Friday, November 19, 2010
History on the Free Market
As should be clear from many of the posts I have done on the field of history, I have a particular interest in the continued relevancy of history. (See Method Thinking.) While history may not offer concrete moral lessons for us to learn from and avoid repeating, history does provide a lens and context for examining our present world and even a method with which to critically confront it.
As a libertarian, I oppose the idea of mandatory education and even publically funded schools, whether elementary, high school or college. (Publically funded education is really just another form of mandatory education as those who choose to opt out are still taxed regardless of their willingness to forgo the benefits.) People (or in the case of children their parents) should be left to decide what sort of education, if any, they wish to pursue. They should then be left to pay for it themselves or by persuading other private individuals to pay for it as an investment or as charity. As an extension of this, I also oppose the idea of general requirements. It is perfectly reasonable for someone to invest money in studying biology with the goal of receiving a piece of paper from a recognized institution to increase his chances of being hired and the salary he might command. While a private institution should be left to impose any requirement that suits them in order to receive their pieces of paper, I see no reason why there should be general requirements (like history). What does a knowledge of history have to do with competency in biology? While I believe (as it will be clear by this end of this piece) that a well rounded education in the humanities is important, that has nothing to do with the granting of a degree. I can only conclude that the insistence of general requirements is a form of "special interest" kickbacks to the departments in question to be paid for by students. (See Historians as a Special Interest Group.)
Such an ideology puts me in a funny position working at The Ohio State University, a public university, and teaching History 111, a general requirement. So here I am, a government employee, even though I am not a politician, a judge, a police officer, a member of the armed forces or holder of a position even remotely connected to protecting people from physical harm; I am standing in front of a class full students, many of whom are sane and rational, but almost none of whom actually desire to be here whether out of love for what I teach or out of a belief that it will help them become more capable of holding down a higher paying job. Neither the students nor their parents are paying the full cost of attending the university, which is being subsidized by tax payers. (In OSU's favor it should be pointed out that there are a high percentage of non-traditional students holding down jobs to pay for at least some of the cost.) On top of this, almost none of these students are history majors or even have any particular interest in history. How many of my more than forty students would have actually signed up for my class if it were not a general requirement, ten or five?
My solution to this dilemma is to teach as if mandatory education and history requirements did not exist; to pretend that the students in my class were paying for school with their money and had a choice whether or not to take History 111. In such a situation my job would be to convince those sane and rational students (the others I would be hunting down and shooting like rabid dogs for the protection of society) that I have something worth hundreds of dollars and they should spend that money plus the time required to take my class. As such my class is less about names and dates (what use is it to the cause of history if students memorize names and dates and then go on to ignore it) and more about the purpose of studying history.
This is the real test of whether I succeed as a teacher. Will students walk away from my course believing that the course was money and time well spent, recognizing that a knowledge of history is important and a desire to learn more? It is unlikely that many of them will become history majors, but perhaps some of them will become viewers of the History Channel or even just readers of historical novels. Practiced on a large scale, this will place history on solid economic ground as an industry with willing consumers able to support the continued efforts of historians.