THE FUTURE OF HISTORY
By John Lukacs
Yale University Press, $26,
For those of us happily addicted to reading history, John Lukacs has a frightening message. He fears that the craft to which he has devoted more than six decades of his life is in serious disarray. The number of students in history classes at the preparatory and college level is declining with the glide path of a set of falling car keys. Further, many of the professors who constitute what is grandly called “the history academy” are churning out puerile, fad-focused books that not even their peers bother to read.
Whew. Nearly 100 pages into Mr. Lukacs’ disturbing work, I voiced a silent thanks that earlier generations of historians have produced a backlog of worthwhile books the reading of which should carry me through the remainder of my dotage.
Mr. Lukacs, 87, has written more than 30 books of history, including such acclaimed works as “Five Days in London: May 1940,” about when appeasement almost doomed Britain. He acknowledges “that there is a new and widespread appetite for history, that much good history is written and published even now, that history may even absorb the novel.” He notes the proliferation of local historical societies and museums and the popularity of TV channels devoted to history. He is less admiring of “docu-dramas” that any intelligent person recognizes as faux history.
Yet he remains skeptical about the future of his profession. Although he concedes that the “future” is highly speculative, in history or any other field, he declares that “there will be no reversal” of the decline. “The teaching of history in our schools will decrease further. Fewer intelligent young students will opt for a career requiring a doctorate in history. We already know that fewer and fewer of our best students read.” (I spend time each year at a college outside Washington, D.C. When students talk about “research,” they mean going to the Internet, not the library.)
The decline has been years in the making. Many high schools and colleges reduced the requirement of history courses around 1970. By 1980, the number of undergraduate history majors had slumped by one-fourth to one-fifth of what they had been 20 years earlier. As Mr. Lukacs snorts, “Professional historians had little to do with the devolution, which was mostly the doing of administrative bureaucrats and bureaucracies.”
Mr. Lukacs doubts that commercial publishers’ continued interest in history is guaranteed. “There are plenty of examples in the democratic age when fairly widespread and exceptional tendencies faded and then disappeared, because they were no longer promoted by publicity. [Publishers’] dependence on quick, indeed instant, profits began at least fifty years ago; the same applies to television or movie producers.
For decades, university presses provided an outlet for academic historians faced with the “publish or perish” dilemma. Now, however, “their opportunities and conditions of publication are shrinking at an alarming rate. A normal print run (first printing) at many, if not most, university presses is now five hundred or even lower, mostly because the number of college and university libraries customarily purchasing such titles has decreased by five percent or more.” As a result, the books that are printed “have become excessively expensive,” to the point they are not stocked even by university bookshops.
Mr. Lukacs is undoubtedly on-target when he writes, “The results of this devolution are frightening. Surely they must frighten young aspiring historians within the profession.”
He also targets the proliferation of “fad studies,” which he maintains have led “not to a deepening but to a narrowing of our craft.” He enjoys much sport with the titles of reviews and articles recently published in the American Historical Review, the trade journal for academic historians. “In many instances,” he writes, “their very titles must strike us for being ridiculous.” A sampling: “The Discomforts of Drag: Trans Gender [sic] Performance Among Prisoners of War in Russia.” “Big Hair: A Wig History of Consumption in 18th Century France,” “Orgasm in the West: A History of Pleasure From the Sixteenth Century to the Present.” And so forth.
As a nonfiction writer, I have come to appreciate the utility of the Internet for research during the past decade or so. But I agree with Mr. Lukacs’ contention that “retrievable” and “reliable” are not the same thing. What one finds on the Internet, he writes, is material “put into the computer by anonymous machines and men and women,” which may or may not be trustworthy.
So what might be the solution? Pile your shelves high and deep, for if Mr. Lukacs is anywhere near prescient, we readers are due a rough future.
• Joseph C. Goulden has completed an update of his “Dictionary of Espionage: Spy-Speak Into English,” to be published by Dover Books in the fall.