Today’s guest post comes from Jonathan Den Hartog, professor of history at the University of Northwestern—St. Paul. He is the author of Patriotism and Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation (University of Virginia Press, 2015).
In a recent online article, “Past Its Prime,” WORLD magazine’s Janie Cheaney took aim at the history major, seeing in its numerical decline a greater sickness for the practice of history more generally. History should be “about the big picture,” she insisted, emphasizing “human personality, its failures and achievements.” Instead, contemporary history writing “focuses on minutiae, novelty, and unclaimed niches.” Even worse, market forces appear to have spoken: a “cost-benefit” analysis suggests that history has priced itself out of being a good investment.
As a history professor, however, I think there are some additional things to consider. This isn’t to deny all of Cheaney’s critique. There are undoubtedly elements of some history teaching that I wouldn’t approve of. Academic bias is a reality, and treatment of the past can get skewed. That said, American believers need to appreciate four further truths about the study of history in the present moment.
First, the study of the past remains a valuable endeavor. As I tell my students, history is necessary for both individuals and societies. Who we are is determined by our histories—and it is important that we know them. So, my individual identity makes sense only in light of the larger history of which I am a part. The organizations and institutions I participate in (including my church) have a history. Our country also has a history—one worth arguing about. At every level—individual, institutional, and national—it is necessary to understand what has been to reckon with where we are now and where we will go. Only by studying that past will be positioned to act wisely in the present and into the future.
Second, there are Christian historians who work hard to understand the past truthfully. These historians see describing the past as part of their mission and calling. They have a lot to say to American society about its past, and they should be listened to. In the last generation, Christian historians like George Marsden and Mark Noll not only wrote incredibly perceptive books about Christians in American history, but they also trained historians who are now spread throughout the country and working to train a new generation of students who will be able to understand the past. The Evangelical History blog itself is a testament to that work.
Third, there remain institutions committed to training clear-thinking historians. The Conference on Faith and History, for example, is dedicated to helping professors understand how faith can inform and shape their historical work. Baylor University is doing an outstanding job training historians who take faith seriously. Or, consider my institution, the University of Northwestern—St. Paul. We ask all undergraduate students to take a class in the “History of Western Civilization,” and it’s taught with seriousness by full-time faculty, not adjuncts. In our history major, students will have at least three courses in American history, and I make sure that we take the Constitution seriously, as well as America’s political development. We also have all our majors take a church history class, so that they understand the development of Christian belief and practice. Finally, our ancient history classes effectively help students relate the ancient world to the World of the Bible.
Fourth, studying a history major can have positive career outcomes. Cheaney’s article suggested that a history major was just too expensive for the meager results it produces. This is simply not the case. The history degree has been shown, time and time again, to be a great launching pad for career success. One great benefit of the history major is that it doesn’t simply force students into one career: It prepares them for a wide range of careers—a necessity when students will have multiple jobs in their lives. History majors can go into history teaching, but they don’t have to. Some go on to professional schools like law school or business school, and they overwhelmingly report great success. Others enter the workforce. Research indicates that history major salaries are comparable and even superior to many other college majors, and that history and other humanities majors have as good or better job placement rates than popular majors such as business. The reason is that studying history teaches the skills that are necessary for success across occupations—analytical reading, clear thinking, effective communication.
As a result, we should think twice before denigrating the study of history. Christian parents should encourage, not discourage, their children if they express an interest in history. Each person who brings their skills and effort to the study of the past can make sure that history remains a living pursuit.