Thoughts about the History Discipline in 2020

This is just a brief introduction into some ideas that have been percolating in my mind lately about the study of History in higher education.

Right now the study of History is perhaps more important than ever. Journalists, politicians, and other media creators constantly invoke history as they discuss the pandemic, Black Lives Matters, Confederate monuments, building names, the list goes on and on. But if you remain unconvinced, here are three points about the relevancy of History in 2020.

  1. We are currently facing a pandemic and understanding previous ones can help us to understand past mistakes, obstacles, and reactions to better respond to an ever evolving situation.
  2. We are also facing a reckoning of white supremacy. It is imperative to understand 400+ years of racial hierarchies to begin to unpack this.
  3. These two realities have impacted our government (ideas of liberties, policies, and voting). These are all ideas and concepts that have evolved over our country’s history.

And yet, Covid-19 and the economic constraints it has created, have added threats to the History discipline, specifically in higher education.

  1. Since at least the Great Recession (beginning ~2008), disciplines in the Humanities have been threatened as students (and their parents who often foot the cost of their education) seek out degrees that they believe will guarantee employment.
  2. Students often see programs in Humanities, including History, as not having clearly transferrable skills.
  3. Covid-19 has continued to threaten the budgets of colleges, especially the small, private schools that lack the name recognition.
  4. As a result, smaller colleges (often those traditionally in the Liberal Arts) have shrunk their History departments, meaning fewer Historians are finding full-time careers that allow for more research and understanding of this important discipline. Not to mention, this means there are fewer opportunities to teach it and fewer people learn history.

This last point seems worth highlighting. One might say, “Well can’t I just read a book and learn the history?” In theory, sure. Although it certainly helps to have a professional teacher curate your reading list to weed out the junk history and highlight the really important historiographical texts. Additionally, it can be helpful to go through the material with peers to discuss and really analyze what is in the sources together. But again, if we have fewer professional Historians, there will also be fewer books exploring the material and finding new understandings of our past. And so that first argument, “can’t I just read a book?” will become mute as fewer new and reliable texts are published.

Another key aspect is that History, and the study of it, does provide transferrable skills to employment (and not just to become a teacher).

  1. Studying History allows us to be better world citizens; we can better understand the world and people we encounter on a regular basis. We can also better understand issues such as voting rights, white supremacy, citizenship, and immigration. Our current positions and debates did not emerge in a vacuum. They have long roots, some going all the way back to the first European settlers to arrive in North America.
  2. Studying History teaches strong research skills, how to recognize reliable sources, and how to account for and learn from bias. In a world that has a limited understanding of science, there has been a heavy emphasis placed on objectivity and rejecting of bias. But everything has a bias, and Historians learn how to recognize it and use it to understand the material in a way that helps use to interpret the History.
  3. History teaches excellent communication skills, especially in writing. Nearly every employer requires its employees to effectively communicate. Some days, communication feels like a lost art.
  4. History is an excellent major for careers in law, journalism, and education.
  5. Companies, especially in the era of Black Lives Matter, want employees who don’t just ask if they can do something but if they should do something. The concern of performative marketing strategies reinforces a need for employees who understand the context of the times.

So what can we do now? If you are in college or have a child in college, take courses in the Humanities. Consider a minor or major. Alumni donate to your alma matter’s History or Humanities programs. Share these messages.

Need more proof? Check out these resources:


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