The Preparation of Historians

Another gap in historians' preparation

  • 1.  Another gap in historians' preparation

    Posted 04-29-2014 11:02:00 AM

                I'm loath to be the only one initiating or continuing discussions on this list.  As I feared-both because of how the AHA is approaching these "communities" and because of the subject of this particular discussion-there's not much traffic, which tells us something about the purchase of the issue on historians' consciousness.  What to do about that I don't know and would like to learn from others.  The AHA is, however, another matter.  Only two AHA staff members have joined this list-Allen Mikaelian, the AHA's media coordinator, whose duties no doubt include keeping up with discussions, and Julia Brookins, the AHA's special projects coordinator, who has posted relevant materials to the list.  But note that the AHA's executive director isn't a participant, nor, so far as I can tell, are any member of the AHA council, any division director, or any division members.  The last thing I want here is songs sung by choristers to other choristers.  We have enough Word in our sector of the world.  What we need more of is Act.  If matters taken up here are to have no resonance beyond us, if ideas proposed here are not noticed because not even read by those in a position to run with them, what's the point of "communities?"  What's the point of this particular "community?"


                But I write not merely to rue what is not going on.  I also write with another thought about the preparation of historians.  I've just finished reading two recent books about the humanities.  (There are others like it on my desk, but I haven't gotten to them.)  The first is Peter Brooks et al., The Humanities and Public Life.  The second is Geoffrey Galt Harpham, The Humanities and the Dream of America.  Both are better than most.  The first is more high-flying and omphaloskeptic, the second more concrete.  The first, while treading much old ground, avoids the usual wearying, hackneyed worries about the humanities by focusing on the question of the problem of fighting back against instrumental attacks on the humanities with non-instrumental arguments.  (Nothing much specific is proposed.)  The second breaks some new ground regarding the history of the humanities and, unusual for works on this subject, is witty as well as learned.  Both being by literary scholars, not surprisingly they ignore history entirely (which is an enduring problem for the humanities).  But these aren't why I mention them.


                Another failure of ours in preparing historians for their professional lives-as other disciplines also clearly fail their students-occurs to me when reading these works.  And that's that we do little, if anything, to help our students see that they are not just historians; they're not just doing Asian history; they're not just writing dissertations on laborers in southwest Texas, 1877-1893.  They're inaugurating their participation in the world of the humanities, for which they have some responsibility.  That is, the fledgling musicologist is beginning to be responsible for the university professor of philosophy just as-dare we entertain the hope?-the senior curator at a history museum on the Mall has some responsibility toward the graduate student in literature.


                I write this after having been nicely burned in my own efforts to do something about the humanities.  We people in the humanities are terrific at digging foxholes in which (so we mistakenly assume) we can protect ourselves alone.  But a trench in which to stand arm in arm?  Not a chance.  And part of that inability, that incompetence, that failure of intellectual and institutional vision and acculturation starts in graduate school, where most faculty members don't give a damn about other disciplines, about the ACLS, about the NEH, don't initiate their students into the larger world they're entering because they pay no attention to it themselves.  I don't know what to do about this.  But I do know that until this awful imbedded intellectual and professional solipsism is addressed, neither the discipline of history nor the humanities will be as strong as they should be.

    James Banner
    Washington DC

  • 2.  RE:Another gap in historians' preparation

    Posted 04-30-2014 11:17:00 AM
    Amen, Jim, from the Amen corner in the choir.

    I have come to view many, if not most, of our academic colleagues as ostriches.  Their heads are deep within tenure-sand.  They aren't aware of and/or don't care about historians who spend their careers as adjuncts making $12,000 a year with no benefits.  They have no experience in the "real world" and no reason to acquire it in order to share with their students.  They can offer their students nothing more than indoctrination in how to add one more brick--same size, same color--to their intellectual edifice.  History, I fear, has defined itself so narrowly that it will die as a discipline unless these issues can be addressed.  

    In an April 27 NY Times column, Nicholas Kristof highlighted the need for more humanities instruction, but, as with the Brooks and Harpham books, history is left out of the discussion:
    Yet how can one understand any religion, literature, language, government, or society without knowing the historical context in which it arose?  

    If academic historians talk only to each other and humanists ignore history, is there any hope for change?

    Victoria Harden
    Silver Spring MD