Within a span of 24 hours, four articles appeared in my Twitter feed that featured historians in major media outlets.
The New York Times ran a story about biographer David McCullough and documentarian Ken Burns. The two have asked distinguished historians to state their case on why Donald Trump is, perhaps, the most troubling presidential candidate ever. The videos on Facebook have been viewed tens of thousands of times.
Politico asked several historians to comment on whether the recent Republican convention was the worst in history. (Answer: it may have been. It was certainly on par with the worst. )
USA Todayasked the president of the American Historical Association if 2016 has been an unusual year for violence -- to which he wrote that violence begets violence and as such it tends to ebb and flow.
And Slate, in a piece by history writer Rebecca Onion, asked several historians to comment on whether 2016 is simply the worst year ever. (Answer: it has nothing on 1347.)
Donald Trump’s ascendance to being the Republican Party's nominee for president has served as a particular boon for historians. Not only McCullough and Burns, but historians at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center for Public Affairs, such as Barbara Perry, co-chair of the Presidential Oral History Program, and Nicole Hemmer, assistant professor in presidential studies, have contributed pieces on Trump and conservative politics to USA Today, U.S. News & World Report and The Atlantic. The Facebook group Historians Against Trump has spurred a petition with several hundred historian signatories. Historians are helping to answer how we got to where we are, and they are being heard.
History is hot right now. In the midst of a traumatic and turmoil-filled year -- weekly violence, racial tensions, political upheaval, a shifting world order and wars with no ends in sight -- we are crying out for historical perspective. Publications from The Wall Street Journal to Foreign Affairs are asking historians to tell their readers if (a) yes, it’s really as bad as it seems or if (b) it has, at times, been worse and humanity has survived. Historians are the dispassionate voice amid the din that gets us to calmly sit down in our chairs and reflect.
A recent piece in Patheos asks what exactly historians think we contribute in these trying times. Do we have special insights? Do we know lessons from the past that others don’t? Are we the true conscience of the nation? After all, self-examination about the role of the historian is a time-honored custom in our profession.
The author, a historian, was unsure. Yet even if we ourselves are unsure of what we contribute, the news media seems to think we offer much. They are not looking to sociologists, anthropologists or linguistic scholars for perspective -- although a few philosophers have also chimed in. They’re turning to historians. Enthusiastic viewer comments on the Historians Against Trump Facebook page seem to agree that historians’ voices contribute something meaningful. This is our time in the spotlight, whether we know exactly why or not.
What makes this interesting is that it occurs during a time of deep anxiety and concern about the future of history. According to the American Historical Association, the number of undergraduate students earning degrees in history is dropping sharply, even as the number of students earning degrees in all fields continues to rise. History degrees now account for less than 2 percent of all undergraduate degrees earned.
History majors are not as diverse as they could be either: African-Americans were just 5 percent of those completing history degrees in 2014. Latinos made up 9.7 percent and Asians and Pacific Islanders were 3 percent. In a country projected to be minority majority by the middle of this century, history remains relatively homogenous.
Such statistics and anecdotes prompted James Grossman, the executive director of the AHA, to write an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times arguing that history is not a “useless” major. Whether students and parents will listen is yet to be known. USA Today has reported that student decisions regarding majors most often come down to money: the ability to find employment and the earning power once employed. History has yet to convincingly make the case that its students will find employment, earn high salaries and be able to pay back student loans in a reasonable amount of time.
Thus we come to a fork in the road. On the one hand, historians are in high demand for the perspective they offer in our moments of deep societal anxiety and rupture. On the other, there are very real questions about who will serve as that voice in future crises. Can this period of spotlight do anything to help save the profession?
One obvious way is the rise in visibility. Many young Americans may, for the first time, be hearing from historians and be seeing them on a regular basis in major news media outlets. Historians certainly appear in the press all the time, but the difference now is the stage. During a presidential election, nearly all of America is paying attention to media, and particularly in such a divisive and unusual election as this one. It is an especially good time to be visible.
While being visible, we also can demonstrate the core values of our profession. We can continue to showcase the dispassionate wisdom and clarity of thought that is treasured by those of us in the discipline and sought by those outside it. In a climate of constant shouting and bickering, contemplative thought may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But it can offer a refreshing alternative and inspire younger folks that they, too, can be an impactful voice of reason when America needs it most.
The AHA, History Relevance Campaign and others have put forth many ideas on how to address declining enrollments. I won’t recite those here. But I will offer a few more suggestions for our current moment that may help contribute to the discussion:
In moments when we have greater exposure, let’s put forth as diverse a set of faces and voices as we can. Let’s ensure that minorities see historians not solely of one race, one gender, one religion and one socioeconomic background, but many.
In these moments, let’s also put forth a diversity of ages. Millennials tend to want to see immediate results in their work and seek speedy advancement in their fields. History, in contrast, has an entrenched hierarchy that slowly promotes its own, often does not offer immediate results and often privileges those most senior in their careers. Let’s ensure young people see young historians succeeding, being heard and contributing meaningfully.
Let’s find new ways to communicate, even as we’re holding true to our values. To draw on historical facts and speak from a place of deep knowledge does not limit us to prepared remarks or formal prose. Let’s use this opportunity to evolve how we communicate -- colloquially, vividly, through images as well as words and across all platforms available to us -- both for the good of our audiences and for the enthusiasm of new entrants into the field.
Some of these things are already happening, and I hope they continue with even greater intentionality. Historians have an opportunity this year to showcase the best and brightest aspects of our profession. Recognizing that we do so against an uncertain backdrop of our own field, we can use this moment to help inspire the next generation of historians. After all, when calamity strikes, it is we as historians that society turns to.
Jason Steinhauer is a public historian in Washington, D.C., and creator of the field of history communication. On Twitter: @JasonSteinhauer.
It can be challenging to receive criticism, writes Kerry Ann Rockquemore, but it can also provide an opportunity to discern the difference between how you believe things should be and how they actually are.
Talk to any instructor about student evaluations, and our shared unease is almost universally immediate, writes Annelise Heinz, who provides three basic recommendation to improve the evaluation process.
One of my engineering students came to see me recently asking to drop a class late. That was not an unusual request, and since it was shortly after the deadline I was prepared to approve it. But before I did, we talked, and our conversation went right to the heart of an issue I suspect many bright college students are facing: fear of failing to be perfect, ideally an effortless perfection, versus the joy of learning.
The student explained that she had done poorly on the first midterm exam. When I asked her why she did poorly she responded, “I underestimated how much effort it would take; I thought I could get an A without studying.” Though she believed she could still put in effort and raise her grade before the end of the term, she wanted to drop the course so she could retake it and get an A.
The kicker was the class was not required -- it was Russian literature. I asked her, “Rather than retaking this class, wouldn’t you be better off putting your effort into a class you find more engaging?” And her response caught me by surprise. She liked the course and found the readings interesting. Her lack of effort did not reflect a lack of engagement but rather a desire to minimize her effort.
This issue can be a big problem for those bright students who have done very well academically in high school with relatively little effort. The young woman asking to drop Russian literature was one of them.
The reasoning she used revealed a pattern of thinking that explains why many students struggle academically during their transition to college: they are simply focusing their attention on the wrong outcome. It’s understandable why so much emphasis is placed on the measurement of their performance, GPA. Without an exceptional record in high school, their chances of getting accepted into an elite university are slim. With so much at stake, they can’t afford to not focus on reaching the main goal. Yet while these students think they’re keeping their eyes on the ball, they are actually just staring at the scoreboard.
For students who found high school relatively easy, staring at the measurement of their performance is affirming. Even more affirming is the gap between their outcomes, in the form of grades, and their input, in the form of effort. The wider the gap, the smarter they feel, and this group of students is used to seeing a wide gap. The problem with that way of thinking is that it creates an inverse relationship between grades and effort. When their grades exceed their effort, they feel smart, and the wider the gap, the smarter they feel. But when their effort exceeds their grades, which can happen as they transition from high school to college, they feel dumb, and the wider this new gap the dumber they feel. This inverse relationship creates an inherent motivation to minimize effort, whether or not they’re succeeding. If they feel like they are succeeding, the bigger they want the gap to be, if they feel like they are failing, the smaller they want the gap to be.
If students redirect their focus from the scoreboard to the game of learning, an interesting thing happens. Focusing on learning creates a direct relationship between input and outcome: the more effort they invest, the greater the opportunity to learn. However, the calculus of competence is fundamentally different depending on how you define success. When the goal is to be smart, the formula is reduced to maximizing grades while minimizing effort. When the goal is to learn, the formula becomes about maximizing learning while optimizing effort. The more effective their effort, the more they can learn.
Not long ago a young man came to see me, distraught over his prospects of getting into a prestigious graduate school. He feared the possibility had slipped away due to his lackluster academic performance. As he described his situation, it became clear that his fixation on his grades was consuming enormous amounts of his attention. Through our discussion, he was able to redirect his attention from his focus on grades and the goal of graduate school to his love of material science -- a shift made easier by his resignation that graduate school was now out of reach due to his grades.
Over the next couple of weeks, he reported feeling less stressed and more excited about learning than he ever had in college. The results of his first round of midterms were so strong that graduate school was back on the table. With that realization, his attention shifted back to his grades and calculating what he would need to score on the remaining exams in order to be a competitive applicant. His performance tanked.
Focusing on the measurement of our performance reinforces what researcher Carol Dweck calls a fixed mind-set. If students believe that how they perform at one moment in time exposes the limits of their potential rather than serving merely as a snapshot of where they are in the process of growing their abilities, feelings of struggle and uncertainty become threatening rather than an opportunity to grow. That is not to say that grades aren’t an important measurement of their performance -- measurements that influence, fairly or unfairly, their access to opportunity. But the point is, as clearly demonstrated in the case of the aspiring material-science graduate student, when students focus their energy through their attention on learning while optimizing effort, grades are a natural result of this effective learning process. In contrast, when they focus their energy through their attention on grades, learning may or may not result.
Even more important is the fact that when they set their intention to be genuinely curious and authentically excited by the challenge of finding connections between their current knowledge and new opportunities to understand, they experience the true joy of learning and all of the spoils that attend it. I will never forget the excitement that I saw on the face of the young engineering student struggling with Russian literature when it dawned on her that she got to decide how she would show up for her learning. There is no shame in going all in, and just maybe the rewards will outweigh the risks.
Joseph Holtgreive is an assistant dean and director of the office of personal development at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering.
U.S. News & World Report, that heavyweight of the college rankings game, recently hosted a conference focused partially on diversity in higher education. I did an interview for the publication prior to the forum and spoke on a panel at the event.
I was happy to do it. As dean of one of the country’s most diverse engineering schools, I am particularly invested in these issues. My panel focused on how to help women and underrepresented minority students succeed in STEM fields, and I’m grateful to U.S. News for leading the discussion.
But the publication, for all its noble intentions, could do more to follow through where it counts. Diversity is currently given no weight in the magazine's primary university and disciplinary rankings, and it’s time for that to change. As U.S. News goes, so goes higher education.
Universities love to bemoan rankings, but we can’t ignore them. Our public images are shaped in part by top 10 lists and glossy magazine features. At my university and others, we encourage prospective students to consider how well colleges fit their goals, yet we never hesitate to brag about our standings in the rankings.
Prospective freshmen, transfer students and graduate students examine them, of course, but so do parents, alumni, professors and members of the news media. At least one or two other organizations have tried to rank some universities along these lines. But U.S. News, perhaps the most influential among ranking entities, has not included diversity in its overall quality rankings, and it is missing an opportunity to use its powers for good.
Enhancing diversity is not about political correctness. Studies show diversity enriches students’ experiences and is an indicator of quality. A 2013 report from Princeton University cited research on the benefits of diverse environments, such as greater civic engagement. A diverse environment is consistent with the core mission of a university.
U.S. News rankings at the undergraduate level consider factors such as faculty compensation, class sizes and even alumni giving rates. Graduate rankings look at research expenditures, GRE scores and faculty quality. Diversity is not given any weight, which implies that a top-tier education doesn’t require it. If U.S. News and similar organizations started paying attention to diversity, universities would start paying attention, because -- rightly or wrongly -- these rankings drive behavior.
Almost a year ago, about 100 of my fellow engineering deans and I signed a letter pledging to enhance our commitments to diversity. Many of us signed because we believe diversity is important, enhances the quality of our programs, and is part of our educational missions.
Plenty of less-heralded colleges already boast racially diverse student bodies. Community colleges in particular are unsung heroes. Nearly two-thirds of California’s community college students are members of minorities, while about half of Texas’ and Florida’s are.
One U.S. News list, which earns less attention than others, grades institutions only on diversity, and it looks very different from the publication’s more famous rankings. Yet a separate diversity ranking is not sufficient. It must be part of the overall quality evaluation.
Some institutions might argue that the demographics that comprise their typical applicant pool would make this unfair. But diversity has many dimensions -- race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and more. Adding diversity to rankings criteria is an essential component to showing how well we value inclusive excellence in higher education.
No region has any particular advantage with regard to gender diversity, for example, and that is just as important as ethnic diversity, particularly in STEM. Already existing ratings criteria are filled with biases that benefit colleges and universities regionally (such as Silicon Valley institutions having advantages with research expenditures and private colleges with resources having advantages over publics). Why should we have to bend over backward to level the playing field with respect to diversity? If diversity is a national imperative (and it is), colleges and universities should just have to adjust, or they can focus their efforts on more achievable non-diversity-related ratings criteria.
The diversity metrics currently used by U.S. News offer a helpful start. Instead of focusing on which universities enroll the most minority students, they examine how likely students are to encounter members of different racial or ethnic groups. What U.S. News might do next is create more comprehensive composite scores that consider female and minority enrollment, retention and graduation rates, or even faculty diversity.
There are many ways to approach the issue, and organizations that rank programs should develop criteria to ensure fairness. Whatever rubric is used, though, factoring diversity into rankings will establish an imperative: attract and retain students from diverse backgrounds or risk university reputations.
If universities wish to remain relevant -- if they want to be more than job mills for the next class of white-collar workers -- they need to tackle the problems facing the wider world. We have to acknowledge the value of diversity and stake our reputations on it.
Some institutions already do this. But if U.S. News and others that rank us change the equation, plenty of other universities will start paying attention as well.
Gary S. May is dean of the college of engineering and the Southern Company Chair at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Now that “genius” has become the job title for the person who fixes your MacBook, we need something considerably stronger to describe the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Awe seems like the only suitable response to the work Ramanujan did and how he did it.
He was born in the southern part of the country in 1887, one year following publication of A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure Mathematics by George Shoobridge Carr, a math tutor in London. The volume would have been long since completely forgotten had Ramanujan not come across it as a high school student. Carr assembled more than 6,000 formulas and theorems in order of growing complexity -- but without the full proofs. Those Ramanujan worked out for himself.
By his twenties, Ramanujan was filling notebooks with his own extremely advanced work in pure mathematics, samples of which he sent to G. H. Hardy, an eminent number theorist at Cambridge University, in 1913. Following the example of Carr’s Synopsis, Ramanujan presented his findings without spelling out the proofs. He also used notation that had grown out of date, and it is easy to imagine the Cambridge don throwing the letter with its attachments into a drawer, along with all the other pleas for attention from amateur mathematicians. Instead, Hardy examined Ramanujan's material, found it interesting and in some cases staggeringly original, and helped wrangle the fellowship that brought the young Indian savant to Cambridge in 1914.
Ramanujan spent the most of the remainder of his short life in England, immersed in finding or inventing whole new domains of mathematics, even as tuberculosis undermined his health. Whether mathematicians discover concepts (as astronomers do galaxies) or create them (as composers do symphonies) is a matter of perennial controversy; for his part, Ramanujan said that ideas came to him in dreams sent by the Hindu goddess Namagiri. However one understands that claim, much of the work was so advanced that his colleagues were barely beginning to catch up when he died in India in 1920, at the age of 32.
The effort continues. Ken Ono's My Search for Ramanujan: How I Learned to Count (Springer) is the memoir of a mathematician who has devoted much of his career to working out the proofs and methods that his predecessor left unstated. And the story would be interesting enough as such, even if the author's life did not have its own twists and turns. Ono, a professor of mathematics and computer science at Emory University, wrote the book in collaboration with the late Amir D. Aczel, best known as the author of Fermat's Last Theorem. The input of a capable historian and popularizer of mathematics undoubtedly helped Ono create a smooth a compelling narrative out of extremely difficult material.
By anyone else's standard, Ono was, like his siblings, a gifted child, although fate seems to have rendered his talents a burden. His parents emigrated from Japan in the 1950s, and the author recalls his own childhood in the 1970s as defined by a "confusing and frustrating intersection of incompatible cultures." Even harder to reckon with was the unmeetable standard of Olympian intellect embodied by his father, Takashi Ono, a professor of mathematics (now emeritus) at Johns Hopkins University. As for his mother, Ken Ono describes her as "present[ing] herself as a martyr who had sacrificed all self-interest for the family," thus "instilling in us a sense of duty to succeed in the lives that they had planned for us."
And planned with unforgiving precision, it seems: his parents' only friends "were other professors with overachieving children who were being accepted by top private colleges and winning elite music competitions," establishing "models of perfection" that Ono and his brothers were reminded of constantly. He describes his parents as carrying the tiger mom outlook (that "if their children are not at the top of their class, then the parents aren't doing their job") to such an extreme that not even academic achievement merited praise. While anything less than perfection brought shame upon the family, mere excellence hardly merited notice.
One brother is a now a biochemist and university president, the other is a music professor, and Ken himself has an imposingly long list of professional achievements. Judged simply by the results, then, the Ono parenting style was a success. But the cost was enormous: decades of anxiety, self-doubt and self-contempt, taking him to the verge of suicide. The sight of math prodigies so young that their legs didn't touch the floor when they sat down in the classroom made passing advanced undergraduate courses feel like proof of inadequacy. Harsh and unrelenting parental voices echoed in his head ("Ken-chan, you no can hide …. You must be one of the best, and right now you losing out to 10-year-old kid with Pac-Man watch").
But the push to overachieve also met inner resistance. He engaged in competitive bicycling and played gigs as a disc jockey, and it sounds like there were enough fraternity shenanigans to feel liberated from what Ono calls "my old image as Asian-American math nerd." He had brushes with what would count as academic humiliation even by standards far less exacting than his own. But behaving "like a goofball" (in the author's preferred expression) seems, on the whole, to have been therapeutic. Ono eventually received his Ph.D. -- an achievement his parents took as a given and so never commented on.
One remarkable thing about Ono's narrative is that he seldom, if ever, sounds angry. To understand is to forgive, the proverb runs -- and coming to an intellectual comprehension of one's parents' outlook and behavior is a necessary step toward dealing with the consequences. (The second- and third-generation offspring of immigrants often have to come to terms with how the first generation navigated the unfamiliar or hostile circumstances they faced.) But in Ken Ono's case, there is another, equally compelling force: a series of encounters with the example and legacy of Ramanujan -- sometimes accidental and, at other times, sounding very much like destiny. I am reluctant to say much more than that because the part of the book's emotional power comes from the element of surprise at how developments unfold. Suffice it to say that mathematics, which for obvious reasons Ono came to consider an unpleasant and compulsory part of his lot in life, comes alive for him with all the beauty and mind-blowing glory that Ramanujan implied in referring to the goddess.
But that revelation has a much more human aspect in Ono's memoir, which is an account of the life-enhancing (and quite possibly life-saving) influence of a few friends and mentors. When G. H. Hardy responded to Ramanujan's letter in 1913 and fostered the promise of his early work, it saved a genius from the threat of oblivion and made possible an extraordinary flourishing of mathematical creativity. It will not give too much away to say that My Search for Ramanujan tells a comparable story, and does so in a way that pays tribute to collegiality as something more than a form of courtesy.