Why UVA’s New Center For Civil War History Matters

The University of Virginia has announced that it will establish a new Center for Civil War History made possible by John Nau III, who is a UVA alumnus and an outgoing member of the school’s Board of Visitors.

The $13 million will support the center as well as “an endowed professorship, an endowed graduate fellowship, a postdoctoral fellowship, scholarship funds, a book prize and travel funds for research, as well as other means to support faculty and students.” Many of you know that Nau established an endowed chair in UVA’s history department that is currently filled by Gary Gallagher.

Yesterday I posted this story to the Civil War Memory Facebook page with the comment, “This is huge.” The post garnered a great deal of attention, including a few comments that questioned whether we need a Civil War center. Is it a waste of money? Are there not other areas of history that could use such a financial boost? Let me suggest that the significance of this donation has little to do with whether it funds Civil War history or for that matter any other area of American history.

The significance of the donation is that it comes at a time when the Humanities on the secondary and college levels is under assault. On the high school level the current craze is developing STEM programs while Humanities majors are either under-funded or cut entirely because they fall outside a growing tendency to evaluate college programs along a business model.

Such a large donation made to enrich and expand a history program by a private citizen is something that all of us who value history education and the Humanities ought to celebrate.

10 comments add yours

  1. This is great news. Nau has supported historical programs and education for a long time. He served for several years as Chairman of the Texas Historical Commission, and has one of the best private collections of Civil War artifacts there is. We need more folks like that.

  2. STEM does not teach critical thinking skill development. The business community has been complaining about the lack of thinking ability they see in their employees. Humanities courses and liberal arts programs promote critical thinking skills. It is not a coincidence that critical thinking skills have declined as humanities course requirements have been dropped or minimized in favor of STEM courses.

    • I can’t speak to what STEM teaches or doesn’t teach, but I completely agree that Humanities courses do stress critical thinking skills. That alone is a sufficient reason to get behind them.

    • What do you base that claim on? Have you studied any STEM discipline? It sounds to me like another form of the conceit of the arts-graduate elite in the UK, who with literally zero knowledge of the physical sciences dismiss the greatest achievements of human intellect, and burst with resentment that something they are not capable of understanding might be important.
      It is a sad fact that while a scientist or engineer can take pleasure in the more entertaining of the humanities, you can’t really get anything out of the sciences without some formal training. It is even possible fo0r a STEM professional to contribute to the humanities; a few scientists and engineers, and a larger number of medical doctors, have been worthwhile novelists. It would be impossible for an Eng Lit professional to make a scientific advance. As for “critical thinking”, perhaps you are aware of “Intellectual Impostures”,, a book published in 1997 which irrefutably demolished “postmodern” philosophy. The interesting point is that it was written not by philosophers but by a couple of physicists, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont.

      • The fact that the business community keeps telling us in higher education that they want college graduates who can think. One of the reasons many companies don’t want to hire Americans is because they know their science, but they cannot think creatively.

        Your observation remains your observation. Sokal and Bricmont’s work has been roundly criticized and it did not demolish postmodern philosophy in any way. The science community may wish to believe that the book did a lot, but it did not.

        Critical thinking development is crucial to the advancement of many things. The humanities courses are well suited to its development than STEM courses. That’s pretty much a given. You can argue it if you want to, but it will only be a continuation of an old argument. I will side with Stephen D. Brookfield who is one of the foremost experts on critical thinking development.

        Both STEM and humanities courses go together in the broad scheme of things. Right now unless STEM courses are taught in ways that incorporate critical thinking development skills, they can’t accomplish that function. This is not inherent only to STEM though. There are plenty of instructors in all disciplines who do not incorporate critical thinking skill development into their teaching. Often this is due to the fact they have no pedagogical training. In many ways, K-12 is better off than higher education for this.

        • OK, I know what you are. No point in arguing with you; it’s pretty OT anyway.

            • An American equivalent of the all-too-familiar British types I mentioned above, with whom there is no common ground for discussion.

              • So in other words somebody who rejects your conclusion and beliefs which are not backed up with facts. Sounds good to me.

  3. It occurs to me that this whole exchange was unnecessary. The first sentence of your first comment was “STEM does not teach critical thinking skill development”. As you obviously know nothing about any STEM discipline, any thinking person can see from that one statement what you are as well as I can, without my needing to point it out. Sorry if anyone else has been reading all this.

Now that you've read the post, share your thoughts.