Commentary Magazine


Peace Studies and the Historical Profession

I don’t say this very often — heck, I’m not sure I’ve ever said it — but the latest issue of Perspectives on History, the American Historical Association’s monthly newsmagazine, contains an interesting article. In fact, it contains two of them, both of which gain additional interest when coupled with a piece in the latest Economist on “The Disposable Academic.” The only question is whether the Economist is describing reality or offering a preference.

The lead article in Perspectives is by Prof. Charles Howlett of Molloy College in New York on “American Peace History Since the Vietnam War.” It’s mostly a lengthy — and very useful — catalog of reasonably recent (in the world of history, this means less than 50 years old) books on the subject. But, as Prof. Howlett recognizes in his opening sentence — “What is peace history?” — the genre itself is not particularly well-defined, even in the minds of the AHA’s highly specialized audience.

Prof. Howlett’s answer to his question has the merit of clarity. Peace history, he answers, is “the historical study of nonviolent efforts for peace and social justice,” and many peace historians “see themselves as engaged scholars who are not only involved in the study of peace and war but also in efforts to eliminate or, at least, restrict armaments, conscription, nuclear proliferation, colonialism, racism, sexism, and war.” As such, peace history studies “the causes of war” and highlights “those whose attempts have been directed at peaceful coexistence in an interdependent global setting,” frequently seeking “the transformation of society.”

In short, peace history is thoroughly and explicitly political, and politicized. This does not surprise me — I spent 17 years at an American university — but it does depress me, mostly because, in spite of all logic, evidence, common sense, and reason, I continue to hope for the best from American higher education. What strikes me most forcefully about Prof. Howlett’s list, in spite of its length, is just how one-sided an affair “peace history” actually is.

The books on his list are all, exclusively, about peace activists and peace movements. Not one of them is actually concerned with “the causes of war.” It is not quite fair to say that all the books are also laudatory, but that is certainly very much their tendency. It is as if I had set out to compile a list of books about alcohol and ended up with a collection of studies of temperance movements, most of them supportive. Such movements are certainly  legitimate subjects for study, but no legitimate field defines itself so narrowly. And it is entirely unfair to imply that the only people seriously interested in alcohol, or war, are the activist movements against them.

Prof. Howlett’s list not only omits classics on the causes of war (such as Thucydides, to start at the beginning). It omits works like Jeremi Suri’s recent Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Détente. More damagingly, it also omits works like Prof. Sir Michael Howard’s The Invention of Peace, though I can understand why this one got a pass: its demonstration that the very concept of “peace” is a modern invention cuts to the heart of Prof. Howlett’s complaint that peace activism has not received much attention in the long run of history. (Full disclosure: I studied under Sir Michael and was a colleague of Prof. Suri’s.) Perhaps the real fault of these works, though, is that they are not sufficiently keen on “the transformation of society” to merit inclusion in the canon of “peace studies.”

Departing from this depressing field, I turn to Robert Townsend’s piece on the production of history Ph.D.’s. But the figures here — all deriving from data from the National Research Council — are beyond grim. No matter where you look, less than 45 percent of history graduate students receive a Ph.D. after eight years, and less than 50 percent of graduates find academic employment. I would like to say that the low-ranked programs are to blame, and there is some evidence for this: they offer much less financial support and have a lower completion rate. But the fact remains that the top-rated programs produce about as many Ph.D.’s as all the other programs put together.

The Economist puts the icing on the cake by pointing out that the production of Ph.D.’s has outstripped demand, that there is no relationship between academic supply and demand (thus, the concept of a “job market” is meaningless), that this is a tremendous waste of human talent, that this oversupply is very convenient for faculty members who are more interested in research than teaching, and that the earnings premium from a Ph.D. in all subjects amounts to no more than 3 percent. I really cannot think of any other line of work that would supposedly take such care in choosing its raw materials — the admissions process is very selective — and then take over eight years to throw half of them away while watching half of the other half not gain the employment for which the system had supposedly trained them.

One result of overproduction, of course, is the need to define new kinds of expertise in order to stimulate artificial demand. That is why the number of journals in history continues to rise, in spite of the fact that no one reads them. And it probably offers some insight into the rise of fields like peace studies: it is another way to define yourself in a very crowded marketplace. Unfortunately, this academic balkanization is profoundly destructive: its specialization alienates students, and its politicization alienates everyone except the true believers.

Since the true believers control the system, that does not matter very much in the short run. But at some point, the long run arrives: the recent protests in Britain give us some insight into what happens when, finally, a government is forced to recognize that offering unconditional subsidies to a system that so palpably fails to deliver public goods of comparable worth is a game not worth the candle. The implication of the depressing reality that academics are disposable, after all, is that there should be fewer of them.

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