Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What is it Good for?

Randall Stephens

Standards, standards, impact, impact. In recent years historians in the UK have had the Research Assessment Exercise to contend with. (Sorry, your publications with Yea-oh University Press and Oxfort College Press don't pass muster.) Administrators and the public also push for disciplines in the humanities to prove their "usefulness" and "impact."

"As with philosophy," writes Ann Mroz in THE, "it is hard to show history's value beyond an intellectual pursuit. Any moves to make it demonstrate 'impact' risk pushing it down the heritage trail . . ." Your knowledge of Medieval tax law will help you to . . . ? Your study of child rearing in the Elizabethan Age equips you to . . . ? Start training to become a reenactor. Polish up your English Civil War "armour." Get that pike out of the closet.

Richard Overy's April 29 essay in THE, "The Historical Present," has created a stir. He throws down the gauntlet with these words:

Historians have always generated impact of diverse and rewarding kinds, and will continue to do so without the banal imperative to demonstrate added value. There is no real division between what historians can contribute and what the public may expect, but the second of these should by no means drive the first.

Nor should short-term public policy dictate what is researched, how history is taught or the priorities of its practitioners. If fashion, fad or political priority had dictated what history produced over the past century, British intellectual and cultural life would have been deeply impoverished. Not least, the many ways in which historical approaches have invigorated and informed other disciplines would have been lost.

Over at the NYRB, Anthony Grafton worries about the results of this utilitarian calculus. England's Slow Food academy has morphed into McDonald's. "Have it your way." Scholars working in fields that administrators deem useless--paleography, early modern, and premodern history, philosophy--have landed on the chopping block. "From the accession of Margaret Thatcher onward, the pressure has risen," writes Grafton. "Universities have had to prove that they matter. . . . Budgets have shrunk, and universities have tightened their belts to fit. Now they are facing huge further cuts for three years to come—unless, as is likely, the Conservatives take over the government, in which case the knife may go even deeper."

Historians working in America, too, struggle with the burdens of constrained budgets, reduction in full-time positions, eliminated raises, and the push for "relevant" curriculum. But, if the buzz in THE is any indication, what's happening in the UK is something else. Surely, the field of history won't vanish into thin air, as Overy imagines. (More doubtful are his comments on Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan, who "in her 2008 book, The Uses And Abuses of History, called on her peers to reduce their commitment to theory and to write shorter sentences. To do so would be to dumb down what history as a human science is doing." Really?) Still history across the pond may suffer much in this new climate.


Bland Whitley said...

It's always a problem for the humanities when educators start assessing fields' cost-benefit ratios and the like. Though it's perhaps worth pointing out that the financial districts of any good-sized city are usually teeming with former history majors. My own dreadful experiences as a grad student steered me away from a career in teaching, but I still sometimes think about ways I could have better stressed the usefulness of historical study. To me it seems to boil down to a set of intellectual skills, which, though not unique to history, are critical to its study: writing/rhetoric, empathy (because of the exposure to those who are culturally, temporally, and/or socially alien), and the ability to connect seemingly disparate events and/or developments through a chain of cause and effect. Those are skills that one could deploy for any number of pursuits. Yet discussions of history as an educational field seldom touch on them, instead ceding ground to those who see in history a recitation of "one damn thing after another," the more obscure or distant, the more useless.

Randall said...

Bland: Your description of the skills history teaches, I think, is right on the mark. It's certainly no small feat also to get students and the public to understand change over time.