Book Review: Marcus Collins and Peter N. Stearns, Why Study History? (London Publishing Partnership)


Why Study History?

University history class enrollments are down nationwide and fewer students are majoring in history. Now is the time for a book to come along to save history departments, or at least to provide good arguments for students to major in history so that history departments can flourish again. This book, directed at undergraduate students who might major in history, aims to be such a book. It surveys the value of a history major in the United States and in the United Kingdom, and comes to a conclusion that in both countries, it is practical, worthwhile, and socially beneficial for students to major in history.

There are many traditional arguments for studying history, and the authors, the established American historian Peter Stearns and his junior British co-author Marcus Collins spend much of the first two chapters presenting them. They explain that those who study history gain the ability to handle evidence, understand causation, wrestle with competing interpretations, write well, and detect bad arguments, among other things. The authors do well to present this general defense of history education as strengthening the mind and character of a person. They are on shakier ground, however, when they attempt to make the case that majoring in history today is a wise career decision.

Chapter three is the most relevant section of the book. Here the authors argue that employment concerns for history majors are “unfounded or exaggerated” (44). But the  empirical evidence they cite for the American academic environment (a study by Schmidt, Sturtevant, and Townsend), doesn’t lend much support for this view. In fact, Stearns and Collins admit that the unemployment rate for history majors is slightly higher than it is for college degree-holders in general. Not only are history majors slightly more likely to be unemployed after graduation, they also earn less on average. The authors downplay these unemployment figures by arguing that “this means (all things equal) there’s a 1 in 200 chance that choosing a history degree instead of an unspecified average degree will lead to a spell of joblessness.” (44). With all due to respect, that not what the unemployment difference between history majors and other degree holders means. This is not merely an error of ignoring that “past performance does not guarantee future results” but it improperly applies statistical averages of a group to a hypothetical individual. A hypothetical history student, let’s call him Steve, does not have a 1 in 200 chance that choosing a history degree instead of any other degree will lead to a higher risk of unemployment. The risk of studying history might be smaller or larger, depending on Steve’s intelligence, his work ethic, and the competition in his cohort, let alone larger exogenous market factors. The authors don’t stop to ask if the students who are selecting to study history are on average more intelligent, more hard-working, or more financially well-off than students who choose other majors. If smart people study history at higher rates than they study psychology, for example, then the post-graduate successes of history and psychology majors should not be ascribed entirely to their choice of majors. If salaries of history graduates are high, is this because they studied history or despite it?

Now, all of this assumes that a history degree and skills gained in a history program are directly relevant in the job market. In general, though, it is probable that humanities degrees are fairly fungible. Although the authors don’t use this term, they suggest as much when they note that there’s less variation in earnings among humanities majors than among graduates of other disciplines.

A history education will not always impart the skills it intends to teach. In other words, not everyone who becomes a history major will gain the same from it.  The authors don’t seem to recognize this. They write: “Work in history develops one final set of capacities that’s distinctive to the discipline: the ability to identify and interpret change.” (32) Ignore, for a moment, the question of whether this is truly distinctive to history. Consider instead whether a history education always, sometimes, or rarely develops the ability to identify and interpret change. No educational program can promise that students will learn anything, only that there will be an attempt to teach them. Here, the question of how much students learn from history is quite relevant, especially since the authors rely heavily on the argument that history imparts certain skills that lead to successes down the line. In a curious exercise, the authors cite the works of Sam Wineburg, who is a strong skeptic about what the average person will be able to learn from even the best history lessons.

Can you do anything with a history degree? If you believe the authors, you can. After all, they identify history majors working in all kinds of employment sectors. But just because some history majors are working as computer scientists or as CEOs of corporations, doesn’t mean that a hypothetical history major can end up in these sectors. At most, it demonstrates that a history degree is not an absolute barrier for doing other things. In fact, the authors fall back on this lesser claim: “The good news is that few routes are cut off by opting for a bachelor’s degree in the humanities, and in history more specifically.” (47).  I’m not sure that’s such good news though. History majors who work in other fields sometimes benefit from what they learned in history classes. But sometimes the fact that they majored in history does little to help them and may actually hurt them or put them at a disadvantage against other job candidates with other skills and training.

Too often, it seems the author’s optimism becomes boosterism, and there are plenty of passages that read like they were written by the college admissions’ office or a history department chair who has just been told that her job is on the line if the department doesn’t increase it’s count of majors. The authors claim that they “have no interest in producing a mindless advertisement for the discipline.” (10). But it’s not difficult to extract some essentially meaningless boosterism in the book. For example, the authors assert that there are “exceptionally high standards of teaching provided by history faculties.” (4)  But by what measure is college history teaching so exceptionally high?  They say as well that “many secondary teachers are immensely knowledge and enthusiastic.” (6)  Compared to what? The conclusion of chapter 2 is illustrative. “We hope it’s now clear that the world today simply can’t operate without historians and historical training, and it certainly shouldn’t try to do so.” One might agree with the final normative statement, as I do, without agreeing with the preceding empirical claim, especially since it rests on a vague notion of importance as contributing to the operation of the world. What that means, I don’t know.

In general then, the authors overstate the social importance of history as a discipline. They write: “Without a profound understanding of the past, societies, organizations and individuals will make needless mistakes and fail to take full advantage of emerging opportunities.” (17).  When, though, does one acquire a profound understanding of the past? What standard is that and when can we know when a society, organization, or individual has reached such a level, let alone recognize and be able to take full advantage of emerging opportunities. On the following page, the authors switch from writing about “historical training” to “historical study.” The later would include self-study or just the general knowledge of history that one gathers without attending formal history classes.

Too often, it seems, the authors conflate formal history education with any acquired historical knowledge or historical sense. “Historical training is essential,” they say, “ in producing people, in various careers, who can cut through misrepresentations of the past.” (26).  I am certain that some people without historical training, as such, can cut through misrepresentations of the past. If I am correct about this, then it follows that historical training is not essential in producing people who can cut through misrepresentations of the past.

The authors don’t take trade-offs into account. In the case for history, it is not history versus no education at all, but history versus any other discipline. A better case for history could be made with a book titled “Why Study History, and Not Something Else.” “In all sorts of arenas,” the authors write, “it is far better to know history than to strike out blindly.” (18) Well, I guess it is always better to know than to be ignorant, but what kind of advice is that?  One might say that ignorance of calculus or chemistry makes one blind as well, so then what should one study: history, calculus, or chemistry?

Chapters 4 and 5 are essentially a primer on approaches to history. Chapter six is about how to evaluate different history programs that a college-age student might be looking into. Chapter seven is about what history programs teach. The final section, “History as a Public Good” by which the authors don’t mean something non-excludable and non-rivalrous consists of a chapter on historians in public service and a conclusion.

While chapters 4 through 8 are fine on their own, they don’t contribute much to answering the question that is posed in the book’s title “Why Study History?”  It doesn’t look good for the thesis of the book that the authors essentially rest their case less than half-way through to focus on other things. The book appears to have been assembled quite quickly. It has no index, and only 96 endnotes with no corresponding pages provided.

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