A healthy democracy requires a commitment to educating our youth in wide-ranging ways. This breadth of education is essential to thinking critically, understanding different perspectives, and comprehending the complex context in which we operate. And yet, we are now witnessing a purge of academic departments in the arts and humanities that threatens the long-term health of our republic.
A future-focused observer might ask why we need history at time when STEM seems to be where the high growth jobs of the future lie. It is a fair question, but one that implicitly assumes jobs equate to thriving as a society. The liberal arts, and history in particular, are literally our lifelines to the areas of research and learning that nurture our civic imagination, inform our capacity for bridging differences and enable us to solve problems with an understanding of root causes and systemic challenges.
Let’s consider a recent example from America’s heartland. A few weeks ago, the President of the University of Central Missouri released his recommendation that 41 positions be eliminated. The highest number, 17, perhaps not surprisingly, is to come out of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, with the history program set to lose another two positions on top of the two positions that they lost in a 2018 reorganization. There are countless examples of such cuts, but for the most part they are under the radar of the public eye.
Reasonable minds will disagree about the causes and responsible parties for this crisis. Some will point out that history research has become too politicized, or too arcane, or just plain inaccessible and irrelevant. Regardless, it is critical to recognize that we are at a novel point in human development where we need history more than ever. Never before have we faced the combination of factors we do today. First, we are at a breaking point of stress in the relationship between the economy and our planet. Second, we are just beginning to navigate what it means to create inclusive, multi-ethnic democracies based on recent advances in how we think about justice and the equality of human dignity. And third, technological innovations have provided most people on earth with access to limitless information and disinformation.
In theory, all people have power, can organize, and can solve some of the long-standing problems we face as a human society. In theory, we have an opportunity to reboot our planet’s operating system to enable a global community of innovators and problem-solvers with the self-assurance to debunk the claims of “it can’t be done.” In theory, our educated youth are capable of figuring out how to overcome long-standing barriers to change.
If we are to make this theory of possibility and progress a reality, we must reboot our relationship with history as not just a story about the past, but as the compass and the inspiration we need to build a better future.
Every single one of the Sustainable Development Goals promoted by the UN requires an invigoration of history research and education in order for us to achieve it. If we want a future with a sustainable, regenerative economy, we need to reimagine how we tell the history of economic growth, as Katrine Marcal does in her brave work of “Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?” Otherwise, entrepreneurs may be destined to perpetuate damaging models of the past, and bold innovators may be blocked by naysayers asserting that extractive capitalism is “just the way things work.” If we want a future in which people of all genders are treated equally, we need to reimagine how we include women in the narrative of human history. If we want a future in which all members of society feel included and are able to thrive, we have to retell the story of human migration. For every societal challenge, for every single one of the Sustainable Development Goals, there is an aspect of historical research and narrative building that needs to be refreshed and further developed.
This means that we need more history, not less.
We don’t need more boring textbooks and polarizing, emotional narratives. We need to invest in our academic history departments so that they can improve and expand how they teach and what they research. We must support history departments in laying the knowledge foundation that students need to be the best possible community members, global citizens and changemakers. We need to invest in research to correct false narratives and share what really happened, with fresh questions, new technologies and new collaborative, multi-disciplinary approaches.
There are academic centers that do this already. Take, for example, the International Security Studies center at Yale, which has been heavily investing in future-focused history education for decades. The historians they graduate are taught to research with care, write with an eye towards a general audience, and connect with current policy issues. They are now putting into practice what they learned, whether at the helm of history departments, heading Presidential Libraries, or running bold efforts to reform history education. This approach to preparing historians could, and should be applied across many different disciplines and areas of history.
It is mind-boggling that so-called “education leaders” are calling for our school and university systems to prepare young people to be problem-solvers and entrepreneurs while at the same time depriving them of the background knowledge need. Deeper grounding in history enables our future leaders to be the kind of entrepreneurs who can create not just short-term “hits”, but long-term value for a thriving democracy, global community and sustainable economy.
Without objective, good history, we will be churning out innovators and business-people who perpetuate the problems of the past because they do not understand today’s context and the opportunities that exist for us to chart new courses to the future.
Policymakers, board members, alumni and parents, now is the time to take action to ensure that your institutions stop defunding democracy and start reinvesting in history for a better future.