As a novelist and creative-writing professor, I believe in the importance of teaching college students how to read and write fiction. But the undergraduate course I myself found the most formative—the one that maps my daily intellectual path decades later—was not a writing or English class, but a seemingly quotidian course at Brown University called “History 52: The survey of American history from Reconstruction to Nixon.”
On the first day of class, the white-haired professor blasted Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as we walked in. He asked us point-blank, “What does it mean to be an American?” I had come armed with a notebook and pen, ready to passively receive information. Instead, we were being prompted to really engage with history—a first for many of us in the classroom.
The history class gave me the tools that would help me make sense of the worlds I was trying to write about, both in fiction and nonfiction. I worry that too many young people today are not being equipped with these tools—ones that will be of the utmost importance as they come of age under the presidency of Donald Trump.
Between the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 academic school years, undergraduate enrollment in history classes fell by 7.6%, according to a survey this year from the American Historical Association. The field has also seen a decline in history majors in the past few years. Historian Sheyda Jahanbani has been monitoring the enrollments crisis closely at her institution, the University of Kansas. “Our enrollments are down 59% from 10 years ago,” she said.
James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Society, confirmed via email that broadly, “History enrollments are indeed declining.” This leads me to wonder about the relationship between a culture that places less value on history and that of an electorate that embraced a nativist, white-supremacist platform that played on false nostalgia and longing for a “better” past.
History classes matter because they help students learn to question the stories that are handed down to us. In that survey class I took decades ago, through textbooks, archival materials, and even novels, we reexamined the history I thought I knew—from the post-bellum Reconstruction era to “separate but equal,” World War II, Vietnam, and the cultural upheaval of the 1960s. As we went beyond the usual primary versus secondary sources, we looked critically at how historical narratives are constructed, probing them for weaknesses and false assumptions. We learned to ask whose interest a given narrative served, and what tools different historians had used to come their conclusions. It was entirely different than the write-down-and-memorize-the-dates learning we’d done in high-school history class. It soon dawned on me that the “good old days” that older people were always talking about had never really existed. Their nostalgia was real, for sure, but each period had its injustices and complexities.
For my final paper, I decided use my parents’ experience in 1950s Birmingham under anti-Asian immigration laws and Jim Crow to discuss the rise of the Civil Rights movement. I’d never thought of myself and my family as being a part of history, but the teaching assistant in my class liked the idea and pushed me to think more deeply about my subject. I learned to become comfortable with the idea that history is the story of everyday people—not just US presidents and generals, but the individuals who comprise movements and eras. And so I began to examine all the history that had shaped my parents’ immigrant “success” story: how a fresh outburst of racism and xenophobic fervor in the 1920s had led to a second rise of the Ku Klux Klan and anti-immigration laws that led, decades later, to the deportation orders my parents received the day I was born.
Today, in a time of economic uncertainty, many students are being encouraged to skip history and other liberal arts classes in favor of a practical STEM focus. But this election has shown that nothing could be more practical for Americans than a deep immersion in our country’s history.
As The New York Times reported, our president-elect demonstrates a “willful lack of interest in history.” For example, he credulously and bombastically stated on the campaign trail that “our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape they’ve ever been in before. Ever. Ever. Ever.” (Those familiar with Jim Crow, the Birmingham bombings—oh, and slavery—would beg to differ.)
Despite Trump’s ignorance of history—or perhaps because of his willingness to manipulate it to suit his own purposes—he won. Pundits were quick to heap the responsibility for his win on the “less educated,” resorting to the well-worn trope of the gullible working-class rube easily swayed by the false populist; a narrative that “seems” right. But a closer look at the voter breakdown, as our History 52 professor would have had us do, uncovers contradictory evidence.
It’s true that Trump was favored by voters without college degrees. But he also won among voters with some college or an associate’s degree. Even more strikingly, college graduates voted for him almost as often as they did Clinton: 45% to her 49%, according to the New York Times exit polls, while white college graduates actually preferred Trump. These demographic breakdowns suggest the issue may be less about a lack of higher education and more about the direction in which higher education has been heading over recent decades.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that Trump made his ahistorical pronouncements about African Americans while in North Carolina, a state whose governor, Pat McCrory, is famously leading a charge to incentivize enrollments in “job-friendly” classes and majors, with a focus in STEM. In a 2013 radio interview, McCrory averred humanities classes were fine in principle, “but I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”
Do we want higher education merely to produce workers, or do we want students equipped with the skills to understand, question, create? History does much more than prepare people to become professional historians. It teaches us how to think—that is, how to do the high-level analysis that is essential for an informed society. It requires analysis of data and deep research, as well as the use of archival and primary sources. Such skills are absolutely critical in an era that is increasingly characterized by the relentless bombardment of information.
This election in particular has been plagued by misinformation. First, there is the preponderance of fake news that “seems” true. Our professor helped us realize that just because an article is published doesn’t necessarily mean it’s legitimate. Yet many fake stories this election cycle—including ones intended as over-the-top satire—were quickly shared on social platforms, their virality creating an aura of legitimacy. Anyone could download a GIF of a red banner with BREAKING NEWS! on it and engineer her own news story.
Legitimate news sources can also go astray. The Washington Post recently began an article about FBI director James Comey with this lead: “From Elliot Ness to Clarice Starling, the image of the FBI—unflappable, smart and relentlessly fair—has been sterling.” This statement omits years of troubled history at the federal agency, especially of former director J. Edgar Hoover. (And Ness actually wasn’t even an FBI agent: He was employed by the Treasury department.)
Nor can Americans afford to treat the words of public figures uncritically. Former mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani declared Trump’s win “one of the greatest victories for the people of America since Andrew Jackson,” a reference that takes on new meaning if one is aware of Jackson’s history as a slave trader and a proponent of Indian genocide.
Perhaps it is time to take some of our obsession with STEM and redirect a portion of that enthusiasm to the old-fashioned study of history. As Grossman of the AHA points out, “One of the many lessons that the current campaign has been teaching us is that historical thinking and historical understanding is imperative to civic culture.”
Expanding the study of history could be an essential bulwark against the rising tide of misinformation, manipulation, and lies. A frustrated president Obama said Nov. 17 of the preponderance of fake news and misleading rhetoric on social media and TV news, “If everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, then we don’t know what to protect. We won’t know what to fight for.” In the post-factual fight, understanding history is our most important weapon.