How to Renew Traditional Historical Study in Graduate Schools

I’m sometimes asked why it is so difficult for PhD students of a conservative bent to survive and flourish in history graduate programs these days.

It’s not enough to say that conservative graduate students are red drops in a blue ocean, surrounded by people who hold political views antithetical to theirs. I have taught at Harvard for 35 years and there has never been a time when conservative politics had much appeal to the history faculty. The history department where I teach used to harbor more conservatives than it does today, but even in the 1980s we were a small minority.

I’m not really talking here about political conservatives, card-carrying Republicans. I mean “conservative” in the context of the historical profession today. This would include anyone who dislikes mixing contemporary politics into every historical dish and is out of sympathy with the perfervid evangelism of the modern progressive academy.

Some of us came into history precisely to escape the passions of the moment, to gain the breadth of outlook that comes with a deeper historical perspective. We understand, as many of our contemporaries seem not to, that importing modern agendas into the study of the past makes us worse historians, less able to understand the past in its own terms.

We conservatives don’t see all of history through the lenses of race or gender precisely because they are distorting lenses that mar balanced judgment. Most of us shy away from fashionable subjects. I have never had the slightest interest in race or gender because I saw those fields already mobbed with researchers eager to rub themselves into a state of excitement against the cutting edge. I prefer to investigate questions where the answers are not already known or predictable.

Conservative historians, in my sense of “conservative,” are often allergic to politics in general, holding with Michael Oakeshott that politics is a “second-rate form of activity…at once corrupting to the soul and fatiguing to the mind.” We want to do history because it is a first-rate activity that is valuable in itself; we don’t think of history as a form of cultural politics.

In recent years the academic culture in my own department and that of other elite universities has become less tolerant of my kind of conservative historian. Our departmental meetings haven’t yet descended into a struggle session, but I’ve heard of such things happening in other Harvard departments.

But customs in the department have definitely changed. Certain colleagues are now readier to signal their political virtue in department meetings. It’s now more common than formerly to blow into one’s political dog-whistle when discussing candidates for honors, prizes, hiring, and promotion. Merit is still our primary consideration, to be sure. How one perceives merit is, however, influenced by one’s politics, and this brings us to the problems now encountered by conservative students in graduate programs.

Persons of a conservative bent want to study different things and they want to study them in different, more traditional ways. But in the progressive university, they tend to be surrounded by people who think what they want to study is worthless or, worse, that traditional kinds of study only perpetuate the evils of the past.

Even if someone who came into our program wanting to study the American Founders, for example, could pin down a professor to direct his research, he’d quickly find himself isolated. His fellow graduate students would think his interests outdated and he would have difficulty finding sympathetic people to talk to about his research. He would soon get the message that he should work on a topic that his peers think is cool and compelling, something attuned to climate change, globalization, or social justice, for instance.

This is only natural. Graduate students are by definition insecure. They are taking a long chance on an uncertain future in a highly competitive profession and they know that success or failure depends entirely on what others think of them. They’re constantly asked, “What are you working on?” and they’re highly sensitive to the reactions their replies elicit. They tend to gravitate toward topics that earn them positive feedback, and this inevitably alters their priorities and influences their academic values.

The goal was to say something original and substantive and to get the facts straight, which is harder than it sounds. We don’t give that sort of training any longer.

A conservative PhD student will also prefer to study her topic in conservative ways. But she will find obstacles in her path. She might want, say, to write a new biography of Founder James Wilson (the last serious one having been written 60 years ago), but she would soon learn that biography as a genre is frowned upon today as methodologically naïve. So she will be encouraged to pour her study of Wilson into some theoretical mold deemed fashionable by her professors and peers, like Critical Legal Studies.

She will have to signal adherence to such theories by use of relevant buzzwords. A few grad students do this in a cynical way, sprinkling the indicia of wokeness decoratively around what remain solid, traditional studies. Others learn to suspend their scholarly instincts and get with the program.

A generation ago, a history grad student would have been taught a method, not a methodology. He would have been taught how to turn his interests into a researchable topic and how to frame research questions in an open-ended way (not “how bad was U.S. colonial policy in the Philippines?” but “what were the strengths and weaknesses of U.S. colonial policy in the Philippines?”). He would be taught how to assemble all the relevant sources and secondary literature, and how to evaluate them critically. He would be taught how to make valid arguments and tell a lively story that did justice to the most reliable sources.

The goal was to say something original and substantive and to get the facts straight, which is harder than it sounds. We don’t give that sort of training any longer. The result is declining standards of rigor and professionalism and historical writing that sometimes reads like an op-ed in The New York Times, but with footnotes.

In short, conservative grad students today need help.

They need a community of like-minded peers, they need to be able to earn respect from older figures in the historical profession who value their research interests, and they need to learn the traditional methods of historical scholarship. They need an environment that encourages free inquiry—following the argument wherever it goes, as Socrates urged—and peers and mentors who believe that those who come after us should be able to enjoy the incomparable heritage of Western civilization.

They also need financial support. Students admitted to graduate schools, even wealthy schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford, soon find that admission is just the first step on via dolorosa of grantsmanship. They must constantly apply for grants of all kinds to support summer research, travel to specialized libraries and archival collections, and writing fellowships to give them time for sustained writing free from teaching obligations. Once they get their PhDs, they must publish their dissertations and other research papers if they are to find and keep employment. That requires more grantsmanship.

Here again, conservative graduate students have been put at a serious disadvantage by the ideological transformation of granting agencies in the last decade. Outside critics of higher education bemoan the progressive monoculture of American universities and mock the woke-sounding titles of PhD theses. But they fail to appreciate how the structure of incentives for students in graduate programs has changed.

Nowadays, there is almost no financial support in the form of grants, internal or external, for graduate students pursuing traditional topics of historical research.

Exhibit A might be the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, one of America’s wealthiest charitable foundations. For 40 years, from its founding in 1969, the Mellon Foundation was the principal funder of solid, high-quality humanities research in American universities. Guided by serious academics like Neil Rudenstine and Hannah Gray, it gave support to the traditional liberal arts and upheld the highest standards in humanistic scholarship.

A glance at the Mellon Foundation’s current website and those of similar funding agencies inside and outside the university reveals how deluded it would be to expect them to support traditional historical scholarship today. At the end of June, Mellon even announced with great fanfare that it will be “prioritizing social justice in all of its grantmaking.”

Priorities have shifted dramatically in the last decade and grants to conservatives are increasingly rare. Graduate students and young scholars seeking employment can see in what direction the wind is blowing and avoid traditional topics for research. They are forced to either tailor their interests to suit the political priorities of Foundationland or go without funding. PhDs without funding pretty soon become part of the army of adjunct professors who supply the universities with cheap labor, often embittered by their fate, never able to develop professionally. Or they leave the profession entirely.

Without new conservative PhDs, there is a real possibility that within a few years, there will be no conservative professors at all left in many colleges and universities, especially the most prestigious ones.

If we want to reduce the prevalence of politicized scholarship in American history departments and restore professional standards, we need a new kind of structure to support traditional historians. Such a structure will have to be external to the universities themselves. As those who have tried to support traditional humanities in universities will be aware, donating funds to university departments, centers, and programs is likely to lead, sooner or later, to the diversion of those funds for other purposes.

Ideologically driven academics, administrators, and their legal counsel display great skill at frustrating the intentions of donors. It’s notorious how funds donated by conservatives to support traditional subjects at universities like the study of Western Civilization or the American Founding often end up supporting the very individuals most hostile to their priorities.

A possible model for protecting donated funds from unscrupulous university officials might be found in the group of private humanities institutes that have sprung up in the environs of major universities around the country in recent years.  I mean centers like the Morningside Institute near Columbia, the Elm Institute at Yale, the Abigail Adams Institute at Harvard, and the Zephyr Institute at Stanford.

Those institutes offer university students what progressive academe no longer offers:  a space to escape the suffocating taboos of contemporary university life, to explore the deep questions of human existence in freedom, and to form friendships with the like-minded. Such institutes typically sponsor informal reading groups to study classics of the Western tradition or organize events and get-togethers with sympathetic professors.

One solution to the problems conservative PhD students have surviving in woke academe might be to fund these independent institutes more generously and expand their reach into graduate education. Another solution might be to establish a few independent institutes in major metropolitan areas devoted exclusively to supporting traditional historical study in graduate schools.

Either way, such institutes could offer places to form friendships with fellow graduate students of similar outlook from a wide range of historical disciplines—not just history proper, but classics, art history, the history of political thought (a common subgroup in political science departments), musicology, and other subjects like religion and sociology that have a strong historical dimension.

They could offer training in traditional historical hermeneutics, and provide venues for graduate students to meet sympathetic professors. They could also offer financial support so that grad students with conservative interests wouldn’t have to compete for departmental, university, and external grants that disfavor traditional history.

Conservatives have long recognized the need to support college students who feel isolated or attacked for holding traditional views. But this can’t be done effectively without the presence of some conservative professors on college campuses. Without new conservative PhDs, there is a real possibility that within a few years, there will be no conservative professors at all left in many colleges and universities, especially the most prestigious ones.

Viewpoint diversity, freedom of conscience, a fair presentation of the achievements of Western civilization, and sound, unbiased historical scholarship will never be restored unless it is possible for traditional and conservative historians to survive and flourish in American graduate schools.

James Hankins is a professor of history at Harvard University and General Editor of the I Tatti Renaissance Library.