“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” – Marcus Garvey
In 2018 a professor at Northeastern University, Benjamin Schmidt, published a research report on the study of history at American institutions of higher learning. He concluded that for the past decade, history has been declining as a focus of study more rapidly than any other college major (The History BA Since The Great Recession, Benjamin M. Schmidt, Nov. 26, 2018). This was the case even as more students attended college. History accounted for between 1 and 2% of bachelor degrees, a drop of about a third since 2011.
The casual observer would probably not find this fact surprising. After all, many of the humanities have suffered in recent years as employability became the watchword following the 2008 financial crisis and recession. A secure career path in nursing, engineering, computer science, biology and other STEM disciplines continues to drive the future of higher education.
To the business and scientific world, a female mathematician is worth 10 of her contemporaries trained in the classics, art appreciation or history. The STEM community is also the major contributor of large grants to higher education, ensuring they get what they need from universities and young graduates.
Does it matter if history professors are not offered tenure, if history departments cease to exist or if the history discipline is placed in new departments that combine history with other humanity topics? In my view it does.
Once higher education is permitted to downgrade or dump the humanities in general and history in particular, we will lose a valuable resource. I will present some sage advice gathered from the community of historians and offer my own experience on how history has enriched my life.
First, a nation with little knowledge of history is permitting its leaders to formulate and dissipate a false narrative. I am the first to admit that fake news has always existed since the invention of the printing press. But only an educated polity who has been exposed to unvarnished historical events can expose a false narrative.
Moreover, those trained in uncovering historical truths know how to seek out reliable source materials. They know the importance of reviewing the findings of respected researchers as opposed to ideological commentators. The latter often care nothing for truth or credibility and will manipulate the facts to make a point or achieve a result.
Second, consider the following quote from Alan Mikhail, the chair of the history department at Yale: “A study of the past shows us that the only way to understand the present is to embrace the messiness of politics, culture, and economics. There are never easy answers to pressing questions about the world and public life” (The New Yorker, The Decline of Historical Thinking, Feb. 2, 2019).
History is never black or white. When studying Napoleon Bonaparte, a military history, a political history, a cultural history, a life history and comparative history will each yield its own story. When combined together a fuller understanding is possible. As new source materials are unearthed, the facts change yet again and a deeper level of truth is obtained.
Revisionist histories are now quite common. As new historians come to reconsider long accepted facts, different interpretations are placed on those facts. In recent years we have been given new revisionist histories of the American Revolution, the Civil War and the place of western culture in developing post Hellenistic civilization.
Third, history helps us understand change and how the society we live in came to be. The past causes the present, and so the future. Any time we try to know why something happened – whether a shift in political party dominance in the American Congress, a major change in the use of alcohol or opioids, or a war in the Ukraine or the Middle East – we have to look for factors that took shape earlier. Sometimes recent history will suffice to explain a major development, but often we need to look further back to identify the causes of unforeseen events.
Fourth, history helps provide identity. This is unquestionably one of the reasons all modern nations encourage its teaching in some rudimentary form. Historical data include evidence about how families, groups, institutions and whole countries were formed and about how they have evolved while retaining cohesion. This is generally referred to as “patriotic” nationalism, a positive force in nation building as opposed to “ethnic/nativist” nationalism, which seeks to turn one group against another.
Lastly, history is useful in providing an excellent foundation for many professions. Its study helps create good businesspeople, scientists, journalists and political leaders. There are also the history professionals who teach at various levels, work in museums and media centers, do historical research for businesses or public agencies, or participate in the growing number of historical consultancies.
A few words on how the study of history has enriched my own life: There are enumerable times where knowledge of previous events has helped me to “connect the dots” and understand important political, religious and social concepts. I have learned that principles we take for granted often took centuries to take hold.
To disclose one of many examples, I never fully understood the development of the separation of church and state until the 1076 dispute between Pope Gregory VII and Henry IV of Germany was revealed to me. The two medieval leaders argued over who should have the power to name church bishops: church figureheads or government officials. Gregory was so enraged by Henry’s position that he excommunicated the emperor. Henry was forced to travel to Italy to the pope’s winter castle at Canossa in the Italian Alps to beg forgiveness. Gregory kept Henry waiting outside in foul weather for three days before granting him an audience. All was forgiven and the church now had unbridled control over its own religious appointments.
Skipping forward 600 years, the same issue was unresolved in Puritan New England. It took Roger Williams to push back against theological control of Puritan society. He would go on to incorporate the religiously tolerant Providence of Rhode Island, with the help of concerned men of letters from Britain. This gave the separation of church and state a chance to flourish in the new world. The concept would become a cornerstone of the new republic.
I cannot imagine my intellectual life without an historical frame of reference. My wife has become a student of British history, and her analysis of current events often traces back to an historical occurrence where the parallels are similar. We both enjoy historical fiction and nonfiction studies of places where we travel. Our recent trips to Paris and Cuba were greatly enhanced by reading a few recommended histories before we embarked.
The computer sciences along with other empirical disciplines and technical schools are gaining in popularity. There are good reasons for this change. But the nation needs graduates well trained in the humanities. Most of all, it needs future historians to keep us in touch with our past as we plan for the future.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.