Education, History, Top Stories

A Liberal’s Case for Conservatives in History Departments

I am a liberal historian, and in my four years as a Ph.D student in history, I have found that my conversations with conservative peers have often been most productive in challenging my biases. This benefit may be rare within the discipline. According to research cited in Jon Shields and Joshua Dunn’s book Passing on the Right, only around 4-8 percent of professional historians are registered Republicans.1

This experience suggests that the liberal-to-leftist makeup of the discipline significantly influences the questions historians ask, the answers that we privilege, and the ways we teach and engage with the public. We devote our lives to certain subjects largely because we believe they have great moral weight and relevance, but we often overlook how our political tilt shapes what we see as important. We also possess the human tendency to gravitate toward answers that fit our preconceptions. These observations raise an important question: What does the discipline of history miss by not having conservative historians in the room?

To explore this question, I conducted interviews with eight conservative historians and two conservative political scientists to see how they approach research and teaching differently from their liberal colleagues. They ranged from established senior figures to new Ph.Ds. Most of them openly identify as conservative, although Niall Ferguson of the Hoover Institute and Darren Staloff of City College of New York said they are often described as conservative but generally do not see themselves as such. Our discussions suggested that conservatives’ distinct sensibilities can help historians pose sharper questions, challenge entrenched assumptions, and more sensibly define the historian’s public role.

These historians’ responses defied many stereotypes about conservative intellectuals. For one, they praised the addition of race, class, and gender as major themes in the discipline, which they believe has deepened our understanding of the American experience. However, they protested the political bias and theorization of history that have frequently accompanied this shift. They argued that given most historians’ ideological leanings, certain assumptions and approaches have become embedded and radicalized rather than properly critiqued.

On this problem of homogeneity, Thomas Sheppard, a recent UNC Ph.D now working at the Naval Heritage and History Command, said, “One thing that academics are big on is interrogating ideas and digging into underlying assumptions, but when you have everybody coming from one side of the ideological spectrum, there are a lot of assumptions that aren’t questioned.” This ideological imbalance, these scholars contended, has also skewed course offerings and led to the exclusion of crucial topics. Niall Ferguson, for instance, argued that it is “absurd to have history departments that do not teach war, peace, and high politics, that don’t offer courses on the origins of the First World War or the Second World War.”

The most common example these scholars gave on these problems was the study of conservatism itself. Gregory Schneider, a historian at Emporia State University and David Frisk, a political scientist and resident fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute, argued that scholars of modern American conservatism too often downplay its complex and contested roots as an intellectual tradition in order to emphasize its alleged racism and sexism. Schneider maintained that the focus on prejudice in modern conservatism “has been raised to the nth degree by those who make conservatism’s rise all about racial backlash.” He responds that “conservatives were arguing these things for a variety of reasons, not just race…anti-communism was much greater than that, and anti-statism.”

These historians often understood this flaw as part of the broader problem of not “taking ideas seriously” as motives for historical actors, in the words of Stephen Knott, a professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College. Many of them argued that the rise of postmodernist critical theories in the discipline has conditioned historians to automatically see ideas as cover for economic motives or the assertion of power. Wilfred McClay, a historian at the University of Oklahoma, thinks that “ideas tend to be treated roughly in the discipline. Abolitionism is hard to explain through strictly material explanations.”

In general, these conservative historians contended that neglect for ideas simplifies human behavior, reducing history to a moralistic story of oppressors and oppressed. More broadly, they argued that critical theories too often act, in independent historian George Nash’s words, as “pre-formed models” that predetermine arguments and reduce objectivity.  They universally defended empirical, source-based research that tries to sideline theoretical blinders. Niall Ferguson and others recommended a return at the graduate level to studying the philosophy of history, including thinkers on factors like causation and contingency. While many of my subjects thought critical theories could be productive if used as tools and with skepticism, the consensus was that this category of theories has too much influence in the discipline at the expense of clear writing and standard research methods.

These scholars’ critique of theory in history seemed to flow from a broader conservative sensibility about the pitfalls of grand transformative ideas. George Nash told me, “Conservatism tends to see itself as anti-theory in the sense of abstraction and, in the Burkean sense, skepticism about grand schemes of interpretation that don’t get down to earth.” These historians often said that conservatism gave them a stronger appreciation for what Allen Guelzo, a historian at Gettysburg College, called the “irony of results” in human affairs and the potential for defects of human nature to ruin great plans. They wanted more attention to contingency, human error, folly, and the limitations of knowledge as causes of events rather than more leftist emphases on structures of power and economic motives.

In addition, these historians argued for a more constrained public role for the profession compared to what they see as the Left’s excessive activism. In their view, historians should take a step back from contemporary debates in order to maintain their credibility as impartial experts. Stephen Knott argued that historians “have a professional obligation…to wait for emotions to cool and for the evidence to be available” before issuing judgments. Wilfred McClay labelled this approach the “reflective” or “quietistic view” of the profession. Allen Guelzo said that historians should see themselves as “calling the play-by-play” more than taking a particular side.

These conservative scholars frequently argued that liberal and leftist historians fall into these traps less because of ill will or ideological defects but because of universal social and psychological tendencies that encourage this behavior. “In scholarship, one cannot presume that men and women are angels,” said David Frisk, suggesting that human social and psychological foibles affect scholars as much as anyone. He sees problems of ideological bias largely as a result of a homogenous environment, which reduced incentives to “have balance in one’s courses” and engage with conservative scholarship.

If the main bulwark against bias is our own commitment to fairness and objectivity, these scholars argued, then historians are likely to falter because human beings are poor judges of their own cases. In Frisk’s words, it is “best to have something built in that creates pressures and incentives for balance in syllabi and research.” Darren Staloff argued that more conservatives in the room would arrest this drift toward extreme interpretations and make us “account for alternative premises and interpretations,” thereby helping unmask certain biases and assumptions. These arguments certainly had a conservative flavor, but most of these historians acknowledged that these social and psychological problems would occur if the discipline’s political imbalance were reversed.

The approaches to history outlined here are not necessarily the right ways to research and teach. I disagreed with much of what the conservatives I spoke to said even as I greatly appreciated their willingness to speak to me. But their ideas can be vital correctives. They help the majority of the profession to ask questions and investigate assumptions that often do not get asked or investigated. They can also help left-of-center historians communicate more effectively with a huge portion of the country that is underrepresented in our community. Welcoming more thoughtful conservatives into the room should be part of the profession’s broader mission of including an ever-wider array of views and experiences, both in terms of what we study and who studies it.

 

Joseph Stieb is a Ph.D Candidate in history at UNC-Chapel Hill studying American policy and foreign politics. He is writing a dissertation on the containment of Iraq from 1990 to 2003. You can follow him on Twitter @joestieb

Reference:

1 Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr., Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 137.