Academics seem to have forgotten that the best way to avoid conflict is to study it.
The world applauds the scientists who have created vaccines to deliver humanity from Covid-19. One certainty about our future: There will be no funding shortfall for medical research into pandemics.
Now, notice a contradiction. War is also a curse, responsible for untold deaths. Humans should do everything possible to mitigate it. And even if scientists cannot promise a vaccine, the obvious place to start working against future conflicts is by researching the causes and courses of past ones.
Yet in centers of learning across North America, the study of the past in general, and of wars in particular, is in spectacular eclipse. History now accounts for a smaller share of undergraduate degrees than at any time since 1950. Whereas in 1970, 6% of American male and 5% of female students were history majors, the respective percentages are now less than 2% and less than 1%, respectively.
Fredrik Logevall, a distinguished Harvard historian and author of seminal works on Vietnam, along with a new biography of John F. Kennedy, remarked to me on the strangeness of this, given that the U.S. is overwhelmingly the most powerful, biggest-spending military nation on earth. “How this came to be and what it has meant for America and the world is surely of surpassing historical importance,” he said. “Yet it’s not at the forefront of research among academic historians in this country.”
The revulsion from war history may derive not so much from students’ unwillingness to explore the violent past, but from academics’ reluctance to teach, or even allow their universities to host, such courses. Some dub the subject “warnography,” and the aversion can extend to the study of international relations. Less than half of all history departments now employ a diplomatic historian, against 85% in 1975. As for war, as elderly scholars retire from posts in which they have studied it, many are not replaced: the roles are redefined.
An eminent historian recently told me of a young man majoring in science at Harvard who wanted to take humanities on history, including the U.S. Civil War. He was offered only one course — which addressed the history of humans and their pets.