In his Opinionator blog at the New York Times yesterday, Timothy Egan argues that “history, the formal teaching and telling of it, has never been more troubled.” According to Egan, the twin forces of educators caving in to corporate demands to phase out the liberal arts and what he calls the “circular firing squad of academics who loathe popular histories,” have teamed up to push history to the edge of irrelevance.
My own view is that, while Egan’s essay is heavy on hyperbole, he’s more than a little correct–just not for the reasons he cites.
I share Egan’s view that the teaching and learning of history is in trouble, but not because, as he writes, “Too many history books are boring, badly written and jargon-weighted with politically correct nonsense.” To be sure, much of academic history writing these days is all of these things and many of my colleagues share a strong prejudice against anything written for a broader market. As a for instance, a number of my colleagues here at George Mason recently criticized my forthcoming book Teaching History in the Digital Age (Michigan, March 2013) as being “under theorized.” I certainly could have written a more heavily “theorized” book, but to do so would have limited its market appeal to the small number of academic historians who see theory as the marker of excellence. For good or ill, I chose instead to write to a much larger audience. This is not a new debate. See, for instance, my coverage of Barbara Weinstein’s commentary on this same topic more than five years ago.
But, as impenetrable as it can sometimes be, I don’t think over specialized academic writing is the real problem. In fact, I think it is an overly convenient straw man. Instead, I think history is in trouble for two reasons: bad teaching and flawed curricular design.
First the teaching. It’s not news that the vast majority of history classes in high school and at the post-secondary level are taught primarily through lecture with a smattering of discussion thrown in just to keep it lively (or sort of lively). It’s also not news, or at least it shouldn’t be, that research in cognitive science demonstrates quite conclusively that lecturing is the worst form of teaching, that is if learning is the goal of teaching. And, for what it’s worth, historians have been writing about how ineffective lecturing is as a mode of instruction in the history classroom since 1897. Yes, 1897.
While students in other disciplines are engaging in more and more active learning in their courses, solving problems, moving around, making things in the analog and online worlds, and negotiating their way through group projects, the vast majority of history students sit still, listen, and take notes. If history teachers, at whatever level, continue to cling to the lecture as the primary mode of instruction, our field will become more irrelevant with each passing year.
And then there is the curriculum. Around the United States history curricula are depressingly similar. Almost anywhere a student might choose to enroll, he or she will almost certainly find requirements that include the following: a few introductory surveys, upper level distribution requirements almost always dividing the past into some version of American, European, and non-Western history, a methods course, and a capstone research seminar. To give some credence to my contention here, I selected four history departments at random (plus George Mason) and here are links to their requirements: Boston College, University of Missouri, Denison University, UC Irvine. There is almost no variation in the requirements from department to department and I am quite certain that any random sample you would generate would have the same results.
In a recent paper (Trends Toward Global Excellence in Undergraduate Education), Marijk van der Wende of Amsterdam University College argues that “leaders of the future will have to work together across the boundaries of nationalities, cultures, and disciplines, in order to be successful in the globally engaged and culturally diverse society of the 21st century.” Take a look through the degree requirements I linked to above and you’ll find not one hint of interdisciplinarity, or of providing history majors with the knowledge and skills they will need to succeed in the globalized and increasingly digitalized knowledge economy they will enter after graduation. Given the very parochial, very siloed approach to education that typifies the university history degree, it’s no wonder that students are bored.
And they aren’t just bored. They’re voting with their feet. According to the recently published Digest of Education Statistics, enrollments in bachelor’s programs in history have grown by 5.6% since 2001, that is compared to growth of almost 10% in all other social science bachelor’s programs during the same period. A growth rate half of that in other social science disciplines should be cause for significant concern.
The way out of the box we’ve put ourselves in is actually pretty simple. First, dump the lecture as the primary mode of instruction. So many other disciplines have managed this trick that for historians to say that we just can’t is disingenuous at best, ridiculous at worst. It’s just not that hard to teach without lecturing. Second, take seriously the notion that our curricula are ideally positioned for 1973, not 2013. Rewriting curricula is much more difficult than dumping the lecture model of teaching because there is a lot of administrative overhead (curriculum committees, catalog copy, etc.) that have to be dealt with, not to mention good old fashioned inertia. But rewrite the curriculum we must if we are going to do right by our students.
If we don’t make these changes, then Timothy Egan will be right about our field being in a world of trouble.