Arguing for history: If not skills, then what?

The quiet, leafy corner of Twitter where I spend increasing amounts of my time exploded this morning with responses to the following statement:

Society doesn’t need a 21-year-old who is a sixth century historian. It needs a 21-year-old who really understands how to analyse things, understands the tenets of leadership and contributing to society, who is a thinker and someone who has the potential to help society drive forward.

Non-academics may be surprised to learn that the author of the statement was in fact not a Trump advisor or even a random sentence generator, but instead the vice chancellor (president, for North Americans) of a major research university, Queen’s University Belfast. Meanwhile, historians on either side of the Atlantic will find the sentiment familiar and the source all too predictable. In light of my last couple of posts regarding the use of “skills” language to defend history and the humanities, Dr. Johnston’s untoward emission provides an occasion to say just a bit more, both critically and, perhaps, constructively.

First, as many Twitter responses this morning pointed out, becoming a “sixth century historian” — depending on the sense intended — requires either a time machine or some very advanced analytical skills, to say nothing of other skills such as languages. So the dichotomy is false, and pernicious. In fact, as we’ve seen, most history programs (assuming that the pattern in Canada is broadly representative) emphasize above all else the analytical skills they instil in their students. One point to take from comments like Dr. Johnston’s, incidentally, is that years of this rhetoric have evidently failed to make much of a dent either in administrative perceptions or (at least in North America) in student plans.

Second, however, the statement is a vivid example of why defending history chiefly in terms of skills is inherently a losing gambit. Locating a discipline’s value in the skills it conveys subordinates the substance of that discipline — what makes it unique and irreplaceable — to the transferable skills that are almost by definition available from other (perhaps cheaper) sources. Within a discipline, it undermines the importance of specific subfields: yes, medievalists learn analytical skills; but does acquiring these skills require studying medieval history? Obviously, no. At the university level, it undermines the need for disciplines themselves. To sell a history department as a writing program is to invite the question: why have both?

Clearly, these are no longer hypothetical questions. We need better arguments for the importance of what we teach, arguments that get at the substance of what we do and what we know, not just the preliminary or ancillary skills that go with it.

The Twitterverse tweets burdens, they say, but also shoulders. Also abroad this morning was the finding that history and humanities students are more politically engaged (at least in terms of voting) than are those in STEM fields. Does this suggest the possibility of re-articulating an argument for history as necessary education for an informed citizenry? Maybe; it has the merit of being true, and at least a little more discipline-specific than critical/analytical skills. On the other hand, that argument still doesn’t do much for historians of the sixth century in a practical way. Arguments oriented towards the direct applicability of historical knowledge to decision-making in the present — powerful and valid as they are — seem likely to privilege a narrow range of specific subfields.[1]

Might we supplement them by arguing that even more recondite humanistic scholarship informs our knowledge of society in indirect but nevertheless fundamental ways? An analogy here might be with “pure” sciences, whose value as knowledge is less frequently disputed than is the case with, to pick a much-picked-on example, medieval history but whose fruits are no more market-ready. These, too, are feeling the pressure from administrators fixated on “deliverables”, and the perverting effect of the fundraising imperative; maybe they have developed counterarguments that would be worth humanists’ time. Certainly, they can’t be doing any worse than we are.

The most generalizable knowledge of society rests, or is supposed to rest, on a knowledge of particular cases; the broadest, briefest synthesis is permitted only by the prior existence of many more focused, detailed analyses. Practical knowledge, one might even say, rests on impractical knowledge. In the largest possible sense, history is what preserves the particulars of human existence and makes them legible. Every historical field is implicated in this, whatever prioritization of them a given context dictates. To do away with a field of history is to chip away at our capacity to learn about ourselves and — if indeed knowledge is power — to limit the scope of what our societies can do or be. Talking about skills in the abstract, relevance without specification, or (God help us) the expected future earnings of History BAs does nothing to stop this. Better arguments please!

[Update: here’s a promising start.]


1 See for example the call for a “Council for Historical Advisors“, launched after this post was originally written.


5 thoughts on “Arguing for history: If not skills, then what?

  1. Pingback: The Ambivalent Alchemist’s Guide to History: Or, Why Gabriel Plattes Matters | memorious

  2. Pingback: If Historians Ran the World | memorious

  3. I agree. We are too she-srtightod when it comes to evangelism. We want it to be quick and easy. Often times evangelism is meeting the person where they’re at, not judging them or preaching, but offering love and nothing more. Thanks for the article. It’s what a lot of people need to hear, including me.


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