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From the Letters to the Editor column in the November 2012 issue of Perspectives on History

Letter to the Editor: On the Tuning Project

Jonathan Dewald, November 2012

Editor's Note: Perspectives on History welcomes letters to the editor on issues discussed in its pages or which are relevant to the profession. Letters should follow our guidelines. Letters selected for publication may be edited for style, length, and content. Publication of letters does not signify endorsement by the AHA of the views expressed by the authors, who alone are responsible for ensuring accuracy of the letters' contents. Institutional affiliations are provided only for identification purposes.

To the Editor:

I'm writing to second Christopher L. Doyle's concerns about the AHA's Tuning program (Perspectives on History, September, 2012), and to add a few of my own.

Like Christopher Doyle's, my concerns start with the arguments deployed to explain and defend the program, which I take to run roughly as follows: We all want our students to be employable as well as educated; we all believe in inquiry, dialogue, and compromise; we believe that historical study should contribute to meeting society's needs, and that in understanding those needs we should listen to voices from outside the university. Open-ended discussion with business leaders, parents, and others offers a start on all these tasks; such discussion is especially important in these resource-challenged times.

These arguments are presented in the language of common-sensical, value-neutral problem solving. But of course defining problems and setting out the framework in which they can be discussed matter more than the specific solutions that are eventually arrived at; once a language of discussion is in place, certain options become implausible or impossible, others reasonable and likely. And the employment-centric, utilitarian language in which Tuning has been discussed has big implications for our functioning as a profession, most of them negative.

The most obvious relate to the fields that historians teach and study. Can we really claim that serious study of, say, Late Antiquity will prepare young people for productive lives in a modern corporation? Whatever analytical skills they may encourage, such fields will always generate lousy employment returns on the investments they require, in language study, faculty training, research travel, library resources, and the like. Precisely such calculations have recently encouraged business-oriented university leaders to close down departments like classics—sensibly enough, if employment preparation is the main utility we seek.

The questions become sharper if we consider topics like labor history, the history of revolutionary movements, radical social thought, and the like. These and other histories risk rendering students critical and discontented; some forms of history teaching are meant to do so. Do employers really want students instructed in these ways? Why should they, if they can get the same skill sets from students of less contentious subjects? In that sense, it's not helpful to say (as AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman does) that "we must set aside the false—but too often invoked— dichotomy between career-oriented education and preparation for participation in civic life." Some degree of tension between these aims is inevitable in all circumstances; depending on the kinds of careers and civic lives that are envisioned, tension can easily become outright contradiction.

Given these questions, it seems reasonable to ask also for more clarity about the institutional context in which the Tuning project is being carried out. I knew nothing about the Lumina Foundation before reading that its grant underwrites Tuning, but apparently I should have been paying more attention. For as Stanley Katz and others explain, Lumina is not merely an on-the-sidelines benefactor. It has its own agendas and interests, and it has assertively used its large resources to advance them. Should the AHA align itself with those agendas and interests? To ask that question is not to cast doubt on the seriousness of our colleagues' work in the project, or to suggest outside dictation of their findings. It's to ask about the framework of discussion that's been put in place, starting with the very definition of the problems facing higher education.

Nor am I suggesting that we reject utilitarian defenses of our teaching or ignore our students' practical, job-hunting needs. Rather, I'm suggesting that both be defined differently. Studying late antiquity is a wasteful way for individuals to acquire the analytical skills that they need as "economic actors." But a society that lacks knowledge of such periods—periods of radical social and religious transformation, in which the cultural landscapes we now inhabit took shape—pays heavy dollars-and-cents penalties, as we've been learning over the last decade; history's practical usefulness is measured at the collective level, not by the advantages its study brings to individuals. To secure those individual advantages, we also may have to think in other terms: both in immediate and practical ways (for instance, by pushing our students more firmly into supplemental, practical studies), and by public advocacy for our own definitions of skills and utility.

—Jonathan Dewald
University at Buffalo