The History Major and Liberal Learning

The National History Center recently released a report entitled “The History Major and Undergraduate Liberal Education.” Here are a few of the highlights:

  • The purpose of undergraduate history teaching is NOT to produce historians, but to “nurture their liberal and civic capacities.”
  • “History” is more than simply telling students “the way things were.” It is about teaching students “divergent interpretations” of the past and training them to think about the past through the interpretation of primary sources.
  • Students must be trained to read primary texts in an attempt to “determine what matters.”
  • “History requires us to think outside of our own experience in time or place, and thus fosters empathetic thinking, greater appreciation of diversity, and understanding of the relationship between context and judgment.”
  • History offers a perspective on the present, “helping to situate it in a longer stream of time and complicate simplistic understanding of present issues.”

This report is worth reading and passing along to non-historian administrators in our colleges and schools, parents who wonder why their sons or daughters have chosen history as a major, and non-historian colleagues who seldom distinguish between “the past” and the work of a historian. (Many of these colleagues tend to use the past for presentist agendas).

The authors of the report–Stanley Katz and James Grossman–challenge history departments to improve in the following ways:

  • Graduate programs need to train history teachers, not just researchers.
  • Recent Ph.D’s need to better understand themselves as part of a liberal arts faculty and not just as a member of a history department.
  • History departments need to be more intentional about assessment.

I could not agree more with these points. As a graduate student I learned absolutely NOTHING about teaching. I was thrown into a teaching assistant assignment with no training. Everything I learned about teaching I learned on my own–largely from watching what good teachers do, reading a great deal about historical pedagogy, and getting the most out of my natural passion for my subject. Today I am deeply committed to the classroom, especially to the United States survey course. Here I get one shot at teaching general education students about the importance of historical thinking and its relationship to their liberal arts education.

I also had to learn how to be part of a liberal arts faculty. As a member of a seven-person history department, I realize that my colleagues and I often need to make arguments on campus about the importance of liberal learning and the humanities as part of a coalition of literary critics, art historians, philosophers, religious studies scholars, and members of other departments who take a humanities approach to their subjects. Graduate school did not prepare me to do this.

Assessment is probably the hardest sell for the members of our department, but I think we are coming around to it. This report has helped me to see the merit of regular assessment programs to evaluate what our students are learning.

It is not easy teaching at liberal arts college–especially when one feels a strong vocation toward writing and research. But I have been thankful for my seven years at Messiah College. I am part of a history department that seems to be doing things the right way.

For a summary of the National History Center report, click here. (HT)