What Should Historians Be Thinking About? Part 3

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Read the entire series and get some context for it here.

In Part 2 of this series, I tried to explain why so few undergraduates are majoring in history these days. In this installment I want to focus a bit on the purpose of college with the help of William Deresiewicz, author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.

Deresiewicz argues that students who attend elite colleges are like sheep.  They go to college to pursue careers.  As a result, they tend to major in finance, business, and other professional majors that will enable them to pursue happiness as defined by the accumulation of wealth.

He writes:

The purpose of college…is to turn adolescents into adults.  You needn’t go to school for that, but if you’re going to be there anyway, then that’s the most important thing to get accomplished.  That is the true education: accept no substitutes.  The idea that we should take the first four years of young adulthood and devote them to career preparation alone, neglecting every other part of life, is nothing short of an obscenity.  If that’s what people had you do, then you were robbed.  

Deresiewicz, who spent fifteen years teaching in Ivy League institutions, laments this trend.  College is now almost entirely about career preparation.  A four-year undergraduate education no longer teaches students to:

  1. wonder about the meaning of life
  2. think
  3. learn to care about ideas and make those ideas a part of their soul.
  4. build a self
  5. take intellectual risks
  6. develop habits of reflection
  7. stand apart, and if necessary against, the claims that others make upon you
  8. pursue a calling
  9. cultivate moral courage

I would add a few more history-specific virtues to this list.  An education in history should teach students

  1. contextual thinking about the world
  2. critical analysis of an argument
  3. that things change
  4. empathy for people who are different
  5. humility in our limited to know what happened in the past
  6. to make evidence-based arguments.
  7. that human beings are complex individuals

Deresiewicz has given-up on the idea that elite colleges will produce these kinds of graduates in large numbers.  He thinks that religious colleges may be one of the only remaining places in American higher education where this vision of college still exists.  Is he correct?  We will take this up on Part 4 of this series.

One thought on “What Should Historians Be Thinking About? Part 3

  1. If that’s what people had you do, then you were robbed.

    What’s robbery is putting this poor snowflake $60,000 in debt with a degree in “Useless Studies” but no employable skills.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/25/working-poor-leandra-martinez_n_5884172.html

    As for college teaching “contextual thinking about the world” or “critical analysis of an argument,” the irony is that the argument

    The idea that we should take the first four years of young adulthood and devote them to career preparation alone, neglecting every other part of life, is nothing short of an obscenity.

    is nothing short of a straw man–and thus itself an “obscenity” against critical thinking itself–since nobody’s saying that 4 years of college should be devoid of liberal arts classes. Conservative critics of the edu-industrial complex are all for reading and writing and thinking–it’s all the ideology and “safe spaceism” that gets mixed into the academic stew that they find obscene.

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