The tragedy, then, is not just that a campus of the University of Wisconsin would drop the history major but that the custodians of history in the 21st century lost the ability to teach and write about history in a way that sustains a hallowed 2,500-year tradition. In other words, what is being jettisoned is likely not just history as we once understood it but rather de facto poorly taught “-studies” courses — which sadly become snapshots of particular (and often small) eras of history — designed to offer enough historical proof of preconceived theories about contemporary modern society. The students then are assumed by the course’s end to be outraged, persuaded, galvanized, and shocked in politically acceptable ways. Usually they are just bored, as supposedly with-it professors endlessly regurgitate the esoterica picked up in graduate schools.
Hanson overstates his case at times, but the core argument is quite interesting. History is pitched as a way to understand and “fix” the present. However, most history courses are “snapshots of particular (and often small) eras of history — designed to offer enough historical proof of preconceived theories about contemporary modern society… Usually [students] are just bored, as supposedly with-it professors endlessly regurgitate the esoterica picked up in graduate schools”
The piece that I thought was most interesting–one of the most common justifications for teaching history is avoiding the mistakes of the 1940s (“at a time when Nazism is resurgent society needs for people to know history, even if the economy might not”), but:
Unfortunately, few universities offer courses in World War II, which might most effectively offer a variety of explanations of why Nazi Germany was able to absorb most of Europe and trigger what would become a global conflict that cost 65 million lives.
But when one looks at the Wisconsin campus catalogue, one seems to find few if any classes in World War II. The closest might be “Women, War and Peace,” “Dilemmas of War and Peace: An Introduction to Peace Studies,” or “War and Propaganda in the 20th Century.” No doubt such offerings might be great courses, but I don’t think they would cover fully the Nazi aggrandizement of the late 1930s, particularly the role of Soviet collaboration, British and French appeasement, and American isolationism, or the tragic circumstance of the Munich Agreement — in other words, the likely best way for students “to know history” of any purported contemporary Nazi ascendance.
Of course, liberal arts education is much more than utilitarian concerns about the present day. But I found compelling Hanson’s claim that liberal arts themselves deserve some of the blame for their own death.