Whatever Happened to the Academic Left?

Tuesday, April 30, 2002

There was a time in American academic discourse when a genuine debate took place regarding the future of Western societies. That debate pitted scholars of a free market orientation against those who advocated that the government should limit markets. Proponents of free markets believed that any attempt by government to allocate resources would always produce less efficient and less socially beneficial outcomes than unfettered markets. They also claimed a direct link between markets and democracy: Any government that could reduce property rights by the stroke of a pen (by controlling prices) could reduce other individual rights as well. Meanwhile, proponents of intervention believed that markets, left to run on their own, would turn human beings into commodities, redistribute income upward, and immiserate a significant portion of the population. They claimed that unfettered markets would undermine the social harmony and shared beliefs that make democracy possible.

The Disappearing Debate

The debate about state and market has now disappeared from the universities. One might think this means that one side won. How could anyone argue for socialism after the collapse of the Soviet Union? Surely the historical evidence is against the utopia of state planning and for the vibrancy of the market economy.

One might indeed think this, but one would be wrong. The "great debate" did not end because socialism failed. Indeed, in many realms of academic inquiry there is a strongly rooted anticapitalist consensus. What has changed is that scholars on the academic Left now refuse to engage in reasoned debate with scholars whose work explores the functioning of the market system. This inability to have a debate—to exchange ideas freely (even if that exchange is at times acrimonious)—is profoundly damaging the very institution that is supposed to foster such debates: the university. It also impoverishes the quality of public knowledge about government policies and their social and economic implications. To the extent that there is no longer a coherent interlocutor on the academic Left, there is less of a need for those on the Right to carefully scrutinize and improve the quality of their own arguments about the best set of public policies.

At the core of earlier debates about state and market were a common intellectual language and a set of rules about how to adjudicate arguments. Literature professors and economists alike believed that a real world exists and that arguments about that world could be settled on the basis of evidence and reason. Both sides in the debate also shared a recognition of the desirability of a social system that could increase material wealth and engage most of its members in decision-making processes. The history of humanity toward these goals was called "progress."

The shared beliefs that allowed debate to take place have now largely eroded. In many academic disciplines, logical reasoning coupled to the systematic presentation of evidence is derided as "reductionist," "positivist," "Eurocentric," or "false consciousness" and has been replaced by a postmodern ambivalence about the possibilities for any kind of objective epistemology—even Marxist epistemologies. All knowledge, in this view, is culturally constructed and thus inherently unstable. Everything is treated as a "text" whose meaning is indeterminate. There can therefore be no debate because there is no truth. In short, in the face of abundant evidence that socialism was a recipe for poverty and authoritarianism, the academic Left decided to abandon the canons of logical reasoning and the dispassionate presentation of systematic evidence.

One consequence of this strategy was that the academic Left had to forsake the study of the real world. If there are no facts, and if logical reasoning does not permit more certain truth claims than ruminative musings, then the big questions that motivated earlier generations of researchers can no longer be addressed. Another consequence of this strategy was that the academic Left had to forsake any notion that there was something called "progress." Progress was just another cultural construction, a "discourse" that was manufactured by "hegemonic elites" for their own ends.

The erosion of a common set of values and common standards for what constituted an argument has been played out in different ways in different fields. In no field has there yet been a complete collapse of standards of evidence and reason. Nevertheless, the dimensions of the changes we describe are now becoming increasingly clear in a number of fields, particularly history and literature.

This Is Not Your Father’s History

As an academic discipline, history once played a crucial role as a bridge between the humanistic fields of cultural interpretation (the arts, literature, religion, and philosophy) and the social sciences (political science, economics, and sociology). Because history could claim to be both a qualitative and a quantitative field, historians were particularly influential within the university and in public debate. Yet during the past several decades, the field has been purged of most of the quantitative scholarship that could support connections to social science fields. History departments at many universities have simply dropped formerly crucial subfields, including military history, diplomatic history, economic history, constitutional history, and much of political history. The more a particular subfield focuses on vital social institutions—such as governments, militaries, markets, and laws—the more it has come under the gun of politically correct opponents and been squeezed out of the academy.

Evidence of the dimensions of this change can be gleaned by analyzing the percentage of articles appearing in the flagship journal of the American Historical Association (AHA), the American Historical Review (AHR), that fall into various subfields of history. Some forms of historical inquiry—diplomatic history being a striking case in point—have all but disappeared from AHR. In the period 1959 to 1965, 9 percent of the articles appearing in AHR focused on diplomatic history. From 1986 to 1998, however, only 3 percent of the articles in AHR were concerned with diplomatic topics. Demographic history fared even more poorly. Biography, economic history, intellectual history, and military history have collapsed as well.

These results are confirmed by an analysis of faculty self-descriptions from 10 of the top history departments in the United States, as reported in the AHA’s directory of history departments. Shockingly, only 8 percent of historians describe themselves as being interested in political history. Somewhat less shocking (but of equal concern) is that only 8 percent state that they are interested in economic or business history; 6 percent, that they are primarily interested in diplomatic history or the history of international relations; 2 percent, as being interested in constitutional or legal history; and a mere 1 percent, as being interested in military history. Not a single respondent confessed to studying population or demographic history.

If few people now study political, economic, military, diplomatic, or demographic history, readers must be wondering what today’s historians are doing with their time. Some of the titles of panels from the 1998 AHA conference provide the answer. They include "The Politics of Growing Up: Gender, Class, and Childhood in Twentieth-Century Britain and the United States," "Whose History of Sexuality? Teaching (against) Identity," "Imperialism and Crises of Masculinity in Early-Twentieth-Century China and Japan," and "Living Dolls, the Golden Boy, and El Jefe Corky: Boxing, Ethnicity, Citizenship, and Gender in American Communities."

These are undoubtedly fascinating topics for some constituencies, but their very nature disallows the data-driven, quantifiable study that once linked history to the social sciences. In general, the study of social institutions—be they political, economic, or cultural—has now been replaced by a "new history" that focuses on the personal experience of race and gender (and, much less frequently, of class). Historians are, in short, increasingly no longer asking big questions of generalizable import. Instead, the personal has become the historical. It is no surprise, then, that undergraduates, who have legitimate reasons to be interested in big questions, have moved dramatically away from history as a major. Between 1970 and 1995, the number of history majors graduated by American colleges and universities decreased by 39 percent.

The quantitative record for the literature fields is similar. In the same period, foreign language majors declined by 37 percent, while English departments lost 10 percent of their clientele. The reasons are not dissimilar to what has occurred in history. To the same extent that historians have scrambled to escape the social sciences and redefine themselves as "cultural historians," scholars of literature have abandoned the study of great works by redefining "culture" away from the arts and toward the "everyday life" of cultural anthropology. The study of literature in the age of "cultural studies" has strangely chosen to shift attention away from Shakespeare, Goethe, and Dante. Instead, "culture," even in humanities departments, has now become an ethnographic enterprise. There is no longer any objective culture; there is only the scholar’s subjective experience "negotiating" that culture.

Contemporary historians and literary scholars have in common an evasion of big questions—such as those that once animated debate about state and market—and have turned to matters of relative insignificance. The end result is an evisceration of students’ understanding of important institutions, a weakening of the university, and the impoverishment of the quality of public debate about issues that are important to a free society.