The Rule of the 20th Century (The Shape of Academic History, Part II)

My last post looked at the geographical focus of academic historians in Canada, and found that it was predominantly Canadian and European. This was not too surprising, though it does make media laments about the neglect of Canadian and “Western” history by the academy seem uninformed if not simply dishonest. But what motivated me to look at the makeup of full-time, permanent history faculty in 25 departments was curiosity about their temporal focus. To be blunt: how many of us work on the last one or two hundred years, as opposed to the thousands of years before 1800?

Before getting to what I found, some caveats are in order. I looked at department and faculty webpages, and assigned each faculty member to only one of five “periods”: Ancient (to c.500), Medieval (c.500-1500), Early Modern (c.1500-1800), 19th Century, and 20th Century-Present. These assignments are more or less dubious where a historian’s work either straddles two periods or changes focus over the course of a career. I relied in the first instance on faculty self-identification. Where faculty members did not identify a temporal focus, I based my judgment on publications (or dissertations for some junior faculty). Where work straddled two periods — most often, this happened with historians of the 19th and 20th centuries rather than earlier — I assigned them to the period where “more” of their focus fell (e.g., those working on 1860-1914 I placed in the “19th Century” column, those working on 1880-1945 in the “20th”). In short, many individual assignments could be questioned. I think the overall picture, though, indicates the basic breakdown of temporal expertise among academic historians in Canada.

What does this picture look like? (Here’s the table.)

First: academic history in Canada is overwhelmingly modern history. Of 701 faculty examined, 505 — nearly 3/4 — were identified as specialists in the period since 1800. They easily outnumber pre-modernists in every single department, usually by a ratio of 2:1, 3:1, or 4:1, and sometimes higher. The only major exceptions to this pattern of dominance, which include Alberta (where modernists only make up half of the full-time, permanent faculty), Saskatchewan, McGill, and Laval, are universities where History includes Classics. Had I used a more traditional boundary-line for “modernity”, such as 1750 or even 1789, the dominance of the modern period would have been still more marked.

Second: modern history is overwhelmingly 20th-century history. That is, historians who research the 20th century primarily or exclusively make up almost the same proportion of modernists (361 out of 505, or 71%) as modernists do of historians generally. Again, this pattern is much the same in department after department. With a few exceptions — premodern behemoths Alberta and McGill, plus Guelph (where there is a roughly even split between 19th and 20th) — between 1/2 and 2/3 of most history faculties are 20th-century specialists. Most departments have at least a dozen; Toronto, the largest department — and the one that singlehandedly dominates academic PhD placement in Canada — has more than three dozen.

Earlier periods are correspondingly marginal to the overall makeup of the discipline, though their respective proportions mimic the same tilt toward the present: medievalists account for just 49 of the 701 faculty (7%), but early modernists — here including, as noted above, later eighteenth-century specialists — number more than twice as many, at 115 (16% of the total). There are, besides these, 32 faculty members working on the world before 500. But since only eight of the 25 departments include specialists in the classical or ancient world — and these mostly under the interdisciplinary guise of “Classics” rather than History — it’s hard to conclude much from this number.


To which one might well respond: So what? Why shouldn’t we focus chiefly on the modern world?

Let me admit at the outset that the dominance of 20th-century history is only to be expected in history departments in 2017. Anyone in a position to teach history professionally today was born in the 20th century and grew up surrounded by its material and institutional creations as well as its cultural productions and moral quandaries. 20th-century events (two World Wars, one Cold War, repeated genocides, decolonization and the decline of empires, movements for civil and human rights, the expansion of global capitalism, deindustrialization, environmental degradation, technological revolution, and on and on) shape our existence and our curiosity in obvious ways; popular interest dilates on the events, figures, and innovations associated with these. Besides, it seems natural to pay the most attention to the past closest to us — the one we can access not only academically or in the media but through the experiences and recollections of family and friends.

At another level, it seems natural, too, to seek in the most recent the most relevant past. And what seems natural — whether to readers of histories or to academic hiring committees — tends to pass unexamined. This should be reason enough to question it. But there are other reasons for doubt — not about the importance of the 20th century, but about its all-importance. Consider, say, Islamophobia, which has not only a history as long as that of Islam itself but also a number of strikingly precise antecedents and analogues in ideas about and actions against earlier marginalized groups in the middle ages and the early modern period. Or consider the notion of the “anthropocene”, which indicates the pre-modern roots of anthropogenic environmental change — to say nothing of the origins of the relevant ideas about nature, science, and human power. Or consider the ways in which the ongoing reckoning with colonialism’s legacies for indigenous people in the West requires us to think about the pre-modern origins of our settler societies. Consider the friability of our governing institutions, and wonder about the origins of our confidence in them. “Recent” and “relevant” are quite different things.

In this light, it is worth asking what it means for a discipline ostensibly taking in the whole of human experience to spend most of its time on the last hundred (or, at a stretch, two hundred) years. My point isn’t to sell the 20th century short — as if that were even a possibility, in our present institutional setting. But what defines history as a discipline is its focus on the whole of the past, and by extension on the exploration or excavation of experiences and perspectives other than our own. This is reaffirmed in recent calls for expanded timescales, longer-term perspectives, and so on. Yet collectively and institutionally speaking — and this is my interest here; the quality of individual work is not at issue — our temporal horizons seem extraordinarily narrow. If we don’t make the case for the importance and the relevance of times long past, no-one else will.

It is also worth wondering about the effects of such thoroughgoing institutional dominance. Pedagogically, it seems likely to favour certain kinds of questions and engagements and to emphasize certain kinds of sources and skills — and to make others into optional or peripheral pursuits. In principle, it seems liable to reinforce the linkage between temporal proximity and relevance. As universities’ strategic plans subordinate the concerns of the humanities to salable research outputs, professional training, and the pursuit of corporate partnerships, this equation may indeed save history as a “relevant” academic discipline, though perhaps only at the expense of transforming it into something very different from what it has been. (In this vein, recall one “multidisciplinary” real estate developer’s “play on history”, described in an earlier post.) But this is vague speculation. What is truly striking, to me, is how little the temporal balance of our discipline is even discussed.

At any rate, it is clear that students’ and the public’s perception of what the study of history can be reflects in part what the current discipline of history is, chronologically as well as geographically. Perhaps — if the processes at work in the world around us exceed our grasp; if we feel we are at the end of an era, or on the threshold of some unwonted fate — it may be time for us to reassess (in hiring as well as in writing) both our geographical and our temporal perspective on the paths that brought us here, and to consider more carefully the kind of past we (in our institutions, not just in our publications) present to our students.

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2 thoughts on “The Rule of the 20th Century (The Shape of Academic History, Part II)

    • Thanks for your comment! I haven’t seen too many discussions of temporal focus, so it’s great to have your article to refer to. It would be interesting to know the breakdown by field, which I didn’t track. Impressionistically, some fields seemed to have a slightly different profile (e.g. South Asia may have included more 18th/19th-century specialists, partly by virtue of interest in the British Empire), and of course some were too poorly represented to provide much of a sample.

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