Retrieving the Master's Degree from the Dustbin of History
III. Destinations and Desires
The master's degree serves multiple functions in American higher education: different students pursue the same degree, in the same academic department, for quite different reasons. The heterogeneity of graduate program goals and graduate student ambitions has long been understood, though not always well respected. In 1936, a special committee of the Association of American Universities (AAU) was charged with solving the "problem of the master's degree." They began by cataloging the various uses of the degree:
The Master's degree is variously described as a research degree, a professional degree, a teacher's degree, and a cultural degree. The work included in the requirements for the degree is regarded as preparation for further graduate work, as preparation for the practice of some profession including teaching, as an extension of the cultural objectives ascribed to the Bachelor's degree, or as a period of advanced study. … [T]he work for the Master's degree may justly serve any or all of these objectives and … attempts to characterize the work for the Master's degree exclusively on the basis of one or other of the objectives just given is likely to prove artificial and futile.33
Unfortunately, the AAU committee's robust and optimistic view of the master's degree had to contend with another view of the degree that was already well entrenched. According to this latter view, the master's degree was primarily "a balm for discouraged, incompetent candidates for the doctorate," perhaps with some utility for schoolteachers but not for serious scholars.34 Usuallybut not alwaysadvisors found better words than "balm" to describe the degree to their departing students. In the late 1980s, for example, the University of Wisconsin historian Theodore Hamerow described the M.A. in history as "little more than a decorative title … [its role] almost entirely psychological and ceremonial. Only for those who leave graduate school without the doctorate in order to become secondary school teachers does it provide a modest increment in salary. Otherwise, it serves as a spur to the students who go on for the Ph.D. and as a consolation prize for those who do not."35 Typically, Hamerow's discussion of the master's degree combined an explicit hierarchy, in which the doctorate is the highest and therefore best degree, with an implicit disparagement of any student who undertakes advanced training in history but does not reach the heights of a Ph.D.
At too many institutions, especially those with doctoral programs,
this narrow-sighted view of the master's degree remains a tenet
of received wisdom. The view is often summed up in a single dismissive
adjective: the "terminal" master's. But "terminal" can
have more than one meaning, referring not just to untimely cessation
and death but (as a noun) to a place of transition and possibilitylike
a train or bus terminal, where a person can leave, arrive, or simply
switch vehicles. In the words of one student who recently earned
his M.A. in history from the California State University at Long
Beach, the master's degree is a "gateway to multiple
doors," and each door leads to a different destination. For
many students (perhaps three quarters), the master's degree
is the last stop in their formal training as historians; their desired
destination is a secondary school classroom, a public history institution,
a community college teaching position, or simply a richer sense of
the past. We believe that only a small percentage of each year's
M.A. recipients are disappointed graduate students who have been
asked to leave a doctoral program under circumstances not (entirely)
of their own choosingthough it is hard to know exactly how
many, given the absence or unreliability of the attrition data collected
by most history departments.
In this section of the report we look closely at four destinations that follow from a master's degree in history: the doctorate, community college teaching, secondary school teaching, and public history. The last three destinations in particular represent the "public face of the historical profession," as one colleague reminded us during a June 2003 focus group in New York City. The master's is the most common degree for community college faculty members, an important credential for history teachers in the schools, and the typical degree for public historians. More Americans learn their history from these groups than from history professors at four-year colleges and universities. Indeed, the holders of master's degrees are the nation's unstudied, even unknown, but ubiquitous teachers of history. They are also important mediators between academic history departments and the communities around them.
Two other destinations need to be mentioned at least briefly: the "avocational" master's degree and the master's degree that leads students to careers outside of history. Once, the master's degree was defined as secundum gradum in artibus, the "second degree in arts"in other words, a liberal arts degree, not a professional credential or even a discipline-based degree.36 Many students (especially older adults) still enroll in master's programs as an extension of their general education, motivated by a love of history rather than any specific career advantage. Indeed, they are an important constituency for many programs. History departments owe them a graduate education just as rigorous as any other student's. Departments should also resist any pressure or temptation to treat the avocational students primarily as a source of tuition income. As for careers outside of history, every historian knows that advanced training in history is excellent preparation for any job that requires research, organization, attention to detail, good writing skills, etc. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that jobs for trained historians (in careers other than postsecondary teaching) will grow "about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2010," a promising sign in a weak economy.37 However, many historians would agree with our candid colleague who admitted to a "fuzzier notion of what kinds of jobs M.A. recipients obtain … [as opposed to] doctoral recipients. Are the jobs in fact related to the degree or is the situation comparable to that for the B.A., a liberal arts degree which happens to be in history?" In order to properly advise their students, historians need a comprehensive view of every potential destination that follows from a master's degree.38
Destination 1: A Doctorate in History?39
Many students have little or no intention of pursuing a Ph.D. when they enroll in a history master's program. Others decide that they do not want a Ph.D. only after they begin a master's program, whether for economic reasons (including the prospects of acceptable employment), personal reasons, or because they realize that they do not have the desire or inclination to pursue further training in the field. As a recent graduate student explained to the committee, "after struggling to get through this [master's degree], with a baby and one on the way, a full-time job and various other responsibilities, there is no way that I will sign up for seven years of abuse at another institution for a shot at competing with 500 other new historians for a lower-paying job." (He added, "I definitely feel well-equipped [by my master's degree] to enter any doctoral program in the country and be successful," which is true for many of his peers as well.)40 From another perspective, several of the faculty members who participated in the committee's focus groups argued that a student who decides not to pursue a Ph.D. while completing a master's degree often represents a "good outcome" for both the student and the program.
What does the master's degree contribute to a doctoral education? Some Ph.D.-bound students either ignore the master's or rush by it without taking notice, though this appears to be less common today than it was in the past.41 In most cases, however, the master's degree is an important stop en route to the Ph.D., both as a point of transition to candidacy for the doctorate and as an accomplishment in its own right. Yet how many students, we wondered, "switch vehicles" (i.e., graduate institutions or even disciplines) on their way to the final destination of a doctorate? To answer this question, the AHA commissioned a special analysis from the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) of data collected for the annual Survey of Earned Doctorates. The Survey of Earned Doctorates gathers information about the entire graduate career of each newly minted Ph.D. in the United States, including any previous master's degrees he or she might have earned, but researchers have rarely used the data to explore master's-level education.42 There are limitations to the data, which only reflect the experiences of successful doctoral students, and then aggregate their experiences in ways that obscure the individual details. Nonetheless, the data reveal some important facts about the transition from master's-level to doctoral-level education in the discipline of history.
- Most recipients of a history Ph.D. in the United States earn a master's degree first (at least 78 percent in 2001, but probably closer to 85 percent).43 In 2001, about 60 percent of the new Ph.D.'s first earned master's degrees in history, while another 6 or 7 percent earned a master's degree in a closely allied field. For the graduate training of historians, discipline-switching is a much less significant phenomenon than institution-switching. (See Tables 6 and 7.)
- Most of the Ph.D. recipients who also have a master's earned both degrees from the same institution. More than a third, however, are "institution-switchers" (in 2001, 38 percent of all the new history Ph.D.'s and 48 percent of those with a previous master's degree). While the total percentage of new history Ph.D.'s with a previous master's degree in any field has declined slightly over the past two decades, the ratio between "switchers" and "non-switchers" has remained surprisingly constant, averaging 44:56 each year. (See Table 6 and Figure 4.)
- Women are less likely, the numbers
show, to switch institutions than men on the way to a history
Ph.D.as long as their master's
degrees are also in history, and not in some other discipline.
This pattern has remained consistent over the past two decades.
- As a group, minority historians do not
differ in any substantial way from their white counterparts when
it comes to institution-switching
or field-switching on the way to the doctorate.44 This
pattern has also remained consistent over the past two decades.
- "Switchers" earn their master's degrees from a variety of institutions. From 1981 to 2001 (inclusive), a total of 37 history departments awarded at least twenty master's degrees to students who then went on to earn a Ph.D. from another graduate program. Together, these departments accounted for less than 30 percent of all the history master's degrees earned by "switchers."45 Thirty-one of the top M.A. producers were public institutions; surprisingly, twenty-nine of them (twenty-four public and five private) also awarded doctorates in history during the period. Meanwhile, a small but significant number of minority Ph.D.'s got their start with a master's degree from a minority-serving institution. (See Table 8.)
The committee was surprised by the evidence that master's degree programs do not play a larger role in the "pathway … minority students take to and through [history] graduate school," though we still consider the master's degree an important point of access for minority students who want to enter the profession.46 Unfortunately, very little research has been done on the social or geographic mobility associated with earning a master's degree, much less a master's degree in history.47 What we do know is that institutional location is an important factor in attracting minority graduate students at all levels; that "the academic labor market [for Ph.D.'s] is racially segmented along geographic and disciplinary lines," rather than operating as a truly national market; and that African American doctoral recipients are "disproportionately … [attracted to] areas with sizable black populations."48 This may explain why minority students are more likely to stay at the same institution for both master's and doctoral degrees. It also suggests that promoting strong master's programs in parts of the country with large minority populations can be an important step towards building a more diverse historical profession.
In the end, the statistical data from NORC cannot answer the most challenging questions related to institution-switching. Most of these have to do with the interests and motivations of the graduate students involved. How many "switchers" plan to earn a Ph.D. from the start, and how many pick a new destination en route? How many start their graduate work at a local or regional institution (perhaps because of family obligations that tie them to one area), but then relocate for the doctorate? How many use the master's degree as a trial run to decide if graduate work is right for them, before they take on the more substantial commitment of a doctoral program? How many use the master's degree as a way to enhance their credentials before applying to a doctoral programand is this a more significant use of the master's degree for some groups (e.g., first-generation college graduates or non-history majors at the undergraduate level) than for others? How many Ph.D.-bound students start with a relatively cheap master's degree from a public university because they can not afford the more substantial expense of a doctoral program? How many switch when their funding disappears (or never materializes) at the first institution? How many switch because their research interests change? How many switch because their principal advisor departs for a new job? How many switch because they just do not like the first institution? What (if anything) distinguishes the switchers from the non-switchers? And what distinguishes the switchers from other master's degree students, who plan to depart for other destinations with their degrees?
What advantage does (or should) a master's degree confer upon a graduate student when he or she applies to a doctoral program, beyond an additional measure of personal and intellectual maturity?49 Ideally, writing a master's thesis provides valuable experience in organizing and presenting historical ideas that can then be applied to writing a doctoral dissertation, though this is not always the case in practice. But thesis-writing can also have the unintended effect of narrowing a student's intellectual focus rather than providing an opportunity to "synthesize [an] extensive body of material in a coherent and rational way" (which is why some departments have abandoned the thesis in favor of a comprehensive exam).50 Looking at the switching phenomenon from another direction, an Australian scholar has noted that "students from low status [master's] courses are likely to find that their master's degree counts for little when they try to enroll in doctoral programs elsewhere."51 This is certainly true at many history departments in the United States, which are liable to count all, some, or none of a student's coursework from the master's degree towards a Ph.D., depending (in part) upon the perceived quality of the M.A.-granting institution. Some of the graduate students we consulted identified this as a source of particular frustration, especially since the policy varies from school to school, and even between campuses of the same state university system. Is there a role for formal articulation agreements between master's-granting and doctoral-granting history departments, along the lines of the articulation agreements between community colleges and four-year institutions?
In the end, what difference does it make if you earn a master's degree from one history department and a Ph.D. from another? Does it affect your career opportunities? Does it broaden your view of the profession? Does it make you a better teacher, researcher, or mentor, by offering more than one model of advanced training in the discipline? These questions would be easier to answer if history departments did a better job of tracking the paths of their graduate alumni, including both the "terminal" master's students and those who go on to the Ph.D. at other institutions.
The American community college was originally conceived, at the start of the twentieth century, with three linked missions in mind: 1) to extend the teaching mission of the secondary schools, 2) to offer specialized vocational training, and 3) to provide older or otherwise "nontraditional" students with a second chance at higher education (though this was considered the least important of the three missions at the time). According to this initial conception, the best training for a good community college instructor was essentially the same as the best training for a good high school teacher: a master's degree, plus whatever "vocational experience" was necessary to teacher-specialized subjects.52 For many early leaders of the community college movement, such as David Starr Jordan at Stanford, the doctorate was positively an undesirable credential for community college instructors because most young Ph.D.'s, in their view, were trained as researchers and not teachersa frequent but overstated complaint during the past century. Yet it remains the attitude of some community college administrators today, whose reluctance to hire Ph.D.'s as faculty members can be traced to the same false dichotomy between research and teaching.53
As the number of community colleges began to grow, slowly at first and then quite rapidly after World War II, the traditional understanding of the junior colleges as an extension of the secondary school system remained firmly in place. By the early 1950s, however, observers began to voice their concerns that a one-year master's program, the norm for well-prepared high school teachers, was insufficient preparation for a community college instructor. At the very least, they argued, an extra year of "graduate residence" was in order (i.e., a two-year master's program, preferably in an academic discipline rather than education). One prominent advocate for the community colleges, Leonard Koos of the University of Chicago, took this argument a step further: "[T]he doctorate should ultimately become the standard [preparation for community college instructors]. The typical requirements for the doctorate, however, should be adapted to the needs of community-college teaching and not be based so much as they are now on the assumption that the student is headed toward a career in research."54 Despite their divergent attitudes towards the doctorate, however, both Koos and Jordan were more concerned about the content of the training for community college instructors than they were about the specific credentials being earned in the process. We should be, too.
Since the 1950s, and especially since the 1970s, community colleges have placed an increasing emphasis on providing students with the first two years of a college education, with the expectation that students would then transfer to four-year institutions to complete their bachelor's degrees. Along with this change in emphasis, more and more people in higher education came to see doctoral training as the best preparation for community college faculty; if community colleges were offering the same educational opportunities as four-year institutions, it followed that community college faculty members should receive the same professional training as their counterparts at these institutions. This argument has been especially persuasive for faculty members in the traditional arts and sciences, who tended to identify with the university rather than the secondary schools as a source of professional role models.55 Meanwhile, the easy availability of underemployed Ph.D.'s in many disciplines (including history) from the early 1970s onward encouraged administrators to hire new faculty members with doctorates rather than master's degrees, whatever lingering qualms they might have had about the teaching preparation of Ph.D.'s.56
Despite the steady influx of Ph.D.'s and ABDs into community colleges, the "main source of community college faculty … [remained] the secondary school sector" well into the 1980s. Even today, "community college faculty comprise a heterogeneous mix of postsecondary teaching professionals."57 The majority of community college instructors still have the master's as their highest earned degree. Across disciplines, 54 percent of all community college faculty members had no more than a master's degree in 1999 (the most recent year for which complete data are available), as opposed to just 12 percent with doctorates; in history, 59 percent had master's degrees versus 26 percent with Ph.D.'s (see Table 9). This represented a small decline since 1993 in the percentage of all community college historians with doctorates (see Table 10A). Among the full-time faculty members at community colleges in 1999, however, doctorates were just as common as master's degrees, while part-time instructors were six times more likely to have a master's degree than a Ph.D. (see Table 10B).
Whatever their employment status, community college historians are significantly less likely to have a doctorate than their peers at four-year institutions. They also work in the shadow of massive structural changes in higher education, which the four-year colleges and universities have, at best, temporarily resisted. Like the rest of the American economy, higher education is experiencing a "restructuring of work: the end of secure, long-term employment [in this case, tenure] for most workers … and the shift to ‘non-standard' employment, including more part-time work, leaner ‘core' staffing levels, and greater emphasis on self-employment and entrepreneurship." Martin Finkelstein, a professor of education at Seton Hall University, calls it the "morphing of the American academic profession." Increasingly, he notes, course design and development is being "unbundled" from both teaching and academic administration (most dramatically in distance education, but also in the prevalence of adjunct faculty members teaching prepackaged courses). Not just administration and institutional governance, but even student advising and basic research, have become "shrinking spheres of faculty work." According to Finkelstein, the morphing is most advanced in the community colleges, which have "already transitioned to a contingent work force with a small core of permanent faculty buttressed by a growing corps of part-time faculty," but the rest of higher education is likely to follow the same path. Historians need to think about the implications of this morphing, not just for the education of community college historians but of all future faculty members. At the very least, the likelihood of transient employment needs to be a factor in weighing the costs and benefits of different approaches to professional training.58
In October 2003, the members of H-World, an electronic discussion list devoted to research and teaching in the field of world history, engaged in a spirited debate about the community college job market and the proper training of community college historians. Their discussion, which involved history educators at all levels, from primary schools to Ph.D.-granting institutions, recapitulated a much larger disciplinary conversation on the same themes. The H-World exchange began when one member of the list, an adjunct instructor at a community college, publicly despaired about "the reality of the job market." He was not much interested in earning a doctorate, but the community colleges in his region only seemed to be interested in hiring Ph.D.'s for their permanent positions. "Where in the world," he asked, "outside of primary school instruction, does someone with my credentials find work? Is the History M.A. a dead-end proposition?"59 The ensuing debate continued for nearly two weeksan eternity by online standardsbut only reached a mixed set of conclusions.
First, the list-members concluded that the master's degree is still a viable credential for getting hired at a community college. Different institutions set their own hiring standards, however, and these can vary widely from place to place. One historian on the list, a former adjunct instructor at five separate community colleges in Southern California, vividly described his experience from the mid-1990s:
It seem[s] to me that there were both Ph.D.-oriented departments and those that were strongly anti-Ph.D. in the community colleges. At the time that I worked the freeways, three of them had Ph.D. tenure-track faculties and two fell into the latter category. But of those two, one had a single Ph.D. on board, and after retiring professors were actually replaced with tenure-track hires, that one had become another Ph.D. department. So that makes it four to one. The reality does seem to be that it is increasingly unlikely for a candidate with only an M.A. to successfully compete against Ph.D. holders, especially since most of those Ph.D. applicants will also have an extensive teaching record with favorable evaluations.
" There are so many older community college history professors without doctorates," he added, "that it can't have always been this way," an insight that is confirmed by the data presented in Table 10A.
A more recent and more rigorous analysis of hiring trends is provided by Chris Howell, a historian who teaches at Red Rocks Community College in Colorado (and an active participant in the H-World debate). Howell examined every advertisement for a full-time community college faculty position in history during the one-year period between August 1, 2002, and August 1, 2003, using two national academic employment databases as his main source for job announcements.60 The sample included 152 open positions (some of which closed before being filled, victims of the nationwide budget crunch at two-year institutions). The minimum requirements for these positions varied: 71 percent asked for a master's degree in history, 66 percent required at least two years of full-time teaching experience at the community college level, 36 percent required no more than eighteen graduate hours in history (though a master's degree was often preferred), while just 26 percent required (or at least "desired") candidates with a Ph.D.
Unfortunately, we do not know the credentials of the candidates who were actually hiredimportant information that the AHA should strive to gather in the future, as the only way to accurately assess the community college employment market. (Of course, this would be easier to do if community colleges routinely advertised their open positions for historians in Perspectives; the lack of a centralized listing is a continual source of frustration for jobseekers.) Anecdotally, we do know that historians with master's degrees are still being hired at community colleges, a consoling piece of news that several H-World members offered their unhappy colleague quoted above. But we also know that community colleges hire historians with lesser qualifications, such as a handful of graduate-level courses, or ask faculty members trained in other disciplines to teach introductory history courses.
The best summary of the community college employment market seems to be that "although a master's degree is the minimum requirement, many community colleges are hiring faculty who have their doctorates in hand or are in various stages of their doctoral programs."61 The most competitive candidates in this market are frequently ABDs, some of whom (they tell us) continue to pursue a Ph.D. primarily as a way to gain or keep a community college jobwhich is not the most efficient use of higher education resources, if the real goal is to prepare qualified instructors for two-year institutions. A preference for Ph.D.'s at some community colleges may also have the unintended effect of discouraging minority applicants. About a third of all minority faculty members now teach at community colleges. Among other reasons, they are attracted to community colleges by their diverse student populations and the professional requirement of a master's degree, which "draw[s] minority faculty who cannot or choose not to seek a doctorate in their discipline" (according to the journal Black Issues in Higher Education). In fact, analysts at the Illinois Board of Higher Education have argued persuasively that local master's degree programs are "an undeveloped pool" of potential minority faculty members for their state's community colleges.62 History departments should also use their master's programs to promote diversity in the ranks of community college historians.
The second conclusion from the H-World debate was that well-trained historians with master's degrees may be fully prepared to teach history at the community college level, and that historians with Ph.D.'s may not be properly prepared. Indeed, one community college historian flatly rejected the idea that a Ph.D. is appropriate training: "If someone who holds a Ph.D. is better than an M.A. in a survey class (of course this tends to be the majority of the history offered at two-year colleges) it has little or nothing to do with the degree. Let's be honest, there are many [historians] with Ph.D.'s (and, of course, M.A.'s) who do not belong in a classroom and many M.A.'s who are extraordinary teachersteaching skills and knowledge base are not one in the same. I believe some M.A.'s and their abilities are excellent and needed in two years colleges." Another community college historian elaborated on this point, ironically echoing both Jordan's anti-doctorate argument and Koos's pro-doctorate argument in the process:
[T]he Ph.D. is unnecessary to teach at community colleges. Indeed, I have encountered many Ph.D. candidates on the "fast track" who skip the M.A. and focus solely on their Ph.D. dissertation topic. As a result, they often do not have a solid background in the narrative history of their own specialized fields, let alone knowledge of other fields that they will be required to teach at the community college. Teaching at the community college requires a broad knowledge of [diverse] topics…. Writing a specialized Ph.D. dissertation offers no guarantee that the professor will be able to address these various topics. Unfortunately, neither does the M.A. and, in the past, it was not unusual for an unqualified M.A. to slip through the cracks at the community college. … I believe that a terminal M.A. with the clearly stated purpose of preparing college teachers, and not researchers, would be a more productive way to fill the ranks of professors teaching survey courses.
In response, a faculty member from a doctoral program countered that historians with Ph.D.'s usually have two advantages over their colleagues with master's degrees: 1) the depth of knowledge and breadth of research skills that ideally come from a dissertation, and 2) more experience "teaching than would come … [from] any M.A. program. (Teaching, at least in the form of a T.A., is usually an academic requirement for getting the Ph.D., and Teaching Assistants now go through training programs in most doctoral programs). … Newly minted people, Ph.D. or M.A. [in hand], may well have some learning to do on the teaching front, and I don't think that newly minted Ph.D.'s are handicapped here." For him, too, the most important things that historians bring to the community college classroom are skills and knowledge, not the specific letters after their names.
A decade ago, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) reported on the "lack of training in support of history teaching in graduate institutions, particularly as it relates to … community college teaching." This was amply confirmed by the AHA's own recent study of doctoral education. We are glad to see more attention being paid in recent years to the training of graduate students as teachers (though teaching should be an integrated part of the historian's training at both the master's and doctoral levels). But as David Berry, executive director of the Community College Humanities Association, has argued, historians still need to "open the coffin" of the graduate curriculum, which continues to emphasize quite narrow geographic and temporal fields of study. Outside of a relatively small number of elite colleges, the job market for history teachers at all levels is driven by a demand for people who can teach three things: world history, Western civilization, and the U.S. history survey. The curricula of master's degree programs (and Ph.D. programs, for that matter) should reflect this reality. The OAH advised history departments to "[t]ake a good look at graduate education. Are your M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s ready to face a classroom occupied by a bewildering variety of ages, nationalities, and educational backgrounds?"63 We strongly second their advice.
Both the training and the hiring of community college historians should focus on competencies rather than credentials. The AHA has at least four obligations in this regard:
- To acknowledge that both master's
programs and doctoral programs can be good places to train community
college historians, but that
neither a master's degree nor a Ph.D., by itself, is proof
that any historian is prepared to work in a community college
- To lead the way in defining the appropriate
historical knowledge, teaching skills, research training, and practical
(such as internships) for community college instructors.
- To help history departments rethink and
reform their own graduate programs, so that students who want to
pursue a community college
position are assured of receiving the appropriate training.
- To persuade community college administrators that appropriately trained historians are the best (if not the only) people to teach history in their classrooms, and that full-time faculty appointments ought to be the norm.
These are considerable challenges.
As Diane Ravitch recently noted, "Teachers today have more degrees than ever in our history; the bachelor's degree is ubiquitous, and about half even have a master's degree. We do, however, have a problem in the academic preparation of teachers: only a minority39 percenthave a bachelor's or graduate degree in any academic field. The majority of teachers today have a degree in education, and many have both a B.A. and an M.A. in pedagogy." For history, the numbers are even worse than average: barely a third of the nation's high school history teachers majored in the subject as undergraduates and fewer still have a master's degree in the discipline. The only high school subject with a comparably low incidence of "in-field" teaching is physics.64 Fortunately, this still means that thousands of secondary school teachers have earned master's degrees in history, though no reliable count exists.
Historians, education reformers, and politicians have regularly complained about the state of history education in the schools, at least since the 1880s.65 In the past few years, however, the complaints have given way to an extraordinary opportunity for improving the training of primary and secondary history teachers. "Education reform is sweeping the nation … [with the] development of K–12 standards and accountability mechanisms; [and] the assessment of K–12 schools, teachers, and students … [as] just a few of the many areas of reform activity."66 Unprecedented amounts of federal support are being devoted to the teaching of "traditional American history," starting with the Teaching American History grants ("Byrd Grants") that have been awarded to dozens of university-community partnerships with the goal of improving student performance through the professional development of teachers.67 The Bush administration's No Child Left Behind initiative, which calls for a "highly qualified teacher" in each classroom, has focused salutary attention on teacher qualifications in every fieldalthough, in practice, the application of the law has so far emphasized high-stakes testing in quantifiable fields like math and reading at the expense of history instruction.68 University historians are paying more attention to secondary education than they have in the recent past.69 There has been a resurgence of interest in the "alternative certification" of teachers.70 Finally, the best current prediction is that retirements and demographic shifts will rapidly increase the demand for new teachers in the decade ahead.71 We need to make sure that more of the new teachers have master's degrees in history.
The master's degree has not always been viewed as a necessary credential for public school teachers. Although the "education and training requirements for teaching have risen almost unremittingly" since the early twentieth century, the bachelor's degree only became the standard entry requirement for elementary school teaching after World War IIabout the same time that a fifth year of college, though not necessarily a master's degree, became the norm for high school teachers. The National Council on the Accrediting of Teacher Education (NCATE) was formed in 1952 with the goal, still unrealized today, of developing "a truly nationwide system of reciprocity in teacher certification." Following California's lead, several states began to require a master's degree for advanced certification in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, in the 1980s, the degree received an important boost from two influential reports issued by the Carnegie Task Force on Teaching as a Profession and the Holmes Group (a coalition of education school deans from leading research universities). "[T]hese reports called for eliminating undergraduate teacher education, requiring subject matter majors for all teacher candidates, and using master's degrees as ‘the new entry level credential' for the profession."72
Twenty states now require a master's degree (or an equivalent amount of graduate study) from starting public school teachers who want to advance from initial to permanent certification, which represents a significant increase since the time of the Holmes Group report. In private schools, too, the master's degree "is increasingly the minimum expectation for [new] teachers."73 For most teachers, the additional degree comes with a nice raise: an extra $7,000 a year for a Philadelphia public school teacher with eleven years of experience, for example, and $9,800 for a teacher with ten years of experience in Detroit.74 The combination of new certification requirements and salary incentives thus goes a long way towards explaining the growth in the number of master's degrees awarded since the late 1990s. But it does not explain why most teachers prefer to pursue master's degrees in education rather than master's degrees in the traditional academic disciplines. (Indeed, the historic trend for teachers has been away from disciplinary degrees and towards education degrees. According to one account, public school teachers earned 75 percent of all the liberal arts master's degrees in 1939. Three decades later, higher education experts concluded that "the master's degree [in the traditional disciplines] can no longer be thought of as a teacher's degree.")75
Perhaps we should turn the question around and ask, Why do secondary school history teachers ever choose to pursue a master's degree in the discipline? It is not because they have to: in most cases a master's degree in education, perhaps with some content-area coursework, is more than sufficient for advanced teacher certification.76 Nor are the history degrees any cheaper or easier to earn than the education degrees; usually the opposite is true, and is likely to become even truer in the years ahead, as the number of institutions offering master's degrees in education via distance education or through brief residential programs continues to grow.77 In most states, moreover, the teacher credentialing process is controlled by some combination of state education authorities, schools of education, and NCATE (or other accreditors). As a result, history master's degrees have to be "rigorous in the discipline" while also making sure that future teachers can satisfy the credentialing requirementswhich usually means extra coursework for the students.78
Nonetheless, many individual teachers choose to pursue master's degrees in history rather than master's degrees in education because they recognize a vital intellectual difference between the two courses of study. Their testimony is anecdotal yet compelling. As one middle-school teacher from California explained to the Committee on the Master's Degree,
I am frustrated that schools like National University offer an M.A. [in Teaching] in one year and … [my history degree from a California State University campus] will be taking over three. But I am getting out of this exactly what I wanted. Sure, I will receive a modest bump in pay, though hardly enough to offset the time and money of this last three years. But I signed up for this to improve my content knowledge, to give me more tools for presenting history to secondary students, to open doors to other programs and teaching opportunities … and to explore topics of interest in-depth.79
A teacher in North Carolina pointedly compared her graduate training in history to the education degrees she might have pursued instead:
I have had many folks tell me how easy their graduate programs [are] in things like Language Arts, or any of the Education studies like Curriculum and Design. Many say they worked harder for their B.A. I am proud to say that I workedand had to work100 percent harder for my M.A. than my B.A., and I thought that is what it was supposed to be like. I was talk[ing] to someone who recently got the Ph.D. in European History … [who noted] that History at the graduate level did seem to be much more rigorous than other disciplines. I agree. It makes one wonder why we historians get so little respect in the public school system. We are being pushed to the side in public schools because of the standardized testing of L[anguage] A[rts] and Math. As a historian I can read and write as well as the LA teacher and in some cases better. … [H]istorians [are usually] the best educated people on any staff. Unfortunately, we are the least respected.
A third teacher told us she "thought about pursuing a Masters in Education instead, but chose an M.A. in History to make myself as strong a resource as possible for my social studies students."80 Still another affirmed that "had I pursued an education master's [instead of a history degree], I'd have left the teaching field years ago. … When I returned to the classroom with my newly minted master's degree, I was twice the teacher I'd been before because I knew at least twice the content material. [More important,] the master's degree allowed me to synthesize, to fit the pieces of the intellectual puzzle together. Now I understood … the ‘big' picture, for the first time."81
Based on a close review of the current debates about training history teachers, as well as our conversations with historians and educators during the past two years, we offer the following propositions about the role of the history master's degree in preparing secondary teachers. These are, at best, the starting point for a larger conversation in the discipline. Nowhere is that conversation more necessary than in history departments with graduate programs. As Donald Schwartz (who teaches history and trains future teachers at California State University at Long Beach) bluntly but correctly notes, "The fact is that many history professors do not feel any connection, personally or academically, to K–12 education in general, or to educating those who will teach on the pre-collegiate level."82 This has to change, and re-valuing the master's degree will help.
- History teachers should be trained
as historians. As noted earlier, education scholars are sharply
divided about the
impact of a teacher's
qualifications on the measurable academic achievements of his or
her students. The exact relationship between "good teaching" and
teacher training is murky at best.83 The relationship between having
a history degree and being a good classroom teacher is unproven.
Nonetheless, as two experts summarize the evidence in this debate,
although "studies have not explicitly distinguished between
degrees in subjects and degrees in the teaching of particular subjects … [or]
between degrees in the teaching of particular subjects and general
degrees in teaching … theory and intuition suggest" that
students are likely to learn more about a subject when their
teachers are well trained in that subject.84 Our intuition
is that historians
make the best history teachers.
- History teachers should be encouraged to earn master's degrees in history rather than generic education degrees. We have no intention here of fueling the old and fruitless "battle between scholars and ed school professors."85 Some schools of education provide exemplary training for history teachers, working closely with history departments or adding historians to their own faculties to make sure that students achieve the proper balance of disciplinary expertise and teaching proficiency. These collaborations between education specialists and historians should be encouraged, but also recognized as exceptional. In our view, a properly conceived master's degree in history, primarily taught by historians and lodged in a history department rather than a school of education, should be the most effective training for secondary history teachers. Unfortunately, this is the ideal, not a description of the current state of teacher training. The challenge is bringing history departments up to the ideal standard, which will require many of them to reconceive their master's programs so they can serve both the practical needs of teachers (to secure licensure, for example) and the intellectual values of the discipline.
At a minimum, the advanced methods courses for secondary school history teachers should be taught by historians rather than education specialists, who are less likely to appreciate the "discipline's epistemological foundation as a humanly crafted narrative based on firm yet fragmentary sources."86 History departments that intend to train teachers should "have on staff professors who have been successful secondary teachers and who are also willing to read up on and try out various instructional methods and materials."87 And all history departments should embrace the idea of a "scholarship of teaching" that values pedagogy and rewards professors for developing curricular materials and training future teachers.88 Otherwise, we will continue to hear legitimate complaints that historians with graduate degrees are unprepared for classroom teaching at any level.
In-service training is a necessary and valuable tool for the professional development of history teachers, but it cannot replace a master's degree. Consider the example of the California History-Social Science Project, one of the best models for in-service training in the country. After a recent review of the project as implemented during a three-year period at the University of California at Davis, the project director, Kathleen Medina, was forced to conclude that "for the most part, teachers [involved in the project] … stopped short of historical interpretation." Even more disturbing was that some of the basic historiographic concepts introduced to the teacherssuch as emphasizing primary sources and multiple perspectiveswere distorted in the transmission to their students, who were then apt to leave the classroom believing that primary sources are always more valuable and accurate than historians' accounts; the result was "a dangerous kind of historical relativism." Based on this evidence, Medina and her colleagues argue that "when professional development programs engage in discrete attempts at skill building or teach generic strategies to support disciplinary knowledge without considering the big picture for teacher or student, they unwittingly encourage teachers to place isolated skills or strategies on center stage, possibly at the expanse of a balanced and comprehensive program of instruction." "Unfortunately," they write, "there is no clear place on their career pathway where history teachers learn the theoretical foundations and research practices of the discipline."89 The history master's degree ought to be that place.
- School teachers should be trained
alongside other history graduate students, rather than being
a separate "track." Apart
from the practical and intellectual benefits of collegiality,
this serves as a constant reminderto students and faculty
teaching is an important component of every historian's
training. Some faculty members tell us that it is more difficult
to teach a
group of graduate students with diverse, perhaps even incompatible
or "incoherent," career goals, and also more
difficult to foster the students' sense of belonging
to a cohort of peers.90 These are not sufficient
arguments for segregating graduate
Instead, they underscore the need for attentive mentoring
and creative pedagogy, perhaps in the form of new courses
to foster interactions among history graduate students pursuing
different career paths.
- The distinctive pedagogy of history
should be part of every historian's
training at the master's level. Most historians recognize that
a "knowledge of history and social sciences is not sufficient
for teaching. Each of us has encountered brilliant historians who
had little capacity to teach. Knowledge of the subject matter is
necessary to teaching but it is not sufficient. History teachers
also need to know how to teach history."91 However, teaching
history is not simply a variation on other kinds of teaching,
as more than a decade of empirical research on the cognitive
of teaching and learning history clearly proves. This impressive
body of research has important implications for both classroom
instruction and the epistemology of the discipline; every historian
familiar with its lessons.92
- The AHA should consider drafting its own standards for history teacher certification. Four years ago, at the very start of the AHA's current investigation of graduate training, we heard from the chair of a small history department in upstate New York. The most urgent issue facing her department when it came to graduate education was the competition for students from the school's own department of education. As she noted, historians often operate at a disadvantage in the struggle for graduate students, because the schools of education play such a large role in the teacher credentialing process. This was her proposed solution:
The AHA may wish to develop voluntary "guidelines" for a curriculum in graduate education, especially regarding the history education necessary to prepare students who plan to teach at the high school level. These … [would] be tactically very useful to faculty in my institution if we … [could] say that the AHA recommends that teachers seeking professional certification in Social Studies have to demonstrate competence in X areas of the discipline by completing X hours of graduate level course work in each area. This is how the Education faculty operate; they make frequent reference to their professional association's "requirements."93
We think her suggestion deserves serious consideration. At the very least, historians should be openly discussing the advantages (and disadvantages) of voluntary guidelines and training standards for secondary history teachers. The AHA made a step in this direction with its recent set of benchmarks for assessing professional development programs for American history teachers. In defining what "constitutes a good program and what outcomes should be expected," the benchmarks assert that "content, pedagogy, and historical thinking should be interwoven" and that "content, pedagogy, and historical thinking should be related to classroom experience." The first assertion can also be applied to nearly every master's degree for historians, while the second applies with particular force to the master's degrees for history teachers.94
Historians in the United States have always pursued their profession in multiple settings outside of the classroom. For most of the twentieth century, however, the training of historians for public occupations played a very small role in graduate education, particularly at the leading doctoral programs. At a conference on graduate education hosted by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1950, Richard Shryock of the University of Pennsylvania stood up and declared that "a certain type of historical writing should be aimed at the public, and I think that that type of historical writing is very important and has real value. Whether we can do anything in graduate schools to train people to write effectively for the public is another question." In the end, he concluded that "Some of us ought to reach the public; in some cases we don't need to."95
Shryock probably spoke for most members of the AHA at that time. In the early 1970s, however, graduate programs and individual historians began to turn more of their attention to public history, partly in response to the collapse of the academic job market for new Ph.D.'s and partly in response to the increasing democratization of history as a discipline. Since then, public history has developed into a rigorous subdiscipline, with a rich theoretical literature, standards of professional practice, and a strong professional association of its own (the National Council on Public History).96 Yet many doctoral programs still treat public history as an undesirable, or at least second best, career destination for their graduates. The culture of doctoral education privileges academic employment, sometimes openly and sometimes through inadvertence, such as using the residual term "nonacademic" to describe the important and rewarding work of thousands of history professionals. As one doctoral student told the AHA's Committee on Graduate Education, "Nonacademic career possibilities are not discussed, described, or much respected in my department, which is extremely discouraging." Another explained that her "interest in nonacademic careers is entirely covert … because I feel such pressure from my advisor to find a job at a good four-year university. I worry that, should she ever find out about this, she will decide that spending her time or the department's resources on me is wasteful."97
Most training for public history careers takes place at the master's level. At least forty-eight institutions in the United States currently offer a master's degree in public history, about a third more than offered the degree in 1978.98 (A growing number of doctoral programs also offer public history as a minor field.) Graduates of these programs go on to jobs at museums, historic sites, public agencies, archives, consulting firms, the History Channeleverywhere, in short, that professional historians work outside of colleges and universities, though some public historians work in those places, too. In fall 2002, the AHA conducted a survey of agencies and institutions that hire public historians in order to learn more about what they want in their new employees.99 We received 201 responses from a variety of institutions, ranging from tiny, one-person local historical societies to well-staffed state archives and large government agencies (see Table 11). The sample is hardly optimal from a demographer's point of view (for example, the federal government and private industry are significantly underrepresented), and it only captures one side of the employer/employee relationship. Nonetheless, it does reflect the working and hiring conditions faced by many historians who chose public history as their destination.
The survey of employers elicited some surprising and some distressing responses, which cannot easily be reduced to aggregate statistics. Here we focus on six major themes that came across with particular force and clarity.
1. "Academic" versus "Public" Historians. The respondents perceive a deep split between "academic" and "public" historians, mirroring the perception of many university-based historians. Academic historians were frequently characterized as too narrow and specialized in their scholarly interests, too "elitist" to engage in public history at the local level, and lacking a "view of the big picture." As one supervisor at a state agency put it, the typical history graduate is "[unable] to function in a professional legal/business environment due to a lack of experience outside of [the] academic ivory tower…. Graduate programs don't care whether students can function in a … nonacademic environment, probably because the typical history professor could not function in such an environment." His point was echoed, albeit less harshly, by the dozens of other respondents who drew a distinction between "theoretical graduate courses" and "practical knowledge."
2. Employment Opportunities in Public History. There are real employment opportunities in public history. Three-quarters of the respondents reported that the number of permanent staff positions at their home institutions had grown (29 percent) or remained steady (48 percent) during the previous three years, while 68 percent had actually hired at least one new staffer to a permanent position. Most employers in the survey prefer to hire new staff members with master's degreesbut not necessarily master's degrees in history. Instead, many are looking for a background in museum studies or even archival training, because graduate programs in these areas are deemed more likely than academic history programs to include some training in "administration." The current composition of staff at the surveyed institutions confirms these hiring priorities: at institutions with three or more permanent staff members "directly engaged in some kind of historical work" (N=104), only 31 percent had a history Ph.D. on staff, 63 percent had a staff member with a master's degree in history (or public history), and 72 percent had at least one staff member with a master's degree in a different field.
The smallest organizations (those with just a few permanent staff members, if any) rely mostly on volunteers and are happy when they can hire anyone. For these agencies, "Real life experience is more important than academic experience." But the larger organizations, and even some of the small places, are increasingly seeking applicants with advanced degrees in history or a closely related field. Indeed, a majority of respondents claimed that hiring standards have gone up at their institutions in the past decade, and the most common word of explanation they offered for this trend was "professionalization"the professionalization of their own institutions, but also the professionalization of public history as a subdiscipline. As one employer noted, "Our parent organization [in this case, a municipal government] prevents us from making graduate degrees a requirement. The reality, though, is that there are enough skilled people with M.A.'s that it becomes a de facto requirement."
Despite their hiring preference for master's degree holders, the survey respondents were not terribly impressed with most history graduate programsnot even with the programs that focus on training public historians. The best of these programs were praised for producing graduates with solid technical skills and a firm grasp of the interpretive issues surrounding public history.100 Yet a number of respondents also complained that "public history graduate programs don't give students enough history" (to quote the director of a large history museum).
3. Employer Expectations for Public Historians. What are employers looking for when they hire public historians? For most respondents, the answer to this question was a list of the skills and competencies that job applicantsand even many of their recent hiresconspicuously lack. These include good writing and communication skills (by far the most consistent refrain); an appreciation of local history (any local history, but especially the history of the institution's own state or region); an understanding of different audiences (and the ability to communicate with ordinary people); and the willingness and ability to work collaboratively with others.101 Intriguingly, the phrase "work ethic" appeared several times among the responses, both as a desirable trait and, implicitly, as something that academic historians do not possess, at least in a real-world setting. (As the director of education at one large museum commented, "I wish new hires realized [that] ‘Work is not a debating society.'") As noted above, the respondents also stressed the importance of administrative skills, such as time-management, budget planning and analysis, computer literacy, employee supervision, marketing, fundraising, grantsmanship, institutional governance, etc. One person recommended, only half in jest, that "‘cross-training' with the Business School" would make good sense for any history graduate program.
The shortage of administrative expertise among recent graduate students is perhaps understandable. So, to a lesser extent, is their lack of technical proficiency in such areas as oral history, historic preservation, archival management, and museum-based educationall desirable skills, according to the employers in the survey, but also skills that can be honed "on-the-job with good mentoring." More disturbing, to us, were the many responses that pointed to a lack of basic research skills and historical understanding on the part of new master's degree recipients. One employer flatly declared, "Research and critical analysis seem to be disappearing from all of the traditional academic work environments and … [this is] flowing over into nonacademic settings." Another complained that many applicants "[don't even know] how to interpret a decent primary source. Grad students spend too much time reading secondary sources and then spend too much time criticizing them."
4. The Importance of Internships. Nearly every respondent stressed the importance of internships or some other kind of practicum for would-be public historians, as the only way to gain the hands-on experience that so many find lacking among their job applicants. Internships "benefit … the students and institutions alike"but only if they are well structured and well supported by both a student's graduate program and the institution. Unfortunately, some "colleges and universities send interns to museums without adequate [preparation or support]" while some museums have "no professional staff to oversee/train the intern." One solution, proposed by a supervising historian at a state archive, is for the AHA itself to "develop programs where the intern experience becomes more structured from both ends and moves toward apprenticeship." Another employer proposed a less centralized approach: "I believe that all graduate students should be required to complete at least one internship … [and] all professional historians should mentor the new graduates."
5. Relationship between University and Community. For a third of the small institutions in this survey (i.e., those with no more than five permanent employees), internships are the only formal contact they have with local graduate programs or history departments. According to the director of one county museum, "university professors don't want ‘outsiders' in their classes and eschew relationships with museum employees, especially from smaller museums. It's difficult to even inform them of internship and research opportunities for their students." Nonetheless, most respondentsfrom both big and small institutions alikedo want to work more closely with their university-based colleagues; they think it would be good for everyone involved. Several employers suggested that the AHA should facilitate these relationships, without providing any practical suggestions to that end.
Other respondents did offer substantive advice. Here are two of the most interesting suggestions, each from the director of a county historical society. First, "graduate program[s] … should do a community ‘check up' at least once a yearinvite local preservation officers, planners, historians, and museum administrators to talk to their students, conduct behind-the-scenes tours, etc." Second, "graduate students need to become more aware of what the smaller non-profits are attempting to provide, and possibly be required to give some volunteer time or assistance to help these agencies grow." We agree with these respondents that history departments need to reach out to their communities. Graduate programs are often the best way to do so. Likewise, any history department that offers a master's degree in public history must incorporate practitioners into the graduate program, not only as expert instructors and professional role models for their students, not only as advisors and internship supervisors, but as guides and envoys to the community at large.
6. Public Historians and the AHA. Finally, the public history employers we surveyed do not consider the American Historical Association to be a very important representative of their professional interests, except at the largest institutions (the institutions most likely to be included in the AHA's Directory of History Departments, Historical Organizations, and Historians, for example). Instead, they tend to affiliate with state and regional associations, or to join such national groups as the American Association of Museums, the American Association for State and Local History, the National Council on Public History, and the Society of American Archivists. Several employers advised the AHA to work much more closely with these "agencies already in the field" to improve the training and workplace conditions of public historians; we certainly agree with their advice. Others applauded the AHA for making an effort to connect with local institutions that "are doing public historysometimes badly, sometimes fairly wellwithout ongoing professional guidance." Still others were "appall[ed] that the AHA is just now beginning to look at graduate education. I watched as the job market fell apart in the early 90s. Other than hand-wringing at dismal statistics, the AHA … didn't give a damn."
There is a significant contradiction at the heart of the survey
results we have just presented. On one side, the respondents speak
growing professionalization of public history in all its forms.
They testify to the civic responsibility, the intellectual challenge,
and the sheer excitement of public history. Indeed, even when they
complain about the undersized budgets and relatively meager salaries
of public historians, they urge young historians who are interested
in this career destination to "go for it!" On the other
side, the respondents report that too many of their potential employeesincluding
the products of otherwise well-regarded master's degree programs
in historyare poorly trained, with imperfect technical skills,
a weak command of history and the tools of historical research, inadequate
writing skills, and a limited ability to deal with the public. Resolving
the apparent contradiction between professional expectations and
the content of graduate training, not just in public history but
everywhere in the profession, must be central to any effort that
the AHA undertakes to improve the master's degree.
Last Updated: May 11, 2007