Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Beth Pardoe on What Historians Owe to the Public

Jim Grossman: Executive Director of the AHA
Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe has a great post at the blog of the Historical Society on a recent lecture at Northwestern University by Jim Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association.  Grossman's lecture was entitled "Historical Thinking and Public Culture."  Here is a taste of Beth's post:

Few undergraduates seek to join the professoriate. All but a few desire paid employment. Grossman would not suggest that we shut our doors and send our students across campus to become computer programmers. However, we owe our history majors the language with which to market themselves upon graduation. Messiah College’s John Fea makes a noble effort in his blog series, “So What CAN You Do With a History Major?” Until every historian commits to explain the value of historical thinking, parents and politicians will direct students away from the classes possessed of the power to make them empathic progeny and conscientious citizens.

So then, what does Jim Grossman think history has to offer John and Jane Q. Public? The contingency and complexity of the human experience. Every medical professional takes a patient history, but how many understand the art of the open-ended question or the capacity for a written document to contain multiple truths? Academic historians sneer at biographers, but nothing sells better than a book with a president (or his wife) on the cover. The myths that undermine popular conceptions of the past emerge from these tomes. What if history classes taught students to compose biographies based upon a messy past in which the subject is but one actor with limited agency and tackled the linear hagiographies lining airport shelves within ivy-covered halls?

History doctoral programs posit law schools as their perpetual rivals. Grossman confronted a paneled room filled with professors and would-be-professors with a painful truth. Historians slander law schools as “vocational,” but law graduates take their skills and apply them in myriad occupations outside the law. Doctoral programs in history train their students to become one thing, professors. Who looks vocational now?  

Historians also like to slander lawyers as unethical, but Grossman argues that Ph.D. programs have become intellectual ponzi schemes. Universities constantly expand the number of graduate student TAs who “sell” history to undergraduates although they will never reap the rewards of tenure, because the removal of a retirement age depleted the lines available. Ethics demand early, repeated, reality checks. Tell graduate students that tenured jobs at R1 universities are as rare as positions in the NBA. We know that every child with a great playground jump shot cannot become Michael Jordan; neither can every brilliant young scholar become Natalie Zemon Davis.  

Brilliant!  Thanks, Beth.  (And thanks for plugging the "So What CAN You Do With a History Major Series.  I should add that several of the entries in that series made it into chapter 8 of Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past ).