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.

What Should Historians Be Thinking About?–Part 4

College classroom 3

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

In Part 3 of this series I reflected on the meaning 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.  I highly recommend this book.  I plan to give it to my eighteen-year-old daughter to read as she prepares to head off to college in the Fall.

At one point in the book Deresiewicz says that religious colleges may be the only places where the virtues necessary to live a meaningful life are still being discussed, debated, and taught  (see our last post for his list of these virtues and my history-related supplement).

But as I have written in previous posts in this series, the numbers of history majors and, more broadly, humanities majors are in decline and Christian institutions are not investing in the field.  As a result, I don’t think Deresewitz is entirely correct about his praise of religious colleges.

Yes, there are examples of students and departments and administrations encouraging this kind of soul work.  Of course no administration is going to disagree with the idea that religious colleges need the humanities to sustain their missions.  But we also need to follow the money.  Where are the resources spent? Money shapes the culture and narrative of small colleges and universities.

A campus full of business majors and physical therapy majors does not necessarily mean that the humanities ethos of a small campus will be weak, but in most cases this will be the case.

Of course all of this is not new in an evangelical world that sends its children to Christian colleges.  Mark Noll has shown us that the “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” has a long history.  Sometimes I wonder if it is getting worse, not better. But I also think it is unfair to apply the anti-intellectual label to Christians only.  The scandal of the mind extends to more than just evangelicals.

There are many ways historians can respond to this crisis. In the next post, I will explore some potential responses.

What Should Historians Be Thinking About? Part 3


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.