The Use and Abuse of History

Statue of George Washington and the Apotheosis of Washington fresco in the Capitol rotunda. (Photo:
A response to Varad Mehta

Varad Mehta (one of my favorite conservative Twitterers; see this thread, for example) had an essay here over the weekend, in which he criticized those conservatives who leapt to condemn the George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., for scrapping its American-history course requirement for history majors. (Among said conservatives was yours truly.) According to Mehta, the curriculum change was not ideological, but strictly financial. GWU is seeing fewer students signing up as history majors; the department’s funding is dependent on enrollment; ergo, it’s hoping this change and others make the GW history department more attractive to matriculating students. 

Fair enough.

But that raises an obvious question — Why are fewer students taking up history? — and Mehta’s answer seems to me confused: “To put it bluntly,” he says, students “were importuned to stay away by the same people decrying GW’s new history requirements”:

What else, given current attitudes about liberal-arts degrees, did anyone expect? Students are told that the purpose of attending university is career preparation. College exists to impart the knowledge and skills that will meet the demands of the 21st-century economy. Art history, philosophy, French literature, and their humanistic brethren have been written off as antiquated and obsolete. To study them is to declare to prospective employers that so are you. At the wizened old age of 22. . . . 

GW’s history department altered its requirements for history majors because, frankly, we insisted it alter them. We told humanities programs that they were outdated, and we told students that if they undertook liberal-arts degrees they’d fall behind in the race for a better job, a better income, a better life. Get with the times! society proclaimed. Pupil and professor both listened. If, then, we want our children to study American history, perhaps we should stop telling them they’ll be bad citizens if they do.

But are the people “decrying GW’s new history requirements” actually the “we” of the last paragraph? It seems to me that different people are saying superficially similar things about the humanities for different reasons. Unfortunately, Mehta doesn’t parse them.

A schematic genealogy might look something like this: The turn against the humanities originated with the Left in the Sixties and Seventies as part of a broader turn against the traditional modes and content of education, which were seen as instruments of illegitimate power structures. (“Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Western Civ has got to go!”) The result was the thicket of identity-politics sub-disciplines that sought, at their best, to rediscover historical perspectives that had been neglected or marginalized, and, at their worst, to indoctrinate simple antagonism against what had gone before.

When conservatives turned their attention to higher education, it was to criticize these perceived usurpations of core disciplines — fields of study understood to be crucial to the formation of good citizens. In The Closing of the American Mind, to take one of the most famous examples, Allan Bloom did not oppose studying philosophy; he did oppose the way philosophical studies had been dismissed as worthless, or commandeered for ideological purposes. Conservatives understood themselves to be pushing back against liberal subversion.

So it is for many conservative detractors of higher education as it’s generally available today. Conservative organizations such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute or the Claremont Institute spend large sums of money offering scholarships and fellowships to supplement students’ studies; they obviously do not consider art history, philosophy, or French literature “antiquated and obsolete.” But they do tend to object to the way those subjects are generally taught. Likewise, perhaps GW students are not interested in majoring in history. But plenty of students are doing so at Hillsdale, Grove City, and other institutions that promise a more traditional pedagogy. (Also, given that GW does not attract a particularly conservative student body to begin with, it seems reasonable to ask: Are they really passing up history courses because of what conservative critics say?)

This is all simply to suggest that conservative critics of GW’s more lenient requirements might have entirely consistent motives: The purpose of historical study is not career preparation; it’s part of forming well-rounded human beings and good citizens. It has to do with moral instruction and cultural transmission. Learning one’s national history is part of properly orienting oneself to the world. A course of study that does not serve those purposes might be a waste of time and resources, both being limited.

But that is different from saying that the discipline as such is not worth pursuing. It is — properly understood.

It’s a shame, then, as Mehta observes, that so many conservatives have taken a view of higher education that reduces it to vocational training. (Marco Rubio’s quip about the earning potential of philosophers versus welders is only the most recent example.) However, that, too, is in part a product of the ideological divergence above: Part of the reason humanities disciplines have become less marketable is that they have become narrower and more faddish. A large domestic corporation might value having an employee who demonstrates, over and above her specific qualifications, a broad, substantive knowledge of American history. But that corporation is less likely to find added value in a historical knowledge that pertains largely to Marxist-feminist intersections in post-1980 Bangladeshi cuisine. As long as a four-year liberal-arts degree is something we’re determined to impose on every student (our ill-considered consensus, but there you are), the humanities will be subject to more-intense market pressures. Turning those disciplines into Junior Ph.D. programs is accelerating them along the road to ruin.

Part of the reason humanities disciplines have become less marketable is that they have become narrower and more faddish.

The damage is reciprocal, too. Part of having a more humane economy is encouraging a more humane education.

It’s a glib, overbroad characterization (not to say a prima facie unconservative one) to say that someone should study welding, not philosophy, and conservatives often have been thoughtless in their formulations with regard to this subject. But if “philosophy” is understood as “much of what passes for philosophy in institutions of higher learning today,” the sentiment is perhaps less galling. A degree is expensive, and people have to make a living. They also should be sufficiently educated as to be up to the tasks of citizenship.

GW’s curriculum change suggests that its history department, like many other departments in many prestigious universities, has decided to pursue one of those goals at the expense of the other. How that came to pass is, I think, more complicated than Mehta suggests. For this critic, at least, it’s precisely because the humanities are so valuable that GW’s decision is unfortunate.


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