by Eric Medlin
Fifty years ago, American academic historians reached the public and influenced politics to an extent unimaginable by today’s standards. Since then, supporters of neoliberalism have squeezed the budgets of humanities departments, and university-based historians have further withdrawn into the academy. Modern scholars who want their work to reach audiences beyond their students and colleagues may find role models in the history of their own discipline.
Neoliberalism, a political ideology based on globalization and free trade that has dominated global political economy for the past forty years, has undercut many American economic sectors that rely on domestic government spending, including education. Legislators who target public universities for budget cuts also expect them to generate economic growth. As a result, departments have cut degree programs in women’s studies and rural sociology at a rapid pace. Former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory summarized this viewpoint in a 2013 radio interview: “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it… But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”
This political and financial situation has created incentives for academics in the humanities to stay out of the public spotlight. In his 2002 book Public Intellectuals, Richard Posner noted that the modern university prioritized an “ever greater specialization of knowledge.” Specialization resulted in professors becoming “safe specialists” who excelled at studying and writing on their own topics but who failed to “play the public intellectual’s most distinctive […] role, that of critical commentator addressing a nonspecialist audience on matters of broad public concern.”
Tenure requirements prioritize academic publications over serious publications for popular presses. Those academic publications have grown more dense, specialized, and full of jargon. They speak to a small academic community and prioritize the respect of peers over general sales and the resulting public influence. Historians have also neglected to build relationships with prominent bureaucrats and politicians, jeopardizing their budgets even further. This cycle threatens to challenge the protections of tenure and the non-corporate funding that have long supported modern academic historical inquiry.
Historians must gain access to political power at all levels, from advisory panels and campaigns to administration.
It is therefore helpful for today’s historians to realize that our profession has not always been this way. It was once more common for academic historians to write sophisticated yet accessible books for general audiences, to give public lectures, and to openly take sides on political candidates and issues. Carter G. Woodson founded both the scholarly Journal of African American History and the public-school observance of Negro History Week, the precursor to the national Black History Month. Daniel Boorstin, a Bancroft-winning professor at the University of Chicago, went on to become director of a Smithsonian museum and then Librarian of Congress. These academic historians turned public intellectuals both demonstrated the relevance of the historical profession to everyday life and used their influence to improve society.
This essay reviews the careers of two postwar historians, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Richard Hofstadter, who had an oversized presence in American society throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Both historians used their analyses of history to support their professions and publicize the political ideas that their histories inspired. While similar in politics and worldview, the careers of Schlesinger and Hofstadter represent different paths that writers and academics can take today to implement their ideas even against today’s powerful currents of neoliberalism.
ARTHUR M. SCHLESINGER, JR.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., today remains the archetype of the publicly involved scholar. His dapper bowtie, sharp wit, and extensive social connections led most observers to overlook the role history and scholarship played in his influential career. Born in 1917, the son of a famous historian who was his namesake, Schlesinger attended Harvard and published his first book before earning a bachelor’s degree. He went on to publish several Pulitzer Prize-winning history books, an equal number of books about current affairs, and countless newspaper and magazine articles. One of his first successes, The Age of Jackson, reinterpreted antebellum politics, making Schlesinger a young star in the historical profession. The sensation around its publication also helped him gain connections with Reinhold Niebuhr, Adlai Stevenson, and Harry Truman. Schlesinger later joined fellow intellectuals in political advocacy groups such as Americans for Democratic Action in 1947.
Schlesinger’s most important narrative histories, The Age of Jackson and The Age of Roosevelt trilogy, seem by their titles to focus on the presidency. However, The Age of Jackson rarely mentions Andrew Jackson at all, while Franklin Roosevelt appears more as the public face of his administration than its heart and soul. Instead, the real heroes are the thinkers and advisers that made these two political revolutions work. They are the George Bancrofts and Rex Tugwells, the men and occasionally women who wrote scholarly books, made speeches to masses of people, and influenced the politicians who effected change in American society. According to Schlesinger, one of Roosevelt’s greatest triumphs during the New Deal was “bringing to Washington a government determined to govern,” an act that “unlocked new energies in a people who had lost faith, not just in the government’s ability to meet the economic crisis, but almost in the ability of anyone to do anything.”
The political thinkers and doers of the Jacksonian and Roosevelt eras influenced Schlesinger’s aspirations to become a public intellectual—being a stuffy academic like his father simply would not do. In a 1968 letter to fellow historian Marcus Cuncliffe, he wrote that he admired his father but that he had always been more “eager for commitment and combat.” Schlesinger Jr. needed to take charge, using his academic fame to work his way up the political ladder to the White House. Along the way, he also argued for numerous liberal policies such as civil rights legislation and an expanded inheritance tax. He argued against every political opponent he could find. He criticized conservatives as decrepit and backwards, and communists as dangerous idealists.
Schlesinger’s combative personality made him particularly attractive to campaigns, the grouping of supporters and advisers that presidents often use to staff their administrations. Schlesinger worked as a speechwriter for Adlai Stephenson and became a top campaign adviser to John F. Kennedy, who made him a White House adviser in 1961. In that position, Schlesinger gained an ability to vote on decisions and shape seminal events (including the Bay of Pigs invasion and Cuban missile crisis) in a way that few other academics ever have.
Although he left the White House early in Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, Schlesinger stayed politically active for his entire life. He advised several presidential candidates, wrote the perpetually relevant Imperial Presidency, and continued political advocacy well into his 80s.
Richard Hofstadter was one of the few historians who could match Schlesinger’s prominence in the postwar period. Born in 1918, Hofstadter published over a dozen books and won two Pulitzer prizes during his twenty-five-year career as a historian. Hofstadter’s books were just as liberal as Schlesinger’s but focused more on political culture. Hofstadter popularized the concept of status anxiety in American politics, wrote a definitive tome on social Darwinism, and identified the “paranoid style” still discussed today whenever a conspiracy theory enters the news cycle.
Hofstadter gravitated towards the activist and the university scholar instead of those who held political power. He saw the essence of politics in the writings and ideas of men and women across the country who expressed the anxieties, concerns, and needs of their fellow citizens. As he argued in The Paranoid Style in American Politics, simply organizing voters and supporting popular candidates could lead to demagoguery. Therefore, his methods for how to improve society leaned away from a focus on presidents and toward influencing and educating the general public. Hofstadter wanted to provide an antidote to the anti-intellectualism and the conspiracy theories that he believed drove much of American politics.
In order to achieve this, he needed a two-pronged approach melding the advanced academic with the public intellectual. His writings and speeches dove into historiography, social theory, and the relationship between psychology and politics more than many of his contemporaries. Merle Curti once classified Hofstadter’s work as “popular but only in the best sense.” Hofstadter disseminated his views at college campuses and on television as much as possible.
Hofstadter even helped launch an organization dedicated to educating the public on liberal issues. He served on the original board of the Public Broadcasting Laboratory (PBL) in 1968. This organization, a forerunner of today’s PBS, produced supposedly nonpartisan content without sponsor considerations. Its main goal was to enlighten the public on “the most fundamental concerns of the present, and extend the perspectives in time and space from which they view these concerns.” The first planned PBL episodes included segments on Appalachian poverty, violence, and civil rights, all reflecting Hofstadter’s point of view on issues that he cared deeply about.
While he preached his liberal message to the public, Hofstadter also worked behind the scenes to enact change. Direct, personal relationships could change politicians’ minds as quickly as mass education or political campaigns. To that end, he frequently contacted men and women in power and used historical ideas and arguments to try to change their opinions. He argued with Joe McCarthy in the 1950s and successfully challenged Columbia’s panic-inducing air raid sirens in the early 1960s. Hofstadter and a group of fellow Columbia University historians used their personal connections to gain an audience with President Lyndon Johnson and argue, albeit unsuccessfully, for him to end the Vietnam War.
Much has changed in the political, media, and academic climates since the times of Hofstadter and Schlesinger. Political actors and ideas are more diverse. Tactics are driven by street protests and campus leaders more today than in the 1950s or early 1960s. However, some factors have stayed the same. There are still legacy media outlets that provide quality content to millions of people. Politicians still solicit the opinions of experts both during their campaigns and in office. Historians who want their work to be relevant outside of academia need to seize upon the remaining opportunities to publicize and implement their ideas. Some must focus on bringing historical ideas to television and social media. Academic historians need to appear on television more often to present their ideas, instead of ceding large-audience platforms to popular historians like David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Others need to turn their attention towards politicians. Historians must gain access to political power at all levels, from advisory panels and campaigns to administration. Above all, they must write books and articles that appeal to both leaders and the greater public, without neglecting evidentiary standards or historiographical context. This herculean effort may require reforming tenure rules to move away from an emphasis on academic publishing. However, with the entire profession at stake due to the cuts and rhetorical challenges of neoliberalism, the benefits to the public world may far outweigh any professional shortcomings.
Eric Medlin is a writer living in Raleigh, North Carolina, whose master’s thesis at North Carolina State University dealt with postwar historians as public intellectuals. He teaches history at Wake Technical Community College.
* * *
Our collected volume of essays, Demand the Impossible: Essays in History As Activism, is now available on Amazon! Based on research first featured on The Activist History Review, the twelve essays in this volume examine the role of history in shaping ongoing debates over monuments, racism, clean energy, health care, poverty, and the Democratic Party. Together they show the ways that the issues of today are historical expressions of power that continue to shape the present. Also, be sure to review our book on Goodreads and join our Goodreads group to receive notifications about upcoming promotions and book discussions for Demand the Impossible!
* * *
We here at The Activist History Review are always working to expand and develop our mission, vision, and goals for the future. These efforts sometimes necessitate a budget slightly larger than our own pockets. If you have enjoyed reading the content we host here on the site, please consider donating to our cause.
 Richard A. Posner, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 4–5.
 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Roosevelt, vol. 2, The Coming of the New Deal, 1933–1935 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003 ), 22.
 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., ed. Andrew Schlesinger and Stephen Schlesinger (New York: Random House, 2013), 362.
 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1949), 175, 185.
 Schlesinger, The Vital Center, 26–30.
 David S. Brown, Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 167.
 Public Broadcasting Laboratory, “Goals and Operating Principles of PBL,” December 12, 1967, box 7, “Public Broadcast Laboratory” folder, Richard Hofstadter Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library, New York.
 Brown, Richard Hofstadter, 170.