The History Curriculum in 2023 (Conclusion)

At a conference on the future of higher education at George Mason this past fall, one of my colleagues in the sciences pointed out that his department offered very rich and immersive learning experiences for their seniors in capstone seminars. I asked him why they made their students wait four years for such experiences?

In this series I have tried to suggest a number of ways we can transform the history curriculum to take advantage of the potential of digital media technology and offer rich and immersive learning experiences for our students throughout their four years in the history major. I’ve just finished reading the December 2012 edition of Perspectives and I have to admit that I’m amazed at how little attention was paid to undergraduate education in an issue devoted to “the future of the profession.”

It’s worth remembering that without undergraduates, our profession has no future.

The tuition paid by our undergraduate students sustains our graduate programs, making it possible for us to offer those small and not cost effective seminars. It also at least partly sustains the faculty labor force. How many departments that you know of would have the same budget if their undergraduate enrollment declined by more than one-third over a short time span? A few of the best endowed institutions can sustain departments through their endowments. But only a few. The rest of us depend heavily on undergraduate tuition for our survival.

I’m confident that history will never be dropped from the national undergraduate curriculum, but it’s very possible to imagine a future where individual institutions drop the liberal arts (including history) altogether to become niche players in an increasingly globalized education economy. In a world where big accounting firms are arguing that universities must radically transform their business models if they are going to survive at all, we need to take seriously the notion that at no institution is history indispensable.

That being the reality of the future of our profession, we need to think hard about how we can make our undergraduate major relevant in the digital economy, relevant to the lives our students are living and the ways they use technology, and, just as importantly teach our students the procedural knowledge — both digital and analog — that they need to be the best historians they can be.

The changes I’ve proposed here to the history curriculum are obviously not the only possible options for reform of what we do. I hope they generate some conversation about our future — conversation not only in the blogosphere and Twitterverse, but also in our top journals and newsletters.

If we don’t take seriously the notion that change is necessary, our future looks increasingly like an underfunded archive: stale, musty, and increasingly forgotten.