Whither History and the Liberal Arts: A Note to Students

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently stated that “the future” involves “making the marriage between academics and economics.”  Of course there is some truth to this.  Cuomo has been promoting his new plan to make SUNY tuition-free to New Yorkers from families with an income less than $125,000 per year.  The plan is to be applauded, but it has been promoted largely as a way to create jobs and to spur on economic growth in New York State.  The value of an education, the governor has stated baldly, lies in the financial return it brings.

All of this I find a bit troubling as a professor in a history department of a small-ish public college that has long been celebrated for its rigorous academic standards and its commitment to a liberal arts education.  Our students do well after they graduate.  They find gainful employment in their fields.  Many of you are familiar with the arguments that a degree in the liberal arts, one that trains students in the discipline of critical reading, writing, thinking and research, is more versatile than our critics realize.  And I am happy for any proposal that makes access to college easier, and it seems to me to be a no-brainer in terms of public policy.  People with college degrees earn more than those without.  They will thus pay more taxes over the course of their careers than those without, and over decades the program could pay for itself.  A wise long-term investment.  But higher education is not only valuable for the skills it imparts, but for the critincal thinking it encourages, something that I would argue is essential for the survival of the republic.  Now perhaps more than ever.

And in my field? The most recent edition of the American Historical Association Perspectives has highlighted a continued decline in the number of students studying history in American colleges and universities. There are a number of reasons for this. History is sometimes thought of as a difficult major with lots of reading and writing, and there is some evidence of a decline in professions often entered with a Bachelor’s degree in history.  But in the midst of a presidential election in which the electoral college chose a man who has offered one unconstitutional proposal after another, and received the applause of millions of Americans as he did so, it just may be that the decades-long assault on history and liberal arts is having a significant effect.

You students who study history or other fields in the liberal arts will likely be asked, if you have not been asked already, “What are you going to do with that degree?”  Sometimes those questions can come from innocent curiosity, like, really, what are you going to do with that degree. But these questions can also come with a  barbed tip, too, in the sense that the liberal arts are thought by some people out there to have limited value because, unlike the STEM fields and business and things like that, the liberal arts are too often thought of as adding little of value.

The governor of Florida, for instance, a few years ago, argued that we do not need more anthropologists.  Another Floridian, a United States Senator, during his brief, quixotic run for the presidency said that we need “more plumbers and less philosophers.”   The Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky told students at Eastern Kentucky University that they should not bother studying history, and that since they were attending a public college, funded by taxpayers—people who work—that they should do something useful to the Commonwealth.   And why should the state subsidize the study of French literature, the governor of that state asked.  What value does it add for Kentuckians?

I would argue that history and the liberal arts add a lot, and not just for Kentuckians, because they give us the cultural capital to participate in a democratic society in a meaningful and significant way.  But thinking in terms of nuances, complexities, ambiguities, shades of grey; embracing the big questions, pursuing the answers over the long haul, appreciating the value of open debate and discussion, endeavoring to find truth, and digging like badgers for answers, we can find these times we live in rough sledding.

I struggle sometimes to control my own pessimism.  You students, I fear, live in a world where too many people confuse their feelings and their fears for facts, where being smart and engaged and critical and willing to ask questions can make one an object of scorn.  You live in a world as well where complexity is so often dismissed, where big and difficult answers to the big questions are avoided, that asking these sorts of questions can take a certain amount of courage. You may have seen something of this in yesterday’s “press conference” offered by the President-Elect.

Many Americans live in a world where they simply do not invest their time and energy to ask questions, stay informed.  Americans, according to a recent survey, are more likely to be able to identify any two members of the Simpson family (and, just to be clear, we’re talking about cartoon characters) than any one of the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, rights that now, as they have been at many points in the past, are under assault.  22% of Americans can name all five members of the Simpson family, while only one in a thousand can name all five first amendment freedoms. Many Americans live in fear: of immigrants and Islamist extremists–but a plastic surgeon botching your operation is more likely to kill you in the United States than a terrorist.  Yet we are told to be fearful.  And many of us do as we are told.  Enough to tip the election to a candidate who failed to win the popular vote. People around the globe and in this country—some of them, anyways—seem to have more confidence in fear and anger and hate than in their opposites. With malice towards many, and charity for few, with little interest in seeking out injustice, and correcting oppression.

We are living in this moment where a lot of really old issues—race and inequality and class and gender and violence, are resurfacing in complicated and anguishing ways.  The problems are out there.  But to name them and to ask, “What can we do?” and to gather the information to solve them, that can be tough.  And so many of these problems we face are rooted, in part, in a rejection of critical thought, in an embrace of the irrational, and a society with these problems can fall prey to demagogues with their simplistic answers, and will find it difficult to display emotional maturity, and will be prone to violence.  You have seen that in recent months.  We all have seen it.

Yet If we are stronger together, and if we are to make America great again, or as great as it might be, it might be those of us with a solid training in the liberal arts, whatever our majors, who will best see that “injustice anywhere” just may be a threat to justice everywhere.  And that if it is “an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny, that binds us, one to another,” as Martin Luther King once wrote, that you may be among those best suited to do something about it.  History majors, you who think and reason; we, the people who read the footnotes–we can deploy that wisdom that not only makes our lives richer but makes the world a better place—–only if you have the courage to act, and to use it.

We now live in a world where—when we stand up on the face of the problems before us and ask, “Why?” and when we insist on a reasoned and relevant response to that simple question—it’s like an act of subversion, and subversive acts, even the smallest ones, require a degree of courage, of fearlessness.

It can beat your down, if you let it. Looking at the spectacle of public life that my generation is in the process of bequeathing to your generation, it might be easy to slide into a deep cynicism, especially after the last election, but cynicism is an intellectually lazy position, a sort of cop out.  It can take courage to trust and to respect and to appreciate, as well as to care and to love, and to accept the validity of ideas presented by those with whom we would be predisposed to think we might disagree.  To never underestimate others, to take people seriously, whoever that person happens to be, to accept the possibility that those with whom we disagree might have a point and, indeed, to admit that we might be wrong.  To appear vulnerable in the face of those who despise us.  That is not an easy thing to do. That takes courage, and a willingness—a commitment—to approaching everything and everyone with a readiness to see goodness and to be surprised.  We historians–there is so much that we do that is inherently subversive–we can stand in the face of these forces and demand reasoned answers.

It is easy to feel like the challenges we face are too big and it is possible, I think, that we all feel at times like we are not enough to make a difference—that we need to be wealthier or have more expertise or access or whatever.  But what if we used our skills and our thoughts and our reason and acted as if we were exactly what was needed? If we knew we could close the gap between the way things are and the way things ought to be, even a little bit, would we have the courage to act?

A long time ago I had a great history professor.  His name was Albie Burke.  He died about five years ago. And even though I left Cal State Long Beach where he taught in the late 1980s, I still got back to campus every other year or so to have lunch with him and to catch up, to talk about the Supreme Court, constitutionalism, politics, and all sorts of other things. I can remember feeling nervous and unprepared before having to present some of my work in seminar, my thesis project on two really big Supreme Court cases in the field of American Indian law.  We would meet in his very Spartan office, and he always made really incisive eye contact when you were speaking to him.  Bright, bright, blue eyes. He would listen very quietly, never interrupting.  Very comfortable with silences.  And then when you finished, spilling out your guts, telling him how you were not ready, he would pause for a few beats and then say:  “You will never be prepared. Still got to do it.”  He’d smile just a little bit as he said that. It was a tough lesson for some of his students, I think, but his point was that you can spend all your time worrying and fretting and fearing and preparing and not doing.  Fear can keep you from doing what needs to be done, in public life, and in terms of what you want for your own lives.  His daughter told a similar story at his memorial service about many conversations she had had with him just like that.  It is so easy to talk yourself out of pursuing your dreams, of tackling the challenges that may lie in front of you, and of speaking truth to power.

History is not a science.  But it is a discipline.  We historians are interested in the past, and its connections to the present.  How things came to be.  Continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions, and cultures. But all of that is just a fancy way of saying that we historians make our living by asking questions.   If you are like me, you love the questions–the search for evidence, the complexity and the lack sometimes of definitive answers, and the stories—the stories are at the heart of all that we historians do as teachers and writers. And if we are fearless, we can do important work.  We must be honest, curious, inquisitive, and relentless to be sure, but most of all, in terms of the questions we ask, the evidence we consider, the ideas we engage with, and the theses we advance, but we must also be fearless.  Now, on our campuses, in our country, in this global community, more than ever.  Ask questions.  Demand evidence.  Do not accept easy answers.  Use your skills as critical thinkers, researchers, and writers, to ask and answer the important questions that appear before us.




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