Pells Bells: The End of Cultural History?

In this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard Pells (a historian at the University of Texas at Austin) charges, “The vast majority of American historians no longer regard American culture—whether high culture or mainstream popular culture—as an essential area of study.” It’s an interesting article, and the Chronicle reports that it is among the most e-mailed for the week, but I think it should be read with considerable caution.

His timeline for cultural history’s decline and fall—placing cultural history’s golden age in the 1960s, with the fall starting sometime in the 1980s—is sure to surprise anyone who has taken a historiography class in the past 15 years. I must admit that several of my recent classes were with the late Larry Levine, who catches some of the blame for cultural history’s current fallen state in Pells’s narrative. But for his part, Levine traced a narrative that ran in precisely the opposite direction of Pells’s assertions, with a small coterie of cultural historians in the sixties growing into a much larger group in the present. Those conflicting perspectives reflect the dangers of imposing memory on history, I suppose, which is why it is worth looking to other evidence for proof of cultural history’s decline. So (to borrow a bit of eighties popular culture) where’s the beef?

As it turns out, the most rhetorically powerful evidence in Pells’s article consists of simple assertions about what is not taught in the classroom. According to Pells, the greats of American culture, including Brando, Gershwin, Hemingway, and a host of others are now exiled from American history classrooms. He tells us that, but he does not point to any hard evidence to support that claim. I suspect he would be hard pressed to find it. A recent survey on the content of introductory history courses in 2003 found that cultural history was the only area to show a significant increase over the previous five years. The amount of course time allocated to cultural history grew from an average of 5 to 15 percent between 1998 and 2003—hardly evidence of its declining fortunes.

Topical Coverage in U.S. History Survey Courses, 2003

When it comes down to it, the only substantive evidence Pells offers to prove his point is that he read around 2,000 books for a project on the global impact of American culture (exclusively on the 20th century it seems), and “not more than 50” of them were by professional historians. That is interesting evidence, but a survey driven by one historian’s research agenda is a weak foundation for assertions about the state of the discipline.

To the contrary, every piece of data I’ve gathered over the past few years points in the opposite direction. In my survey of the field specializations of history faculty in our directory of departments, seven percent of the faculty indicated that they work on cultural history—the third highest among the eleven categories I examined. That’s not a “vast majority,” true, but it lags only modestly behind social history, which was selected by just nine percent of the history faculty. And while the proportion of specialists in social history declined steadily over the past 30 years, cultural history was ascending. Not as quickly as the history of women and gender, but it certainly showed no sign of decline.

Proportion of Listed Faculty Specializing in Topic, 1975 to 2005

The numbers are essentially the same in the AHA’s membership, where this year almost eight percent of the membership identified their work as “cultural history.” That is tops among the 52 possible thematic categories, and does not include another four percent who say they work on a particular aspect of culture–popular culture, film and media, literature, or music. Meanwhile, the self-identified social historians account for barely four percent of the membership (down from 14.3 percent in 1992).

These are just numbers of course. They can hardly capture the many shades of meaning historians invest into these particular categories, much less indicate how the methods of cultural history now seem to enrich even the most traditional political histories. As Larry Levine cautioned in Highbrow/Lowbrow, “The cultural categories we live with can become vehicles of comprehension not mystification only insofar as we remember just how human and fragile, how recent and porous they have been and continue to be.” At best, the numbers can only remind us that we are all part of a broad and diverse discipline with many different approaches and areas of interest, a discipline in which cultural history seems to be gaining—not losing—a solid position among the categories we use to think about and teach the past.

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  1. Nonpartisan

    Unfortunately, I can’t read Pells’ article, with extreme caution or otherwise; the Chronicle wants me to pony up #40 for a subscription in order to get access to the article. If they really wanted to encourage online discussion of their articles, they would put their material online for free, either for a week or two after they’re published or with a time-delay from the print version.

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  2. Debbie Doyle

    Pells seems to adopt an extremely narrow view of what constitutes “cultural history.” He says that historians are more interested in “the culture of daily life ­ how people behaved in saloons and department stores, what kinds of clothes and cosmetics they bought, whether they were active or passive when they listened to the radio, and above all how they were manipulated by the ideology of consumerism.” Arguing that such studies are not cultural history essentially disqualifies some of the most influential American cultural history. He also seems to reject interdisciplinary work, which is odd when cultural history as it is practiced today is extremely interdisciplinary—overlapping with American studies, art history, film studies, critical theory, and other specialties.

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