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.

  • Petros says:

    You must not be lis­ten­ing to the same show. I have learned lot from his pod­cast. The sym­pho­ny makes it even more inter­est­ing and enag­ing. The pod­casts lit­er­al­ly have helped me get many things accom­plished around the house, keep­ing me enter­tained while I do so.

  • HoneyBee says:

    I con­cur here. Brad­ford Har­ris does an excel­lent job by bring­ing up con­tem­pla­tive and insight­ful dis­cus­sions start­ed by books and authors of his choice. And this is very far from being banal.

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