De-Tuning the AHA’s Tuning Project

the marketing of history and the history of marketing in the american historical association’s “tuning project.”

There is a remarkable letter exchange in the September issue of Perspectives on History, the American Historical Association’s monthly newsmagazine, between public school history teacher Christopher L. Doyle and AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman concerning the AHA’s Lumina Foundation-funded “Tuning Project.” The letters hone in on the practical dimensions of practicing history, but there is something else lurking in their exchange that dare not speak its name: the transformative power of historical thinking.

Doyle writes eloquently of his worries that the Tuning Project is part of a corporatization of the historical field, which others have noticed as well. To him, it expands the top-down, neoliberal policies now undermining high school education: business-derived obsessions with managing “skills,” “outcomes,” “stakeholders,” standardization, assessment, and accountability overwhelm the actual teaching and learning that goes on in the classroom. Students and teachers alike are bludgeoned by managerial urges to control education from on high.

Grossman counters that this is not the intention at all of the Tuning Project, which ostensibly turns away from the curricular struggles of the Culture Wars to questions of how to square what goes on pedagogically in the higher education history classroom with the vocational needs of history students, particularly undergraduate majors. One could see why the AHA is worried about this problem. As a proxy for history departments, the AHA is fretting over the decline of enrollments in the major since funding for departments is typically pinned to undergraduate enrollment. University administrations are increasingly adopting more instrumental strategies for humanities education, departments follow suit, and so, therefore, must the AHA. But Grossman insists that he does not want to adjust the college history curriculum to fit the needs of prospective employers; instead, he claims that the Tuning Project seeks to “rebrand” history as it exists as an appealing major for the business world during an era of tremendous economic anxiety.

Whether there can be such a clean division between content of curriculum and marketing of major is the question Doyle raises. But there is another issue that haunts their exchange: the ghost of transformative historical thinking. It whispers “boo!” from the shadowy corners when both Doyle and Grossman turn to the subject of marketing.

Doyle writes:

The conclusion seems to be that the AHA should become more like a marketing agency: engage the focus groups, find out what they want, and come up with a history ‘brand’ (again, Grossman’s language.) Just as marketers make poor historians, it seems dubious that the august AHA tuning committee will make very good ‘mad men.’

Grossman responds:

While I agree that ‘marketers make poor historians,’ I am less certain that history majors would not succeed as marketers. We teach our students how to do careful research, how to craft presentations based on evidence, and how to communicate clearly and concisely. Is application of these skills to marketing a bad thing? I don’t think so. Our economy will have its share of marketers whether we like it or not; and my preference is for more of them to understand the value of historical thinking and sensibilities.

What is so funny about Grossman’s response is that in his turn to history as perfectly modular and translatable set of skills, he ignores what historians of marketing have actually had to say about the profession, which is that it emerged to get people to want things they didn’t need, to convince them to consume in order to drive capitalism through the crises of the early and middle parts of the twentieth century. In focusing on skills and ignoring knowledge, in tuning history majors to be happy workers within the existing economy rather than encouraging them to use history to probe the factors that produced the current economic situation, Grossman reduces the discipline to vocational training—he empties out the core “skill” that is at the heart of history, which is to pull oneself out of one’s own time to perceive, in a transformative analytic moment, the structures and systems in which we are all embedded. History has the potential not only to teach students to be marketers (sure, we’ve all got to eat), it also can teach them to glimpse a world before marketing existed, and, from that looking backward, to try to imagine a future world in which marketing might be a meaningless relic from the past.

What Grossman, and even Doyle, leave out of their letters—though it haunts their writing at every turn—is this transformative power of historical thinking, the ways in which historical knowledge teaches us that things were not always the way they are now, that nothing is inevitable, and that things do not necessarily need to be the way they are now in the future. Even Doyle neglects to make this point forcefully in his very noble letter.

I don’t begrudge Doyle that, nor do I mean to condemn Jim Grossman for his defensive tone deafness about the problematic aspects of the “Tuning Project.” After all, Doyle is in the trenches of the struggle to preserve dignity for teachers and students against mismanagement from above, and the AHA is a professional organization, one whose main task, in many respects, must be to find a way to fit the historical profession into the existing political, cultural, and economic framework.

But it is also important whenever we strive to “rebrand” history so that it is more in tune with corporate capitalism that we also remember that the discipline is more powerful than merely serving to fit people into the service sector. It does more than train students for placement into the existing system as one would put cogs into a well-oiled machine (or hammers into a well-tempered clavier?). The Tuning Project reminds us that we are part of our current historical moment, to be sure, but also that history can assist us in transcending the contemporary context through critical inquiry and interpretive investigation.

Which is to say that historical understanding does not just prepare majors for the current job market, it also helps them to see that this job market is not some timeless, natural phenomenon (“Our economy will have its share of marketers whether we like it or not,” Grossman writes), but rather that it is a social construct, a historical creation, one that has been made and therefore can be altered, reimagined, changed, remade. We must prepare history majors for that project—a de-tuning project in a way—even as we also help them to find their place in the orchestrated hierarchies of the neoliberal ensemble.

Perhaps this unruly, wild, uncertain, and dissonant dimension of historical thinking is what makes so many in the discipline feel that it is urgently necessary to “tune” it back into harmony with the current dominant economic and ideological system. It is to hear, dimly but still audibly, the tolling of the corporate bells in the idea that history could be radical. It is to remember (and remembering is, after all, the true business of historians) that our students might not only follow the commands of the conductors, but also draw upon the past to make their own ugly, jarring, discordant noises in the present and, in their own way, perhaps strike blows for the future.

2 thoughts on “De-Tuning the AHA’s Tuning Project

  1. Thanks for this, CR. A similar turn is taking place within graduate training, where alternative career workshops and seminars (framed as unique benefits of forward thinking graduate programs and often linked to subfields that eerily try too hard like world and big history) dull opportunities for the transformative thinking you admonish in favor of realistic training that confirms as social fact financialized global capitalism.

    I’m kicking myself for catching this as a back issue but pleased to be back checking out your fresh perspectives.

    Coda: History as a discipline makes problematic what I consider to be an important figure for neoliberalism: the genius. This man (inevitably) is celebrated in American culture because of a natural or inherent ability–not learned, an invisible hand–to run fast or create algorithms to sell high volume assets sui generis. This skill(s) is fundamentally unhistorical to the degree that not training or reflection but luck explains what society considers to be the causes for their fat wallets and big balls. The genius also can be seen in the internet ads which offer “one simple *trick*” to learn a new language, regrow hair, or lower car insurance premiums. In other words, gendered unhistorical personalities reflect serious social ambivalence about how the hell economies don’t work and the resulting desperate coping narratives. With this in mind, it seems difficult to find ways to make history a sexy proposition for undergraduates.

  2. Kenneth —

    These comments are genius! Just kidding. But you are on to deep cultural narratives and ideological constructions of American life here, certainly.

    Obviously I don’t have the answer to the problems in the historical field, and I admire Jim Grossman a lot for his leadership at AHA in trying to at least get these matters on the table (the operating table? the seminar table? the corporate boardroom table? the front reception desk where the intern works table?). But like you I am troubled when there is a slide into rhetorics and positions that seem to silence the power of historical critique.

    No easy solutions here other than to take up the call to keep thinking and discussing, even when it makes people feel a bit uncomfortable and uneasy. My only sense right now is that I think that history departments need to “double down” on core historical practices even as those in the field, from established faculty members to graduate students to undergraduates, reach out and experiment in new ways. Like I said in the piece, we all need to eat–I don’t begrudge anyone trying to navigate their way through the world in all its profound imperfections. But it also seems important to hold on to the ability to mount critiques that history offers (such as your critique of the discourse of the “genius”!). There’s power in the ability to mount critique, a power that the field would be foolish to squander.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.


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