COVID-19 and the Key Role of the Humanities and Social Sciences in the United States

Consider the spread of COVID-19, global environmental degradation, and the deep divisions around race in this country. Our collective responses to these and other challenges arise from understanding human behavior, the stories and beliefs that guide us, the cultures and values that we build and share, and the visionary aspirations of thinkers past and present. “Where there is no vision,” James Baldwin wrote, “the people perish.”

At this critical moment in history, humanistic knowledge — the study of languages, history, culture, the arts, anthropology, philosophy, political science, psychology, rhetoric, sociology, regional studies, and interdisciplinary areas — is crucial to envisioning and realizing a better future for the world. For this reason, we believe that humanistic education and scholarship must remain central to campus communities and conversations.

On behalf of the thousands of students, faculty, and members of scholarly societies devoted to the study of humanity, we call on all leaders of institutions of higher education to uphold the central importance of the humanities and the social sciences as you make important decisions that will shape the institutions under your stewardship for years and perhaps generations to come.

This is a time for institutions to explore new modes of organization that facilitate innovation while maintaining the integrity of a diverse range of academic disciplines, and to do so with a full embrace of American higher education’s tradition of shared governance.

COVID-19 and its economic consequences are placing immense pressures on college and university budgets across the United States. Preparing for decreases in tuition revenue or state funding or both, many institutions have announced freezes on hiring, reductions in numbers of contract and adjunct faculty, and cuts in funding for research. Some are considering eliminating entire departments and programs.

We respect the autonomy of every institution of higher learning and the good-faith efforts of administrators forced to make difficult decisions in historically unprecedented conditions of uncertainty and financial shock. With that respect must come an urgent reminder of the vital contribution made by the humanities and social sciences to the public good – a keystone of charters and mission statements adopted by colleges and universities across the country.

Humanistic study in American colleges and universities provides communal contexts in which students, increasingly diverse in background and experience, learn together about human reasoning, beliefs, and aspirations, social and political systems, and acts of creative expression produced across centuries and around the world. Humanistic study compels us to wrestle with complex questions, with difference and conflict as well as similarity. It furnishes us with diverse visions of the world and encourages them to refuse to take things for granted – capacities necessary to sustain a just and democratic society. Humanistic education provides not only skills for democratic life, but also skills sought by employers, such as the analysis of conflicting evidence, complex problem-solving, clear communication, and the ability to judge matters in cultural and interpersonal context.

As stewards of humanistic scholarship, we are in a position to share our knowledge of our fields, their condition, current directions, and value to students and to global society. To sustain the centrality of humanistic studies in one of our nation’s greatest assets — our private and public system of higher education — we offer our support to colleges and universities seeking the best path forward in difficult times.

AHA statement on department closures and faculty firings

All students benefit from studying history at the undergraduate level.  The American Historical Association has, and will continue to, assist history departments in making the case for the imperative of historical learning and thinking in higher education.

The Association recognizes that the compounding crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic implications have resulted in a dramatic decline in higher education revenues. Given the uncertainties—financial, epidemiological, and otherwise—of the upcoming fall term, administrators confront difficult choices.  As historians, we recognize that an unprecedented combination of circumstances complicates decision-making even further.

Wise decision-making by leaders in higher education, however, must be informed by historical perspective. Historians know how to take the long view. Their work, by its very nature, draws from, integrates, and synthesizes a variety of disciplines. Colleges and universities need these faculty members as participants in governance. The negative consequences of closing a history department would not take long to observe but would take years to reverse.

A glance at recent references in the media reveals that our discipline is an attractive target for the budgetary axe. Because history education prepares students for careers rather than jobs, its benefits are readily underestimated. This is especially ironic given that the historical knowledge and thinking that undergird the work of citizenship are arguably more essential now than ever. For this reason alone, history education must retain its vibrancy and institutional integrity.

The AHA recognizes that every discipline has a claim to its centrality to higher education; moreover, each institution has its own mission, its own priorities, and its own culture. What we ask, however, is that individuals making budgetary decisions in higher education respect the established principles and procedures of faculty governance and consult with faculty from all disciplines at their institution. We expect that leaders will prioritize the educational missions of their institutions in a manner consistent with the humane values that stand at the core of education itself.

The AHA stands prepared to help history departments state their case. The content and methodology of history is crucial to the education of intellectually agile graduates who are well-prepared to navigate dynamic work environments and participate fully in civic life. History students not only gain knowledge and develop insights and judgement that help them succeed in college and contribute to their communities; they also learn skills—in communication, analysis, cultural competence, and research, among others—that are consistently cited by employers as important credentials. To succeed in college, and subsequently to be effective participants in workplaces and communities, students must learn to evaluate one or more potentially competing accounts and interpretations of things that (ostensibly) happened in the recent or distant past—whether those are accounts of an election, a riot, a religious awakening, changes in workplaces, or an intellectual breakthrough. Citizens of a democratic republic need to be able to evaluate sources and evidence in a glut of digital information, and to think clearly in the midst of a cacophony of voices in the public sphere.

Several higher-education institutions have recently closed or consolidated history departments, or laid off substantial numbers of historians. Others now contemplate such measures. Doing so comes at immense cost to students and to colleges and universities themselves, and to society as a whole. To eliminate or decimate a history department is a lose-lose proposition: it deprives students of essential learning and skills, even as it strips institutions of the essential perspectives and intellectual resources so necessary to confront the present and shape the future.

HSS Council Endorses AHA Statements on Unionization

Thanks to the efforts of the early career and graduate students in our community, the following statements issued by the American Historical Association were brought before the HSS Council at their meeting of June 18, where members voted in favor of endorsing  the statements. Although the statement on the US National Labor Board is specific to the United States, the HSS endorses the sentiment of these statements as they apply to historians of science everywhere. 

Statement on Right to Engage in Collective Bargaining (2019), approved by AHA Council, January 5, 2017; Updated June 8, 2019. 

The AHA endorses the right of all historians to organize and join unions or other collective bargaining units and engage in collective bargaining if they choose to do so. We affirm the democratic right of employees to decide whether to organize and how to negotiate their salaries and working conditions. All institutions are required by law to honor the results of employee votes taken by secret ballot on collective bargaining and union representation.

The AHA issued another statement as regards organizing in a response to a proposed National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rule change. This rule change would diminish the right of graduate students at private universities to organize unions. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education: “rather than looking at the facts in any case before it, the National Labor Relations Board is aiming to create an overarching rule that would exclude teaching and research assistants from being covered by the 1935 National Labor Relations Act.” 

The AHA opposed the proposed rule change with the following statement: Our association supports the right of all historians, including graduate students, to organize and join unions or other collective bargaining units and engage in collective bargaining if they choose to do so. We affirm the democratic right of employees to decide whether to organize and how to negotiate their salaries and working conditions. As historians, we are especially aware that the spirit of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act had, at its center, the imperative of guaranteeing to all employees the right to collective bargaining and union representation. We believe that the current ruling, which affirms the right of graduate students at private universities to unionize, should remain in place.

A fuller discussion of the issues surrounding graduate student unionization by various members of the HSS community, is forthcoming in a future issue of the HSS Newsletter.  

HSS Council Supports Statements Condemning Racism

The Society’s Council voted on two measures this past June that addressed the chronic and painful problems of racism. It first agreed to sign onto the American Historical Association’s statement on racist violence in the United States. Additionally, the HSS Committee on Diversity and Inclusion and the HSS Women’s Caucus organized a collaborative effort by the membership on a statement that underscores the impact of racism in and on the history of science, which Council also voted to endorse. It states that “We know from our historical work how thoroughly entangled science is with racism. Our histories have demonstrated this across medicine, science, and technology, including, among many others, the use of the bodies of unwilling enslaved women in the creation of gynecology techniques, the collection of blood from indigenous communities in Cold War preservation programs, the development of racist database surveillance practices in policing, or in the deployment of anthropology to legitimate racist public policies.” See the full statement