History on Thin Ice?

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.

6 thoughts on “History on Thin Ice?

  1. Dominik Lukes (@techczech)

    What seems to be missing in this debate is an answer to the question of “What’s the point of teaching history?” Does it really matter what is taught and how? Sure, it would be great if it was less boring and closer to the truth but is there any chance the majority of people will learn anything that will stay with them.

    To put it differently, if history teaching is in crisis now, what was its golden age? I think you’d be hard put to find one. Or if you do, you’d find it hard to demonstrate people’s ability to learn from their superior historical education.

    Isn’t history a really popular thing with adults, though? The History channel is a success, history books (as New Books in History illustrates) are in a steady supply and selling like gangbusters. (Also, most of them are well written.) What more do you want?

    “Čemu nás učí dějiny” was a popular question to be asked during pop quizzes when I went to high school in the 80s. It was so obvious and not anything to take seriously. It was not until much later that I realized how much you need to learn about a historical event to be able to learn anything from it. Is there any chance a intro course at high school or undergrad level can actually make any difference in this?

    The real problem is that complaints about history teaching are often code for another political message. I wrote about this at length in my look at Niall Ferguson’s ‘Civilization’: http://metaphorhacker.net/2011/06/killer-app-is-a-bad-metaphor-for-historical-trends-good-for-pseudoteaching.

    Also, hasn’t this been pretty much covered in Lies my teacher told me?

  2. Matt_Lungerhausen

    Great post Mills, but your prescription for change is weak.

    Yes, the university curriculum needs to be revised from top to bottom. There is a lot of scholarship on teaching history at all levels K-12 and at university that can help us do this. But the obstacle is not necessarily faculty (although we have plenty of CAVE dwellers among us). The main problem is credit hours and funding.

    We have small survey sections where we teach thirty undergraduates at a time. Most of my colleagues and I try to deliver a discussion based class rather than lecture (I personally don’t feel very successful at this, but I am trying to develop more interactive approaches to the material). Yet the dean looks at all of our peer institutions and sees these same classes filled with twice as many students.

    Administration wants us to increase class sizes and bring in more credit hours. More credit hours means more money for the college of liberal arts. Plus, the credit hours matter to us as a department. Two years ago administration had a scatter plot showing the distribution of credit hours and FTEs by department. We were in the ‘bad quadrant’ because we were only average, while biology was in the ‘good quadrant’ with huge credit hours generated by relatively few FTEs.

    Yes, changing classes and curriculum would probably attract more students and more credit hours. But the time it would take to turn things around and to prove that the innovations are working, would be the time it takes to shut us down. And frankly the administration does not care about anything but credit hours. Whether there is a history major or some major in interdisciplinary basket weaving its all the same to them. They pay lip service to teaching and student learning, but if pressed they want the credit hours and the teaching can go to hell.

    I imagine replacing Western Civ, US since 1865, and intro to Latin America, with very focused courses on specific topics or eras like the Weimar Republic, Watergate or the Samosa regime in Nicaragua. Lots of primary sources, in depth discussion and alternative modes of expressing historical knowledge like posters, dioramas, and plays. More uncoverage than uncoverage. Then the last three classes the students should take are the “surveys” where as majors they would put together what they learned over the course of the last three and a half years.

  3. Matt_Lungerhausen

    Oh and one other thing. We have to service other constituencies besides our majors and gen ed students. We have to teach the K-8 education majors, who need a US survey and some other history courses for their teaching license. So we get rid of the survey, or strip it down to the uncoverage model and then they start bombing their tests.

    I agree with you we desperately need change. But I am not sure how to really square this circle. By and large universities have the kinds of history departments they want.

  4. Liz

    In any consideration of redoing the History curriculum, I think asking what students are doing with their degrees would be useful. Are they primarily going on to graduate programs? Teaching primary or secondary school? Going into the work force for completely unrelated jobs?

    FWIW, my original university’s History department’s requirements are a little different: http://www.wesleyan.edu/history/requirements/major.html
    I was in the Medieval Studies department, so I don’t know how recent the requirements for the History department are.

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