Why History Matters—for Some People

I recently wondered aloud about the relevance of history and history of science. I want to distinguish my question from a collective anxiety that seems once again to be gripping the nation. Although my question was specifically about how we make history or history of science relevant to today’s audience, we could substitute “history” for most humanities disciplines.

At the moment many institutions and organizations are worrying about the marginalization of the humanities in the U.S. and declining enrollments: the American Academy of Arts & Sciences’s Commission on the Humanities urges us to “Join this national conversation;” Harvard’s The Humanities Project recently concluded and published its report on strengthening the humanities; The Wall Street Journal reported on “Harvard Humanities Fall From Favor Among College Students;” the NY Times rehearsed some of the standard charges against the humanities, “Humanities Committee Sounds an Alarm;” David Brooks jumped on the bandwagon with his op-ed “The Humanist Vocation” accusing humanists of having lost faith in their own enterprise (David Silbey offers a critique in The Joy Of Start Points). Ben Schmidt provides some much needed long-term perspective on the current “crisis” in humanities enrollments (there is another version of his post at the Chronicle: A Crisis in the Humanities?). For all this collective handwringing, I see few interesting answers to the problem, whatever that problem is.

“This national conversation” seems to conflate various issues—including enrollment numbers, practical job prospects of students in humanities, lack of faith and vision amongst humanists. What happens when we focus on a specific issue: how do you make [fill in your beleaguered humanities discipline here] relevant to your audience. This is a version of “Why bother with [x]?” or “How do you make the person fixing your car care about your scholarship?”

Claire Potter reminded us in her recent post about flipping the curriculum, that simply saying the humanities have transcendent value is not sufficient (and probably never has been sufficient). Instead, she suggests that we teach “college students the history of what they plan to do.” She suggests replacing the general survey courses with topical courses focused on the students’ intended careers: pre-med students could take a History of Medicine (throw in a field trip to a local history of medicine museum, e.g., for me the Mütter Museum at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia), business majors perhaps a History of the Office (regrettably, the Early Office Museum exists only online, although various local historical societies have recreated business offices of the past), finance or economics students could take a History of Finance (I would add a field trip to Museum of American Finance). Making our courses relevant in this way does not debase our courses or the intellectual work students do in them. I would suggest that such relevance makes everybody’s experience better.

In his Why History? Thony C. offers a more general response to the “Why bother with [x]?” question :

I think that at no other time has an awareness and knowledge of the history of science been so important exactly because of the role that history plays in defining identity. We live in a society that is totally defined and dominated by science and technology in a way that has never before been the case. Above all technology has for several millennia played a significant role in defining the various and myriad human societies but a society that has been so completely dominated by its science and technology, as ours is has never before existed. I believe passionately that an understanding of the historical process that brought us to this situation is necessary if we are not to become alienated from this all-dominant aspect of our society and thereby lose an important facet of our own identity.

Because history plays an important role in how we define ourselves, and because science and technology play such an important role in our society today, we should study the history of science. John Horgan seems to have read Thony’s post before offering his own reasons for studying the humanities in a post at Scientific American, Why Study Humanities? What I Tell Freshmen:

But it is precisely because science is so powerful that we need the humanities now more than ever. In your science, mathematics and engineering classes, you’re given facts, answers, knowledge, truth. Your professors say, “This is how things are.” They give you certainty. The humanities, at least the way I teach them, give you uncertainty, doubt and skepticism.

I agree with these completely, and in the past have offered similar, usually tied to a call for action:

History is only superficially about the past. It is, in the end, a profoundly political activity that structures our understanding of the present, justifies current policy choices, and guides our future decisions. The history of science is even more laden with political significance, linked as science often is to traditions of Liberal Democracy and narratives about the triumph of the Western World. Science and past scientific achievements are frequently invoked to defend present ideologies and reassert contemporary hierarchies. Think of how the Galileo Affair is a metonym for our conflicts between science and religion or how the Scientific Revolution is taken evidence for the superiority of our Modern, Western world. My goal in studying the history of science is to disrupt these easy, comfortable assumptions about science and its relationship to society, culture, truth, and nature.

I have tried various ways to implement this in my courses. See, for example, Biography of a Map and the follow-ups Mapping Our Way Forward and Some Final Thoughts on Maps.

At the end of the day, as Claire Potter pointed out, we have to do the work to make history and the other humanities relevant. I am not yet willing to concede that history is a luxury or that history of science cannot contribute to the everyday activities of practicing scientists.