Letters to the Editor

On Historians, Tuning, and Markets

Christopher L. Doyle, September 2012

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To the Editor:

In the April 2012 Perspectives, James Grossman explains and justifies the AHA's so-called "tuning project." Grossman's essay worries me, both for vagueness uncharacteristic of him and for its ominous profusion of the exact buzzwords that pervade my world in secondary education. I see in the "tuning project" a disaster in the making; one that, if "tuning" comes to pass, will be of the AHA's own doing.

Grossman defends the project in language deriving from the business world. Allegedly, "students and parents" "demand" to know how a history degree "can be translated into jobs." So, evidently, do employers. They, too, "want to know what it means when young applicants show up for entry-level positions with 'history major' on their résumés." Perhaps the tuning project will somehow allay these fears, if such a clamor really exists, by suggesting how a history degree might bolster the corporate bottom line. But by playing to such anxiety, "tuning" runs profound risks of warping and distorting deeper purposes of studying history.
Not only are these "stakeholders" (Grossman uses the word, a play on "stockholders") driving the impulse to define essential skills of undergraduate history, but, apparently, they also deserve input. Grossman asks rhetorically how history professors can assist them "if we don't listen to voices from those circles concerning the skills and knowledge that our students need?" The conclusion seems to be that the AHA should become more like a marketing agency: engage the focus groups, find out what they want, and come up with a history "brand" (again, Grossman's language.) Just as marketers make poor historians, it seems dubious that the august AHA tuning committee will make very good "mad men."

I come at this issue from a unique, critical vantage point. Trained and steeped in academic history, I have spent most of the last decade working in the growing dysfunction of public high school history classrooms. I have written about this dysfunction at length, including two essays for this publication. Grossman's rhetoric—"stakeholders," "branding," reform justified as good business sense—is the lingua franca of public schools these days, but this is what happens when business-oriented "stakeholders" impose themselves on education:

  1. They demand ever-more-complex and arcane lists of facts, skills, and minutiae that become the basis for instruction and assessment. Teachers and students begin to focus relentlessly on the "outcomes" articulated by the lists. Creativity, passion, and the pleasure of learning for its own sake are all victims.
  2. No matter how long the lists grow, they turn out never to be satisfying or comprehensive. The impulse to define, categorize, and over-script leaves teachers and students feeling inadequate. The recent past, cutting-edge historical scholarship, and depth get sacrificed in the name of coverage.
  3. (Students find themselves increasingly assessed on the standards. Standardized exit exams become graduation requirements. Textbooks reflect the standards and corporate testing gets employed to measure their attainment.
  4. Many students fall short of the mark. Teachers are blamed.
  5. In the name of accountability, teachers are told that they, too, will be evaluated quantitatively based on their effectiveness at preparing students for the tests. If teachers point out the deficiency of this approach—how it diminishes the life of the mind and excludes so much—anti-tax groups, the media, and other antagonists scapegoat them as obstructionists who are overpaid and lazy.

If this sounds farfetched, consider that a decade ago just about all my high school teacher colleagues would have said it was outlandish to believe it could happen at our level. Yet these scenarios are now reality, or soon will be, in public primary and secondary education.

Instead of "tuning," it seems to me much preferable to rely on our own profession, its practitioners and methods, to justify the value of a history degree. In the April 2012 Perspectives, William Cronon does just that in his column "Loving History." Cronon contrasts the professional historian with the antiquarian by showing how the former uses deep study of source evidence, defines larger meanings, and subjects myth and nostrum to withering analysis. Writing and thinking, using evidence fairly and comprehensively, surely this approach serves as justification enough for studying history.

We should have similar confidence in those newly-minted history BAs on the job market. Instead of pulling the AHA tuning project from their briefcases at interviews, they can model the skills they learned in their history classes: clear and persuasive writing, the ability to synthesize and find larger meanings in data, and an affinity for clarity over hyperbole. Perhaps these job candidates might even show how they have grown as empathic and humane souls by studying the generations who came before them. We must keep faith that the quality of the candidate will prevail and that the attributes of a history degree stand out all by themselves—no stakeholder-sponsored tuning necessary.

As a member of the Connecticut Coordinating Council for the Promotion of History, I have already gone on record expressing reservations about the tuning project. After reading Grossman's column, my skepticism has deepened. I urge the AHA and its membership to rethink this effort. Grossman has it wrong; the dangers far exceed the benefits.

—Christopher L. Doyle
Watkinson School, Hartford, CT

Read James Grossman's response to Chrisopher Doyle's letter.