Book Review: David Kaiser, A Life in History (Mount Greylock Books, 2019)

David Kaiser,  A Life in History (Mount Greylock Books, 2019)

KaiserThis autobiography is organized around a central question that preoccupies the author’s life: “Why could I not get tenure in a history department at an elite university?”  The answer, Kaiser suggests, is two-fold. First, generational conflict between the Silent Generation and his own Boomer Generation created a roadblock to his promotion as older, less-published and presumably jealous scholars held him back.  Second, and more crucially, a general trend away from political history, Kaiser’s specialty, towards social history and identity politics made his own brand of traditional history obsolete.

By his own account, Kaiser was a child prodigy, an early and voracious reader who had consumed more history books than any of his peers. He was the son of a civil servant and diplomat who was well-connected in the Democratic Party. Through his father, Kaiser knew many of the major figures in the Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations. He grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, (before it was a haven for millionaires, he points out) with a brief few years in Senegal. He attended an elite private school, where he finished near the top of his class, guaranteeing admission to Harvard. During the summers he worked for Hubert Humphrey’s office in D.C.

Kaiser’s relationship with Harvard is illustrative of some of the major trends in academia in the late 20th century. He believes that the education at Harvard was rigorous during his undergraduate years and that it peaked in quality in the late 1960s. A Harvard education then was mostly lecture-based, and it was the pre-grade inflation era, with final exams often counting for 50% of the final grade. Kaiser enjoyed his undergraduate years. He always loved Boston and would have loved to stay forever at Harvard. Despite a one-year job at Bell labs in New Jersey, Kaiser spent all of 1965 to 1976 at Harvard, first as an undergrad, then as a graduate student in history, and finally as a non-tenure track instructor for two years.

The privilege of a well-funded Harvard life is on display in this story. Kaiser focused intently on his studies and appears to have seldom worried about finances. He once took out a $1,000 loan in graduate school, but for the rest, his family was able to provide. At Harvard, he studied under many famous professors, and his classmates and roommates consisted of all sorts of people who would mark their mark in politics, media, and academia. Nearly every acquaintance he mentions goes on to be prestigious or distinguished, typically a dean or a lawyer.

Nevertheless, Kaiser tracks what he sees as the decline of Harvard, starting in the 1970s, with the rise of grade inflation and lowering of standards. He focuses, of course, on the Harvard history department. The history department, he says, was never as strong at the economics or government departments. The number of history majors per history professors at Harvard has declined so far in the past half century that the ratio is now 1:1, an absurd situation, he thinks. Harvard was and became even more so a difficult environment with many conflicting personalities. At one point, Kaiser charges his former colleagues at Harvard with Asperger’s and autism. (142). He even presents specific problems he had with Harvard faculty and staff.  Lizbeth Cohen of Harvard, he suggests, was “one of many academics who made a great career out of a well-received first book and the promise of another that takes decades – and, occasionally, forever, to appear.”  He charges the one-time Harvard history professor Niall Ferguson with writing contrarian history for its own sake and relying on a team of research assistants to do his work. He believes Harvard president Larry Summers consistently participated in age discrimination against senior candidates. What was most upsetting to Kaiser, however, was when the Harvard history department requested its alumni to give a financial contribution to the department. Perhaps they thought I was a successful businessman, he wondered.

Kaiser must be one of the most single-minded and focused historians of his generation or of any generation, to be frank. He preserved everything he ever wrote about history, from the 3rd grade forward. He has an unbelievable memory and can recall nearly every course he took in college, every set of lectures he gave as a grad student and early instructor. He recounts these at length, so the book can be tedious at times. But the story is easy for other historians to relate to, and even more so for academic historians (like myself) who have struggled on the job market despite a strong publication record and good teaching evaluations. Kaiser’s life lesson is that the world is not fair. Kaiser knew he wanted to be a historian already when he was eleven, and he never seemed to have a moment of struggle or doubt about what he wanted to accomplish. He wanted to write, he wanted to teach, and he wanted to be in a secure, prestigious position at an elite university.  He did show interest in other things, in women, tennis, cycling, and piano. But history remained always his obsession. He put a lot of emotional stock in “making it” as a tenured historian.

For those interested in the development of the American history profession, Kaiser has a lot of stories to offer, and he rarely pulls punches. He tells us about the dirty business of history academia. This includes: (1) how rarely professors actually read their students’ final theses (2) that one is judged not on one’s last project he says, but on the next one  (3) that by the 1970s high quality teachers only made it into history departments by accident (4) that book reviews sometime appear 2 years late (5) that affirmative action only hires are common (6) and that he had a colleague who received early tenure largely on account of his minority status (7) and finally that one negative book review of his own work came from a jealous rival who lost out on a job search.

But Kaiser’s dominant and persistent complaint begins with his failure to gain a tenure track position at Harvard. With a finished dissertation and a book contract with Princeton University Press, alongside fantastic teaching reviews, Kaiser hoped his Harvard instructorship would parlay into a tenure track position. He was told he was a top candidate for a position that the history department took two years to fill. In reality, the department was mostly interested in outside candidates, particularly stars from England like Tony Judt, who settled on California-Berkeley instead. This competition with British historians led Kaiser to the belief that American history departments should privilege American candidates over foreign candidates. Eventually, Kaiser learned that he was not a candidate for the inside job.

Meanwhile, Kaiser applied for a handful of jobs each year and felt no pull to teach at non-elite schools. This of course limited his job options. In his story, we learn that in the 1970s, it was still possible, apparently, to call the chairman of a search committee for a job that you applied for to ask for any updates. Today that would probably be grounds for an automatic rejection. Kaiser felt that a major disadvantage he faced on the market was that he was too broad of a scholar, a generalist of the old school. He wrote about diplomacy in Europe, about the influence of Eastern Europe. So, when German history positions opened, for example, and he applied and showed his qualifications, he was turned down without an interview. The shift from generalist to specialist, another part of the generational change and trend of the late 20th century, worked against him.

As his Harvard position was nearing an end, and Kaiser was worried about supporting his wife and his first baby, he developed considerable anxiety as he worried if he would find an academic job at all. Then, a position at Carnegie Mellon opened and he was selected. It was a better position than most, so Kaiser took the job, despite being told that he would face a long 7-year tenure clock, without his two years teaching at Harvard counting towards tenure. Kaiser eventually made tenure at Carnegie Mellon, but he recalls that it was a struggle, despite a strong publication record. Joel Tarr, Kaiser believes, was his major opposition to advancement at Carnegie Mellon, while his colleague Peter Stearns was less than supportive. When Kaiser later went up for Full Professor, with three books published, he was rejected. It was the “death of his dreams”.  Kaiser suggests that he was the star historian of the department, and that his failure to be promoted to Full Professor sent shockwaves through the offices of the younger colleagues who now despaired of their own chances. The promotion system was built on a lie, he wrote. It did not evaluate scholarship but only the ability to gain outside grants. He wrote: “I later figured out that the six negative votes [for his promotion] came from people whose combined publication output during the ten years I had been there did not match mine.” (209)  Kaiser had always hoped to publish his way out of Pittsburgh, and when the chance came to leave Carnegie Mellon for a position at the Naval War College in Rhode Island, he happily took the offer. In the year 2000, Kaiser had one last chance at returning to Harvard, when he was considered a candidate for a position there. It was an opaque, long drawn out search in which Kaiser was not offered the job. He also taught for one year at Williams College, a welcome return to the ranks of the elite.

Kaiser believes in merit, and that publication output should be rewarded. In particular, it is archival-based research that matters to him. In some instances, this is still true in academia. But now there are many other pressures that determine one’s success.  Kaiser produced nine books in his career, all of which were archival-based, some of which were rather successful, selling over 10,000 copies. In addition to his work as a historian of European 20th century diplomacy, he also investigated the Sacco and Venzetti trial, the JFK assassination, and the history of baseball.

Kaiser always held true to the Democratic left, and with it a skepticism of hedge funds and corporations. But there are certain conservative elements in his personality as well. In the 1990s, Kaiser showed increasing concern with the rise of postmodernism and identity politics in academia. To oppose these trends, he joined Eugene Genovese and others in the National Association of Scholars. Kaiser also continued to support the teaching of western civilization and traditional political history. He became active online in the H-net diplomacy discussion board. In his Harvard years, it seems that Kaiser faced little or no ideological opposition. His father’s friends from the Truman and Kennedy administrations appear in the story to offer connections and sympathy. But by staying true to his own political and educational ideals, his beliefs diverged significantly from the new academic orthodoxy. In a section worth quoting at length, Kaiser explains what this is:

 “A new set of ideas about power and group identity now dominate not only the discipline of history and the rest of the humanities, but also the general atmosphere on almost every campus of the nation. Those ideas see us all not only as defined by our gender, race, sexual orientation, and perhaps religion, but also as carrying with us all the guilt or shame that goes with membership in an oppressor or oppressed group…The new habits are completely at odds with the earlier vision of academics as individuals examining sources with all the impartiality they can muster in an effort to discover the truth about some aspect of the human experience. Indeed, they actually teach young people that their individual thought and experiences are secondary to their demographic characteristics in determining what they feel and think. This has almost completely destroyed the academic tradition in which I first grew up, and replaced it with a sterile intellectual environment.”  (371-372)

            By blaming generational change and broader trends, Kaiser absolves himself of any responsibility for not realizing his own dreams. He was doomed by circumstances, he says. “My contemporaries and I began our graduate education in the midst of a shrinking job market” (x) I suppose every generation says the same. In fact, I’ve never met an academic historian who says that they hit the job market in an easy year. With his focus on his own generation and his own struggles, Kaiser never looks at the generations that followed and their own (our own) struggles. His attitude about himself is clear: he was and is one of the best. He writes in the third person:  “It is not coincidental that Camille Paglia and David Kaiser, two of the outstanding scholars of the Boom generation, had to spend most of their careers teaching the humanities at trade schools.” (243).

At 72, with this book, it is as if Kaiser is still writing a job application, still looking for affirmation of his abilities. While this book is primarily a complaint or lament about academic history, it is also an extended form of cautious bragging common to job applications. Indeed a significant portion of the book consists of glowing reviews of Kaiser’s teaching performances, collected over the years from former students. The blurbs promoting the book are of the same nature: positive statements about Kaiser from more senior people in the field. Kaiser also reprints the full text of positive reviews of his books. While certainly not an unbiased source, if one had to judge Kaiser the historian from these sources alone, one would surely be in agreement that he was one of the greats of his generation. Although a bit long at 385 pages, this book is well-written and is a quick read, especially for those like myself who skimmed page after page about specific coursework and lecture topics. Compared to recent similar works, this is much more interesting that Philip Curtin’s memoir, with some overlapping themes of William Caferro’s Teaching History, which was also partially a memoir from someone of the same generation.

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