Rumors of the death of US history have been greatly exaggerated.
When I heard that an editor at an academic press recently declared that she “wasn’t aware of any breakthrough scholars in U.S. history under the age of 50,” I was initially taken aback. Surely there are many scholars under age 50 who are producing highly significant, pathbreaking work, I thought. Indeed, I know several.
But on further reflection, I think that the claim, while still exaggerated, points to a significant shift in the field that should concern those of us who are US historians.
No matter what else we might think about the academic editor’s claim, there’s no question that we’re no longer living in the world of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a young generation of history professors revolutionized the field of American history in a way that has never been repeated.
This was largely due to their sheer number. During the 1960s, college undergraduate enrollments nearly doubled as 18-year-old Baby Boomers descended on college campuses. The number of new PhDs awarded each year quadrupled. The number of college faculty expanded by perhaps 400 percent. Departments could not keep up with the demand for new faculty in all fields, including history – which meant that nearly every newly minted PhD was guaranteed a tenure-track job.
The expansion of history faculty occurred at every level, from backwater third-tier state colleges that were experiencing a sudden surge in student demand to Ivy League programs that were desperate to hire young faculty to meet the demands of Ph.D. programs that were now experiencing explosive growth. At the beginning of the 1960s, the nation’s top ten programs in history collectively had only 160 full-time professors, but by the end of the decade they had 272. State university systems experienced an even higher level of faculty growth in many places.
Given this, it’s not surprising that most of the people producing innovative historical scholarship in the early 1970s were under the age of 40, since the vast majority of all history faculty – whether Pulitzer Prize winning historians who were national leaders in their field or struggling hacks who never published a single academic journal article – were young. Older professors were swept aside by the sheer number of newly minted PhDs rushing to take the newly opened tenure-track positions.
The new history faculty brought a fresh perspective to their work and a new set of values that completely changed the field of American history. Instead of studying presidential, diplomatic, or intellectual history, they studied race, class, and history from below. They created the new social history and greatly expanded the study of African Americans.
Given this, it was perhaps not surprising that many of the new Bancroft award winners in the late 1960s and early 1970s were under the age of 40. They included Winthrop Jordan (who turned 38 years old in 1969, when he received the Bancroft for his pathbreaking tome White over Black), Gordon Wood (age 37 when he received the Bancroft in 1970 for The Creation of the American Republic), David Kennedy (who was only 30 when he received the prize in 1971 for Birth Control in America), and Dan Carter (also only 30 at the time he received his Bancroft for The Scottsboro Boys).
To be sure, a few of the innovators were a little older. Eugene Genovese was 45 at the time he received his Bancroft for Roll, Jordan, Roll in 1975. But on the whole, the new US historians who swept the field in the late 1960s and 1970s were probably the youngest, most prolific, and most innovative cohort the profession had ever seen.
This was almost entirely due to demographics. Those who were born between about 1930 and 1943 and who received their PhD in the late 1960s could get a plumb academic position thanks mainly to luck – the luck that they just happened to finish their graduate program at a time when a massive number of slightly younger Baby Boomers were paying the tuition needed to finance the creation of new teaching positions. For a brief while, the typical history professor was a 30-year-old, full of fresh ideas from graduate school and ready to take on the world with their new approach to the past.
Most of those who were hired during these years didn’t become pathbreaking scholars, but out of the many hundreds who entered the profession at this time, it’s not too surprising that a handful rose to the top and had an outsized influence on the field. And for the next four decades they continued to influence the profession by writing additional award-winning monographs and training new generations of graduate students. When I was a graduate student at Brown at the beginning of the 21st century, most of the incoming graduate students were still coming to study under one of the premier historians who were born in the 1930s or early 1940s and who had begun teaching at Brown thirty years earlier, at the end of the 1960s or beginning of the 1970s – faculty such as Gordon Wood, Mari Jo Buhle, or my own advisor, James T. Patterson.
My own generation of historians who earned PhDs in the early 2000s did not have quite as many employment opportunities as the history PhDs of the late 1960s did, and we didn’t sweep the Bancroft awards like they did either. But nevertheless, many in my cohort did make some significant innovations in the field and publish widely recognized books before reaching the age of 40.
Among other things, the young historians of the early 2000s greatly expanded the study of postwar American conservatism (with works like Kevin Kruse’s White Flight, Joseph Crespino’s In Search of another Country, Matt Lassiter’s Silent Majority, Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart, and Michelle Nickerson’s Mothers of Conservatism). At a time when few historians were paying attention to 20th-century American religion, they demonstrated the important role that faith had played in politics with works like Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt and Anointed with Oil, Steven Miller’s Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South, and Matt Sutton’s American Apocalypse. They rejuvenated the field of US intellectual history; historians under age 40 created the Society for US Intellectual History in 2007-09 and essentially remade the genre in addition to publishing several leading books in the field. They also pioneered new studies on the influence of capitalism and regionalism on US religion and politics, largely inventing the field of Sunbelt studies (with some inspiration from the senior historian Bruce Schulman) and publishing numerous works examining the connection between business and religion, a subject that had received hardly any attention in American historiography before the 21st century.
But after 2009, the number of history majors plummeted, and the number of new jobs for historians also took a dramatic downturn. In the early 2000s, there had been an average of at least 250 new academic jobs in US history advertised each year, but that number plummeted to less than 150 per year in 2009-10, and it never recovered. In 2020-2022, an average of only 120 new academic jobs in US history opened each year, and fewer than two-thirds of those were tenure-track.
The shrinking of the profession has meant an aging of the existing US history faculty. Even the leading US history programs are hiring very few young historians these days. Of Yale University’s 27 tenure-track US history faculty, only three appear to be under the age of 40 (based on an analysis of the year when they received their B.A. degrees), and of those three, two have a joint or primary appointment in the Department of African American Studies.
Other leading history programs are doing just as poorly when it comes to hiring new faculty in US history. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill does not have even one assistant professor of US history. The University of Virginia has only one, as does the University of California at Berkeley. Seventeen years ago, in 2007, UC Berkeley had five assistant professors of US history (counting one joint appointment).
Since assistant professors of history are now a rapidly vanishing breed, it’s not too surprising that it’s very difficult to find US historians who are fresh out of graduate school and still on the younger side. With the partial exception of a very small number of subfields in African American history, Latinx history, indigenous history, and the like, the job market in US history has been abysmal for the last 15 years – which means that the vast majority of US historians in tenure-track positions got their first job before 2009 and are therefore almost certainly over age 40 today. Given that, perhaps it’s not surprising that I could not find any Bancroft award winner today who is still under the age of 40 – which is a real contrast with the situation that existed in 1970.
But in spite of the enormous challenges they face, there are still a few younger scholars who are doing some exciting work that is changing the field. In my own field of modern American religion and politics, I can say that during the past five years, younger scholars have forced the field of white evangelical history to pay much more attention to race and gender than it ever had before – and most of that revolution is being led by historians in their 40s.
So, are there “breakthrough scholars” under the age of 50 in the field of modern American religious history? Here are a few whose work has gotten significant attention in the last five years:
Kristin Du Mez (Calvin) – Few works have had as profound an impact on both the church and the evangelical academy as Du Mez’s bestselling book Jesus and John Wayne (Liveright, 2020). Du Mez’s book brought gender to the forefront of the analysis of the Christian Right and forced both scholars of white evangelicalism and white evangelical Christians themselves to rethink what they thought they knew about Christianity and patriarchy. It also inspired a wave of other scholarship on gender and race in modern American Christianity.
Jemar Tisby – Tisby’s The Color of Compromise (Zondervan, 2020), which was released only a few months before Du Mez’s book had a similar impact on American evangelical Christians by prompting conversations about white evangelical racism. Previous historians, such as Randall Balmer, had argued that race played a central role in white evangelical political mobilization, but no one before Tisby had used the framework of race to tell the story of white evangelicalism so comprehensively and so effectively. The Color of Compromise put Tisby, who had not even finished his Ph.D. at the time the book went to press, near the top of the list of young historians to watch.
Janine Giordano Drake (Indiana)– Drake’s first monograph, The Gospel of Church (OUP, 2023), recasts the story of the Social Gospel and the liberal Protestant relationship with the working class in the early 20th century as far more antipathetic to labor’s real interests than historians have often assumed.
Gene Zubovich (U. at Buffalo, SUNY) – Zubovich’s Before the Religious Right (Penn, 2022) earned excellent reviews because it is the best and most detailed and comprehensive history of mid-20th-century liberal Protestant politics.
Daniel Bare (Texas A&M) – Bare’s Black Fundamentalists (NYU, 2021) has attracted a lot of positive attention from white evangelicals who are wondering about shared theological connections with Black Christians. Bare’s innovative work uncovers new information about Black Protestants’ relationship to the early 20th-century fundamentalist movement.
In addition, Elesha Coffman (Baylor), Andrea Turpin (Baylor), Molly Worthen (UNC), Heath Carter (Princeton Theological Seminary), Kate Bowler (Duke Divinity School), and Kathryn Gin Lum (Stanford) have been leaders in their field for a while and have already been directing graduate research, but they’re still under age 50 and they’re poised to produce more pathbreaking scholarship within the next few years. All of them published significant monographs within the last decade and are currently working on projects that promise to be highly innovative.
All of this, of course, is only one small subset of the field of US history, because I’ve looked only at the field of American religion, and even there I have focused mainly on the history of the 20th century. And I’m sure that I’ve overlooked some significant work by historians under the age of 50 even in this relatively small subfield (for which I apologize to those I’ve neglected to mention!) – but suffice it to say, there’s still plenty of innovation going on.
I think we can safely say that rumors of the death of US history have been greatly exaggerated.
Nevertheless, the academic editor does have a point. Of the historians under age 50 I’ve mentioned, I’ll have to admit that very few are under age 40. When it comes to opportunities for younger scholars, we’re certainly not in the late 1960s or early 1970s anymore. Tenure-track assistant professorships are extremely difficult to secure these days, and a lot of excellent scholars coming out of graduate school may never be able to pursue a full-time career in the academy.
Yet even while acknowledging the crisis in academia, let’s not overlook the fact that a lot of innovative work in US history is still being done by scholars who haven’t yet reached their 50th birthday. And to an even greater degree than was true a generation or two ago, they’re making much of that work accessible to the larger public. Their scholarship is not only winning academic awards but also prompting a lot of needed conversations among thousands of engaged readers.
I hope that the academic editor who was so pessimistic about the possibility of finding a “breakthrough scholar” under the age of 50 will take a second look at the talent pool. Academic jobs in US history may be scarce, but there are still a lot of promising younger historians whose work is reshaping the field.