History Out of Tune

If you are a regular reader of this blog, it’s not news to you that I’ve offered up some critique of the AHA’s Tuning Project. After conversing with some “Tuners” at the recent annual meeting of the AHA in New York, I remain skeptical of the “History Discipline Core” that is the key source document of the effort.

Before offering further critique, I want to stipulate what I really like about the Tuning Project, because I like a lot of it. First and foremost, I like the fact that the proposed core will give history departments around the country a basis for solid, on-going assessment of the work they are doing in the classroom and the outcomes their students are achieving. Tuning gives us the chance to set the assessment agenda within our institutions rather than having it imposed on us.

Tuning also gives history departments a foundation upon which they might redesign their majors to make that major a curriculum, not just a basket of courses (as is so often the case).

I also like the way that the document encapsulates the core values of the historical educators, or at least the core values of the historical educators of the past 100 years or so. For reasons I cited in that earlier blog post (linked above), I remain critical of the almost complete exclusion of the digital humanities from the core being promoted by Tuners. I think we have to admit that the History Discipline Core is a statement of the past, not of the future–it promotes a version of history education that prepares our students very well for 1995, not 2015. Thus, I don’t have any quibbles with what is in the Core. My quibbles are with what is not there.

Finally, I really like the many obvious points of intersection between the work of those involved in Tuning and the work of those of us who have been engaged in the scholarship of teaching and learning in history over the past 15 years or so. I would love to see several sessions at the next AHA conference that explored this common ground in much more detail, because I think we have so much to share with and learn from one another.

Despite all these positives, I’m still unhappy with the goals of Tuning for this reason — I think that all the very laudable focus on core competencies of history students has obscured one of the larger goals of the effort, namely preparing students for success after college. I watched David McInerney’s keynote address at the AHA Tuning workshop in January [available here] and he didn’t get to the importance of student success in the workforce until near the end when he offered up a suggested elevator speech about Tuning.

Student success after college should be at the top of our list, not as an afterthought in an elevator speech.

I love the liberal arts as much or more than anyone I know, and I will (and do) defend the value of a liberal arts education to any and all comers. But the simple fact of the matter is this: America is a very different country than it was 20 or 40 years ago, and the students we have now and will be educating for the rest of our lifetimes are very different. Here are just a couple of data points that as history educators we must keep at the forefront of our work:

  • The majority of American public school students live in poverty.
  • In 1990, 28% of children in America were born to single mothers. In 2008 that number was just under 41%. [data here]
  • Americans are carrying more than $1 trillion dollars of student debt. Almost 70% of college graduates have debts just under $30,000 per year, and those are the graduates.
  • Only 59% of college students at BA granting institutions graduate in six years.
  • According to Jeff Selingo, in his College Unbound, if your family’s household income is in excess of $90,000, your odds of obtaining a bachelors degree by age 24 are 1:2. If your family’s household income is $35,000 or less, those odds drop to 1:17.

Given these facts, any revision of the history curriculum or of the ways we assess our success as educators must take into account the ways that we are responding to what can only be called an educational crisis.

Anything less would be shameful.

Thus, I urge the AHA and those involved in the Tuning project to be very explicit about the need to craft learning opportunities and curricula that prepare our students for success in very clear and explicit ways. That means, for instance, demonstrating again and again throughout the courses we teach how this or that element of historical thinking will help them when they are teachers, attorneys, advertising executives, museum educators, archivists, social workers, or whatever they end up doing.

But it also means writing experiential learning into our curricula in very explicit ways, not just as a single bullet point at the end of a list of “sample tasks.” Given the data I just cited above, and the fact that college is going to continue to get more expensive rather than less, we must, must redesign the history major so that it is both a liberal arts discipline and a degree that prepares students for success in the workforce. So, for instance, why not require internships of all our students (thereby committing ourselves to make that happen)? Why not devote one week in every class we teach to how something you learned in this class will help you in your future career(s)?

We have to do our part to address the challenges our students are and increasingly will face, and the Tuning Project offers historians an invaluable opportunity to do just that.

If we are unwilling to engage with our students real and pressing challenges, then I think we should fold up our tents and call it a day.