Selling History to the Public

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A recent op-ed by Jim Grossman – “History isn’t a ‘useless’ major. It teaches critical thinking, something America needs plenty more of” – published earlier this week in the Los Angeles Times has made (and continues to make) the rounds on social media. Responses to the editorial are not surprising. Many, like me, reposted it to help circulate the message. Many more posted comments with the link to show their agreement with Grossman’s argument. Plenty of others challenged the claim that History is not a useless major; to quote one person who commented on the editorial (‘commenter2015’), “History is fun. But so is going to Six Flags, I wouldn’t major in it.”

What intrigued me were the handful of people on Twitter, fellow historians, who expressed frustration – not at the message of the editorial, but the fact that historians have to make this case over and over again. It seems that historians, and those who specialize in the humanities in general, are always on the defense. Politicians from both national parties mock the liberal arts (lest we forget President Obama’s infamous dig at Art History), funding for programs continues to dwindle, and now the soon-to-be nominee for the Republican Party is advocating an education plan that would actively discourage students from majoring in the liberal arts.

Those outside the profession may acknowledge the importance of learning past events, but the true meaning of studying history and the benefits it offers is still something a lot of people simply do not grasp. Coincidentally, the same day Grossman’s op-ed released, Patrick Johnson, the Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast, dropped a dismissive line in an interview, stating, “Society doesn’t need a 21-year-old who is a sixth century historian.” But, according to the Vice Chancellor, society does need, “a 21-year-old who really understands how to analyse things, understands the tenets of leadership and contributing to society, who is a thinker and someone who has the potential to help society drive forward.”

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Statements like this, or like the one stating History is “fun” but not worth majoring in, make historians and humanists alike want to bang their heads (repeatedly) against a wall (or desk, or door… any hard surface will suffice). Patrick Johnson’s description of an ideal graduate is – wait for it – a liberal arts major. Someone who can analyze (check), who is a thinker (check), and who can contribute to society/drive society forward/insert other generic comment about leadership here. That last point can apply to anyone, but it does not in any way exclude liberal arts majors, especially historians of the sixth century (solidarity, my medieval historian friends).

This is what is so maddening about the conversation, but it is also why pieces like Grossman’s are so important. For decades, humanists proclaim endlessly about the value of what we study, yet these words seem to fall on deaf ears every time. How do we change that? Grossman sells the economic value of majoring in history, because he has to. The idea of pursuing higher education that is not some blatant form of job training no longer makes sense to the general public. Degrees are investments, universities are businesses, and students go to college to get a job.

The discourse has grown so stark, it chills the bones.

Whether or not we will return to a day in which the value of education does not depend solely on economic returns is unclear. Maybe it will only happen in my dreams. Regardless, we (historians) know that history courses teach essential skills, and that history majors are in high demand, especially in the tech sector.

So why do we keep having this conversation?

Why are op-eds, like Grossman’s piece, still necessary, and yet still receive such criticism? Why do historians and humanists alike have to keep beating that poor, dead horse with the same defensive claims? What about this isn’t working?

I wish I had the answers. In my mind, the front line of history and public engagement is the classroom. Maybe that is where those in the liberal arts should focus (but certainly not limit) their attention. The classroom is the space in which we, the instructors, can at least show the next generation of economic and civic leaders what the liberal arts brings to the table. This would also mean a fundamental shift in the way academia values teaching, but that is a topic for another day.

Unless something changes, I do not see how this conversation can move forward. We seem to be stuck in a loop with each side talking past each other but never listening. There must be different tactics available to achieve some kind of progress.

But what if progress is already happening? Maybe the conversation has begun to change. It isn’t clear. Until we gain the distance of time to examine the shifting patterns of discourse, we may not yet be able to decipher and understand these developments. But engaging in that kind of analysis would require a certain set of critical skills… now, where on earth could we find that?

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3 thoughts on “Selling History to the Public

  1. McLarenJen

    My thoughts exactly. It’s all rather depressing (especially for teachers and students at QUB), but also a challenge we must take up. I’ve enjoyed reading through @mccormick_ted ‘s recent blog posts on this too-he’s challenging historians to encapsulate not just the skills argument about the value of history, but also the content of what we study & teach, which can differentiate history from other humanity disciplines. https://memoriousblog.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/arguing-for-history-if-not-skills-then-what/

    Liked by 1 person

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