David Kaiser, professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College, talks about the future of traditional approaches to history and reflects on his time as a visiting professor at Williams:

Do you fear that the new methods, such as gender, are steadily replacing instead of assisting in our study of the interactions between states?

I hate to revisit past controversies but they do make my point.  One of the first major debates on H-Diplo [discussion list for academics who study foreign relations history] on these issues involved an article by Frank Costigliola about George F. Kennan’s long telegram.  Pointing out that Kennan repeatedly used the word “penetration” to describe Soviet behavior in Eastern and Western Europe in the wake of the Second World War, Costigliola argued that this was gendered language characterizing the Soviets as rapists.  In a long exchange I asked him to say whether he was actually arguing that Kennan had that in mind, or whether he was just, in effect, adapting the word to his own purposes.  I don’t think he ever clearly answered that question. And that’s a problem with post-modernist history, looking for “gendered” language and such in the past: they are not studying the past as such, not asking what words meant to those who used them.

Meanwhile, with respect to what the new “international history” means in practice, I can’t do better than to quote William Hitchcock in our recent exchange about how “international historians” would discuss President Obama’s visit to the G-7 summit:

I was thinking today as I read the news coverage of President Obama’s trip to Europe: how would “international historians” write about it? Of course, we’d want to read the State Department records that will have been created in preparing for the G-20 meeting, and those will be fascinating: the Obama effort to engage Russia, the tensions between the US and Europe over global monetary and fiscal policy, the influence of China in the meeting halls. But I think we’d also want to explain the “Obama effect” – how his image has been constructed and deployed in Europe; the transatlantic (mis)-understandings about race; the gendered readings of Michelle Obama’s public role; the significance of Obama’s gift to the Queen – an iPod – the ultimate emblem of American consumer and popular culture. (Will the Queen use it, I wonder?) And surely we’d want to address the intensity of the riots in the streets of London’s financial district, the youth-generated anti-globalization movement, and the cross-cutting understandings at elite and popular levels of the origins of the world financial crisis.

Now let me suggest a third alternative.  My hope would be that in 30 years, when archives are, I hope, open, that meeting would be studied like the World Economic Conference of 1933: one episode in a long story of global economic meltdown and, I hope, eventual recovery.  As William Hitchcock bows to traditional approaches in the second sentence of that paragraph, he does so with a very narrow focus on this meeting itself. That’s one problem I see. But then (with considerably more enthusiasm, I would say), he raises a number of concerns which no one outside professional academia would be likely to understand.  Essentially he’s talking about how postmodern academics would riff (I use that word advisedly) about today’s headlines, just as they riff on isolated incidents from the past.  That, to me, is the essence of the “new history” of which international history is a part, and I do not find it inspiring.

I was in grad school when social history was having an impact.  It–like women’s history, the history of sexuality, etc., later–was sold as a way to broaden out history by adding previously understudied topics.  But no, that isn’t the way things have turned out. There’s only so much room in the garden, and the new species are crowding out the old, and replicating themselves much faster, and “international history” is, as far as I can see, part of that process.

I might add, by the way, that Professor Hitchcock reported that his Temple undergrads are very enthusiastic about the new approaches. Perhaps they are; but I found as a visitor at Williams College two years ago that undergraduates there were delighted to do detailed, and quite traditional, investigations of the American role in the two world wars and of the Vietnam War. I had one student whose ambition was to go to grad school and study 19th-century European diplomacy—but he knew what a tough time he would have finding a place to do it, much less a job, and he has not yet decided to give it a go.  I also found that, with the help of the web, I could teach those topics more effectively than I had at Harvard in the 1970s or Carnegie Mellon in the 1980s.

Courses on traditional subjects like American diplomacy, the Second World War, and the Civil War still survive on some elite campuses, and they are usually very popular. However, those who teach them are generally nearing retirement, and there will be no younger folks to replace them.

Read the whole thing.

Two of the very best classes I took at Williams were traditional, detailed history courses on US and military history of the type that Kaiser describes, taught by professors who were in fact close to retirement. It’ll be a sad day indeed if their style disappears from the college when they stop teaching.

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