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History is back with a vengeance.

After a decade-long holiday from history, when joblessness fell to record lows and the stock market reached glittering heights, history has struck back.

The pandemic, the joblessness, the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, the profound political polarization -- all cannot be fully understood without recognizing their historical roots and historical precedents:

  • The global interconnectedness that facilitated transmission of pathogens.
  • This nation’s long history of racial inequity; racial disparities in wealth, health care, policing and access to jobs and credit; and antiblack racial violence.
  • A financial system that produced levels of inequality as extreme as those of the 1920s and that increasingly leveraged debt, leaving many companies extremely vulnerable to economic downturns.

Too many people think of history simply as a record of past events. But history is equally concerned with processes -- demographic, geopolitical, ideological and climatic -- that take place over time, often remaining out of sight until they become inescapable and unavoidable.

Much as our students’ grandparents and great-grandparents lived through history -- the hardships of the Great Depression and the upheavals of World War II -- our students are now living through history. As a result, they are learning history’s most wrenching, painful and sorrowful lesson: that historical processes are remorseless and often harsh and cruel, that these processes often drive politics, and that none of us, no matter how privileged, can escape history.

As our graduates enter an economy hemorrhaging jobs, as many of their parents lose their health and livelihood and deplete their savings, we also have an obligation to teach history’s other story: of persistence, struggle, resilience, of pressing forward in circumstances not of our own making.

The story of the Great Depression is, of course, a story of grinding hardship -- of bread lines, foreclosures, evictions and shattered lives. But it’s also a story of a fundamental change in governmental philosophy and policies: a recognition that government has a duty and responsibility to address the problems of unemployment, poverty and the challenges posed by an aging population. History reminds us of past governments that have implemented reforms -- legal recognition of unions, regulation of the stock market, a prohibition on child labor, unemployment compensation and Social Security -- that permanently improved the quality of American life, even as some countries succumbed to fascism, militarism and dictatorship.

American involvement in World War II was marked by many injustices: the segregation of the armed forces, the internment of Japanese Americans, the blind eye cast on the Holocaust and the door closed to wartime refugees. But it also gave birth to a global movement for decolonization and the creation to new institutions that helped maintain a semblance of international peace (at least in Europe) and economic stability for decades.

The great Southern historian C. Vann Woodward prefaced his classic Origins of the New South with a quotation from Arnold Toynbee, who recalled the atmosphere surrounding Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897:

Well, here we are on top of the world, and we arrived at this peak to stay there -- forever. There is, of course, a thing called history, but history is something unpleasant that happens to other people … I am sure that if I was a small boy in New York in 1897 I should have felt the same. Of course, if I had been a small boy in the Southern part of the United States, I should not have felt the same; I should have known from my parents that history had happened to my people in my part of the world.

Now that history has happened to us in our part of the world, we need to act assertively if we are to move forward.

All of us long for a return to normality and rightly fear for our health and worry intensely that the pandemic and the economic collapse will endanger higher education as we knew it. But much needs to change. Nontraditional students must be better served: community college students who aspire for a bachelor’s degree; adults with some college and no degree; and part-time students who juggle academics, work and caregiving responsibilities.

We must tackle college affordability, finding ways to address the burgeoning student loan burden and higher education’s unsustainable business model.

We must figure out how to deliver a high-quality education more efficiently and effectively, addressing the profound disparities in access and inequities in retention, completion, time to degree and postgraduation outcomes.

And, yes, we must rethink our curricula not only to better prepare students for the evolving job market but to ensure that they acquire the cross-cultural literacies and understandings that are necessary if we are to have a hopeful history.

History is marching on. Will we live up to this historic moment?

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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