Tag Archives: history

Billionaire History Man

Talk about weird news: last weekend, the New York Times reported that Bill Gates has developed an enthuasism for history. Not just as bedtime reading, either. Through his foundation, he’s begun pouring money into history teaching, in the hope of making history classes more interesting and more useful to America’s high schoolers. It’s all part of a bigger plan, apparently. More interested students will be better students, they’ll stay in school, get good jobs, not sink into drugs and despair, and help bring back the productive middle-class America that Gates grew up in.

The lightbulb moment apparently came during an early morning home treadmill session. Not wanting to waste that time, Gates likes to absorb improving material while he jogs, and this morning it was a Teaching Company lecture about “Big History,” by an Australian history professor named David Christian. Gates was blown away. Meetings followed, lesson plans were developed, financing was promised, and now Big History is being taught at a growing number of high schools, public and private alike.

Here I won’t say much about the substance of Big History. The key thing seems to be that it divides all time into eight stages, with the appearance of homo sapiens constituting stage 6 and the invention of agriculture stage 7. That leaves for stage 8 everything we usually think of as “history”– you know, Greeks and Romans, Confucius, the rise of Islam, slavery, industrial revolutions, African empires, American, French, Haitian, Russian, Chinese, and Vietnamese revolutions, the American Civil War, the Holocaust, that kind of thing. Fitting all that into one-eighth of a high school semester (about ten days, by my count) must make for some lively teaching.

So Big History’s content is plenty worth discussing, but for now I want just to say a little about Bill Gates’s involvement in it.

I’ll start with the obvious stuff. First, schools need money, and it’s a Good Thing that a billionaire wants to give it to them. Second, it’s Not A Good Thing that one billionaire gets to decide what millions of children learn, with add-on implications for hundreds of thousands of future teachers. Because if millions of high schoolers have to learn Gates’s version of history, an awful lot of college students will have to do the same if they want careers in education.

Third, it’s bad news that a semi-retired billionaire is getting his ideas about history from DVD lectures and TED talks. The whole story would still be creepy, but at least it would have been comforting to learn that Gates’s flash of insight came from a summer spent reading Edward Gibbon, Fernand Braudel, Natalie Davis, Jonathan Spence, and William Cronon. If billionaires are going to redesign American education, can’t they at least do some homework? Have real books become that difficult for them?

So there’s plenty here to get someone like me riled up. But there’s another angle to the story that deserves some thought, and that’s the strange spectacle of a billionaire tech oligarch concerning himself with history in the first place. Of course there are the obvious explanations, and they pop up often in the comments on the Times website. There’s the warm-hearted philanthrophy explanation: American schools aren’t doing all that well, and Gates is at least trying to fix them. And there’s the capitalism explanation: there’s money to be made in the education business, from selling books, programs, and other gear to a vast captive market. (Believers in the second hypothesis will note that the story itself comes from Andrew Ross Sorkin, a Times business writer who runs their semi-independent Dealbook blog, and who has on occasion served as a conduit for big-business opinion. The Times apparently didn’t involve its education writers in the story, and Professor Christian is the only living historian that it quotes.)

But maybe the particular motives don’t matter very much in a case like this– maybe the big fact is just the depth of Gates’s involvement in what is basically a cultural debate. He’s not just giving money or selling gadgets to schools– he’s pushing one vision of history and criticizing others, using philanthropy to shape what does and doesn’t count as history knowledge; and because of the big dollars involved, his intervention doesn’t just concern the target audience of high school students–it’s about teachers, potential teachers, and their teachers too.

We historians often worry that what we do is irrelevant to society at large, but Bill Gates is here to teach us otherwise– apparently power players are thinking about our enterprise. Big History at least has that Big Message for us.

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Why study history, Part 2: individual lives, collective knowledge

My last post talked about why we need historical knowledge. (Short version: history tries to see reality whole, with all the details, contradictions, and complexity left in, and we need that kind of thinking — because reality IS complicated, in ways that few academic disciplines acknowledge.)

So far so good, but then we hit the big cloud hanging over history education in 2014. “We” may need historical knowledge, but “we” don’t do the studying or pay the tuition or try to get jobs after finishing college. Individuals do all those things, and individuals have to live with the results. It’s all very nice and uplifting to say that people should study history, but what if there are no jobs for them? Why should students rack up fees and debts if there’s not much waiting for them after graduation?

What follows isn’t exactly an answer to that question; I’m not even sure there really is an answer, in the usual sense of the term. Instead, I present here some thoughts on the question itself, and suggest that we need to place it in larger contexts than we usually do. The “why study history” question, I’m saying, is really a question about how individuals, communities, and knowledge intersect in 2014.

The first step is to recognize the seriousness of the problem. The jobs situation for history graduates isn’t good, and it’s probably getting worse. Back in the good old days, meaning until about 1975, big corporations liked to train their own people, and they welcomed candidates with liberal arts degrees; it was understood that training would cost money, but that was an investment that eventually would pay big dividends. Anyway, liberal arts graduates could always fall back on teaching if business didn’t appeal to them.

Things are different today. Schools at every level are in financial trouble, and they’re not hiring many historians. In the corporate world, job candidates are increasingly expected to show up pre-trained and ready to contribute; no one expects them to stay around long enough for training programs to pay off, so HR departments favor people with career-ready educations, in economics, technology, health sciences, and the like. (See here for an account.) In these circumstances, a history major may be ok those who don’t have to worry about jobs after graduation, or for those who can treat college as a preparatory course for professional programs like law. It’s not so great for those who need to start paying the bills right away.

In response, historians have publicized all the ways in which history actually is a good preparation for a real career in the real world. And we have some reasons for saying so– history courses teach you to analyze situations and documents, write clearly, think about big pictures, understand other cultures (something worth real money in today’s inter-connected global economy). Most of the history department websites I’ve visited (here for example) include some version of these claims.

The American Historical Association (the history profession’s official collective voice in the US) has taken this approach one step farther. With the help of a foundation, it has set up a program (which it calls the Tuning Project) designed to bring college history teaching into closer alignment with employers’ needs, by putting professors in touch with employers and other stake-holders. If professors have a better understanding of what employers want, the hope is, we can better prepare students for the real world and draw more majors into our courses.

But you can see the problem: some parts of a history education give you the skills to work in a big-money corporation, but many others don’t. Some history topics require knowledge that’s hard to acquire and not much practical use in the twenty-first century– the dates of obscure wars, or the dead languages needed to understand some ancient civilizations. Other topics are likely to mark you as a dangerous malcontent. Picture a job seeker showing up at Mega Corporation X (or at the Chicago Board of Education, for that matter) with her senior thesis on union organizing in the 1930s, or the successes of Soviet economic programs, or Allied war crimes in World War II. Whatever her skills of analysis and cultural negotiation, she’s not the kind of candidate HR departments are looking for. She carries intellectual baggage; she looks like trouble.

That thought experiment suggests the possibility that “tuning” the history major actually means changing its content– by cutting out the troublesome (discordant?) elements, those that might upset our conventional wisdoms. Of course, you could argue that “tuning” just applies to teaching, and therefore doesn’t change the basics of historical knowledge. Professors still get to research and write about whatever they like; in their books, they still get to be intellectual adventurers and trouble-makers. But that’s no real answer, because as American institutions currently work, history teaching eventually shapes history research. If history majors aren’t studying unions or war crimes, universities aren’t going to be hiring faculty in those areas either, and those books won’t be written.

That’s bad news, because American society has a strong collective interest in making sure that this kind of knowledge gets produced. All societies need need to think about difficult questions and disturbing ideas, for the reasons that John Stuart Mill laid out way back in the 1850s. Societies that fail to do so (he explained) do stupid and immoral things; they fail to develop intellectually or socially; even their economic lives suffer, since the choke-hold of conventional wisdom eventually stifles business too. For Mill, disruptive knowledge was as much a practical as a spiritual need.

But it’s not clear how this collective need is to be met by the American university as it increasingly functions nowadays. As the language of the individualistic free market becomes more prevalent within it, fields of knowledge risk being defined by calculations concerning “the employability of our graduates” (as a document from my own university puts it). Given the pressures that they face, our students are fully justified in focusing on their “employability,” and university faculty have a duty to help them toward it. But that’s not the university’s only duty. It has at least an equal duty to develop knowledge, including especially knowledge untuned to employers’ needs, even antithetical to those needs.

That means that eventually the “why study history” question shades into a political problem. Historical knowledge is a form of collective property, and its health is bound up with other elements of our communal life. In the increasingly privatized universities of our times– privatized in financing, mechanics, and measurements of success–the “why study history” question may not have an answer.

 

 

 

Why study history, Part 1: The case of the disillusioned history major

Why study history? It’s a good question. Studying history means learning about dead people, by-gone situations, wrong-headed ideas, funny clothes. But that’s not where we live; the knowledge we need for real life deals with the here-and-now, not the over-and-done. That’s always been true, but it’s especially pertinent nowadays, as we face possibilities and troubles that never worried our ancestors. With self-aware, armed robots coming off the assembly lines any day now, should we really be worrying about Louis XIV and Julius Caesar? Wouldn’t that time and energy be better spent on our own problems?

Every historian has to take that question seriously. We get paid to think about the past, and we ask our students to spend at least a few hours a week thinking about it too– we’d better have some answers as to why it’s worth their time and ours.

Here I offer a few of my own answers by describing a case of rejection– the case of a smart guy who encountered history, didn’t like what he found, and turned elsewhere for intellectual sustenance.

The smart guy is Paul Krugman, one of America’s most important intellectuals. Krugman is a rare figure in the United States, both a star professor (having taught economics at MIT and Princeton, he’s now moving to CUNY) and at the same time someone who tries hard to reach ordinary readers, with a regular column in the New York Times and a widely-followed blog. His columns and blog posts show him to be literate, progressive in his politics, and deeply engaged by the real issues of contemporary life.

So for anyone trying to understand where historical study fits in today’s world, it’s interesting to learn that Krugman came to college expecting to major in history. What he found disappointed him. As he explained in a New Yorker profile a few years ago, his idea of history had been shaped by his teenage reading of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. Those books show history to be a difference-making intellectual tool. Having carefully studied the past, Asimov’s heroes (a small band of historians armed with math skills and big computers) can see where their society is heading, long before the people around them have a clue.

Not only can the heroes see the deep processes governing their world, they can act on their knowledge. Centuries in advance, they secretly establish mechanisms that will head off the worst of the troubles they’ve diagnosed, and their plans work; trouble emerges just as they’ve predicted, but since they’ve seen it coming, their pre-programmed remedies are effective. They can’t prevent all the disasters, but they do enough to improve billions of lives.

But Krugman discovered as a Yale freshman that university history didn’t match up with the history he’d read about in Asimov. Just the reverse– his history courses seemed to offer only a mass of complexities and uncertainty. They didn’t elucidate those deep processes of changes that Asimov’s historian-heroes had grasped, and they offered no hope of guiding society to a better future. “History was too much about what and not enough about why,” the New Yorker article explains. In his disappointment, Krugman switched departments, and in economics he found what history had failed to deliver. Unlike history, he found, economics explored the basic rules by which societies function; it offered the kind of knowledge that could guide effective action. “Suddenly, a simple story made sense of a huge and baffling swath of reality,” is the journalist’s summary of Krugman’s intellectual experience.

Ordinarily, teen reading and freshman disappointments wouldn’t count in assessing an intellectual’s views; we all get a free pass on our adolescent hopes and dreams. But Krugman himself offers Asimov as a key to understanding his grown-up intellectual life as a professional economist. He acknowledges, of course, that even as an economist he can’t attain the predictive clarity that Asimov’s historian-heroes managed, but economics allows him to play something like their role. Using economic reasoning, we can get beneath the surface mess of life, understand its essential mechanisms, and use that knowledge to nudge society’s development in the right directions. Unlike history, economics both explains the world and provides a basis for improving it.

So Paul Krugman’s autobiographical reflections contrast the robust and useable knowledge of economics with the baffling jumble of detail produced by historians. It’s a critique that matters because it starts from assumptions that most historians share. These are the complaints of an intellectual, someone who believes in what universities do, not the standard ignoramus haroomphing about tenured radicals and useless research.

And Krugman’s critique gets at something fundamental about history, and about where it diverges from other kinds of knowledge. He’s right that we historians are interested in everything that reality presents; no other academic discipline has as much invested in exploring the details of life, and none has the same belief that all the details deserve our attention. We fuss about getting the dates right, and we write whole books about individual lives and brief episodes, some famous, many of them previously unknown. We want to tell all the stories that humanity has preserved, even the stories of lost causes and dead-end lives. That’s the historian’s paradox: we study the dead because that’s where we can explore all the dimensions of life.

That absolute commitment to the real, in all its chaotic variety, is the defining characteristic of historical thinking, and Krugman is right to zero in on it.

But he’s wrong in seeing history as “too much about what and not enough about why,” and that mistake is also important. The real difference concerns HOW historians and economists understand causation, not how much importance they attach to asking why things happen. The New Yorker profile makes that clear in summarizing Krugman’s freshman studies of ancient slavery and medieval serfdom: in explaining them, his history teachers talked “about culture and national character and climate and changing mores and heroes and revolts and the history of agriculture and the Romans and the Christians and the Middle Ages and all the rest of it;” his economics teacher explained the same phenomena with one simple calculation about agricultural productivity, population, and land availability.

So in fact Krugman’s complaint wasn’t that history didn’t say “enough about why,” but that it said too much– in his history course there were too many explanations, involving too many areas of life, too disconnected from one another. His economics professor replaced that long list with one causal rule, which applied in all situations. For the young Krugman, it was easy to choose between these two modes of understanding: the simpler explanation was more powerful and more useful– and therefore better. The mature Krugman agrees.

A few years ago, I would have said that we don’t have to choose between these two visions of causation, and that economics and history are just two ways of thinking about the world, each useful for some purposes, each with strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes we need a simple and elegant formula for understanding whatever it is we’re dealing with, and sometimes we need to wallow in the complications. That’s true in our personal lives, and just as true in our thinking about human societies. It’s why universities have lots of departments, and why we push students to take a wide range of courses.

But in today’s world, it’s difficult to stay so tolerant, because economics today is not just one academic area among many or a toolbox of handy techniques for thinking about business. It presents itself instead as a master discipline, a way of thinking that can illuminate all areas of our lives. Its methods and assumptions now show up in education, law, family relations, crime prevention, and pretty much everywhere else. Its terminology is also everywhere, and we scarcely notice anymore when a political leader tells us to apply marketplace solutions to some new area of public life. (For a cogent account of this “economics imperialism,” see here.)

With economic thinking taking over so much of modern life, the “we don’t have to choose” option isn’ really on the table. Others are trying to choose for us, and it’s important to push back — and not to be too polite as we do so.

I’ve chosen Paul Krugman to push back against here, but not because he’s an especially extreme advocate of the economics take-over. On these issues he’s probably the best that mainstream economics has to offer, an economist who seems alert to the arguments, values, and concerns that other ways of thinking offer. But that’s really the point: it’s often the best representatives of a worldview that we should question, not the worst.

And the fundamental question for Paul Krugman is, why should we take seriously any simple story about human affairs, let alone prefer it to a more complicated story? In the dream world that Isaac Asimov cooked up, sure, but in our world of real human beings? Krugman’s college economics teacher could offer a one-step formula that “made sense of a huge and baffling swath of reality”– but fairy tales and paranoiac fantasies do the same thing. In those cases, we all know, “making sense” of a phenomenon isn’t the same as getting it right. Ditto for explaining our own or our friends’ behavior: it’s usually not a good sign when we give a one sentence answer explaining a divorce or a workplace event.

Why would we apply different standards to a phenomenon like slavery, which brings together so many forms of human motivation: self-interest, racism, anger, sex, religion, culture, tradition, the love of domination, and much more?

We need history for exactly the reasons that the young Paul Krugman found it so frustrating. Reality is complicated, and its complications press in on us, confronting us daily with lusts, angers, and all sorts of other forces that don’t make it into Asimov-style fiction.  For some purposes and in some limited contexts, we can get away with pretending that those forces don’t matter. We can’t pretend for very long, though, before reality starts biting back. Historical study won’t tell us what to do when it does, but at least it will give us a serious idea of what’s out there.