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UNITED STATES: Universities--First Geography, now History

The 2001 WAIS conference will open with a session on:

The decline of geography as an academic subject in US universities Is the decline of knowledge of history a worldwide phenomenon?

Earlier postings simply attributed the decline in the knowledge of geography and history to general indifference. There are in addition academic causes. In the case of geography, it was academia's following the pied piper of Harvard, President James Conant, a narrow-minded scientist who famously said that "Geography is not a university subject." He was answering criticism of the fact that then Harvard was almost the only American university which did not have a geography department. Isaiah Bowman, president of Johns Hopkins and the country's best known geographer, infuriated his fellow geogtraphers by failing to retort to Conant. No one then talked back to Harvard.

The decline of history as an academic subject likewise has an academic cause. This was brought forcibly to my attention by an excellent article in the latest issue of Hispania (September 2000) by John E. Eipper of Adrian College in Adrian, a small town in southeastern Michigan not far from the Ohio border. I had never heard of Adrian or Adrian College, which is proof of my ignorance and also of the fact that many excellent scholars are tucked away in such places. The article is entitled "The Canonizer De-Canonized: The Case of William H. Prescott". Prescott is of course the author of the classic The History of Mexico (1843). I once used it as a text in a course on Mexico. It is a well-written, admirably documented work, and one of the glories of American historiography.

Eipper describes how Prescott and his work have fallen victim to political and academic correctness. Prescott, a Boston brahmin and a dead white male, is denounced as an imperialist, and his careful documentation is dismissed, since truth is relative and the search for it a waste of time. This attitude virtually destroys history as a serious academic subject. We must fight this trend lest history succumb to the same fate as geography.

Ronald Hilton - 11/04/00