History without tears

Thomas V. DiBacco

April 15, 1993|By Thomas V. DiBacco

THE LATEST figures regarding American college an university students majoring in history are nothing to write home about. In recent years history has been given the academic cold shoulder. Bachelor's degrees awarded in history fell from 43,386 in 1970 to 16,048 in 1985, master's degrees from 5,049 to 1,921, doctorates from 1,091 to 543.

The most recent data covering the 1988-89 academic year show that undergraduate and master's degrees have increased modestly, but doctorates are at their lowest point in recent history, leaving the American Historical Association not only puzzled but concerned. "In short, the decline in the number of new history doctorates," says the AHA's Perspective newsletter, cannot be explained as part of some larger downturn."

Sadly, these inauspicious figures coincide with a survey by the National Endowment for the Humanities that reveals that history is also shunned in high school. To many students, it seems, history is replacing economics as the dismal science.

Part of the problem is the increasing concern among parents and students for practical subjects such as computer science, mathematics and science; another is the tendency to merge history into catch-all courses in social studies that serve neither the past nor the other component courses very well. And then there is the tendency of some history teachers to view the field as a great but unexciting sea of definitions and dates that must be mastered at examination time.

State departments of education worry about texts that might be too critical. So a not infrequent result is a standard text that is effusive with praise, with inadequate attention to historical warts (such as America's "defeat" in the Vietnam War), thereby providing students with a historical portrait that bears little relation to the ups-and-downs of their own lives.

Not surprisingly, some teachers spurn texts altogether in favor of a series of highly readable paperbacks, often written by writers who embellish history with a pinch and -- of fiction (James Michener, according to my informal survey, is the overall favorite, followed by Herman Wouk).

Even historians have problems: sensitive to the fact that one can write good history without being a trained past-master, too many academics shun the challenge of telling a familiar story in a different and better way. Better that one's attention be directed toward the professional craft: research in specialized areas and writing that is qualified and defensive, designed to show colleagues that much homework has been done, no matter that the final product has all the emotion of a conditional sales contract.

Historians with doctorates are reluctant to teach in elementary and secondary schools; on these same levels good history teachers without advanced degrees feel that their concerns are not adequately met by the professional associations; and in colleges and universities reduced-teaching loads (often only one two courses a semester) separate the serious scholars from those colleagues consigned to the second-class citizenship of the classroom. Indeed, in many institutions, being a fine teacher will not get you a permanent position -- tenure, in other words. Scholarly publication is a sine qua non.

Because the walls separating these various groups are unlikely to come down, perhaps the best advice is for committed teachers to put on their blinders and work to tell a good story in clear prose and meaningful contexts. Keeping in mind Leo Tolstoy's contention that "the subject of history is the life of peoples and of humanity," such teachers should also encourage their students to write their own history -- of their interests (including rock music or professional sports), their week's activities, and of their families. Writing about that which they know best or wish to learn more can be the first step toward an appreciation of other historical contexts.

What is more, such exercises can reveal history as literature as opposed to social science, moving the writer to shape his own eloquent expression. "As many as 15 hives of honey bees were kept," recalled one of my students of his rural roots, "to sweeten the jams and jellies, pies and cobblers. Enough wild berries were canned (most years 500 half gallons) for the whole year. Enough grain was raised to keep the family in bread and in feed for the animals. Enough milk was taken from our own cows for butter and 'corn bread and milk,' which was the main staple of the hill country."

L What's wrong with that history? Nothing, absolutely nothing.

Thomas V. DiBacco teaches history at the American University in Washington, D.C.

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