Avoiding 'the Dustbin of History'

May 5, 2005

Master’s degree programs in history play a role far more influential than would be indicated by the number of students enrolled. Because those students go on to either earn Ph.D.’s, teach in community colleges, teach in high schools or work in "public history," these programs have a broad impact on what millions of Americans will be taught about history.

But a new report from the American Historical Association warns that many of these programs lack direction, fail to prepare students for the careers they are seeking, and can’t answer basic questions about their missions. In addition, the report notes that despite the wide range of career options available for master’s recipients, the number of M.A.’s awarded in history dropped 16 percent between 1996 and 2002 – a period in which total master’s degrees were on the rise.

The report was prepared by Philip M. Katz, the AHA's research director for graduate education, and a committee of historians. The study was based on analysis of data and numerous interviews with people involved in graduate education at the 340 colleges that offer master's degrees in history.

Too many of those programs, the report says, take a "narrow-sighted view" of master's education as some sort of consolation prize for those who can't get a Ph.D. The reality, according to surveys conducted for the report, is that more than half of history master's students don't want or plan to get a Ph.D. What they need, the report says, are programs that recognize the reasons that they are seeking graduate training.

Many master's students, for example, will become professors at community colleges. Even though the tight academic job market in the humanities in recent years has resulted in more Ph.D.'s on history faculties at two-year institutions, a majority of history faculty at community colleges have a master's degree as their highest degree. And some community college administrators fear that Ph.D.'s may lack the commitment to teaching required at a two-year institution.

The report says that in this environment, it is essential that master's programs focus on "competencies rather than credentials," and that teaching is a key competency. In addition, the report notes that aside from a few elite colleges, most demand for history instruction, especially at community colleges, is in world history, U.S. history surveys, and Western civilization surveys. Master's programs "should reflect this reality," it says.

There is no single formula for master's programs suggested by the report. But it offered five "essential" elements that should be part of any master's program:

  • A base of historical knowledge.
  • Research and presentation skills.
  • A solid introduction to history pedagogy.
  • The foundations of a professional identity for a historian.
  • Learning to think like a historian.

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