An Obituary for History
Lincoln University’s decision to suspend its history major ignores W. E. B. Du Bois’s belief in the power of history to shape lives in the present and his vision of the university as a center to help reconstruct the world, argues J. Mark Leslie.
Lincoln University -- a historically black university located in Jefferson City, Mo. -- suspended its major in history on its 150th anniversary. Explaining why that step was necessary, the president of the university emphasized, “We must make decisions like these as we look toward the future and the needs of the changing workforce.” Embedded within that statement is a declaration about higher education and its purpose: higher education should make good, high-paid workers. We should step back and ask whether this is really what we want from higher education.
Since I took my first academic position in 2010, I have continually heard in the news media, from visiting speakers and many other people that transforming students into employees is the purpose of higher education. Whenever I hear this, I cannot help but recall one particular graduate seminar when we discussed the writings of Marxist Louis Althusser. The discussion turned to higher education, and some people in the class claimed higher education was little more than part of a plot to provide good and obedient workers to the bourgeoisie. At the time, I thought that was overly reductive. I mean, we were talking about the supposed conspiracy of the bourgeoisie in class at an institution of higher education; surely this was not part of the plan.
Once I got my first academic job, however, I learned that this really was the perennial question in higher education. What should our general education curriculum look like? On which majors should we focus our resources? The answer was always put in the form of another question -- what do employers want from our graduates?
Perhaps because of the rising costs of higher education, politicians have increasingly said that the point of higher education is for students to make lots of money in their chosen careers. Is that what we want from higher education? Maybe a better question would be is that the only thing we want from higher education?
In her recent article in The American Historian, Nancy F. Cott indicates it is hard for humanities degrees -- like history -- to compete with degrees related to engineering if the only significant variable is potential earnings. One study found that throughout their careers, engineers consistently earned more than graduates in the humanities. But then, not everyone wants to be an engineer. As Cott phrased it, neither would we really want “to see an educated world populated by engineers only.” The fact is people educated in the humanities go on to important, although often not quite as lucrative, careers in education, government, law and a host of other interesting and relevant occupations.
Since students enter into significant debt to earn their diplomas, it seems reasonable for students to expect some return on their often significant investments. I hope as we review what we value in education, however, we do not simply ask which majors lead to the most lucrative careers.
Du Bois and Shaping Lives in the Present
What is higher education for? Should it exist solely for the purpose of manufacturing workers who make the greatest amount of money? It’s not a new question. It’s one that the renowned African-American historian W. E. B. Du Bois wrestled with in his speech commemorating Lincoln University’s 75th anniversary in 1941. He worried that the temptation would “come and recur to make an institution like this, a means of earning a living or of adding to income rather than an institution of learning.” Du Bois believed the kind of students Lincoln produced would end up changing the world for the better -- that it would be Lincoln students who would “show the majority the way of life.” Not from privileged and “powerful groups which from time to time rule the world have come salvation and culture,” he said, “but from the still small voice of the oppressed and the determined who knew more than to die and plan more than mere survival.” In short, Du Bois hoped that Lincoln would become “a center where the cultural outlook of this country is to be changed and uplifted and helped in the reconstruction of the world.”
Why did Du Bois believe that students at a university like Lincoln would be so influential? Du Bois recognized the power of history to shape lives in the present, and he rightly believed that this nation needed more diverse students if the status quo was ever going to change. In Du Bois’s day, history was being used to justify violence against African-Americans. In 1915, the original version of The Birth of a Nation premiered in the United States. In that movie, President Woodrow Wilson’s book History of the American People was regularly quoted. Audiences around the country saw Wilson declare through this movie that Reconstruction had been a misguided failure during which “the negroes were the office holders, men who knew none of the uses of authority, except its insolences.”
Wilson and many other people in the academy were part of what eventually became known as the Dunning School of Reconstruction History. For William Dunning, the historian for whom the broader school was named, Reconstruction was a failure because great numbers of the recently emancipated slaves “gave themselves up to testing their freedom. They wandered aimless but happy through the country.”
According to Dunning, it was Southern whites who “devoted themselves with desperate energy to the procurement of what must sustain the life of both themselves and their former slaves.” Lesson learned: black political participation meant misery for all, but exclusive white control meant the best for both black and white Southerners. The Dunning School of Reconstruction History justified the exclusion of black people from politics, and it implicitly justified the violence used to maintain that exclusion.
W. E. B. Du Bois labored to contradict those impressions. In his now widely read The Souls of Black Folks, Du Bois argued that it was not the irresponsible silliness of black people that doomed Reconstruction but rather the impossible problems facing the recently freed slaves. Reflecting upon the failure of efforts to make Southern African-Americans truly free, Du Bois noted that the Freedmen’s Bureau could not even “begin the establishment of goodwill between ex-masters and freedmen,” and perhaps most important, it could not “carry out to any considerable extent its implied promises to furnish the freedmen with land.”
Adding to the impossible challenge was the fact that much of the legislation created during Reconstruction was intended to punish the white South rather than empower the recently emancipated. As viewed by Du Bois, black equality was a cudgel used to punish the rebellious South rather than a goal in and of itself. Without any real support for black equality in either the North or the South, how could we expect anything but failure from Reconstruction? Because of those failures, black people suffered under the weight of white supremacy.
White historians largely ignored Du Bois’s conclusions for years; it was not until higher education expanded to include a wide swath of the American population -- due in large part to the GI Bill -- that more historians came to accept what he had long argued. Today, the vast majority of historians of Reconstruction accept his premise that many capable black politicians participated in the Reconstruction. Many worked to expand roads and education to include a plurality of the Southern population. At the time, their opponents saw this as waste and corruption, but the vision of those black politicians more closely aligned with our own expectations. We -- like they -- expect our governments to maintain public roads and public education. History looks different from the bottom up.
Reversing Dominant Narratives
Du Bois did not mention the degree in history specifically in his speech in 1941, but his life’s work demonstrated the importance he placed upon the historical imagination. He correctly predicted that making the academy more diverse would change the world for the better. History has been used to justify white supremacy, and it has been used to undermine it as well. As the population of historians changed, so too has the accepted narrative of the academy. That’s why Du Bois did not ask what majors earned the most money upon graduation but had a loftier vision for Lincoln’s future. America needed impassioned graduates from schools like Lincoln. Someone had to help reverse the dominant narratives prevalent in 1941 about black inferiority.
On Lincoln University’s 75th anniversary, Du Bois provided a powerful argument in favor of empowering Lincoln’s students to go and change the world. I fear that the end of history at Lincoln University means students will have less ability to do so in the future. That saddens me, because our national history is particularly relevant today. In 2016, a reinterpretation of The Birth of a Nation is set to debut and likely make radically different claims than its 1915 namesake. Why did the creators of this new movie -- which will document the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner -- give it that name? In 2016, some people have suggested that the civil rights movement of the 1960s was relatively short and its goals were largely accomplished. How then do we explain the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement? Do these protesters fail to understand just how racially progressive our country has become? In 2016, some politicians have suggested that the United States is a nation founded by white ideas -- or “Western civilization” -- and people of color are guests. Are they right?
Our history as a nation has been used to answer those kinds of questions, and someone is going to be answering these questions in the future. In addition to asking what employers want our graduates to do, we should also ask whom we want to answer such important questions.
Graduates -- whether in the humanities, sciences or engineering -- will continue to get relevant and interesting jobs. Some will get paid more than others. In finding the right major, students will have to make strategic choices about what they want for their lives. Having spoken with many students, I know many are not so single-mindedly focused upon profit. Many have more philanthropic purposes in mind for their education. By so circumscribing the range of possibilities, however, we are creating a future in which Lincoln’s graduates will be able to get jobs but maybe not make history.
J. Mark Leslie is an associate professor of history at Lincoln University.
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