Ditching the Lecture Hall for the Recording Studio: One Historian Is Using the Power of Podcasting to Inspire a Whole New Audience

History is dying at U.S. colleges and universities.  Enrollment in undergraduate history courses is way down since 2010, and the number of history degrees awarded annually has likewise been falling faster and faster.  The most recent data show a 9% nationwide drop in history degrees awarded in 2014 compared to 2013, with an even sharper 13% decline at the nation’s top universities, including Yale, Harvard, and Stanford. (1,2,3,4)  So, is history just getting old?

On the contrary.  At least outside of academia, history has never been more popular.  Cultural icons including Barack Obama and Bill Gates have cited history books such as Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress as among their favorite books of all time.  The History Channel has enjoyed a resurgence in viewership since 2013, and judging by the reception of more epic productions, from Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning movie Lincoln in 2012 to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit musical Hamilton in 2015, it’s clear that public hunger for history is only growing.  What, then, accounts for lackluster lecture hall attendance?

“Part of the problem is that much of academic history has become too esoteric,” says podcaster Brad Harris, who holds a PhD from Stanford in the history of science and technology.  “Course content has been shifting away from big ideas like the rise of modern science and democracy to narrower studies of things like the politics of emotion and cultural constructions, which many students find less relevant to their interests.”  Moreover, Harris contends that college history courses have never been more cynical.  “Too many professors dwell on what humanity has done wrong–who we’ve oppressed, what we’ve destroyed–and not enough on what humanity has done right–who we’ve liberated, what we’ve invented.  Where’s the inspiration?  It’s no wonder people are ditching history lectures.”  And now, so has Brad Harris.

Since leaving academia in 2015, Harris has been working full-time to offer an attractive alternative for people who want to learn history, providing content that is as informative as a college lecture but as entertaining as a cinematic production: a podcast called How It Began: A History of the Modern World.  Available everywhere podcasts are found, and also from his website, howitbegan.com, How It Began interprets a broad array of the most important scientific, technological, and cultural advancements in history, from dog domestication to the Scientific Revolution.  Here is an excerpt from the show's introductory episode:

In each episode, we will fly through the centuries to follow the seeds of an innovation or discovery as it blossoms into one of the many fruits of modernity.  Far from a catalog of dead men and dates, How It Began offers a cinematic-like immersion into the stories behind some of our species’ greatest achievements.  The overall theme?  Celebration!  We are fortunate to be descended from men and women who dared to dream big and even die for the cause of progress.  Their work is unfinished, and some parts of modernity are even worse than before.  But most are better, much better.  And we have more tools than ever to fix what’s still broken.  

Brad Harris hopes his show’s focus on modern progress will captivate people who crave more inspiring explorations of history, and judging by How It Began's reception so far, he seems well on his way to achieving exactly that.  

Episodes are between 30 and 60 minutes long and released every month or so.  The podcast explores a wide range of topics, from the rise of modern surgery and computers to the development of the English language and the theory of evolution.  "Wolves to Dogs: The Origin of our Alliance" was one of the most popular episodes of Season One.   In a more recent episode, Harris reveals the surprising correlations between the spread of coffee consumption and the establishment of modern institutions:

1. "New Data Show Large Drop in History Bachelor's Degrees," Perspectives on History, American Historical Association, March 2016: https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/march-2016/new-data-show-large-drop-in-history-bachelors-degrees
2. "Survey Finds Fewer Students Enrolling in College History Courses," Perspectives on History, American Historical Association, September 2016: https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/september-2016/survey-finds-fewer-students-enrolling-in-college-history-courses
3. "The Rise and Decline of History Specializations over the Past 40 Years," Perspectives on History, American Historical Association, December 2015: https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/december-2015/the-rise-and-decline-of-history-specializations-over-the-past-40-years
4. "The Decline and Fall of History," Niall Ferguson, published by The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, October 2016: https://www.goacta.org/images/download/Ali-Ferguson-Merrill-Speech.pdf


This is a guest post by Morgan Stewart, an educational consultant and founder of Within Reach Educational Consultants.

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  • Karl Reitmann says:

    History for the dumbed-down History Channel generation. Stupid invasive music all way through, banalities, targeted IQ is that of a drugged donkey. Avoid.

  • EB says:

    I’m all for getting more people interested in history, but framing history so that it “inspires” or is a “celebration” is a very suspicious means of describing our past. I gag at the idea of making historical reality a series of easily digested pinterest-worthy inspirational quotes––it’s patronizing and, even worse, boring! Since when does everything have to be upbeat to be interesting? The Iliad is swords and blood, the French Revolution is riots and beheadings, and not every historical episode has a happy ending, a silver lining, or a teleological meaning (as a History of Science PhD, I am especially disappointed as the first thing he should have read is Kuhn!). The truth and the human experience aren’t necessarily positive, and focusing on that to the exclusion of all other kinds of stories only gives those new to history a very impoverished vision of our shared human story. This is not history, this is the Bowdlerization of our very selves. It removes our ability to think critically, openly, and freely about our past.

    You can make history fun and accessible without making it stupid. Case in point: Larry Gonick’s History of the Universe series, which is both very intelligent and hilarious. Don’t be fooled by the format (graphic novel), it’s very much written for adults and it’s really quite a wonderful introduction to the wide world of history.

  • CJ says:

    I’m disappointed with the comments posted so far, and I suspect that neither of these individuals have actually listened to Brad Harris’ podcast or genuinely considered his message.

    I also hold a PhD in history, I’ve been teaching at the university level for 15 years, and I find the How It Began podcast to be extremely well written and produced, and although the macro historical approach to each subject necessarily obscures a lot of historical detail, it’s clear that each episode is well-researched.

    I think the reaction of the two commenters above proves the point of this article and vindicates Brad Harris. I’ve seen exactly the kind of atrophy in student enthusiasm this article points out – it’s been a point of concern within our department for years – and in my opinion, podcasts like this one offer a refreshing pedagogical approach to history, and I applaud the effort of any historian who develops the novel skillset to pull it off. More specifically, the thematic approach of this podcast is just what the profession needs. The second reviewer should know better; it’s now well documented that Thomas Kuhn, who wrote “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” in 1962, regretted the extent to which his work spread a sense of scientific relativism, and he spent much of his later career attempting to counteract that influence. The same is true for Bruno Latour and other historians of science who have all since lamented the anti-fact, anti-science, anti-progress interpretations of their work.

    Brad Harris’ work is exactly the kind of content that Open Culture should be covering. To call his podcast “stupid,” as these two commenters have done, is more a reflection on them than anything.

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