Publication Date

May 1, 2014

AHA Topic

Undergraduate Education

Post Type


President Obama ruffled feathers in the humanities community when, at an event promoting vocational training early this year, he said, “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”

While the president later apologized for his comment, it nonetheless reinforced an unfortunate stereotype regarding the perceived lack of relevance of a humanities degree in the “real world.” And it echoes a number of comments made by politicians in recent years questioning the value of humanities degrees. In 2011, Florida Governor Rick Scott proposed shifting higher education funding into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects and told the Miami Herald-Tribune, “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education, then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

And today, as I draft this column, Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) released a proposed fiscal year 2015 Republican budget package calling for an end to federal subsidies for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The statement accompanying the budget justifies this move by claiming, “The activities and content funded by these agencies go beyond the core mission of the federal government. These agencies can raise funds from private-sector patrons, which will also free them from any risk of political interference.”

Nearly a year ago, the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a report, The Heart of the Matter, on the role and importance of the humanities in national life. While it received a great deal of media attention and provoked a spirited conversation among pundits and academics, it is clear, from the comments of the president and others, that there is still much more work to be done to raise the level of consciousness about the vital role humanities and social science play in society.

Our colleagues at the National Humanities Alliance (NHA) continue to do yeoman’s work in making the case for the value of the humanities and advocating for funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities. In early March, the NHA’s annual Humanities Day had well over 100 participants making visits to Capitol Hill advocating for funding not just for the NEH, but for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Library of Congress, the Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need program, and Title VI/Fulbright-Hays education programs.

Over the past few years, a number of projects and studies have highlighted the importance of the need for investment in history. Three examples show the diversity of the work being done by national organizations in this regard. Since 2011, the AHA’s Tuning project has been working to “articulate the disciplinary core of historical study and to define what a student should understand and be able to do at the completion of a history degree program.” In 2011, National History Day issued a report showing how students participating in the program outperformed their peers who did not. And Imperiled Promise, a report from the Organization of American Historians examined the practice and presentation of American history by the National Park Service at its sites.

As we reported last month, the National Coalition for History was instrumental in the creation of a new Congressional History Caucus and is now working toward the creation of a similar organization in the Senate.

Over the past 18 months, an exciting new grassroots movement, the History Relevance Campaign (HRC), has emerged from a series of small, informal discussions among historians in careers across the discipline, on the “branding” of history. Tim Grove, one of the founders of the HRC, described this in an article posted on Public History Commons (

History, like any other discipline, has a brand. In this context it is defined as the way people perceive the value of history. If this perception is negative, how do we change it? How do we demonstrate the value? At the moment STEM has a very strong brand. History does not. Or if it does, the history brand or image is diffuse and too often negative.

The HRC’s organizers want to make it clear that the campaign is not controlled by a single history organization, and that it is not a lobbying group aimed at federal, state, and local policy makers, but rather that it is designed to “raise the profile of history in the general public.” Also, “its intent is not to minimize Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) but to show that history skills are just as important and that balance should be a goal for curriculum.”

Over the past few months, the HRC has held sessions at the annual meetings of both the AHA and the National Council on Public History. The HRC has created a LinkedIn group that is open to all, and they urge you to join in the conversation and become involved in this important effort over the coming months.

Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History.

© 2014 National Coalition for History

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