A Broader History Major (and Professor)

In-depth study suggests a shift in focus for the discipline, based on its role in liberal education, not just its own field of study. Graduate education seen as key area for change.
October 27, 2008

History has long been among the most popular undergraduate majors -- and has long been seen as playing a crucial role in how colleges provide liberal education. But is the discipline doing everything it can to promote liberal education, especially since most history majors will not become lifelong historians and since many history students are not majors?

A new report, prepared by the National History Center with support from the Teagle Foundation, suggests that while the history major is doing plenty that is right on target, changes are needed for the major to provide the most benefit for students. The study -- prepared by a working group led by Stanley N. Katz of Princeton University and James Grossman of the Newberry Library -- suggests a need for greater coherence in the way the major is structured, and much more of an active consideration by faculty members of their role in educating non-historians.

To do so effectively, the report says, graduate programs in history need to be reformed so that more emphasis is placed on the graduate students' likely role in the future as a teacher, not just a researcher.

The report notes that the history major is far from static and has in fact been undergoing significant change. The traditional major emphasized "breadth over depth," the report says, and "organized historical knowledge according to space and time -- which usually meant by geography, national or political boundaries, and chronological period." Among the more recent shifts, the report says, have been an emphasis on in-depth analysis and a move toward "transnational or thematic categories." The report applauds these shifts, noting that they are resulting in healthy enrollments and an appropriate challenge to the "privileging of Western (and especially American) history in the undergraduate curriculum."

But, noting history programs' key role in providing a liberal education, the authors suggest additional changes. History departments are urged to:

  • "Aim to both introduce students to diverse geographic, chronological, and thematic subjects and build upon content and skills in a meaningful way." Specifically, departments are encouraged to require students to study three different periods, places and topics.
  • Try to improve the sequencing of courses so that students are assured of a progression of knowledge. The report acknowledges that many colleges and universities lack the resources to be able to provide "elaborate sequences," but says that there should always be a clear distinction between introductory and more advanced courses. Further, the report suggests that such a division will help departments "examine the desirability and feasibility of concentration or specialization requirements within the major that enable students to study at least one subject in some depth." The report also suggests the use of capstone courses or other methods to assure a culminating experience in the major.
  • Give all history majors "the opportunity to 'do' history" through "seminars in which reading primary sources and writing are important components of the course." Such courses should also have information literacy and "some introduction to historical methods through seminars, explicit methodology courses, and/or thesis writing." When possible, the report says, foreign language competence and study abroad should be encouraged.
  • Develop tools to assess how history majors are doing -- both in terms of knowledge and skills they gain, and the way they apply those to the broader goals of liberal education. The report stresses that this assessment shouldn't be just what goes on now with individual courses, but a broader effort to look at the impact and effectiveness of the major.

For those and other changes to take place, the report says, historians need to change their ideas about the related topics of disciplinarity and graduate education.

"[P]ostsecondary history faculty should be better trained to achieve the cognitive and civic goals of undergraduate teaching generally, and in modes of training for historical understanding specifically," the report says. "[G]raduate history faculty are not meeting their responsibility to prepare their students for careers as teachers. This problem exists throughout the humanities and social sciences. The larger challenge is one of recommitting postsecondary faculty to their teaching mission, although it is likely that this need is greatest in the research universities and least in the liberal arts colleges."

This isn't just about teaching, the report says, but the role of disciplines. "The problem is general in that Ph.D. students generally are socialized to focus on disciplinary development and research, which are only partial aspects of the profession," the report says.

The report extends these concerns beyond graduate school. "We also need to consider how new Ph.D.'s are, or are not, encouraged to think of themselves as members of a liberal arts faculty, rather than mostly a history department. Perhaps this is less an issue of graduate education than new faculty orientation, which is already taken most seriously at liberal arts colleges. This also will nudge into the tenure system. Currently a new faculty member can assume that tenure exists mostly within the context of the department; one’s role as a member of a liberal arts faculty is virtually irrelevant."

The group that prepared the report also conducted a limited survey of history departments at a diverse group of four-year colleges and universities. While the detailed responses from 21 departments -- along with information gathered from another 34 departments from public Web sites -- yield results that are "more impressionistic than scientific," the authors write that these trends were consistent with other discussions and research that they conducted. The findings also suggest some support for the goals outlined in the report, although progress appears to be mixed. Among the survey results:

  • The history major requirements make up 29 percent of the credit hours undergraduates take in a bachelor's program. The percentage tends to be higher at liberal arts colleges and lower at flagship public universities.
  • A history major must take 9–12 history courses, with at least half considered to be advanced, although the report notes wide variation in how departments determine what counts as advanced.
  • Most institutions (85 percent) have geographic breadth requirements within the major, with either one or two courses required in each of three regions: Europe, the United States, and everyplace else. A minority of institutions require more than three geographic regions and "a handful" let students pick regions without regard to whether the United States and Europe are selected.
  • A majority of institutions (64 percent) require at least one course in "pre-modern" history, although again there is wide variation in which periods qualify, with a range from pre-1500 to pre-1800.
  • One-third of institutions require some specialization or concentration within the major. These requirements are much more prevalent at private research institutions than other types of colleges.

While the report calls for improvements in the history major, it does so from a strong conviction of the central role history plays in promoting liberal learning. "What the discipline of history has to offer goes far beyond the 'historical turn' in other disciplines, which usually means little more than longitudinal perspective," the report says.

"History is a mode of analysis of contingency -- it is not inevitable that we are what we are; or, where we are. Nor even that we were what we were or where we were. Neither stasis nor change can be taken for granted, and both emanate from both process and agency. History is about taking advantage of and making sense of an open-ended world of evidence, which assists the historically educated in living on the edge of open possibilities. What could be more important in the 21st century?"


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