Skills are not the answer: further thoughts on (not) selling history

[This continues an earlier post.]

To pick up where I left off:

  1. Historians, history departments, and historical organizations are — rightly — worried about a decline in the study of history at the undergraduate level.
  2. There is no clear evidence for any one cause driving this decline, but a mixture of structural changes to the economy and to education as well as local factors is likely.
  3. A common response from history departments has been to lay ever greater stress on history’s “relevance” in terms of (a) transferable skills (overwhelmingly characterized in generic terms as analytical, critical, and communications skills), and (b) a general “understanding” of the present.
  4. Neither (a) nor (b) is unique to history as a discipline, nor is either one its privileged terrain. Neither qualifies as a reason to enrol in history rather than another humanities, social-scientific or even pre-professional program.

So what’s wrong with emphasizing the transferable skills that historians acquire? In itself, nothing; after all, it’s still true of history even if it isn’t only true of history. But by itself, to the exclusion of any discussion of specifically historical knowledge or ways of thinking, a narrow focus on skills makes history into a sort of remedial or service program, that can help with everyday tasks and general awareness but that has nothing distinctive to impart. No economics department has that problem.

Of course, there are other reasons for this impression. The idea that “history” speaks with one voice or one message — that it teaches lessons, to use a popular and ancient conceit — is one that historians have to work very hard to exorcise from the minds of students. Suggesting that history naturally takes the form of a single narrative — of what? civilization? the nation? liberty? progress? — disingenuously papers over the fissures that historians spend their lives investigating. It ignores the very questions history students must learn to ask. “History says” is never a promising way to start a sentence; its absence from the history department websites I surveyed is, I think, a good thing. Unlike economics departments — which so overwhelmingly adhere to a shared outlook that “heterodox economics” is actually the name of a field — historians can glory in the absence of a fixed or common subject, methodology, or theoretical framework.

So perhaps it’s understandable that websites representing whole departments of these protean humanoids are sketchy about what it is, exactly, that historians study, know, or even do (to any level of detail). Setting aside their economic “relevance”, which gives them renewed if specious purchase in the context of current anxiety about undergrad numbers, bland, general skills might simply be an easier thing to talk about than the open, variable and (in a sense always) political interests, purposes or convictions of historians as historians. Ditto “understanding the present” or “preparing for the future.” (Is there anything else one can prepare for?) If you don’t have anything already universally agreed upon to say, don’t say anything at all.

If this universal blandness does in some sense reflect an attempt at neutrality, however, the attempt is misguided; and whether intentional or not, the result is anything but neutral. This is not so much because of what stock language about skills says or doesn’t say. It has to do instead with the institutional context and the political moment in which this emaciated language operates. There are probably dozens of ways to make these connections, but I’ll just make a few points here.

One is that undergraduates are not the only important audience for arguments about the value of studying (or, from the other side of the lectern, of teaching) history. Nor, in many cases, are they the audience most directly tied to history’s survival on specific campuses. Administrators, too, need convincing. And in an era of budget cuts and program consolidation, a discipline that cannot distinguish its purpose from that of a dozen others has no particular reason for existing as an independent program itself. The language of skills, in other words, plays into an agenda of academic austerity.

To be sure, I haven’t heard of any history departments actually being closed down. On the other hand, administrative scepticism about history’s value and ignorance of its nature as a discipline can and do corrode programs from the inside. (Here the language of skills parallels and indeed abets the reorientation of universities as research institutions towards “deliverable” products — which itself often implies a shift of support away from traditional disciplines and departments and towards alternative units, centres, labs, or projects that promise to bring new money in.) If the point of history is the acquisition of skills, then what need is there for any particular content — at least, outside of whatever appeals to the largest number of students? What need is there to “cover” less well known places, times, people, or themes? What need is there for full-time positions in a whole range of fields when adjuncts or graduate students can teach the same basic skills at a fraction of the price? Obviously, none at all.

From a wider angle, an increasingly exclusive focus on skills also plays into the — dare I say it? — neoliberal notion that universities’ pedagogical mission is nothing more than the reproduction of a workforce. This is of course a much larger morass, into which I have no desire to wade just this minute. Suffice it to say that I very much doubt whether most or even many historians really see the highest purpose of their teaching as producing a flexible labour pool for the temp jobs of tomorrow. And if they do, then perhaps they deserve the neglect they’re getting. Otherwise, it might be time to get beyond transferable skills as the only, or the best, reason for studying history.

One thought on “Skills are not the answer: further thoughts on (not) selling history

  1. Pingback: Arguing for history: If not skills, then what? | memorious

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