Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural Address was steeped in American history, but when he talked about education he focused entirely on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. The folks at the American Historical Association have noticed this discrepancy. Jim Grossman, the executive director of the AHA, pointed it out in a recent blog post. Today Kenneth Pomeranz, the current AHA president, has also brought it to our attention in a piece at Inside Higher Ed.
When I heard Obama reference Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall last week, I wondered how many Americans knew what he was talking about. How many future presidents (or their speech writers) will be able to use American history to move the nation to action?
Pomeranz makes a pretty good argument for the usefulness of historical research as a complement to STEM fields. History underlies public debate and it shows us that many of the ideas that inform our public life are actually quite “new.” Here is a taste of his piece:
It hardly seems a stretch to think that a world facing our current challenges might benefit from awareness of other ways that people have thought about the relationship of work, citizenship, adult status, “independence” and dignity, or about consumption, economic growth, leisure and the nature of progress. Or to take some narrower examples, consider the implications of learning how relatively recently life insurance went from seeming like a morally dubious gambling on death to a taken-for-granted tool for managing risk. Or that, while (as Thomas Ricks noted in a recent Atlantic) almost no U.S. generals were removed from their commands for poor performance during Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq, many were so removed during World War II – suggesting that the recent situation does not represent an inevitable feature of government, much less of hierarchy generally. Historical knowledge of this kind does not provide lessons as straightforward as “deficit spending can work,” but it can add significantly to our understandings of what is possible, for better or worse, and how things may become, or cease to be, unthinkable.
Research that produces these results, both testing earlier certainties and responding to new questions , thus seems a useful, even necessary complement to research in the STEM fields. Fortunately, most historical research is also relatively cheap, but it does not thrive on complete neglect.