On January 9th, 2016, I found myself sitting in a class titled the exact same name as this series: Professionalizing History. The professor started the very first class with a shocking statement: “What’s wrong with all of you?” followed up with “Why on earth would you all decide to waste your lives on a subject like this?” and, after a brief pause, “I mean, you must all be insane!” Some student laughed, others stared with doe eyes. The professor merely smiled and concluded his interesting introduction with something along the lines of: “That’s what I would have said to you if I wasn’t a historian myself.”
If you’ve made it this far in the series, you must be seriously considering this whole history as a career thing. I mean, seriously. You’ve read up on what it actually means to be a historian, the differences between empathizing and sympathizing, familiarized yourself with the two different spheres of historical job markets…hell, you’ve even decided that historiography isn’t so tough.
It’s time I stop all the smiling, put aside the recruitment tactics, and be brutally honest with you. History is a profession that isn’t respected by lots of people…at least those who are focused on successfulness based on money instead of merit or happiness. It seems that many young people – kids, teenagers, etc. – are enthralled by the idea of history as a degree; but then, it seems as if the capitalistic greed of monetary success consumes most people. It’s all about STEM, these days; and it’s been about STEM since Dwight D. Eisenhower encouraged the massive funding boost during the early days of the Cold War.
If it isn’t science, technology, engineering, or mathematics…how could it be helpful at all? I mean, all the money’s in those degrees, right? Plus, how could history and English and philosophy degrees ever stand up to the mighty grip of the so-called dominant fields? You, dear reader, must not want a good life if you’re looking for a history degree. You must not want expensive and luxurious commodities, or relaxing vacations, or a decent paying job! Have fun in debt, too.
These are the things that every history major, student of history (or philosophy, theological studies, philosophy, English, political science, film studies, etc.), and historian has heard; and let me inform you now: it is absolute bullshit. Many people have been brainwashed into thinking that any humanities degree isn’t beneficial at all to society. “I mean, how could a BA help progress our current society into something better? BS is where it’s at!”
I call BS on that way of thinking. The Humanities are not worthless; they never have been and they never will be, and the best way to understand why we’re in the situation we are in today is by, guess what?, understanding the history itself. The following blurb in this post has been taken from my thoughts on the government and education system of America from my 2015 project The Endless Flow of Society:
After the allied victory of World War II, we – as Americans – began seeing dramatic changes to the institution of Education, the Column of School. I believe that all problems with our modern day kerfuffle with the public school system can be rooted back to the National Defense Education Act. Signed into national law on September 2nd, 1958 by 34th President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the act provided the education institutions funding on any and all levels. There we have it: the institution of government making changes to other organizations, in this example the Column of Education. That is a major blow to the influence of the states and their schools, where we see the government expanding their control into the daily lives of those they wish to influence.
This act had meaning back in the late 1950s, in a time of paranoia and academic frustration. The end of the Second World War clashed into the foundations seen in the Cold War, creating a heavy blanket of paranoia across the entire world. The two largest and most powerful institutions, those seen in physical form as the United States of America and the Soviet Union, felt an incredible amount of threat coming from the other side. These two countries, worried about the influence the other might have over their own people, sided with their institutional ideologies in order to stand against each other. Americans, of course, choosing that of capitalism (and in the revisionist view of imperialism) and the Russians choosing that of communism.
I, personally, hold a more post-revisionist interpretation on the entire issue of the Cold War. Conflict in all forms – in social and in threats – became part of the institutional regime in fear of the other side. No single country is at fault for the half century of propaganda against the other side (which we still see to this day). It was not one sided institutions which created the conflict, and the problems that erupted through our society can be placed on the shoulders of both. America and Russia, controlled by institutions and their respected ideologies, both continued the half century of paranoia which led to prejudice of thought.
Regardless, the National Defense Education Act was a method of expanding influence farther than the original guidelines which rested between the institutions of our society. After the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite (that did nothing but float around, beep, and then fall back down after 98 minutes), into space, the citizens (the individuals) across America began feeling a stressful paranoia towards education. The belief that education in the Soviet Union was superior to what they were receiving and witnessing within their own territories caused Dwight D. Eisenhower and the 85th United States Congress to react severely.
Instead of simply encouraging educational growth through other methods, the government began providing heaps of funding to every educational institution on all levels, successfully chaining the idea of school to the knee of the government. One of the biggest institutions, labeled as one of the Four Columns, that most if not everyone went through, was now severely limited and controlled by – dominated by – the working of one of the other institutions. In sheer essence of fear, the American government decided to encourage advancements in science by forcing the education systems to have an emphasis of sciences, technologies, engineering, and mathematics. To beat the Soviets in this so-called Scientific Victory that the Americans desperately wanted, the ten titles of the National Defense Education Act eliminated all need of humanities.
Not interested in the intellectual languages of Greek and Latin (as these served no purpose in the aligned goals of science), the funding went directly to foreign languages that did serve a purpose to them: that of German, Russian, Italian, etc. These European languages were stressed due to the importance of the region. For they were the enemies: they could perhaps beat America to sending something bigger and better than Sputnik into space.
Not at all interested in philosophy, of history, of culture, of arts – all federal budgeting went into science, math, programming, and any other course that showed progress in creating a brand new and scientific movement to defeat the enemies. Instead of domination, something history is full of, all eyes went to defeat through science.
And once the Americans had its eyes set on a scientific victory, there was nothing that could really stop them. The people were encouraged, the sociological impacts of science slammed into individuals hard. The creation of guidance counselors allowed tracks to be followed until eventually the subjects were beaten into all curriculum. To this day we see sciences and mathematics in better shape than humanities. The government, as an institution, cares very little about said humanities – of the arts and of history. Scientific progress is needed in order to create the next great minds that could invent a major product or create a new work of art in the form of weaponry.
I severely blame the National Defense Education Act, with its ten titles and little effort towards keeping education a balanced and well-rounded institution of knowledge, for the destruction of our education system and the beginnings of the de-evolution of our very own intelligence. Even though such stress and emphasis is placed on sciences and mathematics, our country is continuing to fall in both subjects. Internationally, the United States stands in the middle of all polling for math and sciences. We rest somewhere between Slovakia and Lithuania in terms of Mathematics and Denmark and Spain in terms of Science. While we are moderately improving in terms of the last decade or so, we still see no reason to denounce the importance of humanities.
Anyone who claims that a science or math degree is more important than a history or philosophy degree is blinded by the history at hand. It’s incredibly ironic: those who have history majors understand why they are being screwed over in the modern day job market, and those who refuse to study history don’t seem to have a clue as to why it (along with other degrees in the arts and humanities) is so important.
Science can make bombs and win a Cold War, but Humanities can prevent them from going off while trying to make the world a better place.
As I’ve told several of my classes and peers: those who understand history know more than just the past, they know the past in a way that can better the present and in return change the future itself.