The Vanishing Conservative Academic Historian

Let’s say you are a young conservative undergraduate, and you would like to go to grad school in history. Where would you look for a friendly advisor? If you are considering an Ivy League school, you might want to think again. According to research by Langbert, Quain, and Klein, available data indicates a ratio of 275 Democrats to 8 Republicans in the eight traditional Ivy League history departments. That is right, 275:8.  And, what is more, across the country, republicans tend to be older members of the departments. Within a few years, we might say good-bye to the last Ivy League republican historian. I’m sure there will be no fanfare, no string of obituaries like those that followed the death of Eric Hobsbawm in 2012. This last Ivy League Republican historian will simply fade away. He (and it’s probably a he, come on), will pack up his bags and go quietly in the night.

Now, for the record, I am neither young [36], nor particularly conservative. I haven’t voted for a Republican in 15 years. But I’m worried that the potential for groupthink in a discipline so thoroughly left-wing cannot be good for for the historical community, and for those who want to wrestle with historical truths. As conservatives are squeezed out of academic history, they flee towards writing popular narratives, usually less analytic and more populist than they would otherwise have written. Once conservatives leave academia, they will shun it, and oppose it. Dialogue will cease. History will be written by two increasingly polarized camps. Progressive historians will remain analytical, technical, and oblivious to the existence opposing positions, which they already tend to ignore. Conservatives, on the other hand, will become less professional, rely less on evidence and debate, and turn more towards their feelings of what the past should be, not what is was.

An acquaintance of mine, a well-known American historian in the Netherlands once told me that he felt conservatives had no business in politics, where they would slow down the Dutch governing apparatus, but they had a crucial role to play in academia, where ideas are strengthened by the challenges of opposing views. I think he is on to something here. Conservative and progressive historians bring to the table more than different political views, they also bring different cultural views, different tools of analysis, different sympathies and perspectives. History is rich when it is written by people of all backgrounds: men and women, urban and rural, black and white. History discourse is strong when debates are allowed to flourish.

I focus on the Ivy League here because that is where the top young historians are made. From the eight universities that make up the Ivy League come a large number of faculty at state schools. Like hire like, the Ivy League historians trickle-down, and their ideas come to dominate. Progressives control all the major journals in the field, they dominate the major associations, and they receive most of the government funding for historical projects.

Let me be clear then with a predication: no conservative will be hired in a Ivy League history department in the next decade.

In fact, this is almost unthinkable, and I am willing to take someone up on a bet on this. I will give someone 5-to-1 odds that no Ivy League history department will hire a conservative (on a tenure-track position) in the next decade.  So, let’s say we set a bet, I put down $100 and you put down $20. For you to claim the prize, all you need to do is, sometime in the next decade, identify a conservative who has been hired in a tenure-track position at an Ivy League history department. You may claim your winnings in any of the following ways: (1) identity a recent article (within 5 years) in which this person calls themselves a conservative, or (2) get this person to confidentially email you or me with the statement that they identify as a conservative.

How can I be so sure that I will win the bet?  Because the job advertisements on h.net.org and elsewhere nearly guarantee that new positions will be filled by progressives. Because search committees at top departments would not dare hire someone they do not know, and they do not know any conservatives. Because, even if they identified a conservative to fill a position, this person’s research would be determined to be unfit to the modern paradigm.

Consider the standard advertisement:

“The department seeks a historian of twentieth century U.S., and is especially interested in candidates who have experience in women’s history, labor history, socio-cultural history, or environmental history.”

This might be called code, if anyone were unclear about its message. Does the department in question really need someone from one of those categories and those categories only? Could they possibly be short in all of those areas but not in others? Perhaps they are unaware that conservative historians even exists. But who can blame them? The only kind of history they are aware of is progressive history. Who among them has ever read Barfield, Collingwood, John Lukacs, or my friend Brad Birzer?

A conservative history job ad would might look like:  “candidates who have experience in diplomatic history, history of the American founding, business history, intellectual history, and the history of religion.” But that would be a rare job add, and all of these fields are in decline. I don’t think they are in decline because they are uninteresting. They are in decline because the discipline of history is enforcing new progressive borders.

(Part 2: Follow-up: the bet is accepted)

 

One comment

  1. […] folks, I’ve received quite a few reactions to my post from July 4th.  It seems that all you have to do is mention politics in academia and everyone gets into a tizzy. […]

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