CRAWFORD COMMENTARY | On Lt. Gov. Hampton, history, and the less - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD COMMENTARY | On Lt. Gov. Hampton, history, and the lessons we miss

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Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton and Gov. Matt Bevin. (AP photo) Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton and Gov. Matt Bevin. (AP photo)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- I feel qualified to talk about the usefulness of studying history in college, because I spent quite a bit of time studying history in college.

I am a lover of history. If I could get away with writing columns about history instead of sports, I'd do it in a heartbeat. There's not much call, though, for history columns. I do believe the study of history has served me well, as has the study of English. I took classical Greek. Not the Greek that they speak in Greece today, but the dead language. In the second semester, there were only two of us in the class. You had to be on your toes. Religion courses? Oh yeah, took those.

If it's considered useless or unmarketable, chances are I took the class, or at least went to a few sessions before dropping it.

The last book I read? David McCullough's The Wright Brothers. It's outstanding. The Glory and the Dream, a narrative history of the United States by William Manchester, is one of the works that made me want to be a writer.

On the rare occasion that I step outside of sports to write a column, it's usually from a vantage point provided by history.

So I want to discuss for a minute the comments of Kentucky Lt. Governor Jenean Hampton to the editorial staff of The Eastern Progress newspaper at Eastern Kentucky University this past week.

Hampton was speaking with the student editorial board about Gov. Matt Bevin's requested 4.5 percent budget cut in higher education, and whether college was a privilege or, indeed, a right, when she tried to make a point about the practical requirements of funding public higher education.

"I would not be studying history," she said. "Unless you have a job lined up. Unless there’s somebody looking for a history major, and there are some places that are looking for that sort of wide background."

She was about to go on, but a student reporter jumped in to steer the discussion back to budget cuts. You can see a transcript of the discussion here.

In a later clarification on her comments, the Progress reported: "As a student, Hampton said she would be looking for degrees that would land a job after graduating and not focusing (on) majors such as history, which might have limited prospects." 

The remarks drew a bit of skepticism. The Courier-Journal quickly posted a blog entry (headline: Don't study history, Lt. Gov. tells students). That's not exactly what she said, but it did generate discussion.

Hampton's student questioners at EKU pressed her on several fronts, though not necessarily on that headline statement. They particularly wanted to debate this question of whether higher education is a privilege or a right.

One challenged her on this, citing the Morrill Act (which created land grant universities in the U.S.) saying that Abraham Lincoln himself (who signed the act into law) asserted that education is a right. I'm not aware of him saying any such thing regarding higher education, but he certainly could have.

Here's what I do know he said his belief on education to be: "That every man may receive at least, a moderate education, and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions, appears to be an object of vital importance, even on this account alone, to say nothing of the advantages and satisfaction to be derived from all being able to read the scriptures and other works, both of a religious and moral nature, for themselves."

For Lincoln, reading came first, for the purpose of learning history, for anyone who wants to consult him as an authority. And he is worth consulting often.

But here's an interesting twist. As Hampton tries to press the point of the Bevin administration that colleges and students should focus on programs that produce jobs, she has a strong ally in the very history being dismissed here. But I don't know if anyone cares enough about history to access it.

History lesson: Within the text of the Morrill Act itself, the purpose is given for setting aside land for public universities (the italics are mine): "Without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactic, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life."

Land grant institutions not only greatly expanded access to higher education by creating large public colleges and universities, but they changed the face of higher education in this country, according to a web presentation by the University of Illinois celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Morrill Act, by transferring its efforts to more practical subjects. In other words, to favor degrees in those programs that would land a job after graduation.

"Its focus on education in agriculture and the mechanical arts dramatically altered the role of universities—shifting from an education focused on the classics to a mission of preparing students to address critical societal needs," the Illinois presentation states (italics mine).

In fact, it is that focus on practical subjects that show tangible results to the American economy that was the basis for the very first significant financial foray into higher education by the Federal government. An expansion of that Act in 1890 didn't even include the "other scientific and classical studies" provision.

Bevin essentially took up this approach when he said, "There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than French literature majors. There just will." Some commentators howled, but he's not far off the mark when it comes to the original intent of higher education funding in this country. And when Hampton says she would turn away from history in favor of more practical academic pursuits, she's not dictating education policy -- she's basically describing it as it already is.

Many in the media will run to find a French Literature or History professor to howl about it, but it has always been so. This doesn't mean those subjects have less value to society (necessarily), but in the eyes of the state, it means they provide less bang for the buck.

As for Hampton's statement that, were she a student, she wouldn't study history, I don't think Lincoln would have liked it. I don't like it much myself. But regardless of what any governor or lieutenant governor (or journalist) says, that's what has evolved in higher education already. Don't believe me? Look at the university budgets. EKU has a 2015-16 operating budget of $348.7 million. Of that, $85.4 million comes from public appropriations.

EKU's budget for its History department is $1.339 million. That amounts to less than one half of one percent of the university's overall budget, and just under 1.5 percent of its instructional budget. That’s a third of what the university spends on custodial services. And it's certainly less than the budget for academic programs like English, Biology, Chemistry, Psychology, Math, Music, Engineering, Nursing, Advanced Degree in Nursing, Associates Degree in Nursing, Fire Protection and Paramedic Medicine and on and on.

You see the trend. Practical majors, those departments whose graduates can (with luck) find quick and plentiful employment, already are receiving most of the funding.

Bevin is talking less about the way things are going to be than the way things are. EKU spends more on the light bill than it does any of those academic programs. It spends more on University Relations and EKU Branding than it does on history. It spends more on its men's basketball program and a lot more on its football program than it does the history department.

And I'm not picking on EKU. Any regional university in any state probably does the same.

The internet -- and the media itself -- is full of outrage when statements like Hampton's history remark are made. It can't wait to pounce on them. It's the new click-bait.

The Courier-Journal blog entry drew widespread and lively responses, and that's great. What the newspaper didn't mention was its own decision to dump much of its living institutional history in order to save money. I was there the day about 900 years of experience walked out the door after a round of corporate buyouts. Don't tell me that was an act that showed any kind of concern for history.

And I'm not too concerned, either, with the views of the state's largest newspapers on Bevin's budget cuts. I don't know if Bevin could cut heath benefits as often or as deeply as the owners of the C-J cut mine during my years as an employee there. (Certainly, he couldn't do it without the C-J protesting at every turn.) They wrote the book on cutting budgets. For them to criticize a public official trying to do the same thing in the short term that they've been doing for a decade and a half is comical.

When newspapers in this state thought arts funding was on the chopping block, they went on the offensive. But where are their Arts Sections today? Where are their Arts editors and staffs? Is their arts coverage today what it was 15 years ago?

Finally this. My bigger concern in the EKU interview with Hampton was less her answer on history than some of the questions from the Progress' editorial board members. They said that higher education was being singled out for budget cuts. It is not. These cuts have been requested across the board. They also seemed to think that the university's total budget is $68 million. It is five times that. One mentioned the University of Kentucky as "heavily funded by sports and athletics." It is not. Athletics at the big universities largely fund themselves, but rarely fund much else (UK is a bit of an exception, but one of the few.)

It seems everybody here, then, would benefit from at least a little history. At the very least, Hampton might think about choosing another subject for her examples.

The reality today is that very few people are studying history very carefully anyway. History majors are the few and the proud. Hampton's view toward history is, frankly, the prevailing view on it -- even within universities, if you listen to their budgets and not their rhetoric.

In fact, there are many places today where history has been co-opted by such heavy ideological agendas that it's difficult to recognize. History, in my view, is a "critical societal need." I recognize that my view is in the minority.

But without the study of history, we have no perspective on contemporary arguments, and no gauge on why we do anything -- even some things proposed by conservative politicians. That historical perspective is the one thing Lincoln thought we ought to have. He was right.

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