiving MAs and PhDs in humanities disciplines has contracted (from 14.6% to 7.9% for MAs and from 6.8% to 4.9% for PhDs).

History with the bark off.

That was LBJ’s homespun rationale for deciding to tape himself in the Oval Office. And the LBJ Library has just released the final batch of those tapes, from 1968, revealing Johnson’s perspective on the Democratic National Convention that year and also on Richard Nixon’s ostensible role in scuttling ongoing negotiations to end the debacle in Vietnam.

Johnson, horrified by the unfolding violence in Chicago and worried that Hubert Humphrey wouldn’t be chosen as the Democratic nominee, apparently considered saving the day by flying from Texas to the convention and announcing himself as an eleventh-hour candidate. That plan fell apart only after the Secret Service explained that it couldn’t adequately protect the president in Chicago, which stood poised on the brink of insurrection.

Perhaps even more interesting than that, Johnson explains that the FBI had provided him with evidence that Richard Nixon had “blood on his hands,” that, in other words, Nixon had sabotaged the Paris peace talks. Nixon, the LBJ tapes reveal, had dispatched Anna Chennault, one of his campaign advisers, to conduct unauthorized, back-channel discussions with South Vietnamese negotiators. Consequently, just as Johnson prepared to announce in October 1968 that the United States would halt all bombing in North Vietnam, the South Vietnamese, having been promised by Chennault that a Nixon administration would deliver a deal much more favorable to their interests, pulled out of the talks entirely.

In a call to Senator Richard Russell, Johnson says

We have found that our friend, the Republican nominee, our California friend, has been playing on the outskirts with our enemies and our friends both, he has been doing it through rather subterranean sources. Mrs Chennault is warning the South Vietnamese not to get pulled into this Johnson move.

Nixon, meanwhile, insisted that he had no idea why the South Vietnamese had left the negotiating table and offered, out of the goodness of his heart, to travel to Saigon to set things right. Johnson, for his part, chose not to share Nixon’s perfidy with the public, because the president worried about the repercussions of revealing the extent of the FBI’s and NSA’s surveillance of American diplomats. Johnson did tell Humphrey, but by then, on the eve of the election, the vice president had closed the gap with Nixon and worried about stalling his own momentum by releasing a bombshell that might alter the trajectory of the campaign.

In the end, Nixon, Humphrey, and Johnson — at least the Johnson of 1968 — all come out looking terrible, office seekers willing to play politics with national security, at the cost tens of thousands of lives. I suppose we should praise Johnson for laying bare these insights from the past, but I find myself thinking he should have stripped the bark away at time.

1) Add one part internet triumphalism to two parts market fundamentalism. 2) Fleece a bunch of students and unsuspecting taxpayers. 3) ??? 4) Profit!

No, really, lots of profits. For private corporations.

If you’re in higher education and you’re not following this story, you should be. The upshot (sorry, the executive summary) is that the California legislature is about to pass a bill “requiring the state’s public colleges and universities to give credit for faculty-approved online courses taken by students unable to register for oversubscribed classes on campus.”

The devil, as ever, is in the details. What does “faculty-approved” mean here? It seems clear but isn’t, I assure you, as every campus will likely have its own mechanism for determining such things. And though it sounds benign or even benevolent that the legislature is ensuring that students will receive credit for courses that they take online because they’re shut out of brick-and-mortar classrooms, one might wonder why those classrooms are overcrowded in the first place. Could it be because of budget cuts to higher education?

The real issue, though, is that this promises to be a huge transfer of money from a public education system to a private one: online vendors that offer courses for profit. And of course the unstated funding mechanism is government-backed student loans. Also, while it’s wonderful to hear Darrell Steinberg, the president pro tem of the California Senate, say

We want to be the first state in the nation to make this promise: No college student in California will be denied the right to move through their education because they couldn’t get a seat in the course they needed. That’s the motivation for this.

I find myself thinking, first, that perhaps Mr. Steinberg should have found a way to fund higher education in the state, to live up to a promise that’s already on the books, the California Master Plan; and second, that maybe The New York Times could have done some checking into Mr. Steinberg’s donor list and his dinner party invitations.

Let me be clear about a couple of points: it’s shameful that students are shut out of required courses in public colleges and universities (although again, this is a problem with a very simple solution), but it’s still more shameful that the State of California is rushing pell-mell to embrace a new educational model that has produced dubious pedagogical results. Online education may be fantastic some day. I hope, both for the sake of access and innovation, that it lives up to its promise. But to date, the actual model looks something like this: 1) High rates of failure and attrition (pdf). 2) Relatively poor learning outcomes even among those students who persist and pass their classes. 3) Profit for private corporations!


Because this fits with my general distaste for all things JFK, I think it’s quite interesting.

We already knew that Kennedy used trumped-up claims of a missile gap to attack Nixon in the 1960 election (claims that must have infuriated Eisenhower, who, in his farewell speech to the nation, had warned of the overweening power of the military industrial complex). We already knew that Kennedy’s addiction to brinksmanship goosed the nuclear arms race. We already knew that the ill-fated Bay of Pigs fiasco left Krushchev even warier of Kennedy’s bizarre obsession with toppling Castro. But I’m not sure I appreciated until now how (willfully?) dense Kennedy was about the specifics of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

On the first day of the crisis, October 16, when pondering Khrushchev’s motives for sending the missiles to Cuba, Kennedy made what must be one of the most staggeringly absentminded (or sarcastic) observations in the annals of American national-security policy: “Why does he put these in there, though? … It’s just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of MRBMs [medium-range ballistic missiles] in Turkey. Now that’d be goddamned dangerous, I would think.” McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, immediately pointed out: “Well we did it, Mr. President.”

Returning to what we already knew, Kennedy engaged in some world-historical fear-mongering during the crisis, trolling the United States at every opportunity.

Kennedy and his civilian advisers understood that the missiles in Cuba did not alter the strategic nuclear balance. Although Kennedy asserted in his October 22 televised address that the missiles were “an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas,” he in fact appreciated, as he told the ExComm on the first day of the crisis, that “it doesn’t make any difference if you get blown up by an ICBM flying from the Soviet Union or one that was 90 miles away. Geography doesn’t mean that much.” America’s European allies, Kennedy continued, “will argue that taken at its worst the presence of these missiles really doesn’t change” the nuclear balance.

And yet, Kennedy insisted on creeping to the brink of nuclear war, daring Kruschev to cross a series of irrelevant lines that the president drew in the sand, apparently not because Kennedy believed the missiles in Cuba represented a heightened national security threat but because they were a threat to his political standing and ego. Holy hell, when Robert McNamara is the voice of reason in the room, you’re in real trouble. Take it way, Bob:

On that very first day of the ExComm meetings, McNamara provided a wider perspective on the missiles’ significance: “I’ll be quite frank. I don’t think there is a military problem here … This is a domestic, political problem.” In a 1987 interview, McNamara explained: “You have to remember that, right from the beginning, it was President Kennedy who said that it was politically unacceptable for us to leave those missile sites alone. He didn’t say militarily, he said politically.” What largely made the missiles politically unacceptable was Kennedy’s conspicuous and fervent hostility toward the Castro regime—a stance, Kennedy admitted at an ExComm meeting, that America’s European allies thought was “a fixation” and “slightly demented.”

As the author of the piece linked at the top of this post notes, “This approach to foreign policy was guided—and remains guided—by an elaborate theorizing rooted in a school-playground view of world politics rather than the cool appraisal of strategic realities. It put—and still puts—America in the curious position of having to go to war to uphold the very credibility that is supposed to obviate war in the first place.” That sounds right.

Policing boundaries.

In some ways, I suppose this is an interesting post.  Although it feels like I’ve been reading iterations of the argument therein for years, and I’m not sure it amounts to much more than a tonier version (British!) of “get off my lawn!” I sympathize with the author’s anxiety about the future of history. That said, I don’t think the problem is that the profession has been “taken over by non-specialists.” Or, more charitably, I sometimes share the author’s frustration when I see yet another hack on TV with the title historian after her or his name (I’m looking at you, Doris Kearns Goodwin). And I agree with the author that all too often these people don’t do any heavy historical lifting. Which is to say, their work, even when it’s not dead wrong, isn’t especially interesting or analytically sophisticated. But I’m not sure this is an especially new or threatening phenomenon.

In fact, as anyone who’s even a bit familiar with the history of the discipline[1] in the United States knows, there’s only been a profession for approximately a century.  And for much of that time, non-professional historians have written history and enjoyed expert status in the eyes of the public.  This probably means that the profession of history, in the US at least, isn’t a very good profession, as professions go, because it’s not especially adept at policing its boundaries and establishing the authority of its members.   Still, I’m not really sure I want the boundaries policed any better than they’re being policed at present.  Or at least I’d worry that the unintended consequences — actually, they’d probably be intended consequences, right? — of policing the boundaries might be worse even than simply throwing the profession’s borders wide open and offering amnesty to any undocumented interlopers who’ve already managed to sneak inside.

A big part of my new book[2] deals with how different people have different perspectives on how to study the past properly.  Some of the people in question are professional historians.  Some  aren’t.  Some of them produce what I think of as good history:  well sourced, analytically interesting, carefully argued, reasonably accessible.  Some don’t.  But a PhD isn’t the key variable that determines who does and who does’t do good history.  I mean, I understand that it’s important for professional historians to have some way of establishing their authority and regulating their disciplinary activities.  I’m just not entirely sure what that way should be.

I’d also quibble with the author when he says, of historians’ willingness to “spend a large amount of time on the phone conveying (free of charge) the results of her work” so that someone else, usually a journalist or popular historian, can present it to the public, that it’s “difficult to imagine many other academic disciplines where this problem is anything like as significant.”  First, I think political scientists regularly share their research with journalists and pundits (or with the lackeys who then feed it to pundits).  So insofar as this state of affairs is a problem, it’s a problem shared with at least one other discipline.  Second, if one wants one’s work to be made available to the public, one either has to do it oneself or find someone else to serve as a mouthpiece.  Personally, I’m delighted when journalists or popular historians want to talk about my work — though I do hope they’ll credit me with any insights they glean from the conversation.[3]  And third, is this really the issue that most obviously threatens the future of history?  I tend to think not.

I do, though, believe the author is onto something when he identifies the move toward market-based measures of the utility of history as a serious threat to the discipline’s longterm health.[4] But I think it may be an equally grave problem that so much history that’s now being written will be completely ignored.  To walk around the book exhibit at the AHA[5] is to be confronted with a very cruel reality:  the overwhelming majority of scholarly monographs being produced each year will never be read by anyone at all.[6]  Not by students, not by other experts in the field, perhaps not even by a reviewer writing in a professional journal.  Although I do understand that these books represent knowledge that has been produced, and maybe that’s enough, it is to weep:  an immense waste of time and resources.  Still, I can’t help but feel like until the profession decides, and I mean really decides, that scholarly books are on borrowed time, we’re edging ever closer to the precipice.[7]  Should the profession decide to embrace the article[8] as a measure of scholarly achievement, that would leave the market to determine who gets to write history books.  For what it’s worth, I think we’re nearly there already, though it wouldn’t hurt if we had some effective leadership as we continue walking down this fraught path.  Or we can just bumble along.

Which leads me to the author’s point with which I most agree:  fthat the leading professional organizations are failing us.  Forget the fact that they aren’t policing the discipline’s boundaries, which they aren’t; they also can’t seem to come up with any effective policies regarding contingent labor, the related glut of PhDs facing the ruined wastes of what used to be known as the job market, and, again, the future of the book.  I also agree with the suggestion that professional historians should become more involved in the discussion about the crisis of history education — if, amidst the push for ever more STEM education, we’re still having that discussion at all.

So in the end, I’m for more scholarly and pedagogical populism rather than less, leaving me fundamentally at odds with the author of the linked post.  That said, I don’t think anything I’ve suggested above is going to save the profession.  For that, I’m afraid we might need divine intervention.  Does anyone happen to have David McCullough’s phone number or e-mail address?

[1]  If you want to learn the history of history, at least as it’s been practiced in the United States, all you have to do is read Peter Novick. Sure, there are too many names floating around the book. And sure, it’s probably longer than it needs to be. But it’s still an excellent introduction to the topic, especially if you tell yourself that it’s okay not to know all of the names. Or if you make a really detailed chart of the names, and keep track of them that way. In which case, send it to me, and I’ll post it here. Or I’ll publish it under my own name. Because I’m like that.

[2]  You do know I have a new book, right?  Because if not, what’s the point?

[3]  This, I think, actually is a very annoying problem.  People rip off scholars all the time.  Journalists and pundits steal ideas from professional historians and pass them off as their own.  That sucks.  No, it really does.  The most notorious recent case I can think of involves Brown University’s MIcheal Vorenberg, from whose Final Freedom:  The Civil War, Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment  it seems Tony Kushner stole big chunks while writing the screenplay for Lincoln.  But is there anything to be done about it?  I sort of doubt it.

[4]  Indeed, I didn’t know that “British universities” were now “under the control of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.”  That sounds rather crappy.  And while the University of California isn’t quite there just yet, it certainly feels like we’re heading that way.

[5]  The American Historical Association’s annual meeting, newb.  It’s a terrible thing.

[6]  This is hyperbole, yes.  But I’d like you to allow it to stand unchallenged, please.

[7]  I should add, just so you know how very self-sacrificing I am, that such a move would hurt me, because I can’t write an article to save my life.

[8]  Yes, I’m aware that journals have their own problems.  So let’s go open access.

[9]  But of course I’ve also completely forgotten how to write a post of my own, as evidenced by this monstrosity, so I probably shouldn’t be throwing stones.