What Can't You Do With History?
SVSU History Department
SVSU History Department
Note: The views expressed here are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the SVSU History Department or Saginaw Valley State University as an institution
"To be sure, the past...years have not been a particularly happy time for those of us in the humanities. In the colleges and universities we have seen a movement away from the study of history, philosophy, literature, and foreign languages." 
Written by Robert M. Lumiansky, a scholar of Medieval English, these words likely ring true for people – be they students, professors, government officials, authors, or artists – involved in the humanities in recent years. Since the financial crisis of 2008, we have witnessed an overall, if not sharp, decline across American higher education in the numbers of students majoring and minoring in humanities related subjects. Moreover, enrollments in many humanities courses have also gone down on a number of university campuses in the same period. Broadly speaking, explanations for this phenomenon often center on a perception that students and the overall public hold that the humanities have no tangible or practical relevance to everyday life. If you want a well-paying job or career after investing significant time and finances (many times undergirded by loans), then you better never flirt with the idea of being an English, a Philosophy, or, heaven forbid, a History major. In other words, folks should steer clear from a college education that will not channel them towards a career as a nurse, a doctor, an engineer, a chemist, or a business consultant but rather destine them to a degrading and simplified stereotype – a future of asking at Starbucks: “would you like your latte venti or grande?” Against this backdrop, we perhaps find ready explanation for why the humanities in the United States have also recently experienced an assault, in the form of calls from both the White House and Congress for dramatic funding cuts, against what many a philosopher, literary scholar, writer, linguist or historian greatly cherish – the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Considering all of this, it is little wonder then the pessimistic tone of Lumiansky’s above quote. Yet what if I told you that his statement is not the product of 2017 but 1982?
Here history matters, and it requires us to travel even farther back in time to put all of this in perspective. By the early 1960s, organizations – like the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa, and the Council of Graduate Schools – formed a National Commission on the Humanities and produced a report that they hoped would bring to light the disproportionate level of federal funding that the sciences enjoyed in comparison to the humanities.
Along with President Lyndon B. Johnson, a number of influential congressmen and senators found the report insightful, thought provoking, and persuasive, so much so that in 1965 the United States government created the NEH and offered a definition of what fell under the purview of the humanities:
"The term 'humanities' includes, but is not limited to, the study and interpretation of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life." 
Since 1965, the NEH has done much to promote these aspects of the humanities, awarding over 60,000 grants worth a total of $5.3 billion and leveraging private parties (e.g. philanthropic individuals and institutions) to donate an additional $2.5 billion as partial or full matching funds. Such monies have had clear and tangible impact on a wide array of projects that have varied in focus and scope. Indeed, over the past five decades, the NEH has assisted the production and publication of approximately seven thousand books, many award-winning titles like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale and Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice; has financed films like Ken Burns’ The Civil War and Gordon Parks’ Solomon Northup’s Odyssey; has supported field work like Preservation Virginia’s “Jamestown’s Rediscovery,” a major archeological excavation of the colonial settlement; has contributed to the launch of internet resources like David Eltis and Stephen Behrendt’s “Voyages”, a database that gives the public online access to digitized records related to the trans-Atlantic slave trade; has ensured the preservation of North American indigenous languages like that of the Tlingit people of the Pacific Northwest with the compilation of dictionaries and the audio recording of oral literature; and has helped bring centuries-old literature like that produced by William Shakespeare to wide audiences with radio, television, and theater productions of the bard’s works and plays. 
Equally tangible is the link that the NEH has to SVSU, in particular to the university’s History Department. There are a number of the department’s faculty who have benefitted from the existence of the NEH, benefit that has not only affected their individual careers but has also precipitated into the classroom and the wider community of Mid Michigan. We have members who have held long-term NEH fellowships at such institutions as the Henry E. Huntington Library in San Marino, California that directly resulted in the publication of two books on religion, politics, and women’s history in seventeenth-century England and informed teaching approaches in SVSU’s European history courses.
Two other faculty members have led a NEH-funded summer workshop held at SVSU designed to help local teachers produce lesson plans, for middle and high schools in Michigan, that focused on the interplay between the social and political history of the American Civil War.
And most recently, four members of our faculty presented lectures at a conference open to the public that enjoyed NEH financial support. Here Dr. Kathleen McGuire, adjunct professor of history at SVSU, explains the merits of this conference and what it illustrates about the NEH:
In April 2016 the Midland County Historical Society, in conjunction with the Grace A. Dow Library and Saginaw Valley State University, presented a one-day conference entitled “(Be)Causes and Effects: Causes and Consequences of World War I”. The goal of the conference was to provide thoughtful presentations on the impact of the First World War, as well as to demonstrate the connections between Midland County, Michigan, the United States and the world over those volatile years. It was an opportunity for people in Midland County, and beyond, to engage in thoughtful discussion of the long-term influences that the war had on race, gender, civil liberties and social morals. Our initial allotment of 130 tickets sold out and the responses the conference committee received indicate that this event was successful in accomplishing its goals, with a desire for future events strongly urged by those who attended. We plan to continue offering "(Be)Causes and Effects" events in the coming years in a pursuit to share a better understanding of the human experience.
Crucial to the success of the conference was the financial support of the Michigan Humanities Council, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The financial support of the Michigan Humanities Council allowed the conference to specifically advertise in Midland County, and more broadly, the Great Lakes Bay region. Such support also ensured that the conference speakers, a number of them SVSU professors, received a small honorarium.
We believe our project was an excellent example of the council’s vision to “help people connect with one another and the places where they live, by fostering a greater understanding and engagement in the cultures, histories, and values which tell us who we were, are, and hope to be”. As a member of the "(Be)Causes and Effects" steering committee, I was disheartened to see that President Trump’s 2018 budget seeks to eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities, which would in turn devastate the Michigan Humanities Council and end funding for projects like ours. The study of the past, especially in our tri-city region is invaluable to the preservation of American memory, history and values – particularly our need for well-educated citizens for the success of our democracy. I urge everyone to contact their members of Congress to continue funding the National Endowment for the Humanities at levels it has previously enjoyed, so that the good work of historians – and others in related fields like literature, philosophy, and art – around the nation can continue to be shared with the American public. Michigan and our nation will reap the dividends and will not regret it.
Clearly, Dr. McGuire feels passionate about both the humanities and what the conference achieved, and she reminds us of the apparent dark cloud that now hangs over the future of the NEH. Yet it is not the first time that such a cloud has threatened to rain on the humanities’ parade.
When Lumiansky commented on the state of the humanities in 1982, his usage of grim language actually served rhetorical purposes to strengthen an overall message of hope rather than despair in an article that he contributed to the journal, Speculum. He detailed how the Reagan administration, similar to what we see now with the current White House’s agenda, proposed dramatic cuts to the NEH’s funding in the early 1980s, cuts designed to lead to its ultimate dissolution. While recognizing the threat, Lumiansky – who had served as president of the ACLS, one of the organizations key to creation of the NEH – nonetheless took heart and found inspiration in how philosophers, literary scholars, historians, linguists etc. sounded the alarm and confronted the Reagan cuts head on. In short, people circled the wagons, hunkered down, and fought. Words proved the key weapon, spun and weaved into arguments to persuade the American public and government officials that the humanities had real, practical, and inherent value. Consequently, the NEH continued to exist well past the last day that President Reagan sat in the White House, resulting in the significant funding of many of the projects discussed above. Although further calls for its abolition occurred in the mid and late 1990s, the NEH persisted in its objective and purpose as people in and out of the humanities continued to voice their support for the organization. We can say that Dr. McGuire has followed this example in the current context of the apparent dire straits for the NEH, underscoring that members of SVSU’s history department are resolute to defend the humanities. 
What we think of the humanities today actually has a very long history, with roots stretching back to Renaissance Italy, if not all of Europe, of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries. Seeking an educational curriculum that could cultivate the free will of people to shape themselves into virtuous individuals actively engaged with the world around them, Renaissance thinkers found inspiration from the ancient Roman approach to learning known as studia humanitatis. Essentially what we call the Liberal Arts, such learning in the humanities revolved around five core subjects – grammar, rhetoric, poetry, moral philosophy (ethics), and history. Together, these subjects provided students with the means to understand human behavior through time, gave them models on how to behave in life, and cultivated their strengths in persuading others – through written and oral rhetoric – to act virtuously and improve the world. By the seventeenth century, studia humanitatis served as the foundation of the curriculum on many of Europe’s university campuses and those that existed in overseas European colonies. 
It is in the Renaissance that we find the long-term historical seeds of SVSU’s own College of Arts and Behavioral Sciences, a college in which students enroll in such subjects as History, honing their understanding of human behavior, refining their abilities to discuss such understanding in written and oral forms, and developing their skills in rhetoric to persuade others about the credibility of their interpretations of this behavior. This was the same sort of thing that defenders of the NEH practiced in the 1980s, and really what all the projects funded by NEH have engaged in when producing the many books, films, databases, conferences, and workshops. They are fruits of the humanities’ labors. All have enriched our understanding of what it means to be human, and SVSU students taking humanities subjects develop skills to potentially further such understanding and enrichment. And since we are all human, the ability to thoughtfully consider and talk about past and present people’s desires, actions, and worldviews are enormously practical skills. The application of these practical skills are limitless, suited for any walk of life or career like in STEM, Business, Education, and the Health Sciences. Remembering this offers hope that the challenges – particularly in relation to the NEH and lower college enrollments – that the humanities currently face are ultimately temporary, mere storms to ride out and endure. After all, the humanities have carried on for centuries and have proven resilient, like they were in the 1980s when people – armed with rhetorical talents and understanding of what makes humans tick – rose to their defense. A similar outcome is possible in our contemporary context, especially if current students of the humanities like History deploy their skills in comparable fashion. The question is…will they seize the day?
Assistant Professor of History
Saginaw Valley State University
1) Robert M. Lumiansky, “The Current State of Support for the Humanities,” Speculum 57, no. 4 (1982): 723-727, at 723.
4) Lumiansky, “Current State of Support for the Humanities,” 723-727; Marvine Howe, " Robert Lumiansky, A Medieval Scholar and Teacher, Dies", New York Times, April 5, 1987, Obituaries; Cynthia Koch, "The Contest for American Culture: A Leadership Case Study on the NEA and NEH Funding Crisis," Public Talk: Online Journal of Discourse Leadership, 1998, http://www.upenn.edu/pnc/ptkoch.html.
5) For additional discussion of the Renaissance and the studia humanitatis, see Michael Wyatt, The Cambridge Companion to the Italian Renaissance (Cambridge, 2014); Charles G. Nauert Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe, Updated Edition (Cambridge, 2006); Eugene F. Rice and Anthony Grafton, The Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1460-1559, Second Ed. (New York, 1994).
Saginaw Valley State University, Department of History -- www.svsu.edu/history/faculty/.
National Endowment for the Humanities -- https://www.neh.gov.
American Council of Learned Studies -- www.acls.org.
Phi Beta Kappa -- www.pbk.org/web.
Council of Graduate Schools -- cgsnet.org.
Midland Center of the Arts, Press Release: (Be)Causes and Effects Conference -- www.mcfta.org/press-release-becauses-and-effects-conference-492016/.
The Henry E. Huntington Library -- www.huntington.org.