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College Killed His Love of History

Another testimonial from a refugee from academia:

            I’m unsure how interesting this email will be to you, but with the recent discussion on your blog about the current state of academia I thought my story might be of some relevance.

As long as I can remember, I’ve had a deep love of history. It began in elementary school when I would devour any book I could find about ancient and medieval armies- the English Longbowman, the Egyptian Charioteer, the Frankish Knight- I still remember the vivid hand-drawn pictures and descriptions from those thin hardback books in the library.  In high school I was blessed to have some wonderful history teachers that fanned the flames even more. It was then that my interests moved on from exclusively military history to theology, politics, and economics- I loved it all. On the bus to away football games, while all the other players were listening to rap on their Ipods, I would sail the seas with Patrick O’Brian’s captain Jack Aubrey or fight in the trenches with Arthur Conan Doyle’s White Company.

After enrolling at the local state college in 2008 I eagerly selected history as my major- for four years, my only job would be to think about the past! It seemed too good to be true. The first course that stood out to be was a 3-hour credit on the Crusades. I bought the required reading and read it all weeks in advance, ready to come in and talk about Raymond of Toulouse, Saladin, Richard the Lionheart, and all the rest.

The professor of the class was a wispy, thin woman with thin black hair and eyes that looked like they could break into tears at any moment. She began the class with a line that I would hear all too many times in the next four years: “We’re not really interested in specific dates or people in this class.” For the rest of the semester, she talked. I use the indescriptive word “talked” because I’m not entirely sure what she talked about. I remember snippets- Christian violence against Jews and Muslims, multiculturalism in Outremer. All I know is that by the end of the class no one had gained any knowledge about the Crusades themselves. And I was certain that I was the only student who had actually read the required reading.

The next four years were a bit of a blur- I know I showed up to all my classes. I know I paid attention. I can also look at my transcripts and see almost all As with a smattering of Bs. But just like in that first class, I couldn’t tell you what we actually learned about. It was a strange experience for me- It seemed like the professors weren’t actually speaking English, or if they were it wasn’t a dialect of English I was fluent with. I was too ignorant at the time to really understand what was going on- of course, now I do: they were speaking the language of politics, of race class and gender, of theory. “Academic History” as opposed to the “Buff History” that I loved. As I reflect I suppose that my previous knowledge and love of history was in a way an inoculation against it. These professors weren’t interested in history- they were interested in politics and social change. They were far too busy with the present to give a whit about the past.

I had the same experience reading the academic journals in the library. I would stare at those articles and read the pages over and over and not glean anything. At first I thought that my reading comprehension must have been poor. It was only later that I realized I couldn’t read them because something in my system was resisting the indoctrination, and those articles could only be read by the initiated.

I do remember the change that came over my classmates. What was an even 50/50 split between males and females became more like 30/70 as we entered junior and senior year. The males were transferring into the business college or focusing exclusively on pre-law classes. How I wish I joined them. The professors also had cults of personality about them; at the end of each class there would always be a gaggle of girls that followed them back to their office hours. They often had strange hair colors like bubble-gum pink or light blue. They wore ear gauges and were often much fatter than they were freshman year. (It was only later that I realized I was witnessing proto-SJWs) I never joined these little groups- as a white, Christian, conservative male I felt very much the outcast.

I would like to say that most of the professors weren’t like this, but I can only remember one that taught real history. He was an older guy with a specialization in Catalan independence movements. I didn’t really have much interest in Iberian history, but what made him notable was that he could talk intelligently about other fields: about English Luddism, the French Revolution, the Greek Sophists… He was a true academic. I attended his office hours, always alone, and would be entranced as he simply talked. He seemed like he was just happy to have someone to talk to. It was later that I learned he once had written for a conservative think-tank; he was as much an outcast as I was.

As it came time to apply for grad school, I never even wrote an application. It wasn’t just my disinterest in academia, but I had mostly lost my love of history. I wasn’t reading the way I used to- I probably read more unassigned books in one summer of high school than I did in all of college. I had also become intellectually incurious. I spent most of my free time playing video games. If engaging in the battleground of ideas was anything like I was experiencing every day in class, I wanted nothing to do with it.

After graduation I took the only job I could get with a fairly worthless history degree- teaching Middle School Social Studies. I’ve come to actually enjoy it, and my interest in history has returned in full force.

Every day I get to teach about Hernan Cortes, the Ancient Greeks, Charles “The Hammer” Martel (a class favorite- they think he’s Thor), the debate between Hamilton and Jefferson, the Civil War; I’m doing history again. Real history, not theory.

I hope that in some small way I can give my students their own inoculation against the beast. When they tell me they want to study history in college, I warn them against it. Not because I don’t love history, but because I love it too much.

Fight the power!

Please, readers, add your own stories to the comments thread here, or e-mail them to me at rod — at — amconmag — dot — com.

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90 Comments To "College Killed His Love of History"

#1 Comment By John On December 6, 2015 @ 11:36 am

I’ve heard this same story scores of times but from English majors. Nobody can kill a good read more thoroughly than a college English professor, it seems.

#2 Comment By Chris 1 On December 6, 2015 @ 12:11 pm

[NFR: Forgive me if I mentioned this on another thread (I can’t remember if I did or didn’t), but a Catholic college professor recently assigned my Dante book to his undergraduate Intro to Theology course. Some of the students complained that its religious themes left them “alienated”; one said it was “oppressive.” These are students who chose to attend a Catholic university! — RD]

This is not new. It’s not even left. What it is is merely the latest iteration of entitlement, the attitude of those who sought a “gentleman’s C” with grade inflation and without the trust fund.

I’d say university has always been 30% slacker, 30% incapable, and 30% getting by…the remaing 10% being scholars…but I know that’s vastly overstating the last group.

I got by. I have friends and colleagues who were in every group. Recognize the ploy for what it is.

#3 Comment By Rob K On December 6, 2015 @ 12:12 pm

I wasn’t in this guy’s shoes or his classes, but man does that sound whiny, and fail to match my experience.

I was a history major. I came in as a high school military and ancient history buff, and left as someone who’d learned about a whole world of history – both in subject matter and in methodology – that I hadn’t known about before. Yes, some of the classes were more about the big picture than about individual personalities, but there’s a hell of a story to tell at that level too, and stuff to learn from it!

When I think about a sometime subject of this blog, how elite institutions relate to and demand respect from the broader culture, you know what I think about? E.P. Thompson’s journal article “Patrician Society, Plebeian Culture”, and what I learned from the view it gives of elite institutions in a time and place (18th century England) different enough from ours to give us an outsider’s eyes. (And though Thompson and his project are explicitly left wing, more so than I am, I’d argue that you too would find a lot of interest in that article.)

Great stories and vivid personalities are part of history, and they’re certainly the initial hook that captures a teenager’s imagination. Hell, sometimes when my wife and I are on a long hike I’ll tell her about the Peloponnesian War or something similar as a story to walk to, because they are incredible stories. (And yes, I studied that war in depth in college, because that’s available too if you want to do it.) But I would hope someone who really loves history would want to go deeper. Alcibiades is fascinating even at the surface level, but he and his world are that much more fascinating if you understand the century-long struggle between nobility and commoners in classical Greece and the unique nature of Athens as a cosmopolitan democratic state with a structural need to keep the navy busy so that the voters could have jobs.

Yes, history has more left of center writers than right of center. When I was researching my thesis (subtopic of the development of the coal industry in 18-19th c England) it was notable enough that several of the relevant survey texts had a right of center bent that my advisor pointed it out when he assigned them to me – but he also still made me read them.

I studied topics from Ancient Greece and Rome to the early middle ages to early modern England to colonial and postcolonial Africa. There are great stories about each of those, but there’s also bigger picture structures and forces at work, and looking at both of those things is part of the discipline.

It’s a big world, so it’s always possible that I only saw a little unrepresentative slice of it, but nothing about this reader’s plaint reads to me as anything too deep. He got asked to try on a different approach than the one that got him into history in the first place and found that distressing. Good to know! But an underwhelming indictment of an academic discipline.

#4 Comment By Anne On December 6, 2015 @ 12:17 pm

I was a TA in history as a graduate student at a state university in the 60s and lodged some of these very same complaints back then, mainly because a couple professors were overly influenced by the daily news and kept modifying our curricula to reflect “the compelling concerns of today.” Looking back, I can see now that this was the beginning of an important correction that had to take place in the field of history. At the time, however, I reacted much as this young man — annoyed and certain my students, myself and my peers were getting gyped of the serene experience of studying the past unmolested by the melodrama of the moment. Most history lovers tend to be fairly conservative by nature, and who’s more judgmental than a young conservative? Reading this blog, you’d think SJWs held all records on that score, but I’d lay odds that for every SJW in the street or quad, there’s at least one young conservative complaining online or by letter to authorities that SJWs in the classroom are ruining not only their college experiences but Western civilization as we know it. Sigh.

University history courses survived the 60s, and by incorporating much of the history that had been lost previously thanks to an amalgam of biases, have been generally enriched, not weakened. If only the same could be said of the public’s grasp of history, which thanks to much Christian homeschooling, may become even narrower in scope as time goes by.

None of this is to say there aren’t a plethora of silly classes offered under the catchall of history at both state and private universities, or that students don’t have legitimate complaints against individual instructors and poststructurist rhetoric in general, only that one kid’s gripe against, say, “the Marxist agenda” in his Latin American history of modern Chile may have more to say about *his* ideological bias than his instructor’s.

#5 Comment By Anne On December 6, 2015 @ 12:21 pm

That should have read “poststructuralist,” not “poststructionist” rhetoric. Autocorrect strkes again!

#6 Comment By M_Young On December 6, 2015 @ 2:16 pm

Regression analysis is one of the greatest tools for social investigation ever invented. Every day everyone here reads an article or two whose findings are based on it. It’s really not hard to understand…I recommend the appendix to The Bell Curve for a quick and dirty introduction.

#7 Comment By M_Young On December 6, 2015 @ 2:17 pm

And not only social investigation … regression is used in biology and ‘hard’ science and engineering all the time.

#8 Comment By ADL On December 6, 2015 @ 2:23 pm

Something similar happened to me when I was an Undergrad in the early 1990s. I took a lit class titled “literature & society” thinking that it would cover a wide selection of writers. Instead, the prof assigned all left-wing feminist writers.

One such work was Swastika Night, published before Orwell’s 1984. So naturally the prof claimed that “some people have suggested” that Orwell got his idea from Swastika Night.

This sort of thing will continue until students start suing colleges for misleading advertising, i.e., students pick many electives based on class descriptions in course catalogs, then discover that what the prof teaches bears no resemblance to the course description. But by then it’s too late to drop the class and get a refund.

All those scholarly frauds are costing unsuspecting students millions every year. It won’t stop until President Trump’s Education Dept passes regulations giving students the option to sue colleges to recoop their money.

#9 Comment By ADL On December 6, 2015 @ 2:25 pm

Sorry, forgot to include a close italics bracket. The last 2 grafs weren’t suppose to be all italics.

#10 Comment By Roger II On December 6, 2015 @ 5:36 pm

I rarely comment here anymore, but this post really struck a nerve. “Fight the power?” How did this person fight the power? By his own admission, he gave up and began drinking too heavily and playing video games. He also seems very comfortable insulting women for their appearance. In contrast, the SJWs Rod has been denigrating are actually trying to fight what they consider to be the power and to challenge what they see as institutional racism. While I agree that institutional racism is a problem, I happen to agree with Rod that the SJWs have gone too far and are threatening core elements of universities. Moreover, overt rudeness and screaming are unacceptable. That said, I would be far more proud of my child if he or she was part of some of the SJW groups — many of which have shown an ability to write well and to communicate their ideas clearly — than I would of a person who decided that education wasn’t really worth his time. It’s also not surprising that the writer feels he was forced to take the only job he could get with his worthless degree, since he doesn’t seem to want to put forth much effort.

#11 Comment By Chris 1 On December 6, 2015 @ 5:40 pm

President Trump’s Education Dept

Doesn’t the GOP want to eliminate the Dept of Education?

#12 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On December 6, 2015 @ 5:48 pm

One such work was Swastika Night, published before Orwell’s 1984. So naturally the prof claimed that “some people have suggested” that Orwell got his idea from Swastika Night

I’m not a feminist by any means, but Swastika Night is actually a very good book, with some insightful things to say not just about the Nazis, but about the dynamics between men and women in general. Some of the insights in that book even have relevance to the debates we have about sex in the free societies of the west today, and weirdly enough, she even anticipated some of the debates about sex ratios in the 1960s. It is also of course a very different book than 1984, and in my opinion a better one.

#13 Comment By Michael Guarino On December 6, 2015 @ 6:06 pm

A lot of pretty shortsighted comments about the writer being whiny and talking about fat SJWs. There are others who consider his experience unrepresentative of theirs, but there are almost always substantive critiques being made as well.

A persistent issue with a lot of these letters is that what is produced in humanities departments is itself dubious. Since history is the topic here, let’s tackle it. The concept of historical causation is a total mess. There is probably no way to evaluate causal claims given a lot of the historical data. And that is exactly the project of much of modern historical scholarship: explanation of historical events in terms of lower level social movements.

Bias is consistently brought up, but the most basic element of historical method, narration, is just plainly biased; a narrative has a narrator. You could wonder if there are alternative methods, but there probably are not (most of the source material is also narrative). This goes back into the issue with causation. You simply cannot make a causal judgement from a narrative. There is no valid argument there.

As far as attempts to reimagine the place of history, the last big idea was probably the Hegelianism of the 19th Century. Postmodernism builds on the foundation he laid (notably by giving the philosophical basis for Marxism). But that entire tradition was abortive. Its most basic element, sublation of thesis and antithesis, is just bunk.

It seems like there are serious methodological challenges that historians face, and the best, perhaps only, way to limit them is through critical competition. But the academy is moving in the complete opposite direction.

#14 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On December 6, 2015 @ 8:05 pm

also hope you will look again at the Albigensian Crusade. Deplorable that the pope signed on, but this was a project by the French king to take the wealth of the Cathars

That may be true, but it’s also besides the point. The Catholic and Orthodox hierarchies were both bound and determined to wipe out heresy by any means necessary (not always violent), which is why none of those heresies have survived to the present, until finally there arose in Germany a heresy that was too politically powerful to be beaten. (I guess the Moravians technically were pre-Luther, but not by much).

As someone quite sympathetic to the Albigensians and their ideas, I have to say, the persistent tendency of some on the right to group together everything they don’t like as ‘gnostic’ is as silly as the stuff that comes out of the SJW fever-dreams that views ‘patriarchy’ or ‘racism’ as the underlying theme of history. Manichaeans and Albigensians believed that physical nature was fundamentally evil and that the good was ultimately purely spiritual, which is a direct contradiction of what modern scientific materialists believe. The Cathars share one thing in common with the modern sexual revolutionaries and for that matter with older revolutionaries like Marxists: they believe that the basic makeup of social institutions is fundamentally corrupt and evil (whether because of the Demiurge, patriarchy/repression, private property, etc.), and they don’t believe that ‘nature’ reflects the purposes and will of a benevolent God. That’s an important commonality, but there are many, many, many areas where they differ. It may be said that the sexual revolution is more compatible with a Cathar view of the world than with Dante’s, but that doesn’t make Catharism and the sexual revolution the same thing.

#15 Comment By Mike Schilling On December 6, 2015 @ 8:43 pm

Conservative media has made it clear the the study of history is unnecessary: it hardly requires a four-year degree to understand that every situation is exactly like Munich,

#16 Comment By anonymousdr On December 6, 2015 @ 10:51 pm

@panda

“Then again, I taught a survey of Modern European history class in one of the most prestigious, most left wing SLACs in the land, and very self-consciously assigned a very heave dose of primary sources composed by conservatives, reactionaries, and social darwinists (we read Burke, De-MAistre, accounts of the Wandee war from the Catholic-monarchist perspective, Gobineau, Spencer, Pobedonostev, and many others).”

Well, your students obviously had a lot of intellectual integrity, and I applaud your selections for your reading list. Were your students Reedies? I’m about as far from “Communism, Atheism and Free Love” as you can get, but the Reedies I know are an admirable bunch.

And, to be fair, the incident I mentioned about Aquinas was an isolated, but heated, exchange in a Sociology class, not in one of my history classes. My history profs, and co-history majors, always humored my conservative-Catholic sympathies (which are, to be honest, milder in real life than on an anonymous online comment board), and provided my young adult self with much needed corrective which continues to influence how I see the world.

Also, DeMaistre is a creeper. I liked Isaiah Berlin’s take on him as less conservative and more proto-Fascist.

“I had plenty of radicals, leftists, girls with pink hair, and other dregs of humanity in my class, and was an absolutely disempowered adjunct lecturer- and received exactly zero complaints.”

I thought that Catholic reactionaries were the dregs of humanity. If I ever get a tattoo it will say either “Tandem Triumphans” or be of the Sacred Heart of the Vendee.

#17 Comment By panda On December 6, 2015 @ 11:11 pm

“And that is exactly the project of much of modern historical scholarship: explanation of historical events in terms of lower level social movements.”

Actually, that is absolutely wrong. This was the dominant direction in the historiography in the 1970s and 1980s, with the rise of social history, and the discipline’s short-live infatutaion with statistics. The dominant direction in historiography today is cultural history, which explicitly rejects the idea one can explain historical change by means of studying “lower level social movements.”

#18 Comment By Zach On December 7, 2015 @ 9:08 am

I had a very different experience than described above. I went to a very liberal university for undergrad, but my professors were not ideologues. I was a political science major. I learned about Chinese political history, enlightenment political theory, conservative political thought (taught by one of the most liberal professors on campus in an even-handed, intelligent way that made me realize I was a Burkean conservative), and took classes on political systems and legal theory as well. The history classes I took were focused, but definitively about history. I happened to go to a fairly good college, and that may be a contributing factor, but I never experienced academic bias towards liberalism in political science or history. What I observed was that the phenomena of overt politicization of material is more prevalent in English class discussions, and by students in discussion sessions.

What I will say, however, is I’m glad I graduated college when I did. The shift on campuses towards the hard left, towards protest, and away from academic inquiry, is a huge concern for me. I am worried that what you’re talking about isn’t rare, and I agree with your broader idea about a restructuring of the university system in general.

One other thought: I think for rigorously academic programs, the ivies and high-ranked universities still provide that opportunity for those who are seeking it. The issue comes at liberal-arts *colleges,* which are small and insular, and from larger, less high-quality universities that cannot attract teaching talent. That’s where I’m concerned about.

#19 Comment By Caroline walker On December 7, 2015 @ 9:38 am

I would venture to say that what enchanted our letter writer about history was the sheer adventure of it all. When exposed to the rich store of glorious escapades, he was hooked. This in itself is a dead practice now. I, too, exposed my son to as many historical adventures as I could. A young boy’s imagination craves adventure, and all he’s likely to get now are tales of Diverse Peoples Collaborating for Justice. My dad, 88, vividly remembers to this day his second grade reader, a fable about Richard the lionheart and Saladin, and how Saladin so elegantly sliced a veil in two with his scimitar to demonstrate his martial superiority over the more brutish Richard. Take a peek at the pablum being served to young boys today, and you will understand why males are so disproportionately disengaged in school.

#20 Comment By WhollyRoamin On December 7, 2015 @ 10:03 am

A high school history teacher here– I’m surprised that his secondary teachers were some of the “good ones”. Most of my colleagues are the progressive types. How does one become a progressive historian? The study of history is inherently regressive.

As a discipline, we are squandering our own cultural capital. We are burning our own libraries. We are our own vandals at our own gates.

#21 Comment By Court Merrigan On December 7, 2015 @ 10:23 am

As the possessor of three humanities degrees, including a BA in philosophy which I earned at a Jesuit university in the 90s, I humbly submit that there is very little I learned in the classroom that I could not also have learned in a library. If I had it to do over again, I’d go to a school with little / no humanities requirements, get a useful degree in Finance or the like, and educate myself in that library, following my interests as they dictated. I certainly won’t be encouraging my own children to go into any humanities-based field, but I do have them reading for pleasure from a young age.

Until they “cleanse” the libraries, this is one way to avoid this sort of onerous propagandizing in the humanities that has so little to do with actual learning.

#22 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On December 7, 2015 @ 12:15 pm

I’ve always loved history, never thought about majoring in it, always done my own reading, and in late middle age, some of my own writing. We need to depend less an academia, and more on studying and understanding history being part of what makes a whole human being. In the good old days when unions were growing, every mining cabin in the Rockies had a well stocked library. Now there is this syllogism of the dumb blue collar worker, promoted jointly for opposite reasons by liberals and conservatives.

I have similar thoughts on English literature. I can read. I don’t need a professor to explain to me the significance of the work, or to spoil the sheer joy of reading with a lot of silly questions.

I must admit, I once write a workbook to go with an American History text book, published for college level. I like to think my questions were more interesting and challenging than the run of the mill, but who knows?

I do recall the time I registered for a basic introductory economics class. Although pretty committed to a Marxist point of view, I wanted some grounding in Samuelson and Suits and even Friedman. Unfortunately, I got a Marxist professor who was more interested in talking about how she didn’t believe in the capitalist system, which I could have heard in my free time. It wasn’t what I was paying tuition to hear.

#23 Comment By Joey On December 7, 2015 @ 12:38 pm

I’m probably luckier than a lot of people on this blog: I attended a relatively small college in the Bible Belt, and while most of my professors were obviously liberal, even the admitted Marxist-feminist English teacher loved John Milton enough to inspire me.

The worst professor I had, though, taught New Testament. Now, this wasn’t a Christian college, and I was HAPPY that the class would have a critical component; I was hoping that it would help settle, one way or another, the religious questions that I was going through. Unfortunately the professor, a very liberal Christian, pretty much used the class as a very boring pulpit—standard procedure was that we would read a short Bible verse at the beginning of class (often about a miracle), get a lecture about why it was obviously wrong (consisting of something like “virgins can’t give birth” stretched out over thirty minutes), and then repeat that format for the second half of the class. I quickly realize that this was going to be worthless in helping me with any religious issues, simply because he wasn’t teaching any sort of religion that I wanted to be a part of anyway.

Also, he once commented that he thought “The Da Vinci Code” was a great book (and yes, at least one of his lectures was about how Jesus and Mary Magdalene were totally married). It got the point where I, thankfully sitting in the back of the class near the door, allowed myself to slip out for five or ten minutes every lesson, just to go to the bathroom/vending machine and clear my head. Occasionally people would debate the professor, but mostly the serious Christians seemed to just sit there and watched the clock like I did.

I took a lot of religion classes, and while a lot of them had stuff that was critical or made me question things, they did it SERIOUSLY; that professor (who, to be fair, was nice if very condescending) just bored me. I think all the notes that I took in his class literally were just one page of paper, front and back, because he never said anything except “this story is wrong.”

#24 Comment By Eamus Catuli On December 7, 2015 @ 12:46 pm

@Caroline walker says:

I would venture to say that what enchanted our letter writer about history was the sheer adventure of it all. When exposed to the rich store of glorious escapades, he was hooked. This in itself is a dead practice now.

The issue here wasn’t what kinds of stories are emotionally compelling, but what gets taught in history departments at universities. A professor’s job is not to spin some great yarns. Sounds like the letter-writer found there’s more freedom to do that in middle schools, though, so more power to him.

#25 Comment By Keith Crossley On December 7, 2015 @ 1:32 pm

I don’t think that the original Writer was (or, perhaps, is) ready for college-level history. I know it was a surprise to me (engineering major) and it clearly was for one whose first citation is of O’Brien and Conan Doyle. Romantic tales of the crusades is one thing. History, perhaps is something more, umm, scholarly.

Like Writer I have always enjoyed history; and as I said, my first college-level course was a shock. For one thing, the prof / lecturer (a Brit) expected you knew the material and his job was to lead insight into the material. I imagine few students subscribed to this model, expecting to be fed their lesson; so he rambled on and on till the bell rang. Perhaps this is part of Writer’s problem – the monologue?

Other glimpses – a family visit to Boston. A historian gave a talk about the “Boston Massacre” – where it became apparent that the legend, the myth, was just that – a story used to indoctrinate a population, not to expand knowledge. As an immigrant from England I see American History constantly purveying the National Myth rather than scholarship.

I have observed the idea of history scholarship directly for many years. My daughter is now an Assistant Professor of History at a large University (noted – BA in History, Religious Studies, International Studies), She has her own ideas on society but I don’t think that they are any part of an agenda in the classroom. She is too intent on the history for that; but in a way the Writer may not recognize? Her current work is interesting – an exchange of letters, contrasting their individual faiths, between two – Catholic and Muslim – leaders a thousand years ago. Translations from both ‘sides’ exist that will give insight into the contrasting faiths but also into the biases of the different translators. I think that’s a fascinating topic when you think of our current condition.

But I fear that Writer is looking more for “Ripping Yarns”. Sorry if I’m wrong.

Wrapping up, I think that the rigor of college-level history may be the writer’s problem, not any social agenda

#26 Comment By David J. White On December 7, 2015 @ 1:52 pm

I’ve heard this same story scores of times but from English majors. Nobody can kill a good read more thoroughly than a college English professor, it seems.

I noticed this when I was in graduate school in classics in the 80s. For the most part, professors and graduate students in literature-related fields really didn’t seem to like reading very much. Certainly not for pleasure

#27 Comment By Michael Guarino On December 7, 2015 @ 1:55 pm

Actually, that is absolutely wrong. This was the dominant direction in the historiography in the 1970s and 1980s, with the rise of social history, and the discipline’s short-live infatutaion with statistics. The dominant direction in historiography today is cultural history, which explicitly rejects the idea one can explain historical change by means of studying “lower level social movements.”

A move to cultural history is probably genuinely interesting, but not really my point. I kind of rambled, but I will make it into a simple question. Do you think the methods available to historians, and the humanities generally, are transparent enough to produce quality scholarship in a setting with little meaningful critical conflict? Because that is what will happen if trends continue.

#28 Comment By grumpy realist On December 7, 2015 @ 2:00 pm

Sounds like the letter-writer went to college to have his biases confirmed and for him to be entertained for four years. I have no sympathy for him. He’s the one who decided to immerse himself in video games rather than doing something more productive, like transferring to a different school. You spend four years in an institution where, if you just do a bit of work, you can be exposed to the greatest ideas of all history. But you have to do the work. Find the great professors. Make sure you have the background. And if you’re interested in Medieval history, make sure you are totally fluent in Latin and German. (Latin because most of the documents are written in it, and German, because a lot of great research of the period is in it.)

And for heaven’s sakes, didn’t this kid ever hear of the “Freshman Fifteen”? It’s quite standard for women to put on weight their first year.

#29 Comment By Andrew On December 7, 2015 @ 2:38 pm

I had a similar experience in undergrad, but I studied economics instead of history (I considered history but chose economics because I thought it would leave me more options upon graduation, which it did). I was disappointed in my experience because they taught the subject like it was physics applied to people. I spent four years learning useless models that are only valuable to learn if you are interested in getting hired as a professor of economics. My experience was saved by my participation in a conservative club which gave me exposure to conservative ideas and the austrian school of economics, which I love. I would recommend students to see college as an opportunity to acquire valuable professional (esp technical) skills, but not as a way to get an education. It is far more cost-effective to read on your own if you are interested in learning about the world. Take some electives if you want to develop your writing skills. If I did it again I would probably choose math or computer science.

#30 Comment By Carl Eric Scott On December 7, 2015 @ 3:51 pm

Is it just me, or are there a whole lot of dumb comments on this post? They are dumb in that they think some little nit-pick erases the key points made by this personal witness. They consistently refuse to engage with the main points.

And that kind of self-comforting stupidity, the kind that says “nothing to see here,” is in fact cowardice of the most inexcusable kind. Our universities are burning. There is very little time left to keep a total red v. blue split in college ed from happening, and plenty of Rod’s liberal-leaning readers are evidently determined not to be any part of efforts preventing that.

[NFR: It’s not just you. Believe me, man, it’s not just you. — RD]

#31 Comment By E. J. On December 7, 2015 @ 4:09 pm

I’m currently in working on an online graduate degree in history at Missouri State University. One of the first things I learned upon entering the program was that different disciplines have different standard ways of publishing research. In science and science-related disciplines, articles are the standard form. In history, book form is standard. So academic history articles (radical or not) were not the best place for the history major to be reading much history in the first place. Especially, as other commentors have pointed out, at the undergraduate level. There are academic history articles that I still have trouble understanding, mostly because they are so densely written. Give me Dante any day. Most of the academic history books I have come across so far are easier to understand because the authors aren’t under the same kind of space constraints.

I attended Bob Jones University as an undergrad and majored in history education. (I didn’t know much about the school’s reputation when I enrolled. At this point, I can honestly say it’s not what it used to be–I’ve heard the horror stories–though I disagreed with various things during my time there.) Overall, the professors were fairly good, though they were paid for teaching, not research, and as a result did relatively little in that area. In retrospect, some of my history classes were much too easy. Others were more challenging. But my experience with undergraduate history courses was limited because of the “education” part of my major. I abandoned my teaching career plans because I could not stand the constructivist teaching ideas because put forward in the education department. We were very well trained there, but I knew that the teaching methods I was learning would not give students the kind of education I had wanted for myself. I sympathized with the classical model and got devilish pleasure out of reading Richard Weaver’s criticisms of progressive education during my junior teaching practicum. The unfortunate thing was that all the education courses–expected by the state accrediting agency–took away from our content area studies. I tried to be careful in the classes I took, and I came out with fairly good content knowledge, although I didn’t learn much about history as an academic field. My classmates, at least those in my year, were probably in worse shape. One rated himself “weak on content knowledge,” which seems to be a relatively common problem among high school level teachers. Education classes are largely meaningless, whether taught by conservatives or liberals; and sadly it is an easier, and more common, for history teachers to have an education degree, rather than a master’s in history.

I went on to get a master’s in library science (they’re basically required to have a full-time library job) and finally started my current master’s program. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting myself into–my first classes in history not taught by Christian teachers–and have mostly been pleased. Missouri State has had some problems with anti-Christian bias in its sociology department, from what I’ve read, but I haven’t found that in its history department. Yes, there are theory-related classes, but those can be a good thing in the hands of a competent professor. I took a course in how spatial theory can be used in historical studies last summer. Spatial theory draws a lot on analyses by Marxists, neo-Marxists, and postmodernists–Lefebvre, Habermas, and Fouccault are the main names I remember–and some of the authors we read dragged in conflict theory from sociology. The funny thing: although my prof loves spatial theory, he’s not much of a radical. Whatever his political beliefs, he didn’t force them on the class. His specialty is medieval, Reformation, and Counter-Reformation France. He used spatial theory to write a rather friendly analysis of Catholic church processions. For my class paper, I wrote about how historians have spatially analyzed Jewish synagogues. My professor thought it was an interesting topic.

My African-American history professor has also not pushed any radical beliefs on the class, and she’s another good example of someone using ideas often associated with radicalism in a fairly non-radical fashion. One of our course texts was a book she wrote about black men in North Carolina during the early 20th century. Using ideas drawn from gender history, her book examines how blacks built institutions in a very racist society, and how black men struggled to define their role in those institutions. She discusses churches with no sign of disdain. In fact, all three of the professors I’ve had so far have covered religious topics in a fair way. I’m currently writing a literature review paper on free blacks in early New Orleans (fascinating stuff) which includes quite a bit on their religious practices. My Revolutionary War professor obviously prefers the Loyalists–for understandable reasons, I’ve found–but he also has explained how evangelicals were involved in the campaign against slavery in England, and how they were also less likely to be extremely anti-Catholic. Have I encountered more liberal ideas than I did in undergrad? Sure. But I’ve also learned an enormous amount. Women’s history, African-American history, even areas of theory normally dominated by Marxists–not everyone interested in those topics is a radical, and some of them have very helpful perspectives.

I emailed one of my old Bob Jones professors in my first semester of this program, feeling confused about my professor’s negative attitude toward Revolutionary War intellectual history. His response was that liberals and conservatives can write in almost any field. There are liberal intellectual historians, while he’s a conservative who enjoys social history and dislikes military history. You can find all sorts. Judge individual historians, not an entire field.

Undergrads considering a history major should check out whether their school as a whole slants radical; grad students should focus on history departments themselves. Some idea-related courses are obviously aimed in a radical direction, but that isn’t always the case. High school-level history has its own problems–a co-worker of mine says that his daughter’s history teacher taught her, as fact, an internet myth that the first president of the Continental Congress was black. I’m confident that my African-American history prof at Missouri State would never be that sloppy.

#32 Comment By Eamus Catuli On December 7, 2015 @ 4:49 pm

@Michael Guarino:

Do you think the methods available to historians, and the humanities generally, are transparent enough to produce quality scholarship in a setting with little meaningful critical conflict?

Not directed to me, but this strikes me as an interesting question. Which means an answer off the top of my head probably won’t be that helpful, but my first thought is that yes, it’s still possible to produce quality humanities scholarship, and will continue to be — I’d like to think that’s what I myself do, for instance — but there’s also a lot of non-quality scholarship piling up alongside it. If by “transparent methods” you mean mechanisms like those in the hard sciences to identify real issues and vet the answers proposed for them, I would say that the humanities have at best very imperfect simulacra of those methods, with much less clarity about what ought to be studied and in what ways. Hence the humanities are more vulnerable to trendy approaches and fads (which is what the poststructuralist “moment” we’re in basically is, I think, albeit it’s turning out to be a rather long moment).

But even faddish approaches occasionally produce some interesting insights, and the plus side of the greater intellectual chaos is that people in the humanities are freer, I think, than most hard scientists to pursue idiosyncratic interests and take up questions that perhaps nobody else has thought of yet. It’s a “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach, with the usual caveat that most of the flowers won’t be as pretty as the best of them. The hard sciences, as I understand them, have teams of researchers carefully tending a smaller number of “flowers” that there’s already a community consensus for nurturing. That has a different set of advantages and limitations.

That’s what occurs to me, FWIW, but perhaps I haven’t fully understood your question.

#33 Comment By Charles Curtis On December 7, 2015 @ 8:19 pm

@ Richard Williams, December 6, 2015 at 12:18 am

Offended? No worries. Not in the slightest.

I’ve been thinking about your comment here the past 24 hours or so since I read it, and have felt that it deserves a response, because what you’re driving at – the charge that Catholic education, that schools like PC “indoctrinate” and that such indoctrination givers (or least in the past has given) pretext to violence – has a sort of perverse validity.

One of the great ironic pleasures of following the “Development of Western Civilization” at Providence College is that it gives you – if you take it seriously, and pay attention, which is of course a critical caveat – the tools to deconstruct he very Catholic apologetic that it presents. Because let’s be clear here, *all* instruction contains an element of indoctrination; instruction – schooling – only becomes education when it pulls you out of yourself, when it gives you self awareness enough to critique the schooling, the process of instruction, itself. That is what Western Civ at PC does, and in spades.

That is why I am so grateful for having taken Civ. These Dominicans, the Order of Preachers who participated in the violent suppression of the Cathars, and who formed the Spanish Inquisition lead by Tomas de Torquemada OP, gave us Dostoyevsky’s “the Grand Inquisitor” to read, and then discuss in seminar. This my friend, is why your sneer here amounts to a slur against PC – because we take the Church at her darkest moments – in the Reconquista, the subsequent conquest of the Americas by those same (re)Conquistadors, the use of counter-revolutionary violence by the Inquisition and then Counter-Reformation, all just for example – and gaze at it, we ponder it, we let it condemn us.. We understand explicitly that it amounts to a blasphemy against the Beatitudes, a perversion of the Gospel, and *crucially* (I choose that word deliberately) a rejection of Christ himself.

Because, again, if you follow this course in the “Development of Western Civilization” you will come to see how human history is one long struggle of belief. We, the human race – construct civilizations – which in the metaphysical sense are merely vast systems of meaning, of signifying – with all their material and technological glory; and then watch, as under the weight of entropy they each one after another dust upon their predecessor’s bones inevitably collapse. One tower of babel follows another, as we in our pride seek to touch the sky, yet inevitably fall like Icarus into the sea.. Like Achilles above the Aegean or Ishmael on the parapet at the point of the Manhattoes we stare at the wine dark sea and contemplate annihilation..

In our pride we resist death with our science, like the fallen angels in Paradise Lost, seeking to confound the divine doom pronounced upon us.

Catholic Civilization – let’s be very blunt here, our civilization – is no different than that of the Maenads, Pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar.. For God has numbered Belshazzar’s days, he has been weighed and found wanting, and his kingdom will be given to the Medes and Persians.

For there is never truly anything new under the sun.

This is the humble message of Western Civ at Providence College. It is the essential message of our times, for our culture. It is, in my humble opinion (which I am sure you will tell me is actually assertion of arrogance) the only true education.

Is the Papal Revolution, the Gregorian Reform, Dominican scholasticism itself with idolatrous veneration of Plato and Aristotle the primordial revolutionary curse of the West? Are Dostoyevsky and his master Gregory Palamas right in this, their fundamental critique of Western revolutionary violence? Or, as anyone who has taken the force of Civ to its logical conclusion, are Palamas and the Orthodox just as guilty of a sort of spiritual positivism, just as catastrophically vitiated by Neo-Platonism as the West they hold in contempt? Do the burning of the Bogomils and Avvakum reveal them to be xenophobic chauvinists and hypocrites?

That’s a fundamental question that will probably only occur to you if you take a course like Western Civ.

Again, is post-modernism merely neo-scholasticism stripped of its theological obsessions? Stripped of means of transcendence by way of faith, are we now as a civilization seeking collective gnostic transcendence through the will to power?

Do you even understand that question?

Look, Providence College is far from perfect in my mind. It is basically a good business school with a very good humanities faculty tacked onto it. It is all too possible to skate through Civ doing maybe a third of the reading if you are bright and attend most of the classes. Grade inflation is a serious issue there. While there are no fraternities, there is still massive drinking going on there. There is a marginal drug and hook up culture that you can all to easily indulge in, if that’s your thing. While post-structuralism and feminist theory are no where near as pervasive as at other schools, there are plenty of faculty at PC who worship at those altars. The theology faculty may – in the eyes of many “conservative” Catholics be a bit too far gone in the direction of “Religious Studies.” There is only a marginal classics faculty, a little bit of Latin and no Greek on offer. Basketball and hockey sometimes eclipse mass as the locus of religious fervor on campus.

Yet.. Still.. All that aside, Providence College is one of the few dozen Catholic schools of the four hundred or so in the country that still offer what ought to be the default: a comprehensive theologically and philosophically serious education that will give you the essential tools to engage in our civilizational discourse in a meaningful way. Apart from Civ they take attendance, and if you drop off the map they will notice and send someone to find you. That meant in my particular case that Brother Kevin OP (amongst a few others) had a very close eye on me for my first two years at Fennel, and I am eternally grateful to him for that. The bulk of the faculty is there to teach, and they almost all give a damn. You have multiple well attended daily masses, a decent campus ministry, and many teachers like the inimitable Anthony Esolen who will take a personal intimate interest in your well being and education. If you bother to go during office hours, you will get mentored.

People – anonymousdr above in this thread, as well as myself – worry that PC may lose its vigor. That’s a concern. All I can tell you is that the Dominican Province of Saint Joseph has PC under its care, and the Province has been revitalized these past twenty years or so, and there are many – dozens – of excellent young mendicants who are not going to quiet into that good night. They’re there, and they are fighting. I say that PC deserves our support and care. If you think the BenOp is a real necessity, it’s at places like Providence College that we’re going to get traction, where it’s gonna happen.

#34 Comment By Eamus Catuli On December 7, 2015 @ 8:48 pm

@Carl Eric Scott:

And that kind of self-comforting stupidity, the kind that says “nothing to see here,” is in fact cowardice of the most inexcusable kind. Our universities are burning. There is very little time left to keep a total red v. blue split in college ed from happening, and plenty of Rod’s liberal-leaning readers are evidently determined not to be any part of efforts preventing that.

Yes, our universities are burning. Except when they’re not.

Look, this is Rod Dreher’s blog. If he wants it to be a right-wing “amen corner” (to coin a phrase), where nobody offers a perspective outside of those that SoCons already know must be true, he can make it that anytime he chooses to. My impression has been that on the whole, that’s not what he wants.

My comments here have not been “nit-picking” aimed at “erasing” the letter-writer’s “personal witness.” I just disagree with him on most (not all) of the conclusions he draws. I have spent the past 34 years working in academia, mostly teaching at American universities, including three whose names everyone here would instantly recognize. Before that, I was an undergraduate and graduate student for several years. Next year will be the 40th anniversary of my First Contact with American higher education.

And you, Carl Eric Scott? Your profound experience of American academia is what, exactly? You already know, a priori, what everyone else’s experience is supposed to be? Because if it doesn’t fit your ideological presuppositions, it must be factually wrong? Well, that certainly simplifies the whole business of discussing things or engaging in political debate.

Sorry, but I’ve seen what I’ve seen, not what you want me to have seen. There are big problems with American universities, and I agree with conservatives about some of them, but not about everything. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, I don’t owe you what you want to hear, I owe you the results of my best judgment.

#35 Comment By Michael Guarino On December 7, 2015 @ 9:52 pm

But even faddish approaches occasionally produce some interesting insights, and the plus side of the greater intellectual chaos is that people in the humanities are freer, I think, than most hard scientists to pursue idiosyncratic interests and take up questions that perhaps nobody else has thought of yet. It’s a “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach, with the usual caveat that most of the flowers won’t be as pretty as the best of them.

Will a thousand flowers really bloom if political consensus ossify? Or will they just be a thousand different colors of orchid?

Also my point was meant at the disciplinary level. You could very well be doing really interesting work from a largely left-liberal perspective, but the discipline itself could be ingrown and dying.

Basically, I want to see a clearly healthy evolutionary process, and that requires three components: mutation, extinction, and reproduction. Critical conflict provides the extinction, and viewpoint diversity provides the mutation. Both are going to be suspicious in a political monoculture. To be fair, I have no doubt it will still be able to reproduce so long as it is funded. But that is the easy part, any intellectual narcissist wants to see more of his ideas in the world, and every intellectual is a narcissist.

If we were dealing with a mathematized science, then it probably would not be such an issue, but in something with methods that are much more “fuzzy”, as I tried to explain obtains in history, an evolutionary process is the only thing flexible enough to actually yield fruit.

#36 Comment By Jennifer James On December 8, 2015 @ 5:58 pm

Sorry this individual did not enjoy his (I think it’s a his) experience in college. Women may have been the problem, women who talked, women who had thin hair, women who gained weight. That’s what he talked about.

#37 Comment By Gene Callahan On December 8, 2015 @ 6:38 pm

@Aaron Gross: ‘“All history is contemporary history.” Benedetto Croce said that a century ago. It’s yesterday’s news.’

All news is contemporary news.

#38 Comment By Eamus Catuli On December 8, 2015 @ 6:59 pm

Michael, the dangers of the political monoculture you speak of are real. I agree with this:

Will a thousand flowers really bloom if political consensus ossify? Or will they just be a thousand different colors of orchid?

Also my point was meant at the disciplinary level. You could very well be doing really interesting work from a largely left-liberal perspective, but the discipline itself could be ingrown and dying.

All true, and well-put. What I meant to say wasn’t well captured in the phrase “a thousand flowers.” The reality is that there is so much being published that we’re just not that close yet to a monoculture developing, at least in terms of what research is done and is available — especially in this age when database and web-searching makes it much easier than it used to be to find even the few items that might be helpful to you, almost no matter how obscure they are. To amend the metaphor, if you let a million flowers bloom, then even if 950,000 of them are orchids, that’s still 50,000 flowers that aren’t.

We are closer to a monoculture, at least in academic humanities in the US, in terms of faculty hiring: there are certain boxes that virtually every English department, for instance, is looking to see checked, and they all seem to want them checked the same way. That is a dismal situation which, over time — as you need not tell me — will degrade the variety of research being done as well. You are correct that it is not as readily self-correcting as in less fuzzy disciplines where more of the claims are based on quantification and measurement.

Still, evolution will happen, I think. We’re in an age of postructuralist dinosaurs, and the age of the real dinosaurs lasted a very long time, but even while it was underway the ancestors of mammals were also evolving and laying the basis for what came later. I suppose the question is whether it necessarily takes some kind of asteroid strike to end the old age, and what the literary and intellectual equivalent of that would be.

#39 Comment By Michael Guarino On December 8, 2015 @ 9:37 pm

Still, evolution will happen, I think. We’re in an age of postructuralist dinosaurs, and the age of the real dinosaurs lasted a very long time, but even while it was underway the ancestors of mammals were also evolving and laying the basis for what came later. I suppose the question is whether it necessarily takes some kind of asteroid strike to end the old age, and what the literary and intellectual equivalent of that would be.

Well, there is a possible incoming extinction event on the horizon in the form of instrumentalizing the university. This will likely mean exclusive focus on STEM mixed with some, likely quantitative, social studies.

This would be the worst possible scenario in my mind. Honestly, I would prefer Yale to exist as it is, even ridden with infectious SJWism, than to see it become a glorified vocational school. It does not even represent an intellectual tradition I follow, that is the Puritan/Progressive tradition of the Northeast. But it still deserves to continue its legacy, which is obviously impressive.

#40 Comment By Eamus Catuli On December 9, 2015 @ 5:37 pm

Michael, I agree in hoping that the instrumentalizing doesn’t progress much further than it already has. In the long view, of course, it’s not new; Clark Kerr’s celebration of the “multiversity” more than 50 years ago was basically a defense of an instrumentalist conception of higher ed. In some ways, the humanities have always had this baggage; they took their modern form in the late 19th century in part with the promise that (a) they, too, could produce something resembling “scientific” research, and (b) they would contribute to socially and politically beneficial projects like helping the hoi polloi develop a sense of the great shared national tradition (among other things, as an antidote to the distinct and disquieting possibility that they would define their interests in terms of class, as Marxists urged, rather than national identity).

Digital remote delivery of instructional material with high production values is a new element, though. The humanities have survived past challenges, but this time could be different.