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.

 

What Year?

Dave Barry’s end of year review is part of our annual ritual for changing over the calendars. For those unfamiliar with Barry’s work, he was a columnist with the Miami Herald and is the author of numerous humor books. Known for his light touch, as well as his friendship with Stephen King, Barry has a way of finding the fun in what are often trying times. It should be no news that Barry’s work was quite easy this past year. 2017 was so bizarre that few humorous garnishes were required to make it look ridiculous. Even as Barry embellished the facts just a little bit, 45 was starting off 2018 in an even more unbelievably surreal mode. Congressional Republicans, of course, noses permanently stained brown, lock step with him.

I have to wonder when world leaders became so unaware. Perhaps because of the ad hoc declaration of fake news people like Trump think they can rewrite history. History, however, takes a long view. There’s no doubt whatsoever that the Trump administration will be remembered (if there are any of us left here to do so) as one of the strangest and most foolish periods of American history. Even Rome, of course, had its Caligulas. The thing was the evangelical would’ve despised the antics of such an emperor. If Trump had an ass he’d make it a senator. And the GOP would quickly confirm it. Rumor has it that he’s already attempted this.

Those who ignore history, to paraphrase George Santayana, are condemned to live through it again. And Trump, it is clear, doesn’t know history. As the Roman emperors grew more and more decadent, the Visigoths quietly awaited the implosion. When we see the beast and the false prophet squabbling we know that the end of time is near. A cold snap hits the east coast and the pretender-in-chief says we could use some global warming. Global warming, of course, is what triggers such erratic weather. The problem is you have to read to find out such things. And you have to read what you, as emperor, have decreed to be fake news. Historian Barbara Tuchman once stated that you need about fifty years to pass before writing history about an event. Right now we have a White House trying to rewrite history of last January, as if anyone alive then is incapable of remembering what happened a paltry year ago. And what a paltry year it was. Read Dave Barry’s take and find out for yourself.

Jane Who?

“Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last.” So states Charlotte Brontë in the preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre. I am inclined to believe that the lines were widely ignored by clergy and politicians, for public leaders in nineteenth century Britain were not likely to take the advice of a young lady who only had one real credit to her name. Politicians and clergy of twenty-first century America can hardly be expected to have read Jane Eyre, for how would this woman know the harsh realities of how to assert one’s own will on the masses? In the stewing tea pot of the Religious Right, conventionality is morality. Self-righteousness is religion. George Santayana might well have saved his cramped fingers from writing, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

As politicians oil their moving parts in preparation for next year’s great race, they know that many constituents will gladly accept conventionality as morality without asking about the origins of such practices. Schoolyard bullies who seek their own aspirations praise the great darkness that has settled over New Jersey where education is simply a commodity with which to bargain. Jane Eyre? Who’s she? If she’s a constituent, I’d better spin this slashing of education funds to her liking. Without an educated public, it is much easier to bolster one’s personal authority.

For years educators have been watching in dismay as other developed nations soar past American expertise in science, math, and even geography. Our response: let’s cut education funding. Conventionality is morality. Education teaches children to think for themselves. Is it not better to show them that self-righteousness is religion? We can put other religions on trial (thank you, Mr. King), while conveniently forgetting our founders were largely religious dissenters. To know that, however, you have to read a little history. We are far too busy plotting how to shortchange our future in order to feather further already overly plush nests.