Publication Date

November 1, 2013

Ideas about general education are changing, with both intellectual and material implications for historians. Increasingly, people who plan post-­secondary education seem to see general ed less in terms of providing cultural capital by "rounding out" students'knowledge, and more in terms of providing them with skills that their majors don’t emphasize. One recent article speaks of “the emerging skills-­based general education curriculum” while lamenting that students “apparently are not hearing from employers that the skills developed in the core curriculum have value,” and thus see them as “hoops to jump through.”1

The call to a 2013 Association of American Colleges and Universities conference on general education spoke of moving away from a "checklist" approach. Lumina Foundation's formulation of "broad, integrative knowledge" emphasizes engaging students in the practices of fields outside their major, having study of these other fields throughout the BA years (rather than just the first two), and getting the student to apply the methods and evidence of at least one field beyond their major together with those of their home field.2 The hope, with which I sympathize, is to make general education a reservoir of skills and perspectives that are in dialogue with those stressed by a particular major, rather than a separate, stand-­alone dimension.

Unfortunately, however, this comes at a time when there are also powerful pressures to emphasize cost control and completion rates for undergraduates above everything else; this raises a real threat-­that any rethinking of general ed, however reasonable, may become an excuse for diminishing it. In such an environment, "general education" poses several overlapping issues, including how much history students need, which (if any) topics are essential, and who should be teaching such courses. My argument, briefly, is that we can advocate more effectively for history's place in the gen ed curriculum, and for the research support of those who teach it, if we highlight aspects of the field that we more often emphasize amongst ourselves and with advanced students than in the context of basic instruction.

R-­I institutions, in particular, often treat "general education"-which is, by definition, not highly specialized-­as standing apart from the creation of specialized new knowledge that is their main business: it's something they may also do well, but it's a different kind of activity which (unlike advanced, specialized teaching) need not be done by researchers. This is not entirely wrong. I probably wouldn't want somebody taking over my advanced course on the social history of late imperial China who could not, for instance, discuss how plausible it is that Manchu demographic behavior (which is unusually well-­documented) is an acceptable proxy for that of the far more numerous but less well-­documented Han Chinese. And that probably limits this course to people actively researching this or a closely related field.

By contrast, even very good students in an introductory East Asia survey are not likely to ask questions that need answers from somebody who keeps up with a specific literature to that extent, or has that much "feel" for a particular range of documents. So somebody much less enmeshed in the field (though not just anyone) probably could teach the survey. Certainly, those of us who have taught surveys have lectured about topics without knowing the latest literature, or much about the archives underlying that literature.

And if the general education instructor need not be a scholar of the topic, need they be an active scholar at all? Some would say no, which has big consequences. It suggests that these courses, which account for the bulk of history enrollments on many campuses-­and arguably the biggest social contribution from our teaching-­can be taught by people who don't need research support. Some may argue that this is a logical extension of long-­standing practice, even at top universities: don't many grad students, at some point, TA classes far outside their specialties?

However, there is a world of difference between teaching some historical topic at a very general level without being an active researcher in that sub-­field and doing so without being an active historical researcher at all. The discipline teaches particular skills, and those skills are at least as important as any particular set of facts. (While that doesn't mean we should give up defending the necessity of particular bodies of historical knowledge, it does underscore the importance of strengthening other arguments, and making them more frequently.)

Framing general education as skill development should be quite congenial to historians, given the discipline's eclecticism. It even fits with our frequent insistence that historians know how misleading it can be to rely on just one or two factors, read texts and images without regard to their time and place of origin, or treat analytic concepts that are themselves evolving historical products as if they had stable meanings rooted in nature. Those skills can be cultivated, and their importance demonstrated in any history course, regardless of time period, scale, or theme. The same is true for the assumptions behind the historical method of reading: (1) you figure out what the words mean by how they are used-­so that you aren't really putting a document in context, but building the context as you go, and (2) in doing this, forgetting is as important as remembering-­you have to work hard at reconstructing what some issue might look like if you didn't know certain things and have certain moral certainties.

This is more than just saying, "It's more complicated than you think," although unfortunately, we sometimes sound as if that's all we're saying. If historians merely "complement" other disciplines by adding cautionary notes, our place in the curriculum will be small. We need to show that historians can simplify but not oversimplify-­that we don't just undermine narratives but create others that are useful, and we know how to stop complexifying endlessly before it becomes counterproductive. And you only learn that by doing it.

I see this as an argument for pitching gen-ed history courses broadly: not for the sake of "general knowledge" but for the intellectual operations you can teach.I see this as an argument for pitching gen ed history courses broadly: not for the sake of "general knowledge" but for the intellectual operations you can teach. It also means that a person who has experience turning the near-­chaos of a mess of documents into a coherent story brings something to a history class that a smart person reading secondary literature doesn't: that an active, practicing historian of subject A, though not able to do quite as much with subject B as a specialist in B, can model for the students a kind of thinking that somebody who hasn't done a dissertation is much less able to provide. (It's also part of an argument that such people need to be paid and treated in a way that allows them to keep stretching those research muscles.)

So there are many benefits to being more explicit about the capabilities that studying history can teach-­not only in the context of refining majors (as the AHA's Tuning project does), but in the context of general education. Still, if we want to justify our place in the curriculum by highlighting skills, we need to explicitly teach skills to beginning students as well. Our textbooks, for instance, rarely introduce our discipline. In most other disciplines, introductory textbooks explain what the subject matter is, which tools and methods it uses, a couple of key assumptions, and maybe even a short history of the field. Most introductory history textbooks do none of these things-­instead, they usually begin by telling stories.

Nor does the typical 50 minute discussion section in which students read a document or two showcase the full range of what historical thinking can do-­at least not if it stops with the admittedly valuable goal of teaching close reading with attention to context. Students also need to see the products of our research and spend some time taking them apart and putting them back together again: "Is historian X more convincing than historian Y? Why or why not? What's missing from the arguments? Is there some good reason why it's missing?" Perhaps the desired sources don't exist, it wouldn't have occurred to X or Y when they wrote, or it would take forever to process. In short, students need to learn to read historical research, not just the sources on the one hand and the more highly processed syntheses of textbooks on the other. And they need practice reading that research the way other historical researchers read it, with an eye to putting together stories, not just critiquing them. This is not necessarily an argument against innovative assignments that ask students to present those narratives in new forms (from PowerPoints to videos) that use new skills. It is an argument in favor of highlighting the skills particular to our own craft, and the broad usefulness of learning those skills with people who actually practice them. And we should seek a specific (even if small) history requirement, not just a place in humanities, social sciences, "global cultures," or other broad rubrics.

—Kenneth Pomeranz is president of the AHA.


1. David J. Staley and Dennis A. Trinkle, “The Changing Landscape of Higher Education,”Educause Review January/February 2011, p. 19.

2. American Association of Colleges and Universities conference overview, “General Education and Assessment: A Sea Change in Learning,” February 28-­March 2, 2013, The Degree Qualifications Profile.

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