What Should Historians Be Thinking About?–Part 5

Seminar Room

This is our fifth and final post in this series.  For previous posts in this series click here.

The stuff I wrote about in the first four posts of this series have left me somewhat exasperated. I imagine that there are several ways a historian could respond.  One could just give up–quit academia altogether or find other ways to explore the kinds of questions and issues that the humanities have to offer.  Frankly, I have been wondering for some time now if the kinds of virtues that the humanities bring to American society are best taught outside of the academy.

But I don’t think I am ready to give up just yet.

I’ve tried to respond to this crisis in several ways:

As a department chair I spend more time than ever recruiting students. The days of history majors just showing up at our colleges and universities and filling seats in our classrooms are over.  As I have written before, the practice of recruiting high school students to come to a college and major in history has almost become something akin to a college football coach recruiting a star player. I write dozens of hand-written notes a year to potential history majors.  I call them, I talk to their parents, and I try to give passionate and entertaining pitches at Open House events. I imagine that the next step will be visiting them in their living rooms–Bear Bryant-style– with a letter intent.  This takes a lot of time.

As the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I have tried to devote a part of my work as an author and writer to making a case for history.  I have written about all the things one can do with a history major, the way history helps us to be better citizens and community members, and how the study of history can make us better Christians.

In addition, I have tried to get people interested in the study of history through this blog, through my work with K-12 teachers, through social media and a podcast, through books and written pieces in newspapers and other popular online venues, and through a busy speaking schedule. Perhaps I am being naive or tilting at windmills, but I think this kind of work might help attract more students of history and make some very small contribution to a more informed citizenry.

Is there anything else that can be done?  Maybe.  As I read William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life I was struck by his argument that the study of history and the humanities should not only be for the wealthy or the so-called “leisure class,” but for everyone. As a first-generation college student and the son of working class parents, my study of history has transformed me. Perhaps I need to do a better job of communicating this story.

In the end, my idealism is fading amid a healthy dose of realism.  I only have so much more optimism left.  Perhaps these five posts are my way of coming to grips with this change.  Thanks for reading them.