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 Today asked 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.
And just this month, Lincoln University, a historically black institution in Missouri, deactivated its history program due to low numbers of graduates, low career demand and low student demand. Other HBCUs and regional colleges have threatened to follow suit.
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.
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