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From the Issues in Graduate Educationcolumn in the September 2002 Perspectives

Graduate Training in History

A. Howard Meenly, September 2002

In a period characterized by confusion and drastic change it is natural that the educational processes, like other phases of life, should be subjected to scrutiny, criticism, and revision. Perhaps in no branch of education has the criticism been more searching and the revisions more significant than in the social sciences, especially at the secondary school and college levels. Moreover, from public spokesmen, from students and graduates, and from educators themselves, graduate instructors included, have come caustic observations on what are deemed to be the shortcomings of advanced training.

One hears it argued that there is excessive specialization, overemphasis upon research, too much of the belt-line method and too little supervision in training graduate students, a failure to equip them properly for the kind of teaching that they must do, and an insufficient effort to limit the production of degree holders to somewhere near the demands of the academic market. Again, one . . . [cannot go] without questioning whether a good deal of hard thinking and some concerted action is not called for if the social science departments of the graduate schools are adequately to fulfill their missions.

Admission Policies

Perhaps the most immediate and critical problems facing the social science departments of the graduate schools today are the very practical ones of enrolment and placement. The latter are partly the result of the former, and from the former spring many of the limitations of present-day graduate training. The over-production of master’s and doctor’s degrees is of comparatively recent origin and has numerous causes. The past quarter century has seen a marked increase in the number of graduate schools, especially west of the Alleghenies, and an expansion of their size nearly everywhere.

If the depression has prevented some persons from pursuing graduate work, it has prompted many others to prepare for an academic career or to equip themselves more thoroughly for possible openings in other vocations. Legislatures and school boards have raised the requirements for secondary-school teachers. Colleges and universities have come increasingly to demand the completion of the doctorate as a condition of employment or of advancement. And almost everywhere, in view of shrinking endowments and appropriations, the pressure for fees to maintain or enlarge existing facilities has forced a competition for students, and perhaps in some instances a relaxing of standards.

Far more students are being admitted than are suited for graduate education or can be properly trained by existing graduate staffs. Lecture courses sometimes take on the proportions of theater audiences in which undergraduates, school teachers studying on a part-time basis for a master’s degree, and graduate students in residence familiarly rub elbows. Pro seminars are often large and the advanced ones may have twice as many members as the instructor can satisfactorily direct. Sheer numbers tend to encourage or to force a routine type of graduate work in which the M.A. and the Ph.D. are too much a matter of fulfilling regulations and passing examinations. . . . Many social science staffs have attempted to meet the enrolment problem by raising requirements for admission, by qualifying examinations, or by some other form of selective process. Others apply the axe, or, if you prefer, the "liquidation" measures, during the first or second year of work in residence. It is apparent, however, that the present restrictive measures fall short of what are needed. Professor [Carl C. ] Brigham sums up the situation by saying: "The ablest students will be admitted to any institution and will get some sort of training. The dullest may be rejected at some institutions, but somewhere a degree is waiting for them."

Placement Difficulties

The placing of recipients of advanced degrees has grown notably in difficulty during the past decade, and unless remedial steps are taken it seems likely to remain a principal cause of professorial headaches for years to come. The most noted graduate schools, along with the less eminent, are having serious trouble in placing even their talented candidates, and in no branch of the social sciences is this so true as in history, since the opportunities in vocations other than teaching are comparatively few for men trained in our field. Competition between graduate schools in finding positions for their products is intense. …The young and the experienced applicants alike may be pardoned if they feel that Jefferson’s famous lament about vacancies in posts long held by Federalists—"Those by death are few; by resignation, none"—is scarcely less true of the teaching profession these days. . . .

What can be done to meet these pressing problems? Certainly there are no ready answers or solutions. They clearly transcend individual institutions and regions of the country. Action by separate faculties may help, but it cannot solve them. It would seem that, in the main, they must be studied and dealt with on a cooperative basis. A comprehensive survey needs to be made of the sundry aspects of the production and market situations, including the prospects of placement in the normal schools, junior colleges, and secondary schools, for it is plain that the colleges and universities are no longer able to absorb more than a fraction of the battalion of new masters and doctors turned out from year to year. . . .

Problems of Specialization

Leaving such mundane matters as numbers and jobs, let us turn to some of the more strictly academic questions which arouse criticism and invite consideration. First, there is the issue of over-specialization. Most of us who were "brought up" in the graduate schools of history in the past few decades were put through a system of training that was characterized by a high degree of specialization in our chosen branch of learning…. We put on, so to speak, history blinders, took the prescribed number of courses and seminars, read historical works as assigned or optional readings, wrote historical papers, prepared ourselves for and took examinations that were strictly historical, and then turned to the research project, also historical, which was the chief remaining obstacle between us and the doctor’s degree. In short, we were equipped as specialists, shaped in the image of our professors who were themselves specialists. . . .

Broadening Curricula

. . . In the last ten or twelve years the curricula in schools and colleges have undergone marked revisions. The old history courses in innumerable cases have been discarded or undergone a sharp shift of emphasis in favor of social, economic, and cultural content. Elsewhere new courses bearing non-historical labels and containing much that was alien to "history" as formerly conceived, have jostled the survey courses out of the picture completely or into a secondary position. New types of college majors cutting across departmental boundaries have been set in operation, all in response to a growing demand for a broader approach to man’s history and his problems.

Truly effective instruction in such courses, especially in those emphasizing orientation and the integration of subject matter from several fields of learning, requires teachers broadly trained or at least of catholic interests. But ordinarily they are staffed by persons who were trained as and have remained essentially specialists. Experience in such work and a fuller appreciation of the complex nature of affairs have made many of us acutely aware of the limitations in our own background and anxious to insure to the new generations of teachers and students a more satisfactory preparation than we received or have made. As historians we feel competent to tackle subject matter from the standpoint of our specialty, but frequently we have an uncomfortable feeling that this is not enough. . . .

The current vogue of courses on "things in general" in the social sciences may pass and the innovations in college majors may in another decade be replaced, but it is probably safe to assume that the insistence upon a system of training for social scientists more nearly commensurate with the character of human problems, past and present, will continue. Especially so if a substantial proportion of the products of our graduate schools must turn to secondary schools, junior colleges, and normal schools for positions where the teaching demands made upon them call for somewhat more than a bowing acquaintance with materials drawn from the several social sciences. . . .

Response of Graduate Schools

Numerous professors giving graduate work recognize the need for greater breadth, and in recent years many departments and divisions of social science in the universities have broadened courses or removed restrictions discouraging or preventing students from crossing departmental frontiers. In many institutions students are now allowed to choose one or two fields of study outside of their specialty, and in some this has become mandatory for doctoral candidates. And where the nature of the dissertation requires drawing upon the subject matter of allied disciplines, the student is generally urged to widen his contacts. . . .

These are encouraging departures and may portend still further changes in the next few years, but it appears that the total advance toward broader graduate programs has, however, been distinctly limited thus far. In some cases the new regulations are "enforced with varying degrees of laxity" and are apparently little more than gestures. The habit of regarding candidates for advanced degrees as the exclusive property of particular departments is deeply ingrained and yields reluctantly to the demand for a wider approach. . . .

Teacher Training v. Research

Two other matters remain for reference: teacher training and graduate research. It is something of a paradox that although graduate schools are crowded with men and women who are preparing to become teachers, little or no training is given in most graduate departments of social science in the techniques of teaching. In most trades men undergo an apprenticeship and in many of the professions instruction and practical experience are joined in graduate work or a period of internship follows the granting of the degree. But in our own vocation, especially at the college level, it seems to be assumed that a well-stocked arsenal of facts, interpretations, and ideas is sufficient for the young teacher.

A few graduate departments of history do offer a course in the teaching of history, but the more general practice, if any gesture is made at all, is to relegate the task to the department of education. Most of us would probably agree that the person with a genuine gift for teaching needs no counsel, and that no amount of it can make a good teacher out of a poor prospect. Between the two extremes are large numbers of young men and women who would profit by a semester course, taught by a notably successful graduate or undergraduate professor of history, in which the organization and presentation of lecture materials, methods of classroom discussion, textbooks, collateral readings, and so on were considered and some practice work provided. Also, students might well be urged to visit as observers undergraduate and secondary school classes conducted by superior teachers. Teaching fellowships, especially where the novice’s work is supervised, are of great value in giving practical experience and in helping the university staff to assess a man’s potentialities as a teacher, but unfortunately such awards are few in most institutions. . . .

There are various explanations for the deficiency in graduate teaching, two of which may be mentioned. First, in making appointments to graduate faculties it appears to be customary to give much greater weight to scholarship than to teaching attainment. Secondly, advancement or other forms of recognition seem to be based primarily upon publications. So the professor pursues his research with vigor and sometimes regards class exercises and the students committed to his charge as "secondary and tertiary obligations." Doubtless all of us would grant that successful scholarship ought to be a requisite in the appointment of graduate school professors; there should be room for men who are primarily or even exclusively fitted for research, but since the training of educators is perhaps their most important function, it is reasonable to expect from graduate faculties a more inspiring brand of teaching than is often provided. If more emphasis and recognition were given to teaching ability in making appointments and promotions, it is likely that instruction would soon show a noticeable improvement.

Quality of Research

Since graduate schools are a leading source of productive research and a training ground for future scholars as well as teachers, it is natural that their atmosphere should be heavily charged with research interest and activity. One may question, however, whether so much of the time of the average graduate student should be focused upon research enterprises at the expense of extensive reading and the closing of gaps in his basic knowledge. . . .

A fair test of every history seminar or thesis topic ought to be its significance, independently or in relation to other matters. Investigations which contribute to a better understanding of human affairs or which result in valuable reinterpretations or syntheses of hitherto known things are as worthy of approval (and may be more so) as the so-called "original contribution." …. One wonders whether the failure of so large a percentage of doctors of philosophy to do any research beyond their dissertation may not sometimes result from acute distaste or from a perennial state of research exhaustion arising from their initial experience.

In a few pages one can do little more than touch upon a few phases of graduate work. If my emphasis has been essentially critical, it has not been for the mere pleasure of criticizing—"we are sinners all"—but rather in the hope that thought and discussion may be directed to matters of common concern. . . . Robert S. Lynd has said that "social science will stand or fall on the basis of its serviceability to men as they struggle to live." If that is true, those responsible for the training of social scientists have a great trust and a great challenge.

—These extracts are taken from the article in Social Education 5:1 (January 1941) and are reprinted here with the permission of the National Council for Social Studies.