Santayana’s Revenge: No Jobs For History Profs

It’s unknown whether George Santayana was into schadenfreude, but if he was, he’d be laughing his butt off now. As he famously said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” And who better than a bunch of whiny history Ph.D.s would come along to prove his point.

Also in the Chronicle in May, Daniel Bessner of the University of Washington and Michael Brenes of Yale University deplore without defining “the neoliberalization of the university system.” The definition presumably is obvious to all inhabitants of the academic bubble, where “neoliberals” are disdained as respecters of market forces — supply, demand, etc. Citing a 1972 New York Times report on “an oversupply of trained historians,” they say “for nearly a half-century, historians have failed to organize to halt the disappearance of positions,” which they blame on “unnecessary neoliberal austerity, corporatization, and adjunctification” and “boot-strappism and market-Darwinism.”

I’m not so arrogant as to think I could explain this “jumble of jargon” better than George Will.

The fact that the supply of historians has outpaced the demand for history instruction is the fault of many things but not of academic historians, who need to show “solidarity” to “overturn a patently unjust system” that offers “crummy and exploitative” jobs. Their message is clear: History doctorates are entitled to good academic positions regardless of the absence of a demand for their services.

How did something as important as history come to this nadir? Supply and demand is the first component. Crank out more Ph.D.s in a subject than colleges can consume and you get a bunch of inchoate baristas. It happened with law. It happened with other humanities subjects as well.

In May, the Chronicle published a dyspeptic report by Andrew Kay, a Wisconsin writer, on this year’s meeting of the Modern Language Association, whose members teach literature to a declining number of interested students: Kay says the number of English positions on the MLA job list has shrunk 55 percent since 2008, the number of University of Michigan English majors declined from 1,000 to 200 in eight years, and adjunct (limited-term, non-tenure track) instructors now are a majority of college teachers.

At least with English, it’s kind of a critical subject, even if its being subjugated to the bastardization of social justice, so there is a broader need to teach it regardless of what one’s presumptive career might be. But produce too many English docs and they cannibalize the job market. Then morph the curriculum from great literature to anything written by an author of the correct identity and its efficacy fails to capture students’ attention. What’s wrong with these kids who refuse to occupy classrooms so English profs can have decent jobs?

But for history, it’s worse. It’s not as if there’s a history store where history docs can sell history. Rather than consider why so many thought pursuing a post-graduate degree in a subject that had no jobs, or why so many undergrad students are avoiding their classrooms like the plague (yes, these two things can happen simultaneously), they’ve come up with a cooler plan to deal with their misfortune.

So perhaps the American Historical Association (and the MLA, the American Political Science Association, etc.) should wield its “labor power” by threatening to strike. It is a plan only academics could concoct: Because there is weak and declining demand for our labor, we should coerce our adversaries (neoliberals, market-Darwinism, the law of supply and demand) by threatening to withdraw our labor.

What a brilliant scheme, as withholding the “labor” of people whose services are no longer desires or required will surely teach those greedy market-Darwinists a lesson. But how did we come to this, the failure of the market for the services of historians. After all, did we learn nothing from Santayana?

Americans have a voracious appetite for serious historical writing — note the robust demand for narratives and biographies by David McCullough, Ron Chernow, Rick Atkinson, Nathaniel Philbrick, Richard Brookhiser and many others who are not academics, who do not write about marginal subjects, and who do not tell the nation’s story as a tale of embarrassments.

It’s not that history is insignificant. It’s not that students don’t care anymore. It’s that the historians no longer want to teach history as much as unteach it, whether by replacing American and Western Civilization with “marginal subjects,” or teaching American history only to inform students about how awful we are, how every historical figure was a rapist and racist, and how we should be ashamed of ourselves for our history.

Historians will argue that, well, that’s the truth. And to some extent, they may be right, as we’ve sanitized history, as has every victor, to create an idealized past. But to a greater extent, it’s nonsense, as history has been stripped of context, holding George Washington to the test of this moment’s social justice. It’s not that this is one crazy prof, but a core shift in the humanities.

More to the point, history and English Ph.D.s can complain about how students don’t want to major in their beloved subjects all they want, but that won’t put a single butt in a seat in their classroom. Their solution is to pay them anyway, and maybe force students to take their classes no matter what students want to study, because they matter and shouldn’t be denied prominence by the mere fact that not enough people give a damn that they exist.

But history has taught us that you can’t make people want to believe, to study, to pay for, their humanities hubris just because they want jobs and feel a bit lonesome sitting in the basement. Perhaps they would have done well to remember Santayana’s words and recognized that they killed their own demand and now suffer a gross excess in supply, not because the subject is unimportant but because they’ve ruined it.

But then, they didn’t study George Santayana because they were too busy doing serious research into how Christopher Columbus a rapist as well as a genocidal colonist. I learned that when I got my mocha frappucino the other day. No extra charge.

14 thoughts on “Santayana’s Revenge: No Jobs For History Profs

  1. Casual Lurker

    Unless someone can point to a definitive source that says otherwise, Santayana’s quote appears to be a paraphrase of Edmund Burke’s (1729 – 1797) original, that is frequently mis-attributed to others:

    “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”

      1. Hunting Guy

        H. L. Mencken.

        “Historian: an unsuccessful novelist.”

        “History deals mainly with captains and kings, gods and prophets, exploiters and despoilers, not with useful men.”

      2. N. Freed

        The Devil’s Dictionary:

        HISTORY, n.

        An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.

        Of Roman history, great Niebuhr’s shown
        ‘Tis nine-tenths lying. Faith, I wish ’twere known,
        Ere we accept great Niebuhr as a guide,
        Wherein he blundered and how much he lied.
        Salder Bupp

        And let me add one of my own:


        The act of hiring a person with a PhD away from their job cleaning swimming pools to teach undergraduate service courses with no chance of tenure and for even less money.

        The guy that used to clean our pool had a degree in English Literature (thesis was on Sheridan, I think), but there are undoubtedly some Historians out there as well.

  2. Fubar

    It’s that the historians no longer want to teach history as much as unteach it, whether by replacing American and Western Civilization with “marginal subjects,” or teaching American history only to inform students about how awful we are, how every historical figure was a rapist and racist, and how we should be ashamed of ourselves for our history.

    Woke curriculum, when it prevails,
    Answers everything, solves all details.
    Forget about history.
    The world is no mystery:
    Oppressors are always white males!

  3. L. Phillips

    A lot less “jumble of jargon” and a little more Douglas Southall Freeman would do wonders for interest and attendance in any level of history classes – at least in my neolithic mind.

    Incidentally, the bio of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., by Budiansky is a wonderful bit of writing. Don’t have enough knowledge to judge the content but the craftsmanship is first rate.

    1. Bear

      I also read Mr. Budiansky’s book on Holmes and greatly enjoyed it, as well as others he has written. He is a masterful writer and adept at providing context. Given today’s post (actually yesterday’s considering when I’m writing this) by SHG, it’s interesting that Budiansky doesn’t have a university degree in history, to the best of my knowledge.

  4. The Real Kurt

    For those who care, T. R. Fehrenbach is one of America’s, nay, the world’s best historians – in particular This Kind of War, his masterpiece, though many of his other works on Texas, Mexico and Indians worthy reads as well.

    The Real Kurt

    1. SHG Post author

      Reply to something, perhaps? And comments like this really aren’t a good use of my bandwidth, if you catch my drift.

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