Gov. Jerry Brown recently proposed what he viewed as a simple way to cut costs at the University of California: Order professors to teach more and research less.
Whether this would actually save money is far from clear, but some of the costs of doing so are obvious. In science and engineering, university professors run many of the nation’s labs. Cutting their research would slow advances in everything from food production and water supply to renewable energy and cancer treatment.
Humanities research is every bit as urgent. In my field of history, professors do more than retell old tales. They search out new stories whenever the prevailing narratives about the past no longer illuminate the present.
California has experienced such moments many times, and today such turning points seem ever present. The state achieved a non-white majority in 1999, and Latinos more recently became the largest ethnic group. Fifteen million Californians speak languages other than English at home, Spanish being the most common, and Tagalog.
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Could we use old history books to explain today’s California? In 1960, most foreign-born Californians had emigrated from England and Canada. History books of the period barely mentioned Mexico as anything other than the loser of the U.S.-Mexican War, and most narrated California history as a story of white people vanquishing Indians and Mexicans to capture the state’s riches. These “how the West was won” books simply cannot explain how we arrived on our polylingual shore.
Today’s historians, then, are creating a new history of migration. They pore over photographs in dusty border warehouses and archives in the U.S. and Mexico to help capture the experiences of everyday immigrants in ages past. They scrutinize poems that Chinese detainees carved into the walls of the detention center on Angel Island after they ran afoul of fierce anti-immigration laws. They scour newspapers for tales of the state’s formidable Filipino labor organizers.
But migrations are only part of California’s story; so much more requires explanation. Without historians to research new books, we would not know the origins of Silicon Valley, the history of the state’s complex water politics or the story of its political development.
And California is hardly unique in requiring explanation. Every generation of Americans has found itself in need of new history books. Would the books that blamed slavery on the “backwardness” of black people – as many did up until the 1960s – have been useful after Selma, Birmingham and the martyrdom of Martin Luther King? Would the public be well-served if professors today wrote lectures without knowing the history of the civil rights movement, which itself could only be written after historians had conducted thousands of interviews and read reams of letters, legal briefs, newspapers and diaries?
Without new research, how could we provide a history that makes sense of the changing role of women? As late as the 1970s, many textbooks mentioned only a few famous women – Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman – or none at all. Such books would be practically irrelevant on today’s campuses, where women now outnumber men and illuminating the historical roles of women has become an urgent matter. Historians have turned up records in obscure places – including some inscribed in a centuries-old deck of cards – to show that women were key commercial operators during the American Revolution.
Taking a new look at the documentary record, they have discovered the Confederate States of America lost the Civil War partly because they lost the support of Southern white women, who rioted when food supplies ran out. They have combed issues of long-defunct newspapers to reveal how, after the Civil War, black women in the North worked to elect leaders who would guarantee black civil rights in the South – even before they could themselves vote in federal elections. Others have interviewed one-time activists to discover that the backbone of the movement that challenged women’s liberation, and set Ronald Reagan on the path to power, was, in fact, conservative suburban women in Southern California.
Research such as this allows us to explain how our world emerged. Tracing the journey from the people we were to the people we are helps everyone, from policymakers to everyday people, chart a path toward a better society.
Reducing historical research at the University of California and elsewhere will not balance the books but it will leave key facts buried and essential stories untold. Our changing world could become less comprehensible, less predictable, and ultimately, a much harder place to explain to our own generation and the next.
Louis S. Warren is the W. Turrentine Jackson Professor of Western U.S. History at the University of California, Davis.