A recent post by PhDinHistory about the history undergraduate curriculum (“Improving our Undergraduate Programs for History Majors”) got me thinking about our own curriculum here at George Mason because we’re about to embark on our decennial acceditation process and I will be leading the part of that process that deals with the undergraduate major.
Sterling raises a number of interesting points in the post, but there is an assumption in his analysis of some AHA data that I think bears taking some time to think about. That assumption is that the measure of success of an undergraduate history curriculum is the degree to which it prepares majors for graduate school and ultimately for PhDs in history. For the past eight years I’ve spent a lot of time talking to colleagues around the country about what a history curriculum ought to look like and even though we know (and as Sterling points out at the end of his post) that we are only preparing a tiny fraction of our majors to become academic historians, we still approach the major as though that was its highest purpose.
It’s time to set these assumptions aside once and for all and do something radical–view the major through the eyes of our students.
Here’s a case in point. Not long ago I was in a meeting with a diverse group of history professors and our purpose was to discuss what an undergraduate history curriculum ought to look like. We examined several models of possible requirements and all of them would look fairly familiar to anyone teaching at an American college or university: a methods course, a capstone course, and a set of distribution requirements that forced students to spread out their upper division courses over different world regions and time periods. The discussion turned to how these distribution requirements might be tweaked to make the undergraduate experience better, but it was all about adding in another required course here, or possibly dropping one required course there.
I asked the show-stopper. “Why not just eliminate all the distribution requirements, leaving only the methods and capstone courses?”
Would it surprise you if I told you that the response to my suggestion was less than positive?
The most common response was that if we dropped all the distribution requirements, then our students would over-concentrate in one aspect of history. My response was, “And what would be the harm in that?” I think you can imagine the answer: “But then they would know a lot about one aspect of history, but virtually nothing about any other.” To which I responded, “And what would be the harm in that?”
Of course, if our students are planning a career in history, then they do need to sample other world regions and time periods. But, let’s be honest now. Just how many of our students really are planning a career in history? Aren’t the majority of them planning to do just about anything but be historians? And so if their goal is law school, who cares if the majority of their upper division courses were in American military history? Or if they are planning to become an elementary school teacher, who cares if the majority of their courses are in world history or gender history or the history of photography or (I might hope) East European history?
I’m willing to bet that law school admissions officers never say to themselves, “Oh, we can’t admit her. Sure, she has a 3.92 GPA and high LSAT scores and worked in a community legal clinic, but look at this, she never took a course in African (or East European, or colonial American, or whatever) history.” And I work with a lot of K-12 educators, and I know that elementary school principals never say such things to themselves when they are trying to hire fourth grade teachers. So, I think we can say that, except for those of our majors who plan to enroll in a history graduate program, over concentration in whatever part of history they love isn’t going to hurt them professionally.
“But if we don’t force them to try courses in other regions/eras, they might never realize that African/East European/colonial American history is what they really love.” And if I don’t force my children to eat their cauliflower, they might never know that they prefer cauliflower to cheeseburgers. As a parent, I feel this sort of obligation (although I don’t like cauliflower either, so that’s not one I force on them). But we aren’t our students’ parents and they certainly aren’t children any more.
Given that they are, in fact, adults and that they are now making career and educational choices that effect their lives not ours, it seems to me that it’s time for us to let them make those choices for themselves.
And it’s time for us to come up with a new measure of the success of our undergraduate major. Before we start asking ourselves what that measure ought to be, I suggest that we try something radical–ask our students what they think that measure ought to be. After all, we’re offering the history major for them, aren’t we?
I’m not suggesting that curriculum ought to be entirely consumer driven. But what I am suggesting is that our students have all sorts of different reasons for why they want to be history majors and for what they want to get out of the experience. And those reasons and desires ought to play a role in our decision-making about the curriculum.