Publication Date

May 12, 2016

Perspectives Section

From the President

AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning


  • World


History of the Discipline

Diversity continues to expand within the discipline of history. By “diversity” I refer first to diversity among practitioners and students of history: in gender, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, economic status, and racial categorization. Such diversity brings with it not only wider participation but also varied perspectives. It provides opportunities for individuals of all communities to have their approach imprinted in the historical record and heard in the classroom.

In addition to the growing diversity among practitioners of history, we are also experiencing growing diversity in the elements of historical study—the topics of study, their geographic and temporal scale, the methods of research and teaching, and the interpretations of the past. The AHA continues to encourage all these types of diversity, yet there is reason to review their implications. For instance, should we be concerned that the expansion of diversity will produce so much variety and difference within historical studies that the discipline will lose its coherence, along with any main line of argument?

The relationship of diversity to coherence is not a new issue, though it may look different now than it did earlier. One of the most important studies of coherence in history is That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (1988), by the late Peter Novick of the University of Chicago. Novick read the archives of the AHA and the Organization of American Historians, and the papers of many individual historians, tracing ideas and institutions as they developed. From the opening of the 20th century, Novick showed, the notion of objectivity in historical study became connected to the vision of a consensus in which historians agreed on the basic outlines of their interpretation. He then traced alternations in outlook: insurgent interpretations and methodologies arose, then were absorbed into a new consensus. Novick demonstrated that the 1950s and 1960s brought a much wider range of new approaches, especially as social history, women’s history, and historical modeling came to the fore. Novick’s final two chapters are titled “The Center Does Not Hold” and “There Was No King in Israel.” That is, by the 1980s, the growing diversity of topics, approaches, and practitioners had led to expression of fears that historical studies were taking a path toward incoherence.

A full generation has passed since Novick’s richly documented analysis appeared. Arguably, from the present moment of expanded diversity among historians, we can see new sorts of coherence in our appreciation of historical analysis and our understanding of historical change. I will argue this case, first, by exploring new trends in research and, second, by discussing parallel trends in teaching.


Studies at the global level arose to challenge the determined focus on national experiences; with time, transnational analysis took form to explore intermediate levels of interaction. Related to this growth in large-scale histories is the emergence of collaboration among historians, in addition to the long-standing practice of working individually. One such collaborative task, in which I have been involved, is the creation of world-historical data through large-scale research. Such investigation might ultimately succeed in attracting to history and the social sciences the kind of funding that enabled resolving the riddles of the genome, climate change, and national income accounting.

More important here, though, is the reconfiguration of historical studies through the interplay of so many new participants, viewpoints, methods, and types of evidence. For example, United States history has been enriched by advances in Native American history revealing “middle grounds” between contending groups, as well as the brief but imposing power of the Comanche empire. The deep historical studies of Bantu languages in Africa have created a narrative of long-term change in small-scale societies and a methodology that may be applied elsewhere.


The growing diversity of student populations has influenced teaching; the slower yet still significant growth in the diversity of the teaching force has reinforced diversity in the classroom. Many students throughout the United States—and especially in other countries—gain literacy in a second or third language, so there is diversity within their own minds. Textbooks must now acknowledge the wide range of readers’ backgrounds rather than key their language to privileged subcultures. Further, educational research tells us to be attentive to students’ individual skills in textual, visual, digital, and other sorts of literacy.

Diversity in subject matter compounds the diversity in student backgrounds. Students of history now learn local, national, and world history, with a mix of political, cultural, social, and environmental issues at each level. National history is often studied in periods of a few decades, while world history may stretch to millennia. Thus, focusing on primary sources alone is not a full solution for developing historical-thinking skills. Students face different problems in linking world-historical situations, so they need also to scrutinize secondary sources and read them critically. Student assessment, after generations of multiple-choice tests, now includes much more writing and sometimes even individual and group performances. Lectures continue to be central, especially in college-level teaching, and I am certain that they are valuable. But lectures are treated increasingly as only a part of instruction, complemented by discussions, group work, performances, and work with a wide range of resources. Overall, the complexity in teaching is now such that one can ask whether students will have a program of coherent learning.

Yet in teaching as in research, I believe, there are evident effects of the diversity we now encounter, which tend to offset the greater complexity in teaching by deepening knowledge. The issue of migration in human history stands out in this regard. Recent research has emphasized that migration is not just an occasional or erratic movement but a basic and instinctual behavior of humans, which does much to explain how early humans exchanged skills enabling them to colonize the whole world, sharing ideas among populations.1 This long-term view of migration emphasizes the positive, productive, upbeat view of migration as necessary. Yet shorter-term views of migration bring out other dimensions: the current flood of refugees from Syria reveals the brutality, suffering, and waste that can accompany migration. Learning from these two temporal frameworks, students can seek to identify the validity in each approach. They can see that early human migrations may have involved disasters that are not now apparent, while the chaos of migrations today may somehow be bringing benefits and exchanges of knowledge. Migration continues to bring central benefits to human society, yet it also brings misfortune and disaster in its wake.


The growing diversity of historians and historical studies is making history more complex, more nuanced. In a sense, this process is leading history to develop a closer resemblance to society itself. There too we find that we can sometimes make good explanations, but at other times we are left with debates. For instance, the relative contributions of nature and nurture to human behavior are reconsidered and reinterpreted by every generation.

As the historical literature becomes more diverse, more complex—and more contentious—there is an opportunity for researchers, teachers, and students to find information that will contextualize their own interests. More exchange among historians is one way to grapple with this important transformation.

The annual meeting of the American Historical Association provides an unexcelled opportunity for discussion and exchange. The meeting, with its hundreds of sessions and presentations, showcases developments in historical studies and the scholars and teachers who are leading the way. Researchers and teachers will naturally run first to sessions in their area of principal interest and expertise, to learn the latest news. But there is every reason for conference participants to spend a significant portion of their time exploring presentations of topics, approaches, and interpretations that diverge from or even contradict their areas of comfort. The short-term yearly migration to the AHA annual meeting adds a great deal to reproducing the culture and contributions of history.


1. Patrick Manning with Tiffany Trimmer, Migration in World History, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2012); Dirk Hoerder, Cultures in Contact: World Migrations in the Second Millennium (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002); Jan Lucassen, Leo Lucassen, and Patrick Manning, eds., Migration History in World History: Multidisciplinary Approaches (Leiden: Brill, 2010).

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Patrick Manning
Patrick Manning

University of Pittsburgh