A Vanishing History

I emerge briefly from my blog holiday because I want to share this: it is very personal to me and relevant I feel to where we find ourselves in 2020. On Wednesday, I had trouble remembering the last name of a (long-deceased) History professor I had slightly known back in New York in the 1990s. So I decided I would “google” the university – I could not remember its web site address offhand – to see if I could find his name somewhere on the university site (as he had long had an award named after him).

Unexpectedly I stumbled into some early 2020 articles about troubles at the institution and how various degree programs had been frozen. I found myself drawn down the internet rabbit hole and I was stunned at what I was seeing as I clicked around. “Frozen” in US academic terms means no new students will be enrolled in that major/program and it is clearly more likely than not to face the chopping block after the existing intake of students have graduated… and among those “frozen” was History.

[Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a history textbook.]

My undergraduate and graduate areas were in Political Science, but the two disciplines were then officed next to each other and we mixed a lot and I knew some History instructors very well. (Although not the man for whom I was searching.) Eventually, because I was doing graduate History studies elsewhere, I was employed also to teach some History classes. None of the History staff I knew and worked with are still at the school – they are all either long-retired or dead (and most are dead).

I stumbled upon interviews and quotes from an academic I knew in Political Science while I was there and who is still there. One piece even included a photo: I had not seen him in about twenty years and he still looks good (in presumably his 70s). He assailed the entire History situation (the number of History full-time academics has dwindled to only four; I recalled there being a dozen or so) and lashed out – he was never one to mince words – at the higher administration’s attitude: that it seems to have forgotten it is a university and not a vocational school.

I know there are many justifications for cutting down on liberal arts majors, including saving money and that students are not as interested now in “non-vocational” majors. Yet a so-called university NOT having a History major – not even a small one just for “show” – seems incredible. For History is among the most basic of the university disciplines.

[Some of my books over in the Catskills. Photo by me, September 2019.]

I am sure the global pandemic is just going to make a bad situation even worse this autumn. Seeing all of that depressed me as I again recalled all of the good men and women I studied under and worked with and how much they knew and how passionate they were. And now, just a few decades later, was it all for nothing?

[An excerpt from Passports: Atlantic Lives, 1994-1995. On Kindle for iPad/iPhone. Copyright 2013.]

I realized too that what I had touched upon in the likes of that background above in my first three novels is now increasingly “history” itself.

In a 2020 in which people take to the streets about history and memory, and online “debate” an often controversial and divisive past, at this time of all times…

[St. Mary’s Churchyard, Potton. Photo by me, November 2019.]

it is unnerving and even scary to see a subject like “History” vanishing at any good-sized university.

Sadly I am sure my old place of study and employer is not alone in taking the view that “History” is not nearly as necessary “nowadays” as is, say, “Veterinary Studies.” But a web site such as Wikipedia – which could disappear tomorrow – is simply not a satisfactory substitution for rigorous original research… for without original research as is done in universities from where do we get all of the knowledge that makes it possible for a Wikipedia to exist in the first place? Indeed turning to the internet for “history” is downright dangerous given what we know by now of how easily web sites may, for example, alter photographs and otherwise present falsehoods as “facts.”

Incidentally, where this post began? Within seconds of stumbling on those articles that discussed the fate of the History program, suddenly I remembered that late History professor’s name without needing to search any further. How the mind works: hordes of other recollections also rushed to my mind and for a little while I was “back” in those increasingly distant 1990s once again.

Have a good weekend, wherever you are.

2 thoughts on “A Vanishing History

  1. A general disrespect and devaluation of History and the Humanities seems to be par for the course. Here, in Australia, our government has announced a major increase in fees for students of the Humanities while reducing the fees for more “useful” and “vocational” degrees such as education and nursing. No one argues that education and nursing are not essential, however the outcry against the doubling of Humanities fees appears to have fallen on deaf ears. While the courses will still be offered, it is feared that the major fee increase will put students off. But for a university not to even offer a History degree is mind boggling indeed.

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