by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
James Hankins writes for the Martin Center about history instruction in graduate schools.
I’m sometimes asked why it is so difficult for PhD students of a conservative bent to survive and flourish in history graduate programs these days.
It’s not enough to say that conservative graduate students are red drops in a blue ocean, surrounded by people who hold political views antithetical to theirs. I have taught at Harvard for 35 years and there has never been a time when conservative politics had much appeal to the history faculty. The history department where I teach used to harbor more conservatives than it does today, but even in the 1980s we were a small minority.
I’m not really talking here about political conservatives, card-carrying Republicans. I mean “conservative” in the context of the historical profession today. This would include anyone who dislikes mixing contemporary politics into every historical dish and is out of sympathy with the perfervid evangelism of the modern progressive academy.
Some of us came into history precisely to escape the passions of the moment, to gain the breadth of outlook that comes with a deeper historical perspective. We understand, as many of our contemporaries seem not to, that importing modern agendas into the study of the past makes us worse historians, less able to understand the past in its own terms.
We conservatives don’t see all of history through the lenses of race or gender precisely because they are distorting lenses that mar balanced judgment. Most of us shy away from fashionable subjects. I have never had the slightest interest in race or gender because I saw those fields already mobbed with researchers eager to rub themselves into a state of excitement against the cutting edge. I prefer to investigate questions where the answers are not already known or predictable.