Publication Date

February 1, 1996

When should historiography be taught to students? A few university history departments include historiography courses for their upper-level and honors students. I myself was introduced to the subject only when I reached graduate school. There, all first-year history graduate students were required to take a course called History and Historiography. It was taught by leading members of the faculty, and I found it undeniably exciting. We read and learned about the great historians- how Thucydides introduced the notion of objectivity to the classical world of tales and myths, how Mably put a damper on the medieval legacy of the 17th-century mind, and how Voltaire's wit and sarcasm were indeed a rapier to the smug certainties of the Leibnizian 18th century. Gibbon was majestic, Ranke scientific, Macaulay a great Whig, Trevelyan an artist of the pen, Marx and Toynbee fascinating philosophers but flawed historians, Beard a brazen iconoclast, and Bloch a pathbreaking explorer of culture with a "heightened naivete."

More important, we were introduced to conflicting viewpoints in history, to the staggering and wild array of ideas about the nature of history. An abyss of skepticism and uncertainty opened beneath our feet: we were made to confront the relativity of "facts," the importance of interpretation, and the insidious nature of "bias-free" accounts of the national past.

It was heady stuff. Why had I not been introduced to historiography earlier? Why was so much of history in secondary school and in college presented and understood as a mass of material to be committed to memory? Why was the excitement and passion of the process of exploring and writing history not brought out along with the details? Surely studying historiography could only enhance those details, the learning of which is less than fascinating to most students. Once the viewpoint of a historian as an individual is made clear, what he or she writes becomes less a collection of details than pieces of a large, intellectual puzzle. History is opinion, argument, what various people think happened—never exactly what did happen. Instead of certainties and "definitive accounts" there are only conjectures and ever changing probabilities. I concluded that introducing students to historiography could recharge the teaching and learning of history,and I determined, once I became master of my own classroom, to do something about it.

I know now I was right to have been disappointed in my undergraduate teachers. Whereas my elders had perhaps decided I was too young or innocent to peer into the abyss for myself, students in SI. Thomas University's first- and second-year introductory historiography courses are proving those elders wrong. We appear to have discovered a workable method for making liberal arts students truly inquisitive, critical, and analytical and for awakening or keeping alive the joy of learning that so often dies in the upper years of the undergraduate experience. At a practical level, we have diverted into the major and honors program some excellent students who were headed elsewhere when they arrived on campus.

Teaching historiography is probably not for the less detached, for those whose minds are already made up about the hows and whys of civilization. But for the more flexible, for those who would tread a path between extremes, who see the wisdom in the old Greek maxim "nothing in excess," who believe that open-mindedness is a particularly valuable characteristic for historians and one worth passing on to undergraduate students, I would argue that a substantial dose of historiography in the undergraduate curriculum, especially at the introductory level, produces satisfying, intellectually salubrious results.

Teaching introductory historiography has kept alive in me the joy of teaching, partly, no doubt, because the nature of the material requires a discussion format. One cannot simply explicate to students the drama of Carlyle's prose, the passion of Michelet for his beloved France, or the common touch that Becker and Robinson inspired among America's 20th-century historians. Students must experience and understand such things for themselves. Lecturing would be deadly. Our approach has been to let beginning university students attempt to articulate and communicate their discoveries and reactions to fellow students. If the class is large, the subject lends itself to techniques of collaborative learning. Let them try, on the hoof, to encompass dramatically divergent opinions. Those attempts make for lively discussions. Partly, too, teaching introductory historiography is exciting because the ideas are new and startling to nearly all secondary school graduates. These students may be naive, innocent even, but given the bit, they are unafraid to run. The ennui and world-weariness of seniors have not yet infected their minds.

At bottom, I enjoy teaching historiography because I am a skeptic, an iconoclast. Each year I am proving wrong the pedagogical elders of my youth. I recommend teaching historiography as a marvelous elixir and rejuvenator to any history teacher who, riffling through stale lecture notes in preparation for yet another first-year class, has caught a whiff of the mold of repetition. Furthermore, faced with the current challenge of separating the useful from the useless in current fashions like “political correctness” and “historical literacy,” I can also recommend a bracing draft of historiography as a way to develop an immunity to the worst effects of “theoretical perspectivitis” (which we used to call "engagement") or "historical literosis." Teaching historiography at any level, but particularly at the introductory level, demands a constant comparison of perspectives: students and professor alike willy-nilly must consider and explain even unacceptable viewpoints, must learn to put themselves in the shoes of other observers. Nothing is off limits, and although the process is disorienting for many if not most student., new to university, disorientation soon turns to excitement. Some students experience nothing short of an epiphany when they first see the authoritarian aura stripped from the Printed Word.

The Personal Approach

The ways to organize an introductory historiography course are limitless. One can, for example, take what I call the personal approach, reviewing and comparing viewpoints of outstanding historians from Von Ranke to Vann Woodward. A book we have used with success in this regard is The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present, edited by Fritz Stem (1973). This is a collection of historians’ views about history, rather than pieces of their actual historical work. The historians and their significance are concisely introduced; the trenchant and argumentative selections are organized into 29 distinct historiographical categories (e.g., Jules Michelet and “History as a National Epic,” J. B. Bury and “History as a Science”) that work well as a touchstone for discussion. Two or three of these selections can be assigned as readings for a given class session. One student is assigned to become the “expert” for each reading: to go beyond it, to explore the historian’s biography, to read selections from the historian’s actual work, to read reviews or commentaries about the work. The rest of the class is told simply to try to find the major thesis or argument of each selection. The expert is expected to lead the class discussion, answering first of all the question of why this particular historian and his or her pronouncements are considered significant, but also answering questions the reading has provoked among other students. Never mind that the particular historian usually becomes the expert’s hero, to be defended against all attacks; the passion invariably adds to the discussion. The instructor can act as moderator or director of the discussion, occasionally pointing out wider implications. In my experience, however, one can mostly sit and observe, taking notes about the quality of preparation and participation for purposes of evaluation. (Exams not being particularly helpful in such a course, it becomes doubly important to evaluate class performance accurately.) One need not be bound by a text such as Varieties. It is simple and inexpensive now with electronic scanners and digitized text to produce an individualized collection of the opinions of significant. historians for each course. Such a list could-nay, should-be highly personal to the instructor, including narrative, economic, social, nationalist, Marxist, Annalist, or feminist historians, indeed, whomever the world has given the coveted title historian, for there is no set canon. The only requirement is that they all be different from one another.

The Theoretical Approach

One can also lead one's neophyte history students along a more purely theoretical path, spending some weeks or even an entire semester comparing the hundreds of different views about the "usefulness" of history held by practicing historians and nonprofessional pundits alike. Readings like Carl Becker's "Everyman His Own Historian" (included in a paperback collection of Becker's writings published under that title in 1966), David Fischer's Historians' Fallacies (1970), or J. H. Hexter’s Doing History (1971) can provoke especially lively class discussions. The bewildering and contradictory clash of opinions can make the head spin—instructors will need to be good shepherds for their lambs. Yet, organized carefully, such an approach can produce engaging discussions and well-attended classes. Is it the novelty of seeing “experts” and “authorities” being refuted and contradicted that is so appealing to hitherto docile high school students? But it would be misleading to claim that discussions are of a uniformly high intellectual caliber. Often the most elementary observation—that we judge the past by today’s standards, for example—will range far and wide among topics that are as current and engaging as they are nonhistoriographical. Does the United Nations have the right to interfere wherever in the world fighting breaks out? Is female infanticide absolutely wrong, or only relatively so?

One likes to think that the unusually high class attendance is attributable to the engaging discussions, but it may owe something to the fact that a substantial portion of the term grad, (50 to 75 percent, depending on how much time is spent on essay-writing skills) is based on class preparation and participation. Either way, students are there, taking part. The very act of preparing themselves for such discussions requires them to learn how to analyze an argument; participation in the discussions forces them to learn how to articulate an opinion, how to criticize another opinion. They learn by doing, by observing fellow students, and by getting the instructor's constructive evaluation.

The Topical Approach

Equally fruitful, besides the personal and the theoretical, is the topical approach. The instructor arranges the course so as to review the variety of accounts of one particular topic or event, say the Renaissance or the French Revolution. Beforehand he or she arranges a list of readings, one, two, or possibly three for each discussion class, put into any order desired: chronological (e.g., participants' accounts, followed by early attempts at the history of the event, then later attempts, then the most recent attempts; many of the books in the D. C. Heath Problems in European Civilization series are useful in this regard); by "school" (e.g., nationalist, liberal, socialist, "new," "long run," ironic); or by category (e.g., political, economic, social, intellectual). Each student is given a different reading and made responsible for investigating the setting of the account and the background of its author, for considering criticisms by other librarians, and for evaluating the significance of the account. All students are expected to read the selections assigned for that day; the "expert" leads the discussion. I give a brief lecture before starting the series of discussions about an event, providing an outline of the event itself and pointing out some of the historiographical problems that have arisen, but keeping it general, not delving into the major interpretations and arguments.

The aim is a realization that our understanding of any historical event depends on the views of the observers and the writers we read. The problems of present-mindedness and periodization in the writing of history loom large by the end of the course. A typical response is: "Gee, sir, I thought I knew something about the Renaissance when we started; now I don't know what to think about it, or even if there was one at all." Some students, admittedly, go spinning off, totally confused, never to take another history course, but this self-winnowing process usually takes place early in the course. Most quickly become skeptics about what they read—or hear—in their courses.

Having finished with one event, it can be useful to proceed to a similar event, say the Russian Revolution after dealing with the French. When I tried this particular combination one year, my students were delighted to discover that the actors in the later revolution consciously patterned themselves after those in the first. (Trotsky was especially adept at this: Forget the Left! History tells us that Komilov is a Napoleon in the making! Arm the Red Guard to protect Petrograd!)

Historiography, cutting directly across the historical terrain, has an additional advantage. At the introductory level it can be team-taught by any two or three historians regardless of specialization. Every professional historian has thought about the aim of history, the best sort of history, history's proper methods, and the best way to teach it. This does not, of course, ensure that the team will speak with one voice. Historians will invariably have disagreements—criticism of other ideas is the only constant in historiography. The clash of opinion only serves to make discussions more interesting. Students are fascinated to see their professors arguing with each other. The dialectic makes for "collegial" classes.

For those who are reluctant to offer an entire course dedicated to historiography, some of its advantages can be built into more traditional history offerings. Every history professor has a teaching specialty, whether it be modern Asia or women in Canadian society, the age of Jacksonian democracy, or the growth of the Russian empire. Every specialized area is eminently susceptible to historiographical treatment. A few weeks during the term spent discussing hot historiographical issues are far from wasted time, for all that it may make it harder to "cover" the "necessary material." A lecture class can be broken into discussion groups from time to time, say two or three times a term. Students can be given sides of an issue to investigate and present to the others, say in the form of debates, roundtable discussions, or collaborative projects. All that matters is that the professor not be the only one talking about historiography. The heuristic method is natural for historiography. It is also unbeatable as a method of teaching; unlike essay writing, such historiographical discussions force students to teach and learn from their peers.

Professional historians have even more abstruse specialties: the areas in which they research and publish. No one is more familiar with the difficulties of locating primary sources, with the leaps of faith required to bridge the gaps in the archival record, with the problems of organizing primary material into a cohesive whole, or with the differing interpretations within that minuscule specialty. The natural tendency of the professional historian is to confine such problems to the ivory tower. Yet the fact that these are real problems, to be faced and wrestled with by a real practicing historian (their own professor), is bound to grip the attention of undergraduate history students. It can form the basis for a number of fruitful discussions. I have tried this approach with regard to my own archival research in the former Soviet Union. My students have surprised me with their appreciation of the serious historiographical problems faced by Western historians. With a little imagination it is possible to assign essays that require students to deal with the same sorts of problems, and they seem to rise to the challenge. Perhaps they savor the letting down of hair.

But this is to digress from the topic of teaching historiography at the introductory level. Recently I have taken historiography into a section of our first-year Western civilization course (enrollment 50 to 60), Interpretations of Western Civilization. Thanks to Dennis Shennan's book of selected and concise primary and secondary sources grouped topically and chronologically in separate chapters (Western Civilization: Images and Interpretations, 1995), I am able to spend most classes throughout the year on historiographical discussions. The six topics chosen for this class leap across the spectrum: the Renaissance, the Reformation, Absolutism, the French Revolution, Industria1ization, Totalitarianism. We do not cover as much material as we might with a more traditional presentation, yet the course evaluations are exceptional. It seems to mean more to introductory history students to be able to learn a lot about a few issues than to be taught a little about a lot of issues.

Discussants take sides and argue their part often with considerable passion. The Renaissance is an artificial construct invented by historians! Women in the Victorian age were not oppressed because they did not think they were! In terms of necessary modernization Stalin was perfectly justified in carrying out his revolution in the 1930s! The short selections in this particular text, coupled with a discussion format, encourage students to be prepared to contribute. An unusually high percentage of students do the assigned readings for every class.

Some students do have complaints. They protest that they are flying blind when we get to a new topic; they plead profound ignorance, or at least the lack of enough background to make sense of the arguments. Anticipating this, I assign a good general text, in this case John McKay's readable A History of Western Society (1991), and indicate on the syllabus relevant chapters for each topic covered in the Sherman book. When this is not sufficient, I devise a system of minilectures for each new topic. I ask each student to submit written questions in the class before we launch into the new topic based on the recommended reading in the textbook. The following class session I devote to answering the best questions, especially those that allow me to bring in the issues that lurk in the Sherman readings. I am careful to acknowledge the names of the students who posed the best questions and to let it be known that they thereby get extra credit toward their class grade.

I also assign two short papers in the Interpretations course. Students are asked to investigate the variety of opinions around a particular topic. Topics can be chosen from any in the Sherman book that are not scheduled for discussion in class; "research" materials must come from the selections in the Sherman book. Written arguments should proceed along the lines of previous class discussions: analysis and evaluation of the material and the arguments, within a framework of the writer's own considered opinion (thesis). Students learn the basics of organizing an argumentative essay, and some produce thoughtful papers. They all enjoy being the "experts" when the wide-ranging class discussion touches on their topic.

Results are satisfying, but there are definite costs to the teaching of introductory historiography. The discussion format it requires is not as easy as giving lectures, particularly when first- and second-year students seem to expect formal lectures. It requires extra administrative work: assigning topics to each student keeping track of who is doing what and when, keeping close records of attendance and participation, and figuring out the relative weighting of grades. Grading preparation and participation means ma1cing instant evaluations of students' contributions in class, which in tum means learning names fast at the very start. Every class can take an unexpected direction. It is hard to channel the arguments without taking sides. The professor's opinions are continually being challenged. Healthy argument can quickly tum to hurtful discord.

It must be admitted that the introductory historiography courses have a high drop-out rate early on. Many first- or second-year students seem simply to prefer a passive education: to listen, take notes, and be entertained. Many are genuinely fearful of speaking out in class. But among those who make it through, the response is overwhelmingly enthusiastic, sometimes embarrassingly so. One never knows how much that enthusiasm is a reflection of the instructor's own enthusiasm, but enthusiasm is infectious and it works both ways.

I heartily recommend introducing a historiography course at the introductory undergraduate level. (And why not historiographical components at the secondary school level?) For professors it is never dull: although offered at the introductory level, it forces us continually to test and defend our own assumptions and practices as professional historians. For beginning history students it is naturally heuristic: they learn the fun of doing rather than simply getting history. For the department, it is eminently practical: it demonstrates the theoretical and programmatic glue that administrators like to look for in a curriculum; more important, it attracts and produces good, critical, analytical history students.

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