Supply/Demand for Different Types of History

16 02 2010

I am very supportive of the new website The point of is to link academic historians to the world of public policy by showing how historians’ research can be useful. Recent papers on their website include: Paul Axelrod, Universities and the Great Depression: Then and Now? and Yves Montenay, Pourquoi le Vietnam s’en tire et Cuba s’enfonce.

ActiveHistory’s Ian Milligan has published an interesting post on the mismatch between the types of history professional historians are interested in supplying and the types of history “the public” wishes to consume. There is some evidence to support Milligan’s thesis that there is a mismatch. Military history dominates the History Channel and the history shelves of the chain bookstores with which I am familiar (Chapters, Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Waterstones), yet most history departments lack specialists in military history. This is true even in the United States, which is a superpower with soldiers in more than 100 countries!  See here. (I suspect that the decision of university departments to avoid teaching of military history is pleasing to army officers, since it results in a public less capable of scrutinizing their actions and budgets). I agree with much of what Milligan is saying.

Chapters Book Store in Toronto

However, I would question some of the other claims Milligan makes in his post. Milligan begins his post by complaining that it was hard for to find historians capable of commenting on the recent financial crisis. He writes: “There simply aren’t many Canadian historians who study the economy anymore. This was put fairly starkly to me in a conversation with a senior historian at York University, as we went through the list of faculty that Active History might contact. There certainly were a few – and many of them are very accomplished (and busy) scholars – but you could almost count them on one hand.”

First, I would ask Milligan whether he contacted historians outside of Canada. This would make sense, given that we are talking about an international financial crisis. A specialist in Canadian economic history would be well equipped to talk about how Canadian governments have responded to past international financial crises, but to find out why financial crisis happen in the first place, it might make sense to speak to an international scholar. Moreover, we need to keep in mind that not all academics who study the past are located in history departments. There are great historians located in sociology departments, political science faculties, business schools, and women’s studies centres.  Kenneth Rogoff, a co-author of This Time It is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, is based in an economics department. Niall Ferguson, whose PhD is in history, is now cross appointed between the history department at Harvard and the Stern School of Business in New York. Last summer, Ferguson had a very public and very nasty feud with Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman about the economist prospects of the United States that was, in part, a debate about how we should interpret the Great Depression. See Ferguson’s “History Lessons for Economists in Thrall to Keynes” and Krugman’s response on his New York Times blog. The debate between Krugman and Ferguson was very nasty (it prompted one of these scholars “to deploy the nuclear weapon of American academic arguments — an accusation of racism“), but it was also an argument about different theories of economic history, so I don’t think it is fair for Milligan to say that nobody in the academy is qualified to talk about the Great Depression in historical terms!

Closer to home, the staff of ActiveHistory might have considered contacting Joe Martin, a business historian based in the Rotman School of Business at University of Toronto. Martin was interviewed on BNN on the 80th anniversary of the 1929 stock market crash about possible historical parallels with the present-day. In his interview, Martin stressed that protectionism in the United States and other countries conspired to turn a recession in the Great Depression. Martin also alluded to the fact Ben Bernanke, the current Chairman of the Federal Reserve, is an expert on the Great Depression.  (See Bernanke’s 2000 book on this topic).

Here is another problem with Milligan’s post. In discussing the mismatch between public and academic history, Milligan uses the term “public” in the singular, which is a problem for several reasons. Historical reading preferences are different in Quebec than in English-speaking Canada (you see little military history in bookstores in Quebec and lots of books on some aspect of the “national question”). I suspect that there are other, albeit more subtle, differences in the history book markets between English-speaking countries (e.g., the UK, Canada, USA).  Let’s not forget that many people get their information about the past from historical novels rather than historical non-fiction. (There may be a gender difference in buying habits here– ask Amazon for the hard data).

Moreover, no country’s public is monolithic. University-educated people will have difference preferences with regard to history than non-university educated people:  some, but not all, ordinary people equate history with the study of their immediate localities or the histories of professional sports teams. Many members of the learned professions are interested in learning something about their professions: Canadian historian Christopher Moore has published an official history of one of Canada’s biggest law firm.

Government agencies consume various types of historical knowledge (e.g., First Nations land claims research or studies on the Shiite-Sunni division in Iraq). The British website on which ActiveHistory is based (History and Policy) presents historical research on topics such as “How (not) to cut government spending and reduce public sector debt” by Glen O’Hara which are unlikely to interest the masses but which are bound to be very interesting to the key decision-makers who really matter in semi-democratic countries such as Britain or the United States or Canada (senior civil servants, central bankers, cabinet ministers).

Typical event sponsored by the Office of the Historian, United States Department of State

One mismatch between supply and demand which Milligan does not address relates to the countries chosen for study. If you at the American Historical Association data on the job market for history PhDs in the United States, you will see that there is a disparity between the types of history PhDs being produced and the national specialists that history departments need. When history departments advertise for specialists in the history of distant regions such as East Asia or Africa, there get few CVs because relatively few historians do doctorates on such countries. At the same time, there is a glut of history PhDs who have specialised in the history of the United States: the new number of new doctorates in American history produced each year is vastly greater than the number of jobs advertised in that field.

It also appears that historians in some nations are more likely to study foreign countries than the histories of their own backyards. Consider a recent book by Richard J. Evans, a specialist in German history based at Cambridge University.  In Cosmopolitan Islanders: British Historians and the European Continent, Evans shows that the curriculum of British history departments in far more international than the curriculum of history department in many European countries. In Poland or Italy, an undergraduate student in history will learn a great deal about their respective national historians and very little about the histories of foreign nations. British university departments are strong in British history, but they have plenty of specialists in the histories of other countries (Alas, as Mark Mazower  notes in his review of Evans, the curriculum is still pretty Euro-centric, an impression supported by this data on PhD thesis topics).

Historians in Canadian history departments need to give some thought as to whether or not we have achieved the right balance between Canadian history and the pasts of other countries in the undergraduate curriculum. I love the study of Canada, but I feel that I wouldn’t be able to understand Canada’s past without a good grounding in the histories of the United States and Britain. Moreover, I wish that I had learned more about the histories of non-Western countries as an undergraduate. I’m ashamed to say that my only undergraduate exposure to the history of East Asia was a seminar on 20th-century Chinese history.  Canadian history departments focus on the teaching of Canadian history because the secondary curriculum is heavy on Canadian history and the major function of a Canadian history department is to teach future high school teachers. (In Canada, all history teachers must have a BA in history).  Needless to say, as a Canadian historian living in a world of finite resources I can’t be an entirely disinterested observer of the debate about how we balance the teaching of Canadians, Western, and non-Western histories (!), but it is a debate well worth having.

P.S. If you are interested in the feud between Krugman and Ferguson, check out this video:



5 responses

17 02 2010

Hi Andrew,

Thank you for your comments on my thought piece, which I really appreciate and agree with. I think they’ll give us a lot to talk about at our next steering committee meeting over at, as we work on refining our project and thinking.

One issue we’ve had with was refining our national focus. When we originally launched the project, we were focusing on Canadian topics, Canadian historians, etc., which explains some of our initial myopia. Our project has evolved into a much wider scope – witness our recent papers on Vietnam and East Timor, for example. I think this is something that we still need to sit down and hash out at, although perhaps the ambiguity is helping us develop. This explains our attempt to find Canadian contributors.

I agree with your other comments and appreciate the thought you’ve given to this, it’s a fascinating discussion that I’m glad we’re able to have. Thanks also for your kind comments about the Active History project in general.

18 02 2010

Absolutely, Andrew:

Although I am new to learning about the History of Canada, historians are having the same problem here in the US. The Barns and Nobel bookstore shelves are full of history on the US Civil War and massive biographies about presidents and other political figures. The professional historians have for years been encouraged to write so the public can understand how things occurred. How to do this without compromising integrity? Not having read the rant of how historians need to be more active, I do agree wholeheartedly that historians need to be more active on the internet. The main reason for this is to not surrender our expertise to those who have not studied the craft of historical research. That is not to say that there are those that do plenty of very good work who have learned historical methods without actually obtaining a degree. The question is how to provide peer reviewed material that is accessible to the public and of exceptional quality. Wikipedia is not the answer. While they do tend to be peer reviewed, who are the peers? what are their qualifications? In essence they could be anyone that Wikipedia deems acceptable.

Citizendium appears to be a step in the right direction, though it is in the early stages. I do hope that historians on both sides of the 49th can work together to figure this out. However, the question of providing history that the public wants is a two sided question. How do we as historians know what they want if we don’t provide new research every now and then. And how does the public tell historians what they want??? And even with new research would the results of historical research be acceptable to the public. Sometimes a historical inquiry will uncover aspects that a sizable number of the public will not like. And sometimes the public needs to hear things they do not like.


19 02 2010

Interesting points, Mike.

22 02 2010

Now that I’ve returned from an archival trip to Ottawa, I thought I’d just quickly respond to something in Andrew Smith’s post which I consider an unfair characterization of my post. I hesitated posting this, as I do agree with much of Smith’s response, especially that around multiple publics and the mismatch between historians and jobs.

However, nowhere in my post do I claim that no historian, anywhere, is qualified to discuss the great depression. That’s absurd, and would be an offensive claim. Perhaps this came out in the tone of the post, however, but it was not stated nor I don’t think can be reasonably read out of it. Indeed, I state that we contacted several Canadianists – who I won’t name here as it’s not fair to them. These are busy people, perhaps because there aren’t very many Canadianists who do these topics – and some were indeed writing op-eds, being quoted in newspaper articles, etc. Most labour historians in this country could write a great post about this, although I don’t think many in the media (who are working under tight deadlines) might think to ask them to do so because their topic doesn’t seem to directly touch on this. I don’t think its fair for Smith to say that I argue that “nobody in the academy is qualified to talk about the Great Depression in historical terms,” because quite frankly I don’t say anything like that. I could provide a long list of people (comps lists, my own reading, my own work, and etc.), but that wasn’t the point of my post.

As I mentioned earlier, we were focused on Canadianists and still need to completely figure out that questions as a committee. Yet even if we weren’t, I don’t think that as a beginning website with no track record of success (a situation which is improving, to be sure), we would have Niall Ferguson or Paul Krugman (or even Ben Bernanke!) write us a paper. It’s worth noting that I’m a reader of both those individuals, both their books and op-eds. Smith’s post implies that I don’t know of these people, or others.

Thanks for your comments, and I’m glad we could have this discussion. But I do want to set the record straight. We’re trying our best, and it’s great to move this discussion beyond the TA rooms and offices of York University.

22 02 2010

“As I mentioned earlier, we were focused on Canadianists and still need to completely figure out that questions as a committee. Yet even if we weren’t, I don’t think that as a beginning website with no track record of success (a situation which is improving, to be sure), we would have Niall Ferguson or Paul Krugman (or even Ben Bernanke!) write us a paper. It’s worth noting that I’m a reader of both those individuals, both their books and op-eds.”

I think that you should try contacting junior/mid-ranking scholars south of the border. Maybe you could speak to Robert E. Wright. . Or try Richard Roberts for a UK perspective

“Smith’s post implies that I don’t know of these people, or others.”

I’m sorry if I gave that impression! That wasn’t what I meant to suggest.

Keep up the good work with ActiveHistory, but try going a bit more international and interdisciplinary!

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