A Historian's Career
I am an American historian who has spent the past few decades doing research and writing about social movements, political repression, and higher education. Much of that work deals with McCarthyism – about which I am widely cited by scholars and the media. In recent years I have also been looking at the politics of the academic community. My broad survey of that community during its most turbulent decade, The Lost Promise: American Universities in the 1960s, will be published by the University of Chicago Press in late 2021.
I began graduate school at Harvard in the early 1960s. My PhD. dissertation was eventually published as The Hired Money: The French Debt to the United States, 1917-1929 (1979). Meanwhile, childrearing and other projects (including a Chinese cookbook, Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook, (1976) intervened and by the mid-1970s, I was teaching a Freshman composition course at Harvard about the culture and politics of the 1950s. As I put the syllabus together, I discovered that there was nothing I could assign to my students that would explain McCarthyism. Having grown up in a liberal household during the height of the postwar Red Scare, I knew how politically devastating it had been.
A fellowship from the then-Bunting Institute at Radcliffe got me started, but I soon realized that I had probably been overly ambitious and should narrow my focus to the impact of the anti-Communist furor on a single city or institution. The result: No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (1986). It showed that the academic community had been as implicated in the political repression of the 1950s as any other sector of American society.
The larger project still beckoned, as I realized the need to counter the then-standard interpretation of McCarthyism as the aberrant behavior of a single politician rather than the mainstream phenomenon it actually was. Today, most historians consider my book, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (1998), the definitive work on what was the longest-lasting and most widespread episode of political repression in the history of the United States.
By the late 1990s, while still contributing to the national conversation about McCarthyism and political repression through articles, documentary films, and a short reader, I was also studying and writing about higher education. I became active in the American Association of University Professors. After editing its magazine, Academe, for a few years, I produced a book about the contemporary academic scene, The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Academic Freedom, Corporatization, and the Assault on the University (2010).
As I did the background reading for project, I had assumed that other scholars had written about higher education during the 1960s. Such however was not the case. So, I decided to fill that lacuna, little realizing that what had begun as a monograph about faculty members in the New Left would morph into a much larger survey. That book, The Lost Promise: American Universities in 1960s (2021) not only provides the first extensive overview of that pivotal, but strangely unexplored, decade in the history of US higher education, but also argues that the backlash against what happened during those years bears considerable responsibility for the still ongoing crisis within the academic world.