During a talk a few years ago, Elizabeth Strout, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of the book Olive Kitteridge, mentioned the word “recrudescence.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary this means, “The state or fact of breaking out afresh.” Sometimes it is applied to the state of something bad like an epidemic, but it can also mean the revival or rediscovery of something good. I had never heard the word before but liked the sound of it and wrote it down so I would remember.
Currently, deep into researching my next writing project as well as working on a masters degree in history, I was surprised to—rediscover—the word recrudescence when it popped up several times in a history book. I have never seen it anywhere else. Speaking of history, about the same day, an article in the Wall Street Journal pondered on the value of specific undergraduate degrees and stated that, “More than 20% of US undergraduates are business majors, nearly double the next most common major, social studies and history.” With all the disheartening news about how little students, or adults for that matter, appear to know about history these days, I was stunned yet gratified to see that history—my favorite subject—was so popular at that level. Could this be a recrudescence of interest in history? Or has the interest been there all along, sneakily making its mark behind the more industrial business degree?
The article explained that corporate recruiters are looking for people with a deeper, more well-rounded education than a business degree usually offers. Recruiters and top university faculty have been seriously discussing the disconnect between merely hacking out theory and having the skills to solve real world problems. The realization has begun to sink in that business majors lack the skill of critical thinking necessary for innovation and problem solving.
In writing both history and historical fiction, critical thinking and the ability to communicate it through clear writing are absolutely necessary skills. Without them, a historian cannot synthesize voluminous information, analyze it and interpret it in a comprehensive, cohesive manner that will benefit anyone with an eye to understanding the real world, not just today, but both as it was in the past and how it might evolve in the future. Perhaps students are put off by the term “critical thinking” as it sounds scary, complicated and difficult. True, to a degree, but rather than fear it, why not embrace the notion of putting events in a broader perspective? To understand the context of an event can open completely new avenues to knowledge, discoveries—or re-discoveries—of something previously missed. Recrudescence in action!
A simple example of this appeared on an episode of the PBS program “Finding Your Roots.” The preeminent Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. visited a high school history class and asked the students if they knew whether, prior to the Civil War, slaves had been owned in northern states as well as those in the south. Most of the students, if not all, did not know this, and an astute, mature and well thought out discussion ensued between the students and Professor Gates that thoroughly explored the meaning and consequences surrounding this fact. Though a simple premise in this case that was expanded upon, it illustrated critical thinking at work. The class both enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to discover this insight. Frankly, I personally think critical thinking should—and certainly can—begin much earlier than college as this example clearly demonstrates. And schools, I wish, would learn to deliberately engage young students in learning how that skill can be easily applied well beyond the classroom to analyze problems and creatively seek solutions. They did not in my day, decades ago, and probably still do not.
As a counter-thought to the famous and endless iterations of, “those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it,” countless essays have been written which claim that learning history can promote “good citizenship.” Right, but many rarely detail how this happens beyond vague or convoluted ideology. Why not simply describe how to think like a historian in order to get at the root of social and other problems? Thinking back to Elizabeth Strout’s author talk—she told her audience that she was waiting until she had a sentence with enough muscularity to support such a heavy word as recrudescence. The innovation and problem solving skills lacking in undergraduate business degree programs might need to include history not only for critical thinking, but for muscular creativity as well. What is more thrilling than discovery, or the recrudescence of a previous discovery, when new understanding breaks out afresh?
PS: I have an undergraduate business administration degree from thirty years ago that did little more than qualify me for a better paying jobs at the time. A high school level bookkeeping class would have sufficed to do the work. The masters in history is a whole lot more interesting!