The Last Historians, Seriously

Chris Beneke

My friend Benjamin Carp, a highly regarded historian of the American Revolution, has offered a good-natured response to “The Last Historians?”—my post from last week. It’s comforting to know that scholars as sensible as Carp and his fellow Common-Place blogger, and renowned early national U.S. historian, Jeffrey Pasley are less worried than I am. Apocalyptic warnings about the imminent, digital-driven demise of the traditional university were obviously premature a decade ago, and they are probably premature today. Yet, of all people, historians should appreciate that technological revolutions can sometimes take decades to make their full social impact. Moreover, there are some alarming trends converging on the modern university—an expensive cost structure, high levels of indebtedness among U.S. families, the globalization of college competition, unfavorable demographic patterns, and a host of distance learning innovations—that even a non-futurist might recognize as looming threats to our existence. In fact, you don’t have to hold a degree in economics to see that the tuition bubble of the last two-and-a-half decades looks remarkably similar to the housing bubble. Universities, and especially humanities scholars within universities, need to think hard about how we can develop both better and cheaper forms of higher education. Otherwise the end times (or some comparably grim tribulations) might really be quite near for those of us at institutions with endowments less than the gross domestic product of entire nations.

Now to Carp’s specific criticisms. Do I believe that an iTunes lecture series will substitute for the experience of working closely with Carp or Pasley in a seminar or as advisees? Of course not. But is a student in a typical lecture class of one hundred going to learn significantly more than she would with online course content, a great lecturer video series, and a part-time facilitator? Even if the answer to that question is “yes” and the live lecture course represents a more effective approach to teaching and learning, we still have to ask whether the marginal difference is worth a couple of thousand bucks to the students and their families. We also have to appreciate that our calculus may differ significantly from the calculus made by people outside the academy. You could protest that the university is not a corporation and should not be run like one. And I’d agree. The rub here is that perfectly rational mothers, fathers, and anxious teens often measure the worth of an education the same way that they measure the worth of other goods. And we, as academics, will either provide more educational, cultural, and economic value for their dollar than the alternatives, or we will fail.

What can be done about this value problem? To begin, I would suggest that historians make a stronger case for smaller classes with research-active faculty and that they design courses with more student-faculty interaction built into them. I would also suggest research-active historians consider writing fewer books and articles (and blog posts, for that matter) so that they can devote enough time and intellectual energy to teaching, advising, and programming, thereb making the experience worth the extra money their students are paying to be around living, breathing professional historians.

Regarding Ben’s brief against altering PhD and tenure requirements, I may have gotten ahead of myself in this case. It is nonetheless clear that we are producing too many PhDs with Research I credentials who end up as adjunct lecturers working for $5000/course and no benefits. It’s also clear that we’re publishing a lot of scholarship, especially in the form of books, that gets neither read nor cited (the latter, of course, not always requiring the former). Would the field of history suffer if we produced twenty percent fewer monographs? I doubt it. My sense is that few historians can keep up with all of the work generated in their field of specialization, let alone the profession. Nor do their college libraries have enough money to buy all of the books in a particular sub-specialty from university presses that barely have enough resources to produce them. The point I’m making here is not new. But the convergence of dismal trends (see paragraph one above) does make it newly urgent. I am more and more convinced of the value of research to good teaching. But I don’t believe that we should continue increasing scholarly output just so that we can add lines to our resumes and percentages to our salaries. The educational value of research needs to be repeatedly demonstrated. Teaching and research really do need to complement each other.

At least a year before the recession began and the financial crisis struck, my friends and family members had started to badger me about the high cost of a college education. Was a four-year undergraduate degree really worth $200,000 they’d ask? I’d try to explain. I’d tell them about the generous financial aid packages, the luxurious student facilities, and the economic benefits of a bachelors degree—as well as the great education our students were receiving. They seldom bought it. To non-academics, our self-rationalizations are looking more and more like a bill of goods. As historians, the task of justifying our existence has never been easy. We know implicitly that we’re in the business of educating rather than job training. We know that our research can enrich our teaching. Now we may finally have to prove it.