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The Decline of Historical Thinking (newyorker.com)
153 points by eplanit 17 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 104 comments

Walter Lippmann warned about a century ago, in his seminal “Liberty and the News.” "Men who have lost their grip upon the relevant facts of their environment are the inevitable victims of agitation and propaganda. The quack, the charlatan, the jingo . . . can flourish only where the audience is deprived of independent access to information"

I no longer agree with this, personally. Politics is not a truth-seeking exercise. It's no science, law or even journalism. It's an allegiance & authority forming exercise. Part of that is forming a supporting narrative but this is more an output than an input. Truth may inform or that narrative, but only somewhat, and so do other things.

You can almost define a "political issue" as one where identity & allegiance shapes opinions more than fact. Imagine most any conflict. Russians & Ukrainians. Israelis and Palestinians, etc. Most people's political position is dictated by their national identity. No facts will convince most Russian nationalists that Ukraine has a moral right to crimea.

When a question is political enough, facts are subservient to opinion. People will engage with facts that support their opinion, not the other way.

In fact, even the terms "facts," "opinion," or "truth" are somewhat misleading. The operative concepts in politics are "identity," "allegiance" and feelings.

(1)identity in this sense: http://www.paulgraham.com/identity.html

This analysis of politics is only coherent if you ignore the existence of ideology entirely. It's true that "facts" don't necessarily unite people of competing ideologies because that's not how ideology works.

You could say a politically charged fact like "People of race A commit crime at 2x the rate of people of race B".

One person might then conclude "We need to put more police in predominantly A neighborhoods". Another might conclude "We should bus kids from A neighborhoods to B neighborhoods to normalize education rates". While yet another might say "Our public education shouldn't be funded primarily via property taxes, which systemically leads to under-education of lower-class individuals".

Same fact, different conclusions. You can't reduce it down to just "allegiance" or "feelings". I'd argue that understanding your ideology is the only way to make sense of politics. Most folks never really stop to examine their ideology, and just end up wherever they've been left by teachers / parents / talking heads.

I think we basically agree, just using words differently.

Ideology is, in my usage, an identity. *"I am an X." X can be socialist, catholic, christian democrat, moderate, african, working class woman, flat-earther... Some are more fixed than others. But genrally, people make political decisions based on these political identities.

Your example is perfect. More or better facts will not change people's understanding of that politically charged fact. It will usually be a byproduct of their wider political identity... including ideological affiliation. Ideological affiliation is probably the most important form of identity.

Identity is more fundamental then ideology. People get to choose their ideologies, they don't get to choose their identity.

Identity is negotiated between the individual and society. Some people argue otherwise, that an individual can arbitrarily decide their identity, but I don't think most people agree with this. The Rachel Dolezal [1] case is a pretty good illustration of this.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rachel_Dolezal

I think that's a very very narrow and specific definition of identity that most literature would disagree with. There's far more to identity then racial identity (or sexual/gender for that matter).

People incorporate anything and everything into their identity. Vegan/Crossfitter/Burner are all core identity components for many many people.

The "negotiation with society" is a function of how the individual externalizes it, and what type of reinforcement they expect to receive back.

To your example, Rachel Dolezal could maintain her self selected racial "identity" in peace and quiet if the society she was sharing it with was Tumblr and not the NAACP.

This state of things is not an accident. It is precisely the result of information asymmetry between voters and politicians. When you have no information, you must go on other sources. If you grow up lacking information, used to acting on feeling, you don't know how to process information and tend to reject i when you have no information, you must go on other sources. If you spend your life lacking information, used to acting on feeling, you don't know how to process information and tend to reject it. Or you have been convinced that you are knowledgeable and informed, by people interested in keeping you uninformed.

Politicians benefit when politics works this way. They always have and will continue to do so. And now that we have a news media, they are complicit.

No facts will convince most Russian nationalists that Ukraine has a moral right to crimea

Maybe so, but when powerful interests benefit from such a state of affairs, it's almost illogical to assume that said interests had no hand in crafting it.

> The complexity of the so-called individual that’s been praised for decades in America somehow has narrowed itself to the ‘me’. When I was a young girl we were called citizens – American citizens. We were second-class citizens, but that was the word. In the 50s and 60s they started calling us consumers. So we did – consume. Now they don’t use those words any more – it’s the American taxpayer and those are different attitudes.

-- Toni Morrison, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/05/toni-morrison-w...

> Nowadays, all you do is hear the media's description of what the candidate is saying, and one of the strange things about it is that politics is now presented in terms of politicians and not politics. I don't think the media is interested in politics, they're interested in politicians, which is a wholly different subject... who's doing this, about their private life, about their background, about what they must be thinking, might be thinking when they said something, why did they say it; but what they say is very, very hard to hear. And I think this is, in a sense, indeed quite deliberately, destroying the genuine democratic base on which people are elected.

-- Tony Benn, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqxnmKTmjkQ&t=2h36m47s

Another thing I find really tragic and harmful is how politics is considered as this dirty thing professional politicians do. If we all think that way, it truly is left to mostly crooks, people who meddle with it for gain or other motives, rather than citizens who try to bear the responsibility they have anyway. We need more Stav Shaffir's [0] in the world, and less cynicism and rationalizations for not doing anything, either.

[0] https://www.youtube.com/user/stavshaffir/videos

I don't mean this as some kind of ad for a politician, but having seen a bunch of videos of her debating (often enough in front of empty seats or at people making faces at her, but that doesn't take one iota away from her sobriety and focus, which is something to behold), as well as how she came to get into politics in the first place, I really think she's one of the most inspiring people I've seen so far in the 21st century.


> Politics is not a truth-seeking exercise. It's no science, law or even journalism. It's an allegiance & authority forming exercise.

You've articulated well something I've been trying to say for a while.

I've been saying I try to avoid politics because politics is the opposite of math - the more you learn, the more stupid your thinking becomes.

I feel like my explanation just made me sound like a hater and yours nails the problem on the head.

I personally like how Obama viewed politics, as a game of football, perhaps like the recent "worst superbowl ever" where there is NOT much happening most of the time, just posturing/attempts. Lot of injuries, insults, fights, scandals, doping, but also occasionally beautiful plays that remind you sometimes teams are able to score. Analogy does break down on bi-partisanship, as ideally we'd get infrastructure, prescription drugs, and many other bi-partisan things done, and there are few "cooperative" things about sports when it comes to one team vs another.

Well, your explanation is also fundamentally wrong. There is nothing "stupider" about learning how to arrive to a consensus and how to drive a result. The notion that learning math "makes" your thinking "smarter", but also simultaneously unable to affect a large scale change on society (cause politics are stupid!!1) is so obviously wrong I'd question the underlying assumption.

You might by the same token say art is about selling ads or products. Some would say that's how art can get abused, others might even call it not art by definition because of that. (I'm not sure where I stand on that at all, but I think it's obvious to everyone that art is way more and way deeper than just fashionable things to sell product, even if you consider the things made just to sell product art, too)

I think the same about politics (in the context of democracies where people are equal when it comes to citizenship), that's no more about authority and allegiance than families are about alcoholism and beatings. Same for journalism and other things, the medical professions and even lawyers, and so on. Even if it was $cynical_thing for most or even all people, we simply are no longer aware of the meaning and what we lost. Even if it was "just" an honest aspiration.. I'm not saying politics or anything was ever perfect or super good, but it used to be much better than giving up on it. And at any rate, our losing it has no bearing on the thing we lost. That's still there, waiting to be rediscovered. Land doesn't disappear just because we drift out into the ocean and no longer see it. We may well perish, but it will not be for lack of land, just for lack of our vicinity and affinity to it. When all directions are the same, and nothing has real value, we might as well swim further out into the ocean.

Politics is not a truth-seeking exercise. It's no science, law or even journalism. It's an allegiance & authority forming exercise.

This is partly true. Politics is - by definition - an allegiance-forming exercise. Whether it informs authority depends on existing power structures. But I don't see how that contradicts the section you quoted. Do you disagree with the prior premise "people lacking facts are susceptible to manipulation" or the latter "independent access is sufficient defense against manipulation"?

Personally, I still agree with the former, and regarding the latter I think that independent access to information is a required but not sufficient defense against manipulation.

The second requirement, as better explained by my sibling nerdponx, is having the skillset to independently evaluate that information. For me, this is where the education system has been systematically failing us (btw I'm European, and I don't believe Europe fares much better in this respect. We're lagging ten years behind maybe, but heading the same direction).

Then there's the third requirement: time. In order to have a healthy democratic society, every citizen needs information, the skills to analyze that information, and the time to analyze and incorporate that information. To me, this is where our attention-stealing economy is failing us: every media interruption, every six-second soundbite, every screaming ad brings us further away from a healthy society.

And it's not as if I have any solution for that, other than pi-holing every aspect of the modern web and disconnecting most consumer media offerings. But my personal solution will not change the world.

When a question is political enough

I'd rephrase that as "when a question is emotional enough". The reduction of politics to emotion is very much a modern phenomenon, and, I fear, one that will ultimately bring down our society. But not all of politics is emotion, and it certainly isn't the politics we should aspire to.

Do you disagree with the prior premise "people lacking facts are susceptible to manipulation" or the latter "independent access is sufficient defense against manipulation"?

I guess that I think they're not important questions. I don't even think manipulation is at the root of the problem.

I don't think people are seeking truth, when they discuss or think about politics. There is no point where people assess the facts objectively and make independant decisions based on those judegments. What people are doing is assessing their identity and allegiance, then justifying it with a narrative. They may reference facts in their rationalizations, but the opinion came first, then the assessment of facts. IE, the facts did not cause the opinion.

Better facts, access to information, requisite knoweldge and interest... these generally don't inluence people's politics . Political identity does, and facts play a very small role in that.

Think of religion for analogy. Religuous people might be engaged with the philosophy, history or current facts about their religion. If you ask them why they are a methodist, they may reference a theological essays or something that the church does. But, those things rarely impact the decision. More informed people don't make different decisions about their religion.

What does effect a person's religious choice? Identity. Say our methodist marries a catholic or moves to a Farsi village or form a mentorship relationship with a rabbi. This is much more likely to affect their religious choices than any fact could.

I too grudgingly, fitfully made the worldview transition from "platforms" to "identity".

Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government https://www.amazon.com/dp/0691178240/


The silver lining is that issue-based efforts have risen to fill the vacuum. I'm as partisan as they come, and I think this is a huge leap forward.

If we (USA) replace FPTP with Approval Voting and Proportional Representation, perhaps the policy-based coalition forming will transition back from 501c3's to campaigns & caucuses.

>Politics is not a truth-seeking exercise. It's no science, law or even journalism. It's an allegiance & authority forming exercise.

I don’t think journalism belongs there. Journalism is more similar to politics. It’s not particularly truthseeking and is more inclined toward narrative and painting a story via omissions and not being disinterested.

Even The Economist, which is generally well thought of by all sides, is up front about their agenda (global free trade), even they are prone to being agents of misinformation and taking the wrong side for the sake of their ideology.

I think it's naive to treat all journalism as a monolith. There are certain outlets like the National Enquirer that are absolute garbage, i.e. Bill Clinton in jacuzzi with 2 aliens. Then there are reputable outlets like WaPo or NYT which have a lot of great work done. Those outlets also publish editorials/opinions which become politicized, but one can hardly blame those outlets as EVERYTHING is politicized these days (music, sports, film, TV, etc.)

I would have agreed with you 15 years ago, even 5, but after Wikileaks and Snowden, it’s obvious they are as truthseeking as Pravda. They are about narrative, not about news or seeking truth. They have taboo subjects they will not pursue in psychology, social sciences, even in human reproduction, if it does not align with their view, but they’ll run with a limited study that’s not been replicated if it fits their narrative.

Now, they do have their occasional flash in a pan to pad their reputation from time to time, but that’s overwhelmed by their narrative campaigns.

Re: the enquirer. I think most people treat it as distraction/entertainment and are distinct from what were once “serious” newspapers.

"after Wikileaks and Snowden"


"In 2013, Snowden was hired by an NSA contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton, after previous employment with Dell and the CIA.[1] On May 20, 2013, Snowden flew to Hong Kong after leaving his job at an NSA facility in Hawaii, and in early June he revealed thousands of classified NSA documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Ewen MacAskill. Snowden came to international attention after stories based on the material appeared in The Guardian and The Washington Post. Further disclosures were made by other publications including Der Spiegel and The New York Times. "

It's fairly ironic given the context of the article and GP's comment, but it doesn't sound to me like you're forming your opinion on "the media" on a rational, factual basis.

I also suspect that you (perhaps subconsciously) exclude whichever bloggers/youtube'rs/podcasters from your personal definition of "the media"

Isn’t it the NYT and Guardian who’ve tried to discredit and make false claims about Greenwald and Wikileaks? That doesn’t sound like a truth seeker.

Politics is the continuation of war by other means.

A joke on one hand, a great inside on the other.

It is not just about allegiance seeking but also about beating other groups. And it's not just for fun but for zero-sum resources like budget, "more moral standpoint", natural resources, human resources, votes, views etc.

So altogether probably 3 points to consider (reason to do politics - zero-sum resources, challenges to succeed in - other teams try to get a bigger piece of the cake, and ways to achieve success - building alliances).

Easy there, Clausewitz.

>(1)identity in this sense: http://www.paulgraham.com/identity.html

I call this "leaving your ego at the door"

Speak for yourself; my political aim is to destroy all forms of hierarchical power. Identity and allegiance are just ways that rulers seek to divide and control people. Politics is not about those things except on the shallowest possible level, and among authoritarian personality types.

.. I started with "I."

Perhaps thinking of facts as "asymmetric weapons" would help? [0]

[0] https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/03/24/guided-by-the-beauty-o...

So, the number of students taking history degrees is declining except in the ruling-class colleges, is it?

I was fortunate enough to attend a ruling class college a long time ago. I graduated from a high school where the required history course was simply propaganda. The teacher never asked for the slightest bit of critical thinking. That's 2019 me reflecting on the experience of 1969 me. 1969 me thought it was over-the-top boring.

That high school class gave history a bad name. I suspect nothing much has changed. So, why should the UW Stevens Point students waste their time and tuition? They aren't. They are behaving rationally.

Knowing how to examine the past--to learn from the dead--is a part of mastering ANY trade. Reading about Alan Turing and John von Neumann makes me a better programmer. Knowing how Jon Postel (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) worked is key to understanding how the Internet became what it is.

Do future nurses need to know how existentially frustrating it was for Dr. Ignatz Semmelweis to persuade his fellow surgeons to wash their hands before touching patients? Yes, they do.

Do would-be social workers need to know how various religions understood human sexuality a century ago? Only if they want to know how people got to be the way they are.

Do marketing people need to know how upstart Pepsi gained market share from Coca-Cola early last century? Yes.

Therefore: here's a CALL TO ACTION for History Departments in colleges. Work with other departments to build and teach good history segments in other courses of study. Build it into the content of various classes, don't just teach a required history class. And, if you educate future K12 teachers, help them know history.

Stop wringing your hands about fewer history majors. Take a page from the way many English departments teach writing, and build it into other courses.

A response I'm imagining you'll get from college administrators today: "To truly teach history, we must first begin with those who were not part of it and understand why they were not. Why weren't there any important early black computer scientists? Why were women mostly absent in elucidating the laws of motion? These questions should form the basis of further historical study of physics, surgery, etc."

That's a good point. When we learn from the dead, we often learn what NOT to do and how NOT to behave.

Domain-specific history is full of examples of people who started out being silenced, struggled hard to be heard, and then changed their professions. Why didn't Franklin get the Nobel Prize along with Watson and Crick? The kind of history teaching I propose can lay out those examples. It's called "lived experience" history, not "birth dates of heroes" history.

I love how you’re making fun of people by making up quotes they never said.

what do you mean? those are all valid questions.

>I was fortunate enough to attend a ruling class college a long time ago. I graduated from a high school where the required history course was simply propaganda. The teacher never asked for the slightest bit of critical thinking. That's 2019 me reflecting on the experience of 1969 me. 1969 me thought it was over-the-top boring.

It hasn't gotten any better. I went to highschool a couple decades ago. My brother went to highschool in an adjacent state. I later found out that I got a version of history where the state where I attended school was portrayed as a utopia from the nanosecond the first European set foot on it. He got something that was more nuanced (to put it charitably). It's quite frankly disgusting how much is left out of history curriculum because it's inconvenient to the ideology of the average person on the committee that determines the curriculum.

Interesting is also that you can learn history much better outside of school. In contrast to education institutions youtubers for instance usually succeed at presenting the stuff in an interesting fashion. And if you listen to these kind of presentations in several languages or from diverse political influenced sources then you can also get a rather objective overview.

This series taught me in a few hours what I didn't learn in school over years: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yocja_N5s1I&list=PLBDA2E52FB...

I think it's important to define what "learn history" means. I think a lot of these pop history vidoes are good to supplement or replace poor high school history.

However, studying history at a university is a different beast. My experience was an incredible focus on context-building to understand what the sources are actually saying. This usually means building up a large amount of background knowledge (historical, literary, cultural, etc.) before even beginning to study the target period. It also means more critical thinking when looking at the sources themselves.

I've found that most podcasts and youtube videos, although good entertainment and better quality than a lot of high school courses, deeply lacking in the kind of critical thinking and study it takes to make the generalizations that they're making.

This makes it difficult for me to listen or watch pop history video/audio, since the methodology they use is usually poor (the only exceptions I've found thus far are: /r/AskHistorians (usually, not always) and the Revolutions Podcast (his methodology is good)).

I suppose the point that I'm trying to make is that these popular medias are a good at what they do and function as a great starting point. However, they contain factual errors and conclusions, and they should not be confused with the study of history.

"An aged man is but a paltry thing"

Seems like a nice potential solution would be promoting dual majors in journalism and history so journalists could provide deep historical context for the events they report on

Journalists often have at least two objectives: conveying information and attracting an audience (which might be directly related to selling ads). Providing a deep historical context does help with the quality of information, but it won't attract a large audience. The reality is even worse: it costs more to produce deep reports, but many viewers/readers will avoid those, and ads are harder to sell on historical subjects.

Most Americans now use social networks as their main source of information, with TV on second place, so I doubt this show an appetite for a better quality of information.

That's why a having a degree in something, where you have the knowledge relatively close at hand, is valuable. It can turn a deep report into a routine article.

High school should provide enough general culture in history to enable people to have basic notions and make history books accessible should people want to learn more about a specific period. I don’t think a college degree in history should be required for that.

Indeed. I suspect a part of the reason for the rise of college education as a necessity is the failure of public education to actually educate.

I went to a pretty good high school, and I feel like I learned a lot, but I still feel like we could have learned more, and learned it better I went to a pretty good high school, and I feel like I've learned a lot, but I still feel like we could have learned more, and learned it better.

You believe that liberal arts college professors offer nothing of value?

You believe that putting words in peoples' mouths is a good way to conduct a conversation?

FWIW, AP everyday publishes "Today in History" (https://www.apnews.com/c543085359964ecb9ad6f6a9da21c3d0) and even makes a video for syndication.

It’s rather common for journalists not to have a degree specific to journalism. Many have a liberal arts degree, which focuses heavily on history and philosophy. But there’s also a significant number of lawyers, business majors, or even MDs.

That would be very problematic for selling ads, though.

This is one reason why some of us choose to pay for journalism.

I paid and still saw ads, "advertorials" (disgusting), and verbatim copies of press releases + PR firm handouts.

So I stopped paying.

If someone can point me to proper news sites that give me quality paid news, please do so.

You won't like my answer. I pay for the guardian. It's proper news. I would pay for the Australian but I refuse to pay Murdoch press. I would strongly consider paying for the washpo or the economist.

Why should I not like your answer? I like a lot from the Guardian, it was on my list actually.

Thanks for your suggestion.

How do you know it's "proper news"?

How does anyone know its proper news? Contextually I think it means from a newspaper which employs trained journalists and with an established editorial policy you can find on the web. Agreeing with it isn't the point btw.

Interesting article. The worst combination is when people lean on the weight of history, but in an uninformed, cargo cult way. I feel like this is done in American discourse regarding World War 2 a lot, as stunningly exemplified in this clip (Chris Matthews vs. Kevin James on Appeasement): https://youtu.be/YK0d8ENS__c?t=240

The decline of history departments in universities is not the same as the decline of "hitorical thinking", though the two phenomena might or might have a common cause.

One can have a keen appreciation of history without ever having set foot in a history class in university. If this weren't possible, historical thinking would be doomed anyway.

If historians really care about historical thinking as an ability, they should stop complaining about the size of their departments and actually go out and find a way to encourage the general public to take an interest in history, not just the small subset who choose history as a major. Ditto for literature, philosophy, and most of the rest of the humanities. These are things that every educated person should be familiar with.

Disclaimer: I haz a Ph.D. in the humanities. I don't work in academia.

> they should stop complaining about the size of their departments and actually go out and find a way to encourage the general public

Do you have any suggestions? Many historians write popularly-aimed books, make media appearances, give public lectures, ....

Academics I know prioritize getting their own work done above starting new public outreach projects or the like, and already feel stressed about not getting enough time to do their work in the face of many competing draws on their finite attention including teaching, administrative nonsense, their own families, ...

> One can have a keen appreciation of history without ever having set foot in a history class in university.

One cannot develop the thinking style / methods of inquiry of working historians without actually doing years of relevant work and getting lots of feedback, which is possible but frankly extremely rare and difficult outside of universities. Historians, ethnographers, critics, journalists, philosophers, statisticians, corporate managers, diplomats, intelligence analysts, prosecutors, ... have different approaches to problems and dramatically different perspectives. Just reading a handful of books doesn’t really manage to train a student in a whole system of thinking. Even getting the barest appreciation for what those ways of thinking are about, how they differ, why they are valuable, etc. takes significant engagement from students. At least up through high school students have very little engagement with real scholastic or professional working styles or methods of inquiry. Secondary schools focus almost entirely on “content”, meaning more or less trivia, and most of the general public thinks that e.g. the job of a historian is to discover more precise lists of facts about the past.

> Just reading a handful of books doesn’t really manage to train a student in a whole system of thinking.

Not everyone needs to be trained in a whole system of thinking. Does everyone need to know how to do brain surgery or navigate a difficult diplomatic situation?

There should be history students, and there always will be. What I'm pointing out is that having more history students is not necessarily better than having more people among the general public who appreciate the importance of history at a basic level and stop to think about it when they vote, for example.

> Do you have any suggestions?

Perhaps more historians should write popular books and give public lectures. But even better, I think historians should find a way to make their knowledge useful in different fields like journalism, tourism, art, law, etc.

For every academic who landed a tenure-track position and is too busy to do anything else, there are several Ph.D.s who are chronically un- or under-employed. I hope they stop wasting time trying to feed the exploitative machine that is the academic labor market, and start doing their own thing.

The greatest thing about the humanities is that it can be useful no matter what else you do. The best way to make others appreciate your knowledge of history, literature, or philosophy is to show them through the example of your own life how it helps you be a better person, as well as better at what you do.

Are you kidding about historical information not being applicable enough to tourism? Versailles, the Acropolis, the Great Wall, D.C., Stonehenge, Machu Picchu...?

Of course it's related, hence the suggestion.

If you don't undestand at least a little about historical thinking, you will take exactly wrong lessons from books and historical texts. It also is not nearly as complicated as knowing details of brain surgery.

It doesn't require a four-year degree, either.

I would imagine the consuming of media from historians by the general public completely dwarves the decrease of history degrees lost, so maybe it's a wash?

As we see STEM rise, if we look deep enough, the promotion of STEM also pushes down everything else not stem, recess, physical education, art, history, the very things that make us human(e). STEM is a hit on the humanities, learning those is now the domain of the 1%.

Forced STEM is a way to train the next generation of wage slaves. It is votec starting at the earliest possible age while being couched in a faux constructionist _.

The promotion of STEM and demotion of humanities is deeply linked to the promotion of college generally, to the majority of people.

Going back a generation or two, most people didn't go to college. Most of those that did tended to be relatively wealthy, with better careers.

Education proponents argues that education made people wealthy/successful. College was an investment, and the education paid for itself in later successes... Human capital theory.

It turned out that lower-middle class kids who gave to college tend to make lower-middle adults. Earning potential increases somewhat, but nothing like human capital theory predicts.

Re-thinking, it seems more that philosophy and history are/were upper class pursuits. They didn't make people wealthy. Wealthy people could afford it.

It just does not make sense for most average people to study history. Its a luxury.

STEM really means focus on employability. I agree that education is not just about jobs. But, the premise of "everyone go to college" policies is jobs. Hence the dissonance.

I agree with you that articles advocating for increased focus on the humanities often fail to consider that historically university education in the humanities was only pursued by the wealthy elite. At the same time however, when I read books written by relatively average people from the early 1900s I notice that there are often many allusions to classical era mythology and history.

This could just be a difference in the focus of the humanities that people are learning (e.g. people in the past were educated in a relatively greater understanding of hellenistic culture while modern people are educated in a relatively greater understanding of non-western cultures). However, is it possible that in the past primary and secondary schools gave people a grounding in the humanities even if they never studied them at university?

Are there really books written by average people from the early 1900s?

Sure, assuming the definition of "average" we're using here is "not from a family with significant economic means", rather than "led an uninteresting life".

One that immediately springs to mind as both relevant and a good read is You Can't Win[1], the autobiography of a jailbird who was primarily active in the American West around the turn of the century. (I read it after seeing it mentioned in a HN thread, as it happens). I can't recall specific examples as it's been a while, but the author received a grounding in history at a religious school as a kid that shows up throughout the work in the form of various allusions to history and mythology.



I’d say the relevant criterion would be “had a typical education.” Seems like this guy would qualify, in any case. Thanks for the link.

The ones that I've personally read were manuals written by old time boxers and strongmen.

That's why they were the "liberal" arts - they were studied by free people, as opposed to vocational things, which were studied by slaves. To extend that to today, if you need the money from a job, don't study the liberal arts. If you can afford to not work for a living, then the liberal arts are appropriate for you.

Now, in a non-slave-based society, we think that all citizens should know something of the liberal arts (which I in fact support, and wish our education system was better at providing). But a degree? Only if you don't need the money.

I try to study it in my off hours. The more I do the more I think my goodness we can not afford not to study it. But then I wind up studying JavaScript because skills pay the bills.

That's what I've come to discover about the humanities as a whole. I was very much a STEM Lord going into college, but my Uni required a lot of electives outside the major, to try to cross pollinate. I ended up enjoying those much more, and started to realize that we can't focus solely on STEM to the exclusion of them because, well, STEM can't solve or answer everything and we're forgetting the past, leaving it doomed to be repeated.

STEM is getting pushed as early as Kindergarten. Even before STEM, grade schools were cutting recess, art, music and history. STEM legitimized this behavior and it is starting way before college.

The high school education is so worthless, that college is mandatory. This is a scam. A high school education should be the equivalent of a 2 year degree from a community college. STEM is a votec scam and an excuse to excise the humanities from all levels of education.

Using "wage slave" unironically for cushy office jobs betrays a pretty severe lack of empathy and historical perspective.

They're cushy office jobs now because the market isn't over flooded with talent.

I'm sorry for the vitriol, but this is one of the most ignorant comments I've read on HN for a while. I read it three times and could only conclude your whole comment was just so you could spew the "couched in a faux constructionist" non sequitur at the end of it.

STEM in physical education: Biomechanics, kinesiology, nutrition science, sports psychology, probability and statistics, equipment tech.

STEM in art: physics, perspective, geometry, chemistry, music theory, acoustics, audio engineering, CAD, photoshop, Leonardo Da Vinci would like to have a word with you.

STEM in history: agriculture, Gutenberg, Isaac Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Alan Turing WWII, industrial revolution, manhattan project, Apollo, telecommunications

Basically the entire tree of "advances in STEM" over the course of human civilization can be directly tied to salient events in art, sports and general history.

STEM advances humanities and humanities advance STEM. If anything the STEM movement is about trying to get STEM back on par with how other fields are taught. It's not a zero sum where if STEM wins, then 'humanities' lose. They complement each other and both win.

That's definitely not true. Even at the high school level, where I teach, it's very much 'do STEM at the expense of humanities'. While it doesn't have to be a zero-sum game, it is and STEM gets pushed because it's seen as more 'practical' and better at getting you jobs.

I think that you might be understanding the poster's terminology differently than they intended. When people talk about physical education and art at the pre-college level they generally mean gym and the fine arts respectively. They generally do not mean the physical sciences or the mathematics behind the fine arts (although those are both very valuable things to study).

As you point out, studying STEM could be complementary to the study of history and other humanities. However, that does not necessarily mean that it always works out that way.

The zero sum game is students' time. Not contribution to society.

Whether it has to be a zero sum game is another matter, but you seem to have misunderstood the assertion of your parent comment.

Are you implying that STEM is not part of what makes us human? I would say that technology and all the things that enable it are one of humanity’s most important and defining characteristics.

If the job prospects of history majors are teacher and cab driver, then it's not very attractive to many people for good reason. History is important, historians are important, but not everyone needs to study it. The skills only have limited demands on the job market and its dangerous to tell people to study history if they have meek prospects, especially in a place like the US where colleges aren't tuition free.

I realize that this is likely what you intended to communicate, but I would differentiate between the need to study a subject and the need to specialize in it as a career path. I agree that not everyone needs to become a historian but I think that everyone needs to study history.

> Forced STEM is a way to train the next generation of wage slaves.

And at the same time, it is the only way the West can compete with China

China can put real engineers with 6 year university education to work on assembly line, US can't do anything about that - it simply doesn't have so many of them physically.

For as long as thinks continue that way, it will be only natural that US will continue losing out on manufacturing front.

I feel that narrowly defining politics as it's negative aspects is dangerous because it leaves us (English speakers) without a word for the necessary processes of organising ourselves and resolving differences between more than two people. Demagoguery, manipulation and sowing hate are all political but so is choosing to stand up to a bully on someone else's behalf.

I think that many people (not the OP) use this as a device to present their preferred view as the "natural" or "only viable" view and to dismiss any consideration of alternatives as "political."

Regarding the article, I think it is true that, for a couple of decades now, many players have chosen to discredit political discussion and compromise in favour of tribalism. The message crudely is that everybody lies so there is no point trying to figure anything out and you should just stick with your side. This is a political position and it is my (political) view that this is terrible.

I'm not sure that I would directly link this to the number of undergraduates taking history in the US though. Everybody has political stances and a sense of history and developing both is a lifelong process where quality matters more than a particular formalism.

Edit: this was meant as a reply to dalbasal but I messed up.

> The Yale history department intends to hire more than a half-dozen faculty members this year alone. Meanwhile, the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, Bernie L. Patterson, recently proposed that the school’s history major be eliminated, and that at least one member of its tenured faculty be dismissed.

How do they expect to hire and fire faculty members at whim. This can't be done without compromising the quality which means level of education will be going down further and student attrition will increase as a result.

I do not think these skills are build in a day or retained if one is fired from the job and end up flips burgers. This idea of talent available on standby seems pretty funny to me.

This is a topic close to my heart, since I went to university for history (I'm now doing a second Bachelor's in Comp Sci).

A theme I've noticed in the comments, and in the public at large, is confusing learning history with learning to be an historian (or historical thinking).

During my degree, I obviously learned a great deal of history. However, a large portion of my time was spent on context-building, and attempting to understand sources on their own terms and to contextualize them into the broader world around them. For example, to study the famous historic period foo, you must first learn something of the period before it, bar. It's also important to understand its society and culture, as well as those of a place's neighbours (you can't learn English History without learning some French history).

It felt less like a degree in "history", and closer to a degree in context-building. This, in my mind, was the greatest value of it, as it wormed its way into my brain informs how I view new topics and ideas. It's something I've noticed is absent for many smart people when they talk about history specifically (although they may be excellent at it in other fields).

A high school history course's purpose is to teach a base set of facts, as well as to teach children the state's narrative of its own history (for better and for worse). These cirriculums are usually written by hsitorians to fulfill the state's needs. Youtube videos and podcasts contain many facts, but their interpretation of the sources lead to poor understanding of the topic, and factually incorrect statements (since they're lacking broader context to understand them). Both of these have flaws, and lead to individuals "learning" something that may be incorrect, or that they have misunderstood to the point that they have learned very little.

I suppose that the point I'm trying to make is that learning about history != historical thinking, and a lack of historical thinking can inhibit the learning of history.

As a side note, the Revolutions Podcast (and by extension I suppose the History of Rome, although I haven't personally listened to it) is the only popular history media that has actually impressed me with its methodology. /r/AskHistorians has a tendency to be excellent as well, albeit with some caveats.

Education in history can also be politicized to a large extent. Florida passed a law that defined teaching history to be solely about certain facts without interpretation or analysis.


No book on the subject is perfect, but I recommend this book: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/555926.The_New_Penguin_H...

Approachable by anyone, readable, and doesn't have an ending until we really screw things up.

A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn would be a good one to get the historical context for politics today. A People's History of the World is similar for a more global view.

Folks here are acutely aware of needing to support their tech claims or arguments with evidence, but seems like when it comes to other domains of human understanding those requirements go out the window.

The responses here seem to be making Eric Alterman's point in that article, that people who seem to have the resources to better understand ourselves aren't doing it correctly, or keep shifting the discussion with specious arguments.

All political thoughts are based on certain assumptions about human nature, and the best (most prudent) assumptions we have about our human nature start with evolutionary psychologists, and other who study how our brains have evolved.

If money was not part of the equation I would have loved to have studied history.

One of the nice things about the age we live in is that you don't need to go to college to get a good understanding of history.

I have been listening to the Great Courses history lectures on Audible: https://www.audible.com/ep/the-great-courses-history while commuting. I have learned so much. Learning history helps give a new perspective on current events.

Or, perhaps, the reason for the decline of history is because it is written by the "winners", and has, for the most part, failed to shed outdated, colonial modes of thought. History is progressing very fast, exponentially faster than it ever has. Do the old, tenured professors of today have what it takes to see this progress and give up their outdated modes of thinking?

The fact that philosophy is not seeing a similar decline (http://dailynous.com/2018/11/30/sharp-decline-philosophy-maj...) should be reason enough to believe that people today, even less privileged ones, desire to know who and where they are. Not that philosophy is unaffected by outdated modes of thought - but its raison d'etre is to lay bare those modes, which allow students to engage with the modes themselves, rather than the misguided content (bad history) generated by misguided modes.

I don't know if the decline is because people think it's a bunk rationalization of power, though I can see how some people might reason that way and lose interest. Frankly, I'm not convinced by that. I don't think most people think of history that way. Most people would probably accept whatever historical claims at face value without any reason for suspicion. You've have to make the case that the people who would have gone into history are now suddenly woke and see history as a collection of suffocating lies.

A much simpler explanation is that history doesn't get you a job that pays well, at least not in any obvious way that translates from major to job. And universities have been emphasizing the marketability of majors for a few decades now. So if there's a decline, it must reflect broader trends.

Especially as Uni becomes more expensive, the economic rationale of 'job' hit even harder.

That said ... we should also consider that most subjects don't apply very directly anyhow. I'll bet someone with a History major does just as well in Communications that someone with a Communications major.

> outdated modes of thought

A lot of it is just fashion. For example, the Founding Fathers of the US move back and forth between heroes and goats depending on which decade the history book was written.

Currently, the "Hamilton" play has moved them back to being whitewashed heroes. Before that, it was fashionable to sagely intone how "deeply flawed" they were.

For another example, Tesla has been rehabilitated into a heroic figure, while Edison has been downgraded to goat status.

The Wright Bros. also vacillate between goats and heroes.

Have you seen Hamilton?

He died some time ago.

Oh, you mean the play? Could you expand on your response and show how the play is accurate and inaccurate?

I think he was referring more to the idea {in the grandparent comment) that Hamilton presented the founding fathers as "whitewashed heroes", not it's historical accuracy.

One could say many things about Hamilton's characters. "Whitewashed heroes" is not one of them.

Hamilton the person was a deeply elitist, anti-immigration slave owner who was incredibly suspicious of democracy. Hamilton the musical is misleading, portraying a hero in the mold of modern sensibilities. And that's not even getting to the other characters. It's historical fan fiction.

I don’t think you have this right. Even if the purity of his motives could be the subject of discussion, Hamilton was one of comparstively few active abolitionists and a member of the Manumission Society. I also believe you are strongly misrepresenting his stance on democracy as generalized, as opposed to direct democracy.

Next you’ll be saying they didn’t even speakesth in rhyme!

Sorry that I haven't had a chance to get back for a while. I pretty much agree with MrEldrich and moosamus and feel that they have stated the point adequately.

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