Professor Joyce Appleby stood at the podium one April day in 2002, at San Diego State, University. She had driven down the I-5 from Los Angeles (she teaches at UCLA) to take part in bestowing the Andrew Appleby Memorial Award (I, being the recipient).

With a small crowd gathered, this award-winning historian began with a story about Sputnik. In October of 1957, a small metal ball circled the earth with a rhythmic “beep, beep, beep.” Professor Appleby then mentioned the reaction by our government, how federal dollars were thrown at universities across our lands. The space race was on, and the United States intended to win it.

Though our government, she explained, was in the hunt for science-minded people (yes, a STEM persuasion way back then), some of those dollars filtered down to the Humanities, and some of those students chose to major in History. Appleby called it “the first democratization of the discipline,” further explaining that the students of the late 1950s and early 1960s asked questions of the past that previous historians had not. “Why did my Russian émigré mother have to work for low pay as a seamstress in New York’s tenements?” for example. Thus the resulting histories that spilled out of the 1970s and 1980s took to task the “Great People” history and focused instead on the underlying causes of poverty, the challenges of immigration, the dynamics of globalization, culture as agency, and the limits of our own Constitution as our nation strove to fulfill the promises made by Pilgrims and Puritans who exclaimed in the seventeenth century that this was a land where we will get it right, that the world will look toward this continent as we brightly light that beacon on a hill.

I’m reminded of this because of something L. D. Burnett wrote recently for the Chronicle of Higher Education. In her essay, “Holding On to What Makes Us Human: Defending the humanities in a skill-obsessed university,” Burnett alerts us to the current demise of the humanities in our post-secondary educational institutions. She’s not the first. Alarms about the Humanity’s “fall from grace” began ringing as far back as the Reagan era (that’s three decades now – in case you’re counting). Burnett points out, though, that the prevailing argument put forth by Humanities teachers in defense of their disciplines is to demonstrate that we, too, provide skills. This is true: it’s called critical thinking – something corporate America says it’s in dire need of.

Nonetheless says Burnett, this is the wrong tact to take. The brilliance behind Burnett’s essay is not tactical, or even strategic – if I must put History’s fight for survival upon a battle metaphor – but rather more in line with something History is supposed to offer, a gi-bill-stamppoint of view attached to the longue durée.

Once upon a time in America, colleges and universities belonged to the realm of the well-to-do, or at least those that were upwardly mobile. In 1920, only 1 in 10 adults had graduated from a four year university or college. This changed with the departure of the Second World War. The GI-Bill allowed WWII veterans to earn college degrees, a sort of “thank you for your service” from Uncle Sam and the taxpayers. Today, slightly more than one-third of adult Americans over the age of 25 tote around four year degrees – that’s more than a threefold increase! I would argue that a partial cause for the turbulence of the 1960s, that expressed radicalism of college students during that decade, was, in part,  caused by a learned disconnect: the promises that America held out on the one hand, and the inability of our government to meet those obligations on the other – in other words, that “beacon on a hill” shone for some but not for all.

Burnett stated something I should have already known – and in fact, sort of already did – all the cards were there, I just didn’t see the hand. Till she wrote this: that what the Humanities is currently experiencing is a backward turn, a return toward elitism, that the attempts by universities and their corporate backers to defund those courses that train our nation’s critical thinkers is done purposely, with an eye to recover what the humanities once were – “luxury goods.”

Burnett’s remarks, when added to Appleby’s lesson of when History became democratized, allows for that longue durée purview. Education, and especially one based on Renaissance premises (a deep immersion of the classics), was once, solely, the long time haven of the haves. Born a have not? Entry denied. This is still the case in some of our more elite universities; Harvard and Yale come to mind, but others, too.

Burnett suggests that “we must insist” on the importance of sustaining values other than boardroom ledgers and balance sheets. Rather than pointing to the skills that we humanities teachers give to our country, Burnett states that we must do something other: to defend nothing less than what it means to be human. We must defend the right to give to our students the opportunity to “grapple with ideas and questions of enduring values.”

I’d like to extend her welcomed observations by pointing out, perhaps, History’s second great democratic revolution: digitization. If we are to defend our student’s rights to “grapple,” then we must arm ourselves with weapons that will allow our students access to humankind’s most incessant demands (which haven’t always been, and hardly have been, pecuniary). If Appleby is correct and if it was Sputnik that opened collegiate doors for the masses, shouldn’t we, the beneficiaries of that democratization, ensure its continuance with another?

In tribute to the work of past and present historians, in tribute to the longue durée of the work that we do, it should be pleasantly clear by now that – increasingly – we no longer have to travel from city to city, state to state, continent to continent to burrow through the molded dust of basement archives and hidden rooms. If we wish to defend the humanities then we must hurry along the digitization process. We must champion the efforts of Google Books while decrying publishing corporations who look to copyright texts of humans who have long ago passed. We must find energy and funds to digitize small, local museums and their holdings. We must teach our students not only how to realize “significance” and “value” from those holdings, but how best to display those holdings: for it is within the public’s approbation that the humanities will be rescued.

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