Galaxy Bear clock, 2018.
history pragmatic historian

History Is Searching for Its Voice

Galaxy Bear clock, 2018.
Galaxy Bear clock, 2018.

STEM, STEM, STEM … Education is all about Science, Technology, Engineering & Math. That’s it. Just topics that are directly applicable to the needs of Corporate America.

This is a direct quote from the U.S. Department of Education’s webpage on STEM:

In an ever-changing, increasingly complex world, it’s more important than ever that our nation’s youth are prepared to bring knowledge and skills to solve problems, make sense of information, and know how to gather and evaluate evidence to make decisions. These are the kinds of skills that students develop in science, technology, engineering and math—disciplines collectively known as STEM. If we want a nation where our future leaders, neighbors, and workers have the ability to understand and solve some of the complex challenges of today and tomorrow, and to meet the demands of the dynamic and evolving workforce, building students’ skills, content knowledge, and fluency in STEM fields is essential.

No mention of art, history, philosophy, social sciences, or languages. STEM will do it all: help students learn how “to solve problems, make sense of information, and know how to gather and evaluate evidence to make decisions.” With the implication being that any subject outside of STEM can’t possibly teach these skills.

The arts community did not take this shift in pedagogy to STEM sitting down. Arts advocates said, “Hey, wait a minute! Art and the skills it teaches are just as important as STEM.”

And they made STEAM.

The arts community has had decades of practice in vocally making the case for the importance of all manner of visual, performing and musical arts to society. Back in the 1990s, when I was serving on the Five Wings Arts Council, there was a concerted effort by both arts organizations and the foundations that funded them to study the benefits of the arts and share them widely within society.

The easiest argument to make is in proving the economic impact of the arts. Cold, hard numbers for the corporations who would like education to be about training children for future work rather than to be well-rounded human beings.

Because the arts community invested in these sorts of studies and worked to communicate their findings, when STEM swept the nation, they were ready to fight back and make STEAM.

The history community has not been so prepared or vocal. Instead, the subject of history has backslid, with some universities looking at cutting history programs.

Perhaps it’s this existential threat to history, but it appears that the history community is finally searching for its voice. Whether it’s #Twitterstorians jumping in with a history thread meant to debunk lies told to make political points or the creation of history podcasts and documentaries or museums saying that “History is not neutral” while hosting more inclusive programs and exhibits, historians aren’t laying around like doormats any longer.

I’m seeing more and more people in the history community trying to find ways to show society that history can teach people how to “bring knowledge and skills to solve problems, make sense of information, and know how to gather and evaluate evidence to make decisions.” Historians are working to bridge the gap between academic history and popular history, showing that the study of history has practical applications to our lives. The Pragmatic Historian is part of that effort.

One of the most heartening developments in history’s search for its voice comes from the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH). The organization recently received a large grant (almost a half of a million dollars) from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in order to “carry out a comprehensive, nationwide study of how the public views, interprets, and uses a wide variety of history activities and will develop new tools to strengthen the field’s communications efforts.

To which I say, “Hallelujah! It’s about time!”

The study, called “Framing History with the American Public,” aims to “help develop and share tools and educational materials to ensure professionals across the history community adopt the project’s findings.” Because people tend to remember messages that are repeated frequently, these tools and materials will be critical to helping history professionals across the nation make the point about the importance of history and the many skills it teaches. If people across society (including business leaders and politicians) start hearing the same positive messages about history from all quarters, perhaps history will see the same support as the arts and STEM.

I’d like to kick off the messaging with the following:

History is infrastructure because it is part of everything we do.

Historians, raise your voices. How is history critical to society? What skills does learning history teach?