A historian recounts an accomplished university career that spans more than three decades and reflects on the deterioration of the discipline.
Born in 1947, Kaiser (Baseball Greatness, 2018, etc.) seemed destined to become a historian. At the precocious age of 10, he wrote a history—albeit brief—of the United States. A naturally gifted student, he sought “refuge” in his studies from an “emotionally chaotic” family environment. His father was a diplomat, and, as a result, the author traveled peripatetically with his family, spending swaths of his childhood in Washington, D.C.; New York; London; and Senegal, hungrily absorbing the culture of each environment and always hunting for new knowledge in books. Unsurprisingly, he embarked on a noteworthy academic career as a historian that started at Harvard University, where he earned his doctorate, and included appointments at multiple institutions, including Carnegie Mellon and the Naval War College, where he found it “surprisingly easy to fit in” and felt most at home. Kaiser chronicles in astoundingly granular detail his remarkable ambition to “establish myself in the first rank of my profession.” He did precisely that, writing important books that covered such diverse topics as the Vietnam War—which he calls the “the key event of my own life as of the early 1990s”—and American baseball. At the heart of the remembrance is a profound lament on the descent of the scholarly practice of history in particular and the quality of university education in general: “No one, in any university or any liberal arts college that I know of, was focused on providing high-quality teaching. While some high-quality teachers remained, they had gotten where they were by accident and could not replicate themselves.”
Kaiser’s career is an undeniably impressive one, and his contributions to the profession are genuinely important. Such a candid peek into the life and work of a preeminent historian should prove captivating to readers interested in the field, whether or not they’re familiar with the author’s work. Unfortunately, his painstakingly microscopic recounting of his professional life— including not only his intellectual evolution, but also departmental squabbles and rivalries—will likely grow tedious. In addition, the memoir is interspersed with brief recollections by past students—all adoring—a gratuitous addition to the book. Nevertheless, Kaiser furnishes an exceedingly thoughtful exploration of his craft, including the significance of reviewing primary sources and the need for scholars to expand their research into the history that precedes their points of investigative focus. Moreover, the author’s critique of contemporary historical scholarship and its connection to today’s political turmoil is intellectually gripping: “The collapse of the historical profession which I witnessed firsthand is, I am convinced, quite connected to the broader decline of public life in the United States, and the threatened collapse of American society.” This is a notably wise book, with its insights drawn from a deep wellspring of personal and professional experience.
An astute meditation on a successful academic life coupled with a searching discussion of the history field’s decline.