Whenever I hear this, my blood pressure skyrockets and my head explodes. Oh, great, here we go again. We wouldn't have jobs, people were telling us, unless more students decided to become history majors. At least this was the bottom-line mentality propagated by the powers that be. Cue all the buzzwords, catchphrases, and clichés. Cue the old curmudgeon in me to mobilize the social criticism that is all too lacking even among so many academics who fail to realize - or realize and yet do nothing out of acquiescence - that so many of the buzzwords nowadays contain their own market-based discourses. To be successful, we needed to abandon the lecture format entirely. We needed to make history "fun" and "interesting," never scratching beyond the surface to realize that these terms are relative and subjective. How do I know that something that I find interesting will be interesting to the students or vice versa? "Student-centered" learning is another buzzword we often hear nowadays, which prompted one commenter on another blog to quip sarcastically, "I thought all learning was student-centered? Who else would be learning but the students?" The Tuning Project seemed to be the latest "new" fad, I thought, and I put "new" in quotes because many of the things you here about nowadays in higher ed are merely re-packaged and re-cycled from thirty years ago. Here was the latest effort at "reform" in higher ed, which was really a wolf in sheep's clothing. It would only reinforce the neo-liberal assault on higher education.
I am an idealist in many parts of my life - in my political views, my lifestyle, my personal values, in how I converse with other people, and how I operate in the classroom. So my natural inclination, whenever I hear the word "practical" associated with a history education, is to counter with the "ideal" - that history is intrinsically valuable and needed no additional justification. Ideas, philosophies, different ways of thinking, evidence-based arguments, critical thinking - this is what we stood for - and this was the antithesis of "marketing" the "practical" benefits of the history major. One's job should not be the only outcome of a college education. This was way too vocational for my tastes. Students should get an experience when they come to college. Taxpayers should fund the humanities for their own sake, because they are a public good, and this level of funding should not have any relation to the amount of customers we attract. One of the many pernicious consequences of this "marketing" mindset is what I like to call a perverse incentive; or rather, changing one's approach to teaching merely to attract more customers rather than providing the best class that one can offer.
Over the past few weeks, I have been practicing one of the history major's most important skills: bringing together large amounts of information and whittling down what is truly important for the reader. In preparation for an article-length manuscript that I hope to get published, I've been combing through the Papers of Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson. Sitting next to one another on the book shelf, in the image above, I can feel the two books trying to magnetically repel one another! I realized that I'll be going over literally hundreds of pages to add only a few paragraphs to my article manuscript, based on the critiques offered by anonymous reviewers. But historians do this all the time, both inside and outside the classroom. Because we love our jobs (at least most of the time!), we get obsessively immersed in our projects, spending hours on end in research. But in going from the HUGE volume of pages to a few paragraphs, we are practicing an important skill. It is a skill that is not exclusive to historians - it is shared by other scholars - but it is, nonetheless, important. I still cringe at the idea that we have to "market" ourselves, but at least if I am asked to do it, I can come up with something!