Professor Chernock’s Commencement Speech, Lessons from the History of the History Major at Boston University

in Uncategorized
May 20th, 2014

“Graduating seniors, why are you here, in this room, this morning? Why? Because you all decided to major in history. So while you may not have lots in common with those sitting next to you, you have shared the experience of taking history courses together, courses with titles like: the Craft of History, World History, the History of Racial Thought, the International History of Human Rights, the History of Piracy, the American Military Experience, Social Movements in 20th Century Latin America, and the Modern American Consumer.

You probably enrolled in these courses assuming that they were the most engaging ways to study the past. You trusted us, your faculty, when we handed you those syllabi – meting out knowledge in discrete units over 14 or 15 weeks each semester.

And to us, your faculty, these are the most engaging ways to approach the past. Who wouldn’t want to study the fraught politics of nation-building, the emergence of race as an organizing concept, piracy on the Indian Ocean, or, for that matter, royal scandals in 18th-century Britain or panty raids in 1950s America?

But this brings me to the main thrust of my comments this morning. The history major – and the historical discipline more generally – has its own history. The courses that we offer today reflect what happened in the past, to be sure. But they also reflect ourselves. Our questions. Our problems. Our commitments.

Nowhere does this become more clear than in trolling through BU’s own archives – something I had the pleasure to do this spring, in preparation for my comments today.

Back in 1873, when BU’s College of Liberal Arts was founded – proudly proclaiming itself “the first institution in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to admit the two sexes to common advantages in classical collegiate studies” – history was an altogether different enterprise. It wasn’t just that tuition cost $60 per year. (If it makes you feel any better, they did have to pay an extra $10 for “incidental expenses” and an additional $60-$120 for rooming with a “chum.”) It was also that there wasn’t a lot of history to study, let alone a history “major.”

Rather, with its goals of turning out students possessing “general education”, BU required all of its undergraduates to take courses in Latin, Greek, Mathematics, German, French, English Literature, Physics, Rhetorical Exercises and History. Within the field of History, there were exactly two kinds of courses that a student could pursue: Greek History and Roman History. That was it. No one thought that studying European history or American history, let alone the history of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East was important. For those early students – students like Saxton Conant, Sarah Miner, Milton Vail, Alphonso Weeks, and Lucy Peabody – their study of the past ended with the fall of Rome in the fifth century CE.

By the turn of the 19th century, the possibilities for studying different periods, and different traditions, expanded somewhat. The 1892 yearbook for the University reveals that students could now take courses on the History of England, France, Germany, European Civilization, and the History of Christianity. Note, however, that the only history course directly touching on the United States was a history of “The Constitution of the United States in the light of General Constitutional History.” This focus on Europe remained firm even after the creation of a formal history “major” in the nineteen teens.

It was only after World War I that the pendulum began to swing towards America. In the wake of that devastating conflict, in which President Woodrow Wilson offered such decisive leadership, faculty at BU began to introduce history courses devoted to exploring America’s own past, and its emergent role in global politics.

Yes, there were still plenty of courses devoted to Antiquity and Europe (with a new interest – not surprising, given the recent Russian Revolution – in “Slavic history”). And there were also two new courses on “The Near East” and “Central Asia and the Far East.”

But it was clear that what was going on at home was now a key preoccupation. In the 1920s, Students could take a course on “The United States since 1865,” which traced the rise of “big business” and “its effect on politics and government, transportation, labor problems and world politics.” There was also a new course on the “History of American Foreign Relations,” which emphasized “Diplomacy and Foreign Problems” and the “rise of the United States to the position of a world power.” There were also new courses on “The American Colonies and the Revolution” and “Modern Governments” – a course which, tellingly, and despite its capacious title, focused on the “government of the United States, national, state, and local.”

At this point, we enter something of a holding pattern. After World War II, there was a bump in courses addressing international governance and the Soviet Union – again, not all that surprising given that this was the period that saw the birth of the United Nations and the rise of the Cold War. But the emphasis remained on America. And by America, I really mean the executive and judicial branches of the American government. We’re talking presidents, not paupers or protesters.

It’s only in the 1950s that we begin to see some “winds of change” – less towards the geographical areas being covered and more towards the kinds of material being consulted, and the questions being asked. Particularly striking is a course that was offered in 1950 on the “Social History of Europe,” which promised to study “the social aspects of military history,” the “development of social classes,” and “the status of women.” And really, this is the first time I saw the terms “social,” “class” and “women” mentioned in any of the history course catalogues that I had read through.

A turn to the “people” and their politics became full blown in the 1960s. During this decade of remarkable social unrest and contestation, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, historians at BU brought contemporary concerns into their classrooms, hoping to spark the imaginations of their students who now professed a desire for “free exercise of the capacity for wonder.” A course on the “History of American Civilization, 1789-1870,” for example, insisted in no uncertain terms that it was about the “actual life of the people, as distinct from their political and diplomatic history.”

This shift in approach was only more visible by the 1970s. This was a particularly difficult decade for BU – the disaffection, anger and frustration of the student body is palpable in the yearbooks from this period. Much of this frustration was directed at the administration, for their perceived “repressive” policies and desire to stifle “dissent” on campus. An article in the BU Newspaper from 1970 observes that “we have learned to expect all administrators to be automatons that seem to be programmed to do nothing but maintain ‘order’ and keep the money flowing smoothly.” How to teach history in an age of cynicism?

History courses at BU in the 1970s appropriately focused on the oppression of the underclasses, the demands of third world peoples, and reform traditions. So, for the first time, we see courses offered on “Comparative Studies in European Colonialism” (with attention to the “indigenous response to the colonial situation”) and a colloquium on “Radicalism and Reform in Modern England.” By the end of the decade, the department was also offering courses in World History, African Studies, The Media and Social Change, American Reform and Radical Movements, and Antebellum Reform Movements. Note the frequency of “reform” in these course titles.

In the past three decades, this overwhelming interest in “reform” has receded to some extent. Photos from BU during the 1980s and 1990s reflect a kind of certainty and perhaps complacency amongst the student body; joggers and tennis players replace protesters in the photos of “student life” on campus, and the “Bargain Wars of Boston” replace the “Cold War” as a concern for many students. As the student yearbook for 1990 notes, “Bright and early Saturday mornings enthusiastic B.U. students headed in to indulge in one of their favorite hobbies – shopping. Finding what you wanted in Boston wasn’t as simple as meandering through the mall in Cherry Hill, N.J. It required special know-how and street-smarts…” Times, they were a changing.

History department coursework speaks to this shift in mood. A survey of history courses offered during the 1980s and 90s suggests an upsurge in thematic classes, which directly addressed the new fascination, both academic and non-academic, with consumption – “Alcohol in History,” for example, as well as “Consumer Society” and “Big Business.” At the same time, the department also introduced new courses that provided the necessary historical context to make sense of contemporary developments: a course on the “History of Modern Iran,” for example, or “East and West Germany.”

As we enter the 21st century, and certainly after 2001, we also see the introduction of new courses on the modern Middle East, the American military experience, environmental history, and the problems and possibilities that stem from pursuing global human rights agendas. These kinds of courses simply couldn’t have been – and wouldn’t have been – offered before. They are specific to this point in time, both in the world and in the discipline.

What lessons, then, do I want to impart from this potted history of the history major at BU? In a nutshell, be skeptical – skeptical of the kind of information that gets privileged, skeptical of how knowledge is organized, skeptical of whose voices are consulted and whose voices are suppressed. I say these things not to depress you, but rather, to inspire you to take control of your own learning. In the years to come, I want you to revisit what you have studied here, and how you have studied it, and to question what you have learned and adapt it to new perspectives and new approaches. I don’t want your “major” to be something static, something that you feel that you have passively received. Rather, I want it to be something dynamic, that you own. Something that you return to, and revise, over the rest of your life.

In this respect, a BU faculty member that I encountered in the pages of the 1965 yearbook seems to me to have been wrong in his assessment of the value of historical study. Explaining the importance of looking backwards, this scholar – the poet and literary critic John Malcolm Brinnin – explained to students that the only way they could steal themselves to the uncertainties before them was by acquainting themselves with, as he put it, the “permanence of the past.”

But, as I hope I’ve just illustrated, the past is anything but permanent. Now it’s your turn to go out into the world and make sense of it.”


-Professor Arianne Chernock

Commencement Keynote Speaker

May 16, 2014