Allen Guelzo may be onto something when he posits a correlation between the tenor and focus of scholarly writing about American history and the state of the academic job market. But has he considered that he may have his generation wrong?
He contends that what he considers the current “bleak scholarly outlook on the American past” reflects a higher education system that has left graduate students embittered by the lack of stable long-term employment. Their disenchantment “leaches into what they’re writing,” he says, and precludes their writing “happily, contentedly, cheerfully about the prospects of American history.”
Isn’t it more likely that the attractive opportunities for lifelong tenured positions that were available to even middling graduate students in the 1960s and 1970s — in other words, to Guelzo’s generation and mine (we were both born in the early Eisenhower years) — have distorted their historiography? And isn’t that experience part of what underlies his discomfort with cold, hard, determined looks at the dark chapters of American history? Nor should it be forgotten that the Boomers who benefited from the bountiful job market of those days had already been indoctrinated as children in the (as we now recognize) bizarrely sanitized, fairy dust-sprinkled versions of American history that not just our schools and churches but, probably to even greater effect, television and movies fed them (us) nonstop.
My guess is that today’s graduate students aren’t nearly as predisposed to a grumpy pessimism about America because of academia’s woes as Guelzo’s generation was attached to happy historical myths thanks to the good life awaiting them out of their Ph.D. programs and all their hours as kids watching Gunsmoke, Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett, The Longest Day, and Gone with the Wind.