Sorry, Vice-Chancellor. We need more historians of the sixth century.
June 2, 2016 18 Comments
Yesterday, the Belfast Telegraph published an interview with the Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast, Patrick Johnston. Most of the interview was about the things one expects VCs to talk about these days – global competitiveness, knowledge transfer, government funding, a defence of a large salary – but buried among the anodyne was this astonishing comment:
Society doesn’t need a 21-year-old who is a sixth century historian.
Why? Because, explains Johnston, what ‘society’ needs is ‘a 21-year-old who really understands how to analyse things, understands the tenets of leadership and contributing to society, who is a thinker and someone who has the potential to help society drive forward’.
So extraordinary is this statement, coming from the leader of a major UK university, that my first instinct is to assume that the journalist must have misheard or reworked Johnston’s comments in some way. After all, surely the VC of a university can hardly not know that history as it is taught at universities is essentially all about analysis. That is why it is so highly valued by employers, who know that history graduates, whether they specialise in the sixth or the 16th century, are indeed thinkers, people with intellectual initiative who may well have the ‘potential to help society drive forward’ (whatever Johnston means by that). To think otherwise is to profoundly misunderstand the skills that are honed in the course of a history degree.
In theoretical terms, he’s right of course. History at it’s best teaches one to analyze, to investigate, to think for oneself, indeed to be a very valuable person to any organization.
But while I don’t know about the UK, and the historians I know there are indeed all that he says, that is not what I see coming out of American Universities. What I see here are almost completely a group of whiners, not competent to organize a two-car funeral, whose idea of research is Wikipedia (yes, I use it too, for a quick check, but for anything that can be spun, it is not reliable), if not YouTube, and who can barely defend themselves in written English.
In the last analysis the market is never really wrong, if history was really a good major for businesses, somebody would have given it a shot, and made a lot of money as a result. But they haven’t, and so maybe historians should think about how to put the rigor back into the program. And a pro-tip, working to an agenda is not the way. Especially one that says that everything western civilization has ever done is both racist and wrong.
What I so often see are people who can’t defend their opinion (even if they do call them theses), and who run crying to their safe-spaces if anyone dares criticize them, and who follow fads and fashion rather than do research. Undoubtedly, I’m using too broad a brush here, but so is he. The amount of pure bullcrap put out in jargon form by historians and other social science professionals beggars the imagination. It also overwhelms one with the turgid, obfuscating language used to conceal the lack of thought of many of the authors. So, maybe the VC does have a point after all.