By L&T Columnist Gary Damron
At a statewide conference of historians someone asked, "What is the value of history?" The trite old answer is we’ll learn how not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Subsequent responses of the panel included: transferrable proficiencies of understanding people and interpersonal relationships; developing higher learning skills; and imparting how to analyze information and make judgments. The study of history discloses not only what has been done, but how and why events occur.
The discussion then turned to relevance, with everyone in the room of course wanting to be relevant. A variety of ways have been found to address different learning styles of today’s students. For teachers striving to bring students up to speed, history is uniquely positioned to guide an informed citizenry as no other discipline can.
During a session on how to attract and retain history students, participating colleges and universities reported anywhere from a 33 percent loss in the last seven years to a modest increase of 2 pecent. The pressure is on to demonstrate cost-effectiveness through retention and graduation rates, with revenue an important consideration to departments which show either a decline or negligible increases. Additionally, STEM grants and other funding streams target math, science and technology as gateways to employment and higher earnings – thus placing many liberal arts courses and departments in jeopardy.
While locally, we’ve seen an increase in the number of students taking social science courses and an uptick in enrolled credit hours, many of our students are seeking degrees in other areas; classes are simply taken to fulfill requirements. The fact they choose an offering in our area is somewhat satisfying, but if history is dropped from the general ed requirement that would change.
When I entered the field, education was about gaining insight, broadening one’s experience, learning to make informed judgments and being a better person. It’s disturbing that education is becoming simply a means to a better salary. What concerns me most is that among our group – all historians from Kansas – we’re apologetic for being historians and being from Kansas. Sad, because our state historically has served as the crossroad of experience and ideas in America.
Perhaps historians with a progressive bent have become their own worst enemies, tending to look at the past with a critical eye and failing to appreciate accomplishments. Historians come across as negative about our own heritage to the place that students may end up asking, what’s the point of studying this?
We study the past not just to avoid its mistakes, but to build on its successes. For example – several million immigrants come into a country because it’s better than where they lived. The typical historian looks at the problems immigrants face and criticizes the US because of its inability to cope with a large influx of people, rather than seeing immigrants’ lives better than what they left behind. The very standard by which we judge ourselves is higher than that which exists anywhere in the world.
The best history looks at all sides of a situation, rather than assuming one is right and the other wrong. While not advocating that we put on blinders to things in our past, I suggest a realistic balance of achievements and shortcomings to maintain the basic integrity of who we are. Students need the historical perspective of how far we’ve come as well as how far we have to go, so they can go forth with confidence in their future and that of their nation.