Essay on how historians are defining what students need to learn
Giants can move. So can venerable, cautious scholarly organizations like the American Historical Association. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation asked "Who Will Hold Colleges Accountable?" As a professor at Colorado College, and faculty chair of the AHA’s Tuning Project, I can answer: we will. In a moment where college education and the value it provides students, their families, and American society in general seems continuously under attack, the American Historical Association has been quietly helping its members define and promote the value of history. Carey’s piece, pointing out the outdated notion of credit hours that grant students "credit" and eventually degrees for the act of sitting in chairs or staring at screens, thoughtfully calls for scholarly societies to "define and update what it means to be proficient in a field."
The AHA is developing just such a set of definitions. As a group of professional teachers and scholars of history, we do have standards and expectations for what it means to learn to think historically. We should be able to explain what college students who take history courses and major in history have gained from their effort. This might be risky because scholarly organizations generally avoid telling people what they should know, teach, or research in a given discipline. But with the help of a grant from the Lumina Foundation and 70 history departments and programs, the AHA Tuning Project is moving toward a "discipline core."
Now a "discipline core" is not your grandmother’s set of facts that all history students should know – the dreaded lists of dates, czars, emperors, wars, presidents or their wives – but a set of skills and habits of mind that college-educated students should have. And, it turns out, historians can agree about what people with a history degree should be able to do. The 14,000 members of the AHA don’t and won’t ever agree about what facts students should know, but we can agree about the importance of evidence in generating interpretation and the imperative of developing a rich context around those facts. For example, someone with a history major probably could have saved the Gap some money and bad PR by explaining the historical context of "Manifest Destiny" and why that phrase might not be an ideal T-shirt slogan.
History students need to be able to find and sift information, read with a critical eye, assess evidence from the past, write with precision, and be able to tell stories that analyze and narrate the past effectively. We can also agree about a variety of ways students can demonstrate such skills. None of these can be assessed with fill-in-the-bubble tests or any national standardized test, but require meaningful assignments, student responses, and attentive faculty feedback. Take number 8 from the AHA’s discipline core: "Explore multiple historical and theoretical viewpoints that provide perspective on the past." Students could demonstrate this very simply by describing, in written or oral form, a range of descriptions of a specific event. To use the Manifest Destiny example again, a student could describe how this concept emerged in the 1840s and how people in Mexico, in Washington, and in Texas or California might have perceived it as imperial ambition or dangerous racism. Understanding that these different descriptions represent different points of view is great practice in perspective-taking, a tremendously important skill.
The collaborative process that is central to "tuning" means that this set of professional standards will not be prescriptive, but rather will provide reference points to guide history departments and history teachers. Each college and university will read and use a core of professional standards to design courses and degrees that reflect the varied missions and contexts of educational institutions. Having core values and standards that define history as a discipline and the value of historical thinking can and will build programs that do far more than require students to be present for a set of credit bearing hours.
To learn these skills, students have to practice them -- a fact that will immediately ratchet up what goes on in and out of classrooms. Time in a classroom is not, as some skeptics suggest, a waste of money and effort, but essential to real learning. Students have to speak, write, and communicate in a variety of media and to have their work assessed carefully. They need places to practice both skepticism and empathy to acquire the habits of mind required of a history student. These abilities are essential to having thoughtful leaders and citizens, and college graduates with value in the workplace and the community – the central promise of a college education.
Scholarly societies and disciplinary organizations can and should develop professional standards that insist on effective practices at colleges and universities. The AHA is betting that professional historians want to be held accountable for what their students should know and be able to do.
Anne Hyde is professor of history at Colorado College and faculty chair of the American Historical Association Tuning Project.