Understanding ‘richness of the human experience’ through study of history
By Mary Howard
You might say that Catherine Trott ’19 has been a history buff since childhood. She spent family vacations in museums and at archeological sites instead of on roller coasters at Disney World. When it came to choosing a major at Trinity, history was a natural choice. That decision, however, makes her a bit of a rarity among today’s college students.
According to a 2018 report by Benjamin Schmidt, assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, and the American Historical Association, less than two percent of college undergraduates receive degrees in history. The report also states that between 2008 and 2017, history degrees awarded nationally fell by more than 30 percent, signifying a bigger drop than in any other major.
What caused such a sizable decline? Schmidt notes his belief that students and parents have been thinking more practically after the financial crisis of 2008 and have been looking for a major that they think will lead to a job. “Students think history, humanities, English, and philosophy are not those practical majors,” he says in a November 2018 interview in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Yet, according to Schmidt, this anxiety over career prospects for history majors is misguided. “We know that students with history B.A.s disperse into a wide variety of careers,” he says in the report.
Though her major may not be popular nationally, Trott says she feels it has provided excellent preparation for a future career in the legal field. “In history, you read many books, and I learned to synthesize a lot of information in a short amount of time.” She also cites as benefits of a history degree better writing skills and the ability to effectively communicate her perspective.
The decline in history majors has affected all types of colleges and universities. At Trinity, while history fell out of the top five majors in 2016 and 2018, it usually finds itself among the most popular areas of study. And Jennifer Regan-Lefebvre, associate professor of history, is not alarmed by any downturn. “I don’t think students are going that far away,” says the teacher of popular courses that include “The History of French Wine” and “Parliamentary Debate in History and Practice.”
She says she sees students moving toward interdisciplinary majors, including international studies, American studies, and public policy, which incorporate historical perspectives. “A drop in pure history majors doesn’t mean a lack of interest.”
Regan-Lefebvre says she feels the major is “one for the ages.” The study of history teaches openness, thoroughness, patience, and good communication skills. “The discipline takes an enormous amount of perseverance,” she says.
To demonstrate this, she has students in her “Networks: Historical and Contemporary” first-year seminar read a volume about the history of the Watkinson family. She then takes them to the Watkinson Library to examine the numerous archival sources used in the book. In 2019, people are accustomed to finding information immediately, but historical research requires patience and organization, she says. “History is not about hot takes.”
Nor is it black and white, says Charles H. Northam Professor of History Samuel Kassow ’66. “History requires us to reject simplistic judgment and instead evaluate context, intent, and the factors behind events and decisions,” he says.
Kassow is the author of Who Will Write Our History? Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive, a book that illustrates how the stories of history often are dependent on perspective. The book centers on Emanuel Ringelblum and his resistance to Nazi oppression. In 1940, Ringelblum founded the Oyneg Shabes, an organization that secretly documented all aspects of Jewish life in the Warsaw Ghetto. Facing death and deportation, Ringelblum and the members of Oyneg Shabes wanted to write their own history. “So often, what we know about murdered people comes from their murderers,” says Kassow.
Before the city was razed in 1943, the members buried thousands of documents in milk cans and tin boxes. Though parts of the archive were discovered after the war, the existence of these documents and the efforts of the Oyneg Shabes remained largely unnoticed until Kassow’s book was published in 2007. Translated into eight languages, the book inspired a 2018 documentary that has garnered numerous awards at film festivals and will be broadcast nationwide on PBS in January 2020.
Kassow believes Ringelblum’s story is so popular because it brings a human element to the Holocaust, giving voices to people often seen as anonymous victims. He is glad that his work is reaching a wider audience through the film and through the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, where Kassow served as lead historian for two of the museum’s eight galleries. “The goal of [the study of] history is to understand the richness of the human experience,” he says.
That richness is what fascinates Stephanie Irvin-Taha ’19, a history and international studies major with a Japanese minor. She feels examining multiple historical perspectives has given her a better understanding of the modern world. “I see why we are where we are and the mistakes we made in getting here,” she says.
Initially, Irvin-Taha had little interest in studying history. “I didn’t really enjoy it in high school,” she says. “But at Trinity, I discovered history has all these different perspectives, like Japanese history and the history of women.” After a Chinese history course with Associate Professor of History Michael Lestz, she was “hooked.”
Brendan Clark ’21, a double major in history and public policy and law, says the challenges of varying perspectives of history have been addressed in several of his Trinity courses. “A big topic of discussion was Eurocentrism and where that falls in the historical field of study,” Clark says. “If a lot of the world’s major academic institutions … are centered in the West, how do we work around that, how do we counteract that perceived Western mindset?
“What I took away is that really the only way to counteract that is to keep reading, keep expanding your field of study, and be willing to pick up a book that would be outside your comfort zone,” he adds. “Be willing to reach out and find a text that takes a different approach.”
LeAnn Cassidy ’86, a social studies and U.S. history teacher at Memorial Middle School in Middlebury, Connecticut, uses a hands-on approach—literally—to get the attention of her students.
Cassidy, named the 2018 Connecticut History Teacher of the Year by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, scours flea markets for items from the 1700s, “like old documents with the king’s seal,” that her students can hold in their hands. “It brings the past alive for them,” she says.
Known as the “music lady,” she also uses period music to give her students a feel for an era. Visits from guest speakers and engaging assignments—such as interviewing older relatives—also “help history step out of the textbooks,” she says. Gone are the days of memorizing historical dates, she says. “They can look those up on their phones.”
Though Cassidy works hard to ensure her students understand the importance of studying not only American but also world history, she says she often feels stymied by federal and state mandates that require a focus on literacy and mathematics, thus limiting time for history education. “History is not tested and is often seen as expendable,” she says.
Cassidy says this lack of history education at an early age may be contributing to the decline of history majors at the undergraduate level. “Our job as educators is to help students become engaged [with history] in such a way that they desire world peace more than greed and power,” she says. “History is the basis by which we develop our understanding of the past to build a better future.”