Over the past few days, I've been thinking: Not so much about how history applies to the economic crisis (although it certainly does), but rather about how the economic crisis may affect public history and the historical profession.
This summer, I resigned from my academic job after twelve years. I was disgusted with my "university" (the quotation marks are well deserved, believe me), and not much more pleased with the direction of the profession in general. Too much, universities have come to reflect the ethos of the last thirty years: An emphasis on personal ambition over public service, a tendency for those at the top --in this case, rapacious college administrators--to make utterly unreasonable demands on those in the front line--faculty--for their own personal aggrandizement. Within my department, the vicious politics of academe had taken a particularly mean-spirited form. Teaching and service were contemptuously dismissed as the preoccupation of mediocre schoolmarm-like professors (read: most women), while research, no matter how poorly-conceived, ill-funded, and inconsequential, was, we were told and told ourselves, of paramount importance. I was witness to the cavalier dismissal of undergraduate education more times than I care to recall, despite the fact that we were a third-rate college with a laughably inadequate graduate program, so that even by the parochial standards of research universities, our efforts in that direction were moot. I loved my work, teaching, service, and, when I had time to do it, research, but it was all too much. Fortunately, unlike too many of my colleagues,I was able to quit.
But now, all the rationalizations that upheld a sick system are no longer in place. With a declining economy, colleges like mine, with pretensions to research grandeur and minimal resources, will either have to back off or will push their faculties past the crisis point. As meaningless make-work jobs disappear, they will take their concomitant vocational degrees (communication studies, anyone?) with them.
The worthlessness of vocational BAs has been a pet peeve of mine since I railed against them as (yes!) a journalism major: Now, it is about to become painfully obvious. Young people who have been encouraged to pursue the big bucks and the toys they buy at the expense of an inner life will find they have been cheated twofold: Once, because their expensive but strangely valueless degrees will no longer give them automatic entree into the world of work and twice, because once the trips to the mall and expensive vacations dry up, they will find they lack the resources to entertain themselves and intellectually enrich their lives.
Public history will also, I predict, be sorely tested. Gone will be the funds and high admission prices that fund fancy displays and technology. But demand will climb, at least for the right kind of public history that engages its audience, and doesn't charge much (or anything) for the privilege.
If the right kind of people are involved in creating public history (and that's a big "if") and if rigid bureaucracy doesn't interfere (an even bigger "if"), those of us involved in public history and in teaching history will discover that, in hard times, the public will embrace imagination, creativity, and human connection with the past.