Happy New Year

To start the new year, a Facebook friend makes a resolution, with which I heartily agree:

Many years ago I took a course on Late Antiquity and we read a book by scholar A and then one by Scholar B. Scholar B totally opened by mocking the outrageous claims of Scholar A except here’s the thing: Scholar A never made those claims. Scholar B set up what is known as a strawman to attack and make his position seem less questionable. I took this to heart and have found myself saying “Don’t be a [Scholar B]!” before I think about re-sharing or reacting.

A lot of times on social media I see people share posts about how “so many people with belief X are posting this awful sentiment” and internally I’m like, “that’s weird – I haven’t seen anything that sounds like that or I saw one comment.” And here’s the thing: they aren’t or it’s one person but articles are written as if a whole group rose up and said one thing.

There are many outlets (media and otherwise) who want you to think that they other side is so outrageous that it isn’t worth doing your due diligence – but it’s always worth doing due diligence. And don’t let one comment replace the thoughts of many.

I fail at this a lot – it’s super easy to be Scholar B. It’s comfortable to be Scholar B. But we shouldn’t be. In 2020, let’s all agree to be skeptical when something seems too outrageous to believe and let’s also ask ourselves who benefits when we do believe it?

And then weigh that before we share an article or comment or post.

Related, from Vox.com:

Intellectual humility: the importance of knowing you might be wrong

Why it’s so hard to see our own ignorance, and what to do about it.

I’ve come to appreciate what a crucial tool it is for learning, especially in an increasingly interconnected and complicated world. As technology makes it easier to lie and spread false information incredibly quickly, we need intellectually humble, curious people.

I’ve also realized how difficult it is to foster intellectual humility. In my reporting on this, I’ve learned there are three main challenges on the path to humility:

  1. In order for us to acquire more intellectual humility, we all, even the smartest among us, need to better appreciate our cognitive blind spots. Our minds are more imperfect and imprecise than we’d often like to admit. Our ignorance can be invisible.
  2. Even when we overcome that immense challenge and figure out our errors, we need to remember we won’t necessarily be punished for saying, “I was wrong.” And we need to be braver about saying it. We need a culture that celebrates those words.
  3. We’ll never achieve perfect intellectual humility. So we need to choose our convictions thoughtfully.

This is all to say: Intellectual humility isn’t easy. But damn, it’s a virtue worth striving for, and failing for, in this new year.

Read the whole thing. All I would like to add is that opponents to Trump, not just Trump himself, can fall victim to false and unearned confidence…

Book Reviews

In the discipline of history, the single-authored monograph is the basic unit of scholarship, and an academic’s prestige is usually arbitrated by the number of such books that he can produce, and by the influence that these books have had. No one has time to read every book that gets published, though, so reviewing is an important service to the profession. That is, a given issue of the average historical journal will contain about five articles (often preliminary studies that will later appear as chapters in books), and some seventy book reviews. A review is typically about 1000 words long; it summarizes the book in question and gives a judgment of its quality. The idea is that a scholar will get the journal, look through the reviews to see what’s new, read the ones that are relevant to her interests, and if anything looks really compelling, check the books out from the library, order them through interlibrary loan, or even buy them from the publisher (although academic books do tend to be rather pricey).

In her turn, she will be expected to produce book reviews herself. Summarizing a book is time consuming, but not too difficult. It’s an exercise in the art of précis – of making the book’s message as simple as possible, but no simpler. The tricky part is judging the book’s quality. For that, you need to know what else has been published on the same topic, and really good review will cite those works in proof – it will “situate the work in the historiography,” as the jargon has it. The temptation is always there to give the book the benefit of the doubt, on the assumption that the author has more expertise than you do, and nothing would have gotten published if it wasn’t pretty good in the first place. However, a scholar owes it to his readers to seek out and mention any errors of fact or overall weakness. Moreover, some books just aren’t very good, for various reasons. I know someone who will refuse to review such books; she’ll just send them back to the journal editor, since writing an honest review might alienate the author, and “you never know who might be on a fellowship selection committee.” This move is better than just lying about a book’s quality, I suppose, but to me it’s cowardly, and I don’t like it. We get tenure for a reason: the idea is that we are licensed to speak truth to power without having to fear for our livelihoods. Such guaranteed job security is not just about opposing Trump, the alt-right, evangelical Christians, Wall Street, or the State of Israel from our perch in the Ivory Tower, but also about calling out the members of our own profession on their mistakes, as uncomfortable as that might make things for us at our next big conference. (At the same time, I don’t believe in being gratuitously mean, like one grad school professor who gave me a C- on a book review that I had written for his seminar, with the comment “you are too nice!” – I had criticized the book, just not forcefully enough for his liking.)

So when you’re reviewing a book you try to be fair, and if it has any problems to find a middle ground between turd-polishing and being a big jerk. And you definitely try to review the book that was written, not the book that you wanted to read (another thing that too many academics like to do). 

I myself have managed to publish a number of book reviews over the course of my career – by my count 25, some of which have been referenced on this blog. My most interesting experience with book reviewing began in the autumn of 2009, when I received, from the editor of Reviews in History, a draft of a review of my own recently-published book on St. George by Sam Riches, who herself had written a book about the saint. She liked some aspects of my book, but had some reservations about it, and concluded that “it is not the definitive work on St. George in the English tradition – that has yet to be written.” I received the review because one of the features of Reviews in History is that it gives the book’s author a chance to respond. Now, at the time, I believed that one should never respond to a review. This was the message of Paul Fussell’s “Being Reviewed: The A.B.M. and its Theory,” republished in The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations. The “A.B.M.,” to Fussell, is the “Author’s Big Mistake,” that is, a “letter from an aggrieved author complaining about a review,” which “generally delivers the most naked view of the author’s wounded vanity” and reads “as if some puling adolescent, cut from the high school basketball team, has published a letter about how good he really is, and written it not very well.” So I let it slide, and the review was published in January 2010, with the notice that “the author of this book has not responded to this review.” 

But I came to revise my opinion over the next couple of years. Fussell’s examples of A.B.M.s were taken mostly from the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, and mostly involved works of fiction, or popular non-fiction. Academic books, I came to perceive, are somewhat of a different matter: they make arguments, which can be defended, and as long as one sticks to the facts without getting testy, then it’s all part of the conversation. I read a number of responses to reviews that were in this vein, and I figured that there would be no harm in my doing it too. So in the summer of 2012, I took some time out of my life to pen a response to her review, which I’m pleased to say that the editor of Reviews in History posted, even at that late date. (For the record, I was never upset that Dr. Riches didn’t give my book fulsome praise. It is better to be talked about than not talked about!) Read both and decide for yourself who makes the better case. 

As a result of my contact with the editor, he asked if I would care to review a book that he had just received. I said that I would be happy to, and he sent it to me. I read it twice, as is my habit – it’s one thing to dash off a review for a graduate seminar the night before the assignment is due, it’s quite another to write for publication – you want to make sure that you have really understood what the author is trying to say, because you want to be fair and you don’t want to appear sloppy in print. This operation took a little longer than I hoped, and I got the review to him two weeks after the deadline he had given me. In response, I received an email with the subject line “Terribly sorry” and a message saying that “I forgot that I had two copies of that book, and I gave the other copy to someone else for review.”

“So I take it that review was better than mine?” I responded jokingly.

“It wasn’t, actually,” he replied. “But I’ve already sent it out for the author’s response!”

I had a good laugh about this. If nothing else it shows the importance of meeting deadlines! As it happens I easily placed my review somewhere else. Generally editors won’t accept unsolicited reviews – they have no idea about the agenda of the would-be reviewer – but after explaining the situation they were happy to publish it, and they didn’t even ask me to shorten it. The editor of Reviews in History asked if there was anything he could do for me. I said that there was a book I was interested in reviewing, and he arranged to have it sent to me. This one I ended up reading three times, because I found it difficult and I wanted to do it justice, even I didn’t like it very much (attributable largely to a disciplinary divide – I am a historian, the author was a literary critic). The review was published in the fall of 2013; the author, as I had originally, chose not respond. 

That summer, I had further contact with the editor of Reviews in History on account of another review of my book that I discovered in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology. By that point my book had been reviewed about a dozen times in various venues – again, some people liked it, others didn’t, and that’s fine. This review, however, sounded strangely familiar. As I read it, I realized that a large chunk of it was simply plagiarized from Sam Riches’s review in Reviews in History! Like a good citizen, I immediately informed Dr. Riches and the editors of Reviews in History and the JEGP about this gross violation of scholarly protocol, and the JEGP withdrew the review in its next number. The author, one Giovanni Narabito of the University of Messina, did not seem to have much of an institutional presence there, and a bit of googling eventually revealed a plausible explanation. The Wikipedia entry for Italian crime boss Giuseppe Narabito explains that his clan “established a cell in Messina on Sicily,” where they “exercise considerable power up to the present. The clan turned the University of Messina into their private fiefdom, ordering that degrees, academic posts, and influence be awarded to favored associates.”

It could be that “Narabito” is the Italian equivalent of Smith or Jones but it sure looks like someone was promoted for non-academic reasons here. But why not just stick to protection rackets and drug smuggling, I wonder? Those activities are a lot more lucrative!

Barking Abbey

Interesting article by Eleanor Parker on History Today:

The Cultured Women of Essex

We should take more notice of the work of those once despised and disregarded.

‘It is asked of all who hear this work that they do not revile it because a woman translated it. That is no reason to despise it, nor to disregard the good in it.’ Many female writers have probably said, or wanted to say, something very like these words. They were written in the 12th century, around 1170, by a woman who composed one of the earliest texts from England known to be by a female author. She was a nun of Barking Abbey in Essex and, though we do not know her name, her words – and her work – demand attention.

The work she asks us not to disregard is a narrative of the life of Edward the Confessor, written in Anglo-Norman French (‘the false French of England’, the nun modestly calls it). Its author was an educated woman, able to turn a Latin source into engagingly chatty French verse and Barking Abbey must have been a congenial environment for her. Founded in the seventh century, Barking was one of the foremost nunneries in the country, a wealthy abbey which was home to many well-connected aristocratic and royal women. Its abbesses were frequently appointed from the sisters and daughters of kings and, around the time our nun wrote her Vie d’Edouard le Confesseur, Thomas Becket’s sister Mary – herself a woman of literary interests – was made abbess of Barking in compensation for her brother’s murder.

Across its long history of more than 850 years, Barking Abbey was a centre for women’s learning. It has been described as ‘perhaps the longest-lived … institutional centre of literary culture for women in British history’ and it had a strong literary and scholarly tradition that spanned the Middle Ages. In the early medieval period, authors such as Aldhelm and Goscelin of St Bertin wrote learned Latin works for the nuns of Barking; later, several nuns composed their own poetry and prose – even their own plays. In the 12th century, when women were increasingly becoming patrons, readers and, in some cases, authors of literary texts, Barking produced more than one talented writer. The first female author in England whose name we know, Clemence of Barking, was a nun there; she wrote an accomplished Life of St Catherine of Alexandria, a saint associated with female learning.

Read the whole thing, and a followup blog post about it. A choice excerpt:

I’m a UK academic writing primarily for UK audiences (not that I’m not glad to have other readers too!), but online those distinctions are blurred; other academics will pass judgement, from half a world away, on conversations they only half understand, and some of them are very resistant to the idea that in different contexts it might be necessary to speak in different languages, to ask and answer different questions. Even the basic idea that words have different connotations in different varieties of English seems to surprise them. In their particular cultural context, medieval history intersects with questions of identity and exclusion in very different ways, and they won’t listen to anyone who tries to tell them things don’t operate like that everywhere in the world. We all have to do what seems right to us in our own context, and I’m sure they are trying to do that; I only wish they were prepared to consider that the rest of us are trying to do the same, just not in the same way. Some feel entitled to demand that every discussion which touches on ‘their’ subject should address their own immediate social and political concerns – not those of (for instance) the people of Barking, of whose existence they are so loftily unconscious. Some of these people also display a deeply exclusionary view of academic status and the privileges it confers on them, and an attitude little better than contempt for the public at large; if you don’t have a doctorate, you’re not worthy of their time or attention. I’ve been observing this tendency for several years, but it’s particularly noticeable at the moment. Since these academics don’t follow British and Irish politics, they really can’t see why this is such an especially bad time to be making pronouncements on how to use words like ‘English’ and ‘British’, without any understanding of the contemporary sensitivities surrounding those terms, and they seem completely unaware of the wider social context in which UK medievalists have to consider the issue of public engagement. I think some of them truly would prefer it if they could stop the public taking any interest in medieval history at all, because that interest is, to them, always inherently problematic; but while they can decide for themselves if that’s the case in their own countries, it’s absolutely out of the question here. 

Majoring in History

From The Conversation:

Don’t despair if your teen wants to major in history instead of science

It might be your worst nightmare. Your child, sitting at the kitchen table, slides you a brochure from the local university.

“I’ve been thinking of majoring in history.”

Before you panic and begin calling the nearest computer science department, or worse, begin to crack those tired barista jokes, hear me out. This might just be the thing that your child, and our society, needs.

Choosing to become a history major is a future-friendly investment. A history degree teaches skills that are in short supply today: the ability to interpret context, and — crucially — where we’ve been, so as to better understand the world around us today and tomorrow.

We’ve never needed knowledge of history and the skills that come with the discipline more than we do now. Not only is it a good choice of a major for all the usual selfish reasons — you’ll likely get a good job, even if it takes a bit longer than the STEM disciplines, and more importantly you’ll probably be very happy with it.

But for our society more generally, we need a generation with deep capacities to acknowledge context and ambiguity. This idea of ambiguity not only pertains to interpreting the past based on a diverse body of incomplete sources, voices and outcomes, but also how our contemporary judgements of that record shape our choices today.

Our whole society hurts when students turn their back on history. A sense of history — where we have come from, the shared anchors of democratic society, the why and how of our current moment in time — is critical.

Read the whole thing.

History In and Out of the Classroom

From The Federalist:

Americans have a hunger to understand, explore, and connect with their history. Richly sourced, intellectually demanding accounts of the country’s defining moments and characters do more than break through the noise.

Indeed, historians are probably the scholars most celebrated outside the confines of the academy. They are among the few who shape our cultural landscape—from a place of learning. As though to prove the point, Chernow’s 832-page 2005 biography of Alexander Hamilton, also a New York Times best-seller, inspired the most talked-about Broadway musical in a generation. Only on the American college campus is American history on retreat.

How strange it is that U.S. colleges and universities are abandoning the study of American history and, at some institutions, the study of history altogether. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni evaluates the general education programs of more than 1,100 colleges and universities every year. The 2018–19 report found that only 17 percent of them required any kind of foundational course in American history or government. As of 2016, only four out of the top 25 national universities (as ranked by U.S. News and World Report) required a course in U.S. history in their history majors.

In this light, it is perhaps unsurprising that history programs in the United States are struggling to generate student interest. When the American Historical Association drew attention to cratering undergraduate degree production last year—the number of history degrees awarded annually has fallen almost 34 percent since 2011, more steeply than any other discipline in the liberal arts.

This is true even at my alma mater Dartmouth College, where I attended my 25th reunion last weekend.

Previous thoughts on the matter.

UPDATE: This is the 1000th post published on FFT since the blog’s inception in September 2014!

History is History

Here is another article on a recent theme:

A recent study confirms a disturbing trend: American college students are abandoning the study of history. Since 2008, the number of students majoring in history in U.S. universities has dropped 30 percent, and history now accounts for a smaller share of all U.S. bachelor’s degrees than at any time since 1950. Although all humanities disciplines have suffered declining enrollments since 2008, none has fallen as far as history. And this decline in majors has been even steeper at elite, private universities — the very institutions that act as standard bearers and gate-keepers for the discipline. The study of history, it seems, is itself becoming a relic of the past.

It is tempting to blame this decline on relatively recent factors from outside the historical profession. There are more majors to choose from than in the past. As a broader segment of American society has pursued higher education, promising job prospects offered by other fields, from engineering to business, has no doubt played a role in history’s decline. Women have moved in disproportionate numbers away from the humanities and towards the social sciences. The lingering consequences of the Great Recession and the growing emphasis on STEM education have had their effects, as well.

Yet a deeper dive into the statistics reveals that history’s fortunes have worsened not over a period of years, but over decades. In the late 1960s, over six percent of male undergraduates and almost five percent of female undergraduates majored in history. Today, those numbers are less than 2 percent and 1 percent. History’s collapse began well before the financial crash.

This fact underscores the sad truth of history’s predicament: The discipline mostly has itself to blame for its current woes. In recent decades, the academic historical profession has become steadily less accessible to students and the general public — and steadily less relevant to addressing critical matters of politics, diplomacy, and war and peace. It is not surprising that students are fleeing history, for the historical discipline has long been fleeing its twin responsibilities to interact with the outside world and engage some of the most fundamental issues confronting the United States.

More at the link.

I’m not quite sure that I agree with his critique. First, it’s important to note that just because the number of history majors has declined, it does not mean that the study of history itself has declined – history remains part of most general education requirements, and of course people can minor in history while majoring in something else. And that something else, as noted, has to start paying off immediately.

But I don’t think that the popularity of the history major has much to do with academic historians’ engagement with the public sphere. My impression is that most high school and/or college students, if they are interested in history, are interested in the history itself. They don’t know who the big names are, or whether these people actually hold academic appointments (I certainly didn’t). There is still lots of popular history out there, whether in the form of books, television shows, movies, or video games (some of which, I feel compelled to state, is even produced by real academics, and most of which is based on work that they’ve done).

Or is the idea that popular and academic history have diverged too much in their concerns? Picture a young man who is interested in World War II on account of watching Inglourious Basterds and playing a lot of D-Day, who comes to university only to discover that the only course offered on World War II focusses heavily on Rosie the Riveter, race relations in southern factories, and Japanese internment. These are legitimate topics, of course, but you can see why some students might consider them of secondary importance to the actual war itself. I don’t think that this is as much of a problem as people think, but I admit that it can be a problem. History ought to be a house of many mansions, and any substantial history department should (and generally does) try very hard to recruit members who specialize in different times and periods… and approaches, including diplomatic and military history. But what happens if there are no applicants in those latter fields? This is a function of competitive convergence – there are so many would-be academics chasing so few jobs, that everyone specializes in something they think will win them employment, something designated “hot,” “up to date,” and “relevant.” No one is willing to take a risk on specializing in a niche interest. This is a shame.*

But I don’t know what can be done about it, except for all AHA member departments to make a pact to severely limit the number of Ph.D. students they take on, in the interests of loosening up and (paradoxically) diversifying the job market – even if it means that some of the professors will have to do some of their own grunt work, which means that it will never happen. Failing that, I do think that an expansive spirit is required, a deeply engrained (and enforced, if need be) principle that the same right that you have to do your thing guarantees someone else’s right to do her thing, i.e. a spirit of genuine diversity, whereby no one’s approach is better than anyone else’s. Alas, if team intersectional gets its way, very soon there will be a sort of Bechdel test for the acceptance of scholarship in Speculum or panels at Kalamazoo, because these people require constant validation and it’s never enough that they get to do what they want to do, you have to do it too. The totalitarianism behind this impulse has always annoyed me. Live and let live, eh?

* Robert Hughes (in his Culture of Complaint) quotes the critic Louis Menand:

most of the academic world is a vast sea of conformity, and every time a new wave of theory and methodology rolls through, all the fish try to swim in its direction. Twenty years ago every academic critic of literature was talking about the self, its autonomy and its terrible isolation. Today not a single respectable academic would be caught dead anywhere near the word, for the “self’ is now the “subject’ and the subject, everyone heartily agrees, is a contingent construction… what ought to be most distressing to everyone is the utter predictability of the great majority of the academic criticism that gets published.

He’s talking about literary study, but it applies in a lesser way to history too.

Our Appeal Has Become More Selective

Some sobering news from IHE:

History has seen the steepest decline in majors of all disciplines since the 2008 recession, according to a new analysis published in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History.

“The drop in history’s share of undergraduate majors in the last decade has put us below the discipline’s previous low point in the 1980s,” reads the analysis, written by Benjamin M. Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University.

Some numbers: there were 34,642 history degrees conferred in 2008, according to federal data. In 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, there were 24,266. Between 2016 and 2017 alone, there was a 1,500 major drop-off. And even as overall university enrollments have grown, “history has seen its raw numbers erode heavily,” Schmidt wrote, especially since 2011-12.

“Of all the fields I’ve looked at, history has fallen more than any other in the last six years,” he says. The 2012 time frame is significant, according to the analysis, because it’s the first period in which students who experienced the financial crisis could easily change their majors.

The data represent a “new low” for the history major, Schmidt wrote. While a 66 percent drop in history’s share of majors from 1969 to 1985 remains the “most bruising” period in the discipline’s history, that drop followed a period of rapid enrollment expansion. The more recent drop is worse than history’s previous low point, in the 1980s.

I think that one of the main reasons for the decline in the history major is on account of university tuition fees continually rising far beyond the rate of inflation, so that students, of necessity, must see university as a financial investment that needs to start paying off immediately, rather than an incubator of cultural literacy, informed citizenship, and a personal life philosophy, as it may once have been. I am not saying that history majors can’t perform well in a wide variety of jobs, precisely because they can conduct research and present it coherently, it’s just that they have to overcome certain hurdles before they can convince people to hire them. I would not discount the politicization of the discipline, although this is not nearly as bad as some commentators would like to suggest (the profession as a whole might lean to the left, but you can always find professors who keep their politics to themselves, or who are even conservative). But I take consolation in the fact that our appeal really is selective: to do history properly you need intelligence and motivation, literacy and hard work. These qualities are less common that you might imagine.

“Whitesplaining”

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The Whitesplaining of History Is Over

When the academy was the exclusive playground of white men, it produced the theories of race, gender, and Western cultural superiority that underwrote imperialism abroad and inequality at home. In recent decades, women and people of color have been critical to producing new knowledge breaking down those long-dominant narratives. Sociological research confirms that greater diversity improves scholarship.

Yet the struggle to diversify the academy remains an uphill battle; institutional biases are deeply ingrained, and change evokes nostalgia for times past. Both of these obstacles were fully in evidence at a recent Applied History conference at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Although history is a discipline with a growing number of nonwhite faculty members, and a healthy percentage of female scholars — indeed, women constitute more than a third of the faculty in Stanford’s own history department, across the bike lane from the Hoover Institution — the Hoover conference was made up of 30 white men (and one woman, who chaired a panel).

Etc.

This sort of critique is becoming all the more common in my profession (the article above was approvingly linked by two friends on Facebook), and I hate it. I hate the jargon (“whitesplaining”) and glibness (“exclusive playground”) – but most of all I hate the Jacobinism of it, how anything produced by “white males” in the olden days is necessarily tainted, while anything “diverse” is necessarily better (the link goes to a book entitled The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy which, as anyone who has spent time in the world of work can attest, is no more true than its opposite*). Before we learned to care about the identity of the author in order to prompt us how we should respond to his ideas, it was possible for an idea to be considered largely on its merits, and I sure wish we could return to that dispensation. To suggest that all those bad old white males produced scholarship to justify Western imperialism, etc., is contradicted by the author’s own examples of Edward Thompson and E.P. Thompson, white males both who said things that she apparently agrees with (one can think of any number of others, like Charles Beard or Marc Bloch). But more importantly, how dare Priya Satia dismiss the work of (almost) everyone who came before her because they weren’t diverse enough for her tastes? Presumably they were men of integrity, who investigated the past to the best of their ability and who opened up new vistas in human understanding. Just because their race and gender are distasteful to her is no reason to preemptively dismiss their entire body of work.

But if present trends continue, this essentially adolescent pose will be with us for some time to come.

* As I wrote once: “You definitely need something in common – intelligence and a sense of modesty come to mind. Furthermore, it all depends on the purpose of your organization. Sometimes when everyone’s on the same page, sharing the same background assumptions, then you can achieve your goals much more efficiently. The notion that different people with different opinions really have something special to offer could have value, but what is the nature of those opinions? So often “diversity” just boils down to “skin color,” “configuration of genitals,” or “direction of erotic desire,” with any “opinions” that derive from these things being completely irrelevant to the vast majority of problems to be solved or tasks to be completed in the wonderful world of work; worse, there is a very real possibility that the people concerned can be indifferently competent but have massive chips on their shoulders about how allegedly oppressed they are, and will interpret every difficulty as proceeding from some amorphous but entrenched prejudice arrayed against them. This is not conducive to getting anything done.”

UPDATE: Turns out the Hoover Institution conference was organized by the great Niall Ferguson, who responds:

“Masculinity, not ideology, drives extremist groups,” was another recent headline that caught my eye, this time in The Washington Post.

Got it.

I have had to listen to a variation on this theme rather too much in recent weeks. Last month I organized a small conference of historians who I knew shared my interest in trying to apply historical knowledge to contemporary policy problems. Five of the people I invited to give papers were women, but none was able to attend. I should have tried harder to find other female speakers, no doubt. But my failure to do so elicited a disproportionately vitriolic response.

Under a headline that included the words “Too white and too male,” The New York Times published photographs of all the speakers, as if to shame them for having participated. Around a dozen academics — male as well as female — took to social media to call the conference a “StanfordSausageFest.”

So outraged were Stanford historians Allyson Hobbs and Priya Satia that they demanded “greater university oversight” of the Hoover Institution, where I work, as it was “an ivory tower in the most literal sense.”

The most literal sense?

Now let’s be clear. I was raised to believe in the equal rights of all people, regardless of sex, race, creed, or any other difference. That the human past was characterized by discrimination of many kinds is not news to me. But does it really constitute progress if the proponents of diversity resort to the behavior that was previously the preserve of sexists and racists?

Publishing the names and mugshots of conference speakers is the kind of thing anti-Semites once did to condemn the “over-representation” of Jewish people in academia. Terms such as “SausageFest” belong not in civil academic discourse but on urinal walls.

What we see here is the sexism of the anti-sexists; the racism of the anti-racists. In this “Through the Looking Glass” world, diversity means ideological homogeneity. “The whitesplaining of history is over,” declared another heated article by Satia last week. Hideous Newspeak terms such as “whitesplaining” and “mansplaining” are symptoms of the degeneration of the humanities in the modern university. Never mind the facts and reason, so the argument runs, all we need to know — if we don’t like what we hear — are the sex and race of the author.

The process of indoctrination starts early. My six-year-old son stunned his parents the other day when we asked what he had been studying at school. He replied that they had been finding out about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. “What did you learn?” I asked. “That most white people are bad,” he replied.

This is America in 2018.

Linkage

• From IHE: History is Hot! Although the author does praise the sort of activism that I disparage in this post, it is heartening to read paragraphs like this:

One obvious way is the rise in visibility. Many young Americans may, for the first time, be hearing from historians and be seeing them on a regular basis in major news media outlets. Historians certainly appear in the press all the time, but the difference now is the stage. During a presidential election, nearly all of America is paying attention to media, and particularly in such a divisive and unusual election as this one. It is an especially good time to be visible.

While being visible, we also can demonstrate the core values of our profession. We can continue to showcase the dispassionate wisdom and clarity of thought that is treasured by those of us in the discipline and sought by those outside it. In a climate of constant shouting and bickering, contemplative thought may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But it can offer a refreshing alternative and inspire younger folks that they, too, can be an impactful voice of reason when America needs it most.

• From the Guardian (originally the Chronicle of Higher Education): “Uncovering the brutal truth about the British empire” – an article on Caroline Elkins’s heroic investigation of the British fight against the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya – yes, it involved detention camps and torture, contrary to the official line (although be sure to check out the section on criticism of Elkins’s work).