Letter to the editor: The importance of knowing our past

Madeline Becker

“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”

Spoken by a man whose knowledge of physics earned him a Nobel Prize in 1921, these words remain relevant a century later. The orator in question, Albert Einstein, is best remembered for his theory of relativity, but his interests extended beyond science. An accomplished violinist who kept travel journals and enjoyed reading the stories of Don Quixote, Einstein’s scientific brilliance was complemented by an enthusiasm for the arts.

Einstein was no anomaly. According to Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, the most successful American scientists (think National Academy members) are more likely to engage in liberal arts avocations than their lesser counterparts. Investing in liberal education enhances creativity, improves language skills, and promotes abstract thinking. However, an increasingly narrow focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education has undermined such programs at our university, most crucially, the history department.

Iowa State falls behind the universities of Iowa and of Northern Iowa in its history professor to student ratio, currently positioned at one professor for every 21.4 students. This is a 25 percent reduction since 2004. Iowa State has just 18 tenured and tenure-track faculty, substantially smaller than departments at similar schools around the country, which average 43 tenured professors. Anticipated retirements and resignations will exacerbate the issue, as three history professors will leave the ISU history department this year without replacement. Paltry faculty numbers also mean limited class offerings, a challenge for students preparing for the Praxis II exam. Iowa State has just one faculty member with global history expertise, a disincentive for secondary education majors to attend our university, as they need knowledge of worldwide history to pass their exam.

Despite these challenges, student enrollment in history courses has increased by 200 percent since 2004, a testament to the quality of instruction in the department. History students will agree; our professors are enthusiastic, engaging and encouraging. Their energy is contagious; they deepen our curiosity and inspire us to further learning. Even so, their heroic abilities do not make our professors superhuman, and an ever-declining department cannot sustain such success. I urge the university to expand the department, giving our professors the support they deserve.

Any fool can know about the past; it takes an exceptional teacher, supported by a fair administration, for students to understand history.