Ed Ayers on What Freshmen Think About the Historical Profession

Drawing upon his experience in a freshman class he is teaching entitled “Touching the Past: The Purposes and Strategies of American History,” Ed Ayers, the president of the University of Richmond and an eminent history of the South, asks a very interesting question: “What do 18-year olds think of historians and our work?

Here is a taste of his article in the September 2013 issue of Perspectives on History:

My strategy of introducing students to our profession, several weeks into the course, by assigning the October 2012 issue of Perspectives on History gave me second thoughts. As I had imagined the class months earlier, this assignment had seemed clever, a parting of the curtain behind the imposing Oz of the professional enterprise. Now that I could see that the students had never fallen for the wizard in the first place, I was anxious about what they would make of our intra-professional conversation. The students read a digital copy of the print version of the publication, start to finish; the professional notes and job advertisements as well as eloquent articles by leaders in our profession.
Analyzing Perspectives as they would a historical document, they were struck, most of all, by historians’ fretting: over the long odds and low salaries of our job market, over discouraging trends evident in graphs and tables, over our uncertainty about the digital world. Never having been in a profession themselves, they did not understand that such self-critical analysis is the intended work of a professional organ such as Perspectives. They saw embodied in Perspectives what they read about in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream, the fragmentation of our discipline and our loss of collective confidence. Not understanding its distribution, they came to class thinking the publication would sell poorly on newsstands in competition with the glossy American Heritagemagazines they had critiqued earlier in the semester.
It turned out to be stimulating and even funny to see our professional life through the eyes of smart young people. Their unintentionally patronizing sympathy hardly shook my faith in our work, but it did make me realize that academic historians cannot take our authority—so palpable within the disciplinary and institutional structures in which we live—for granted. It is not that today’s students are, as often charged, shallow careerists, or that they hold the humanities in contempt, or are cynical or burdened with short attention spans. Instead, they simply had never been presented with the opportunity to see the work that historians do. The structures and actions of our profession, our contributions to American culture, were invisible to them, as they are to most people.