Novelist says History classes are our best hope for teaching Americans to question fake news and Donald Trump

Historians in the News
tags: education, election 2016, Trump



Marie Myung-Ok Lee is a novelist and essayist who teaches writing at Columbia University.

As a novelist and creative-writing professor, I believe in the importance of teaching college students how to read and write fiction. But the undergraduate course I myself found the most formative—the one that maps my daily intellectual path decades later—was not a writing or English class, but a seemingly quotidian course at Brown University called “History 52: The survey of American history from Reconstruction to Nixon.”

On the first day of class, the professor blasted Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as we walked in. He asked us point-blank, “What does it mean to be an American?” I had come armed with a notebook and pen, ready to passively receive information. Instead, we were being prompted to really engage with history—a first for many of us in the classroom.

The history class gave me the tools that would help me make sense of the worlds I was trying to write about, both in fiction and nonfiction. I worry that too many young people today are not being equipped with these tools—ones that will be of the utmost importance as they come of age under the presidency of Donald Trump.

Between the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 academic school years, undergraduate enrollment in history classes fell by 7.6%, according to a survey this year from the American Historical Association. The field has also seen a decline in history majors in the past few years. Historian Sheyda Jahanbani has been monitoring the enrollments crisis closely at her institution, the University of Kansas. “Our enrollments are down 59% from 10 years ago,” she said.

James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Society, confirmed via email that broadly, “History enrollments are indeed declining.” This leads me to wonder about the relationship between a culture that places less value on history and that of an electorate that embraced a nativist, white-supremacist platform that played on false nostalgia and longing for a “better” past. ...




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