I’ve been spending a lot of time of late clearing out the house my parents lived in from 1965-2009 and among the many, many boxes of junk in the attic I found some old folders of mine from (shudder) high school. Among the many things I found was an editorial I had clipped from the Washington Post dated December 31, 1976, titled “The Future of History.” I just re-read it last night and was struck by how much it sounds like today. Among the many present-sounding bits are the following:
The job crisis in academia has shattered many historians’ faith in the tangible rewards of scholarship. As if it were not traumatic enough, there is also great controversy about the content of history courses and the very nature of the historians’ craft. Such problems affect most humanistic fields these days, but it especially ironic that in the bicentennial year, the professional analysts of the past should be so troubled by unemployment and insecurities.
Anyone recently exposed to historical studies is award of the swift changes in the field–the uneasy alliances with sociology, psychology, geography and other disciplines; the growing use of computers and quantitative analysis, and the fascination with ethnicity, sexism, popular culture and other fashionable themes…
There is a real danger that history could become a discipline adrift, thus losing both its audience and its identity as an exacting humanistic art.
The dilemma has emerged most clearly in the debates over history-teaching in elementary and secondary schools and community colleges. The emphasis on new themes and techniques has made many history courses more appealing and provocative–but at considerable cost in terms of students’ understanding of historical context and basic facts and dates. This experience has also shown that historical study cannot be “modernized” too much without losing its integrity and its value for non-specialists.
What makes these arguments so painful is the general depression in the liberal arts. Historians, like professors of literature and social scientists, are getting a belated education in the hard facts of academic economics and demography. The students who flooded the history departments a decade ago are now a crowd of hungry Ph.Ds who scramble after every temporary post and have little chance of securing tenured professorships at all. These days, not even the best proteges of the finest professors can count on finding academic work–and the situation is not likely to improve for a decade or more…