Back to the Future

The most recent issue of the AHA’s Perspectives includes a very thought provoking essay by current AHA president Kenneth Pomerantz on the place of history courses in the general education curriculum. Pomerantz correctly sees history courses as being under threat in a national conversation about making college education “more practical” or “more relevant.” I applaud Pomerantz’s taking up of the AAC&U and Lumina Foundation’s take on general education as needing to provide more opportunities for students to pursue integrative knowledge that focuses their attention on the practices and epistemologies¬† of academic disciplines rather than on their content.

No matter what we might think of the changes that are coming, the tide is running against the notion that general education curricula should represent some sort of intellectual check list for students — one of these, one of those, two of that other thing. For at least five years, if not longer, I’ve been arguing against such an approach to general education, both because I think our students need to be able to make more choices on their own, but also because I know (from long engagement at the administrative level with these issues) that in today’s underfunded university, general education requirements are as much about preserving the economic viability of certain disciplines as they are about providing our students with a broad, integrative approach to learning. Let’s just be honest about that, because to pretend it isn’t true is to talk about only part of the issue here.

I couldn’t agree more with Pomerantz about the need to rethink our approach to history courses that are part of any general education curriculum so that the courses we offer highlight “the skills particular to our own craft, and the broad usefulness of learning those skills with people who actually practice them.” But I think he’s left out three crucial dimensions of the problem he has taken on.

The first thing that’s missing from his essay is a conversation about the history survey itself. All the way back in 1908 a committee of AHA chaired by Harvard historian Charles Homer Haskins issued a report that every teaching historian should read. The most important point in this report is that the typical college freshman is ill equipped by his/her high school training to engage in the sort of broad synthetic thinking that the typical big survey (the US Since Reconstruction, Western/World Civilization) requires. Instead, the members of Haskins’ committee argued, those big synthetic courses should be reserved for advanced history majors who are intellectually ready for that kind of big thinking. Freshmen should be in seminars focused on exactly the kinds of learning Pomerantz is advocating for in his essay. So, here we are in 2013, back to where we were in 1908. That’s depressing.

More depressing is the fact that the economic models of today’s university mandate that we teach large surveys to freshmen to finance our upper division/graduate courses with smaller enrollments. But just because this is the economic model we live in today, there is no reason why it is the only model. There are ways out of this particular hole we’ve dug ourselves and our students into.

A second problem that Pomerantz doesn’t engage is what we often frame as “faculty roles and rewards.” At most research-focused colleges and universities the book remains the standard for promotion and tenure. As the AHA argued this past summer, history remains a book-based discipline. My disagreement with this position is well known, but it is the case that to get promoted and tenured at most places, historians still need to write books. And writing books takes a lot of time and intellectual energy–time and intellectual energy that, if put into the kind of intensive teaching Pomerantz argues for, works against getting the book done. So, if we are going to go down the path that Pomerantz advocates, we have to think seriously about multiple paths to promotion and tenure — as is the case in the sciences.

I’ve never been clear why it’s possible to be, say a scientist tenured at a place like Duke or Brown on the basis of research on pedagogical innovation, but history departments reject such notions. We can dig ourselves out of the tenure/promotion hole we’re in, but like the first hole I’ve discussed, it will require creativity and, more importantly, will.

Finally, Pomerantz doesn’t address the online course tsunami poised to sweep over us. It’s not that hard to imagine a future where brick and mortar universities don’t offer introductory courses any longer–a future where students take all such courses from online providers. Such a future is very appealing to university budget hawks, trust me. I’ve been sitting in meetings with them all year. And why not? Imagine the cost savings if students could knock off all those general education courses via MOOCs before they ever arrive on our campuses? We’d need, oh, perhaps one-third fewer faculty. Wouldn’t that be great? Regardless of the educational issues such a future raises, it certainly raises the specter of a more balanced budget.

All of us at brick and mortar institutions are going to have to make a very compelling case for why what we do in general education is so much better than what the online providers offer that students should pay us substantially more and should agree to show up for class when we tell them they must just so they can learn face to face with our faculty. If our students are going to sit in a large lecture hall and watch a professor perform on stage, then they might as well take the course online. In fact, they probably should. Pomerantz offers one vision of how we might make the case for something different. But his case depends on dispensing with the large lecture model.

But first we’ll have to figure out how to get of two pretty deep holes.