The Historical Profession is Changing

Albert_Einstein_HeadAs an historian of science, I was thrilled to learn that the collected papers of Albert Einstein have all been scanned and that, as of yesterday, they are now available online, for free, at this remarkable website. This is the not the first time a scientist’s collected writings have been offered for free online. For example, you can read every word that Charles Darwin ever published at this website, and you can read every letter he ever wrote, or received, at this website. What’s more, world-famous scientists are not only ones receiving such thorough treatment. Thanks to an impressive collaboration between the National Archives and University of Virginia Press, you can now search through more than 150,000 documents written by, or addressed to, our nation’s Founding Fathers (Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, and Madison) at this incredible website. Needless to say, these initiatives are going to radically change the nature of the historical profession, although, somewhat surprisingly, not everyone is thrilled about these changes. The eminent historian Walter Isaacson, who famously published an excellent biography of Einstein a few years ago, wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday lamenting that historians may no longer need to visit brick-and-mortar archives, where they can hold original documents in their hands. He’s not the only one who feels something is being lost. In private conversations, many of my colleagues have professed a similar love for dusty archives, where one can hold documents that were created by actual people who died hundreds and sometimes even thousands of years ago. I admit that that sounds pretty cool, but, at the risk of sounding unromantic, I believe the benefits of digitization far outweigh the drawbacks.

Now, I talk a big game about the democratization of knowledge, but I confess that it’s a pretty easy stance to take given how much I benefit from having the collected papers of Einstein and Darwin digitized, freely accessible, and, no less important, keyword searchable. What unnerves me more than the digitization of primary sources is the digitization of undergraduate education. I’m not talking about the widespread proliferation of online for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix, which have helped America’s young people amass trillions in student debt. (For an excellent summary of that depressing situation, check out this in-depth investigation from, of all people, comedian John Oliver.) Instead, I’m talking about the far more noble, and potentially far more influential, trend toward offering college courses online for free. I first learned about this phenomenon two years ago, when 60 Minutes profiled the Khan Academy, a wildly ambitious initiative that seeks to provide “a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” As an aspiring professor, I was more or less terrified that technology might render my chosen profession obsolete before I’d even graduated, and I secretly hoped that no one else on Earth would ever watch this particular episode of 60 Minutes, at least not until I achieved tenure. I’ve since come to the conclusion that that position is more than a little hypocritical. If there are people out there who are trying to offer the citizens of planet Earth a world-class college education for free, on what grounds could I ever possibly object? Therefore, even though I’m still a long way from tenure, I feel duty-bound to acknowledge several impressive websites that promote free online courses from a variety of world-class universities. For example, you can choose from among more than 1,000 free online courses (including more than 70 courses in my own field, History) thanks to the good folks over at OpenCulture. If you’d like to shop around for other options, you should also check out Coursera, which offers hundreds of free online courses from many of the world’s most prestigious universities. So there it is. With a little motivation, you can gain an excellent education for free. And with a lot of motivation, you could potentially change the trajectory of your life, all without spending a dime. Good luck!