You’re History

A story from Inside Higher Ed discusses a study of history majors and their rapid decline.  This occurs during a sudden onset of “job related” majors and the graph accompanying the article shows how STEM has taken over higher education.  These are the fields with actual occupations awaiting them at the end of the degree, while disciplines such as history and religion (also very near the bottom) have less clear career paths.  Indeed, when I’ve been in the job market I find that a religion degree is less than useless, no matter what the department recruiters tell you.  If you’re not bound for the clergy you undertake the study at your own peril.  History, I expect, suffers from a similar dynamic, but the peril in this case is to all of civilization.

We’ve seen over the past two years how a stunning lack of knowledge of history sets a nation on the path to chaos.  Businessmen with no classical education don’t make good national leaders.  Knowing where we’ve been, as Santayana so eloquently stated, is the only thing that keeps us from repeating past failures.  History is our only safeguard in this respect.  Over the Thanksgiving break I spent a little time delving into family history.  Since I don’t come from illustrious lineage, I felt the frustration of finding out what happened to obscure people from the last couple of centuries.  Lack of history on a personal level.  On a professional level, my doctorate is really in the history of religions (ancient religions) and I’ve become keenly aware of just how little history there is to the very popular modern Fundamentalist movement.

Maybe I said that wrong.  They do have a history, but the belief system that is touted as ancient is really quite modern.  Anti-modern, in fact.  When historical knowledge is lacking, however, people can make all kinds of claims based on nothing more than wishful thinking.  History keeps us honest.  Or it used to.  When we’ve outlived the need for history we’ve started down a path unlit by any embers of past human foibles.  We’ve been living in a culture in love with technology but not so much with critical reflection of where such innovations might take us.  Doctors are beginning to complain that they spend more time on their computers than with their patients.  The time freed up by the internet has been taken up by the internet.  And when all of this comes to its natural culmination, we would be well served by historians to make a record of what went wrong.  If we could find any.


2 thoughts on “You’re History

  1. Jeff Hora

    Great overview post, Steve.

    I have been lucky in my life to have been influenced by mentors early on that have made me into a “history buff” (whatever that is…..really…). I just finished “Collapse” by Jared Diamond. While not history, per se, the in-depth analysis of what caused a number of societies, small, larger, ancient and a few more modern, to flounder, die, and, in a couple of cases, survive, mostly self-inflicted actions gives one even more pause when considering our current societal state. Reconstructing the actions, and particularly the attitudes, of the far past is difficult, but the data that is available now to those doing the research is more voluminous and able to be analyzed at a more granular and relatively cohesive level. While no one alive was actually there, the weight of study and evidence provides a lot more insight than even 10-20 years ago. All that said, one of Diamond’s final “cautiously optimistic” conclusions is that we have the capability to overcome the problems we face, as long as we really want to….

    Aye…..there’s the rub…..


    • Well said, Jeff! As I’m sure you know, Kay is a history buff as well. It’s one of the things we both really enjoy. The level and depth of information now available is truly remarkable—it must be daunting to be a regular historian these days! I also like Jared Diamond’s work. It falls between history and anthropology, it seems, but he’s got his fingers on the pulse.

      Your final statement is key: we lack the will to know what we can know. Unfortunately the current climate sees historical truth as whatever we want to believe. It is perhaps the most tragic event in our nation’s history—bar none—when that attitude was allowed to attain high office.


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