Everything Has a History -- but Only for the Elite?

The attack on the humanities, especially at less selective universities, is a violation of some of the basic premises of undergraduate education, argue Mary Beth Norton and James Grossman.

May 13, 2021
 
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Close to 6,000 individuals, among them many historians, have signed an online petition protesting the recent decision by administrators at Aston University in Birmingham, U.K., to dissolve their department of history, languages and translation and to render the faculty members “redundant” -- that is, to terminate their contracts within the next few years.

Most of the petition signers had probably never heard of Aston University before, so why has this action caused such a reaction both here and in the U.K., where it was the subject of an article this month in The Guardian?

The university’s abrupt decision, announced without prior notice in March, seems particularly surprising because, in 2018, Aston recruited three historians from the United States and Australia for “permanent” positions to be added to an existing group of language and translation instructors established in 1971. The three new faculty members were excited by the prospect of constructing a historical curriculum from scratch. Two of the three were hired without a probationary period; one of the two Americans had recently been awarded tenure.

The contributions of these historians to the university seem beyond question. One of the three historians was designated Aston’s Best Newcomer in 2019, and two of them have since been promoted. One is a digital humanities specialist with expertise appropriate for Aston’s focus. Two have published monographs that have been listed as submissions in Aston’s Research Excellence Framework (a national U.K. assessment essential to institutional success).

Despite the acknowledged excellence of the historians, the success of the program they had created in attracting student enrollment and the institutional contributions of these scholars, neither they nor their discipline seem to have a place in Aston’s future. Reaching such a determination would appear to require considerable deliberation and assessment. Yet the university gave no rationale other than that Aston’s leaders had changed their minds about whether the students at the institution would gain from studying history or foreign languages. The announcement made no claims of financial exigency, misconduct or less than stellar teaching or publication records by any department members.

What, therefore, is going on at Aston -- or perhaps, more broadly, in higher education?

From a perspective beyond the ethics of employment in higher education, what is happening at Aston amplifies alarms that have begun to ring elsewhere as well, not just in the U.K. but also here in the United States. It appears, based on The Guardian’s reporting, that the decision at Aston -- and a similar one at London South Bank University -- could be part of a broader attack on humanities teaching in the so-called modern universities in the U.K. that cater in particular to first-generation college students. Similarly, in America, especially at nonelite universities, governing boards and administrators have mistakenly assumed that history and other humanities subjects do not prepare students for jobs. State legislatures have even begun to consider proposals to tie financial aid to a student’s declaration of majors that “lead directly to employment.”

This is not a matter of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines versus the humanities. One would be hard-pressed to see where physics leads any more “directly” to immediate employment than history. Instead, it is an attack on two of the very premises of undergraduate education in a democratic society: access to opportunity and preparation for citizenship. Many employers are seeking entry-level applicants who know how to learn, rather than, or in addition to, specific occupational knowledge. Moreover, learning how to learn -- indeed, the hunger for lifelong learning -- might well be more appropriate to an economy that shifts as rapidly as we see today, not to mention the foreseeable future. When Aston University eliminates or eviscerates programs in history and other humanities disciplines, it is denying its students the broad educational foundation necessary to open opportunities available to their peers at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

Aston’s defense seems to be that it wants to provide a “practical” education. History, like other humanities disciplines, might not prepare students for particular jobs. But it prepares them for a life of careers. Students who learn to think historically will be lifelong learners. In the 21st-century economy, that is rather practical indeed.

Everything has a history. As one Aston student recently explained, “I feel like the skills I am learning in this degree, I could take anywhere. It’s about putting together information and backing up an argument with evidence. The idea that history isn’t an employable degree is just bizarre.”

Bio

Mary Beth Norton is Mary Donlon Alger Professor of American History Emerita at Cornell University. James Grossman is executive director of the American Historical Association and tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.

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