Selling History to the Public


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.”


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?


Tomorrow: Presentation at the OAH Annual Meeting

For those in St. Louis attending the OAH Annual Meeting, stop by a roundtable discussion on using Twitter in the college classroom, 9 a.m. tomorrow! Tweet along (or follow along via Twitter) at #OAH2015 and #oahtwtpnl. The panel will be in AC-227.

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HIST 4388: Alcohol in the Atlantic World

Classes begin next week at UTA, which means the past few days have been full of course prep. I will say, having the chance to visit the local homebrew store to buy materials for class… well, it was a nice treat.

My kind of school supplies.

A few seats remain. To any UTA students out there, jump in and join the fun!

To everyone else not at UTA, but who may be interested in the class (a number of you have contacted me over the past few weeks), I hope to post regular updates related to the course throughout the semester. You can also follow course discussions on Twitter via the hashtag: #H4388.

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The course syllabus is now available. You can find it online here.

Alcohol in the Atlantic World (HIST 4388)

One of these days I will get around to writing a post about the whiskey dinner I attended at Mount Vernon. I want to make sure that, when I do write it, I devote the proper amount of time and attention it deserves. Luckily, my tasting notes keep better than my memory, so there will be plenty of details to lay out (once I do it, that is). In short, it was wonderful.

For now, however, I simply wanted to share an early flyer for my course on Alcohol in the Atlantic World, which will be offered next semester at UT-Arlington. Cue the sigh of disappointment – my apologies. A fair amount of Mount Vernon whiskey posts are on the horizon. I promise.

Until then, I leave you with this:

4388 flyer - sea captains