New Year seems to be the expected time – indeed, a convenient time – to reflect on the state of the world. Or in this particular case, the state of the “historical” world. I’m the eternal optimist. So when I went to the New York Times book best seller lists, I expected to see several non-fiction works of (popular) history. To be sure, I found named in this week’s combined print-and-ebook 10 best sellers no fewer than four works, two of which were written by respected historians. Not bad, I thought! Then, I looked for a list of best sellers combining all genres. The most recent one from USA Today, lists just 7 recognizable historical works among 150 best sellers. One of these is the final volume in the Manchester Churchill biographic trilogy; only two of the remaining 6 were written by recognized historians. All of which prompts me to wonder, as the famed WW II cartoonist Bill Mauldin put it in 1946 –
perhaps history is an “Un-American Activity”. Mauldin’s cartoon* above, published 2 April 1946, anticipates the most egregious workings of the House (of Representatives) Committee on Un-American Activities and that of Senator Joseph McCarthy. But we’re not talking about some conspiracy of historians with Communists or terrorists here. I’m simply suggesting that history is not currently an American “thing”.
By way of confirmation of this thesis, we read in October about Florida Governor Rick Scott wanting to reduce funding for teaching of liberal arts in that state’s public universities. And in April, Daniel Weiss, the outgoing President of my own undergraduate alma mater, Lafayette College, highlighted the challenges facing liberal arts education in private institutions. His six word summary: “The market is happening to us”. While these stories make no specific mention of it, it’s clear that the teaching of history, along with that of other liberal arts disciplines, is at risk of being downgraded (to oblivion…?) in both public and private higher education.
But this problem starts even earlier – in public elementary and high schools – where students demonstrate distressingly poor performance in history. In results released in June 2011, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that just 20% of 4th graders, 17% of 8th graders and a really scary 12% of high school seniors demonstrated proficiency in history. The questions weren’t complicated: who was North Korea’s ally in the Korean Conflict? Why is Abraham Lincoln an important figure in U S history? What social issue did Brown v Board of Education address? A New York Times article reporting these results blames public policy for this failure of public education: No Child Left Behind places emphasis on improving math and reading scores to the neglect of other topics like history. I think Daniel Weiss’s formula “The market is happening to us” applies in the political / public realm every much as it does to private education. Popular perception (and probably the experience of a good many history majors…) has it that a history degree doesn’t predictably lead to a paying job. And that’s the whole story. Rick Scott said it: “So I want that [taxpayer] money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state.” Read this “STEM” – science, technology, engineering, mathematics.
What should be the historian’s role in this brave new world of the hard-science dominated marketplace, if we are to avoid being condemned to relive the past we forgot (or never studied)? As I wrote on New Years last year, I believe that historians must come out of their ivory towers and bring history to the people. Popular history is often looked down upon by academic historians. Yet if the marketplace is well and truly to dominate even the historical scene, practitioners of the discipline must respond by creating products that will do well in a marketplace that is very full and very competitive. Last year I argued that it is past time for academic historians to get out their Powerpoint presentations and knock on the doors of local history groups, libraries, service clubs and PTAs. I also promised that they would be gratified by the reception they receive: people really are hungry to hear their history – so long as it’s even remotely relevant to their lives and presented in an accessible manner.
There’s another thing – a lesson we can learn from the marketplace – that we need to incorporate in to our thinking. I call it the Google principle: you give away some useful product in order to gain customers. Historians must get used to doing some sort of free work in their communities if they are to earn the trust and respect of their communities of tax payers. Once the tax payers actually see what they are “buying”, historians will have gained a share of the marketplace.
So, I propose a goal for 2013: each historian, from Department Head to first year graduate student will give three presentations to lay groups in their communities. Let’s flood our communities with knowledge of their past. Everyone will be the better for it; the outreach may begin a movement that proves the relevance and importance of the study and teaching of history in our marketplace nation; and historians may thereby assure that the practice of their discipline once more becomes an All-American Activity.* Cartoon is from DePastino, Todd, ed., “Willie and Joe Back Home”, a collection of Bill Mauldin’s post-war cartoons. Seattle, Fantagraphic Books, 2011. ©2012 Thomas L Snyder