Posted by: aboutalbion | April 6, 2013

What is the point of history?

In a post in late January (25th), I noted that the President of American Historical Association addressed this question.  The basis of his answer was ‘storytelling’.

‘Storytelling helps people to understand the past, and to make sense of their lives.  The form and shape of stories will change (especially in a digital age), but the human need for stories is unlikely to go away.’

In the UK, the Times Higher Education (14 March) brings a report from the US on the political debate about who should pay for students to study history and other liberal arts degrees.  The report notes “a growing sentiment that history is ‘non-strategic’ in an economy that needs more engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs and workers in the health professions”.

“If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education, then I’m going to take that money to create jobs.” [Governor Rick Scott of Florida]

“If you want to take gender studies that’s fine.  Go to a private school and take it.  …  But I don’t want to subsidise that if that’s not going to get someone a job.” [Governor Patrick McCrory of North Carolina]

For another Governor, the criterion is whether “young people [are] getting degrees in jobs that are open and needed today, not just the jobs that the universities want to give us”. [Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin]

Associations that represent universities with four year liberal arts degree courses reply “that what employers really want from universities is not job training but graduates who can think critically, write and speak well, and solve problems”.

The report gives the impression that this trend away from the public subsidy of history and allied humanities subjects at universities “could deepen class divisions as some students will continue to be able to afford a humanities education while others will have no choice but to seek specific job skills.  …  The rich get education and the poor get training.  …  It’s a way of reproducing class.  The higher education system is now in cahoots with the economy to reproduce class”.

Back in January, it seems that the President of American Historical Association was not able to stand fully behind the work of the universities.  I noted then that the President could point to a tension ‘between a historian’s professional understanding of the past and the popular understanding of the past’.

‘The President endorsed the view that Mr Everyman wants a story about the past that he can use.  The President went further and echoed a previous presidential address to the effect that popular understandings of the past are ultimately more important than professional understanding of the past.’

It seems to follow from this that ‘living history’ (whether true or false) is history that influences the course of history, and that does not directly involve university history departments.


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