The History Majors We Celebrate

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I am convinced that the culture of college history departments need to change.  History majors have a lot to offer society and the marketplace in a variety of fields, yet the faculty in history departments honor and celebrate those students who go to graduate school in history, largely because these students aspire to be just like us.  Imitation is the highest form of flattery.  So faculty think of these students as feathers in their caps–evidence that we are educating them in the right way.

I am not so sure that this approach is healthy.  It is time that history faculty develop a different kind of culture in their departments–a culture in which the model students are the ones who go into nonhistory or nonacademic fields where they can find meaningful and fulfilling work.

What would happen if we celebrated our graduates who get jobs in the corporate or nonprofit world in the same way we celebrate those who have been accepted to graduate schools at Ivy League universities?

(This post is adapted from Chapter 8 of my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past).

One thought on “The History Majors We Celebrate

  1. The single most important history class a professor could teach is a US History survey course. Yet, most of them do not do so, at least in the bigger schools. It is in those courses that we reach the majority of all college students. After four years of high school where the odds are most likely that their history teacher is a coach with few history credits to their name in college, they come to the survey courses already disliking history. It is in those courses that we have the greatest impact on the college population.

    I came to my community college with that idea in 2013. The master syllabi failed to list “Develop an appreciation of history” as an objective. I rewrote my syllabi and that is first on the list. Most students take one or two courses in their entire college experience. We have one shot in most cases to reach the students and show them that history is not a boring subject and that it is a beautiful concept.

    I kick off the course with a presentation on What is History? Right after the introductory Coldplay video a slide with a quotation by Sam Wineburg is shown. “For the narcissist sees the world-both the past and the present-in his own image. Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born. History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense. Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology—humility in the fact of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.”

    I keep an eye on the students when I read that to them. You can see the facial expressions exhibit wonder because no one has spoken to them like Wineburg does in this quote. It is in that moment that they begin to realize this is not going to be a boring history class, but one in which the past begins to come alive for them with a greater depth than they’ve ever encountered it with.

    This is a successful approach. I have honed the approach and methodology I use in my courses over the last three years. The results are bearing fruit. I have history majors for the first time at the end of the course. I have students who have stated they want to become educators in K-12 now taking history as a minor so they can teach history in K-12. Students now appreciate history and that is something they will have with them for the rest of their lives.

    It is all because of understanding that the survey courses are the most important history courses any school can offer in its curriculum.

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