A Call for Reflection and Change, Again: The Education of Historians for the Twenty-First Century, Ten Years Later
Thomas Bender, January 2014
In 2000 the Council of the American Historical Association authorized a Committee on Graduate Education. Its charge was broad: “to undertake a comprehensive study of the current practices in graduate training and to make appropriate recommendations, keeping in mind the changing needs of the profession and society.” The time was ripe for such a study: the massive expansion of higher education during the 1950s had given way, starting in the 1970s and worsening after roughly 1987, to severe underemployment of historians in academe. The Carnegie Corporation, which had funded a similar study during the expansion, provided enough support to allow us to recruit a research director, and it enabled us to hold a series of open meetings at the AHA annual meeting and conduct campus visits. The result was The Education of Historians for the Twenty-First Century.1
January 2014 marks the 10th anniversary of the report’s publication. It is fair to say that the report was written with an acute awareness of a misfit between the number of PhDs produced and the number of jobs available for them in the academic market. There was also a concern with what might be called the “culture” of graduate training. For most departments there was an information deficiency about programs, making it difficult for students to know what they were getting into. Neither the departments’ websites nor the AHA’s had what we considered essential information about doctoral programs or the discipline and careers in it. Faculty we surveyed assumed that all students would (or should) follow in the paths of their mentors, underestimated the magnitude of the challenge new PhDs faced, or did not take seriously their responsibility for the quantitative mismatch between job seekers and the number of academic positions available.
More important and insidious was the (usually) unintentional and unknowing way professors’ expectations for emulation discouraged students from exploring careers as historians beyond the academy. Faculty members were seemingly oblivious to the fact that from the 1880s to the present between a quarter and a third of PhDs in history have pursued careers as historians outside of academe: in public history, naturally, but also in public service and the private sector. As a result of that blindness, graduates who went in that direction felt such a career was an admission of failure—they’d chosen “Plan B,” as Anthony Grafton and James Grossman put it while criticizing the attitude during Grafton’s term as president of the AHA.
The Education of Historians sought to define the category of historian in a way that distinguished among the three components of a single identity: history as a discipline, as a profession, and as a career. If we are all one in the discipline, we may pursue different professions and careers. All belong in the big tent. Attitudes about careers beyond academe have changed since 2008: the American Council of Learned Societies and the Mellon Foundation have invested in introducing recent PhDs and employers to the presence of historians in a variety of settings, and wider horizons yet can be envisioned.
Besides collecting and organizing data about the discipline and doctoral programs, The Education of Historians for the Twenty-First Century focused on “necessary discussions” and “recommendations.” The aim was to change the culture of departments—to urge a greater sense of responsibility to students who were investing key years of their lives in the study of history. They deserve solid information on the conditions of graduate study in each doctoral institution (program structure, fellowship support, admission criteria, teaching obligations, average time to degree by subfield, preparation as teachers, provision for other careers, and much else). Most important is the employment history of the program’s graduates—first appointment and beyond. The hope was that departments would provide such information to the AHA for its website. That would put comprehensive and comparative information for students in one place, enabling them to identify institutions that made the most sense for their own professional ambitions. This kind of information has yet to be made broadly available. The most disturbing aspect of that failure is that in most cases the departments did not themselves have that information.
They were not hiding it; they had no systematic way of collecting the information needed, even though such information would have been valuable in managing their programs. Most departments, including my own, say that it is difficult, if not impossible, to get all of the relevant information, especially about ongoing employment. I believed that until I visited the history department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Not only were the faculty thinking very seriously about their responsibility to their students and about a variety of professional careers, but with a modest investment in hiring a person with Internet savvy they are finding that information for several cohorts of their former students. I hope that UNC is not unique, but it is surely unusual.
To be fair, around the country there have been many positive departmental changes since The Education of Historians for the Twenty-First Century. We—and graduate school deans—have finally gotten beyond the language of the “job crisis.” A 45-year problem is a condition, not a crisis. It must be addressed in a fundamental way. In addition, many programs, particularly the strongest ones, have reduced the intake of students and supported them better. There is more awareness of the importance of time-to-degree, not just from the institution’s point of view, but in consideration of the crucial importance of these years in a young person’s life.
Graduate faculties are today serving their students better, more responsibly. The graduate student experience, whether we refer to funding, to advising, or to respect, has improved over the past 15 years, the point at which Colin Palmer expressed his concern as a member of the AHA Council. Perhaps the report had some impact; I know specifically that it did at some institutions. But the ever more difficult circumstances of higher education had an effect as well.
The world of higher education has fallen on hard times. The loss of public funds, the severe crisis in public higher education, and the public’s loss of faith in liberal learning have consequences for all humanities disciplines, not only history. These trends date back at least a quarter century, but since the start of the recession in 2008 students and their families have been inclined and often advised to focus on practical majors with good first-job prospects.
The current enthusiasms for “star professors” and MOOCs together raise the specter of a de-skilling of the established professoriate, not unlike that experienced by skilled workers facing industrialization a century ago. The expansion of off-tenure-track hires has been increasing rapidly since the publication of The Education of Historians for the Twenty-First Century. The committee thought the situation circa 2000 was challenging. It was, but it has gotten much more so, which implies that we must think harder about innovation and less about muddling through or, even less promising, hanging on until things improve. Vision is needed.
The neoliberal culture of our time, which allocates goods and “the good” on the basis of market principles, is corrosive of the humanistic tradition of public life that extends back to the Renaissance. This tilt toward “practical” studies (I would not call them disciplines) is understandable, given the rising levels of tuition. Yet liberal learning and its ideals have been foundational to the civic life of modern democracies. Liberal learning at its best and most influential is engaged, and it has sustained our public life and civil society. It ought to do so again—more self-consciously than it has done in many decades. We need to reconnect liberal learning to the life around us, to practice.
Our civil society still requires the fund of knowledge, analytical rigor, and rhetorical skills that training in history provides. We gather materials and put them into coherent and persuasive forms. These skills are of vital importance in the civil service, nonprofit sector, corporate sector, and many of the professions. If historical study is vital, perhaps indispensable, to effective management of public and private life, we have something to offer. But a bridge is necessary. We did not propose this in the report, but we ought to experiment with joint programs—with undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools (as in public administration, education, business administration, social work, urban planning, and more). Our ever larger and more complex colleges and universities have the elements of such programs, but someone has to wade into the jumble, make some connections, and plan.
As I have argued elsewhere, I hope that our current crisis of relevance will prompt us as a profession to open up to the world of practical life, which is what the liberal arts promise.2 Historical thinking and professional skills can come together in joint programs. The professional schools can provide the bridge from the archives to the vita activa. This suggestion is not simply about employability; rather it concerns the enrichment of those practical occupations with the historical knowledge and humanistic values that our society so profoundly needs.
—Thomas Bender is university professor of the humanities and professor of history at New York University. His writings address city culture and urban theories, the history of disciplines and the professions, and higher education. His most recent work is A Nation among Nations: America’s Place in World History (2006).
1. The idea for the study came from Colin Palmer, then a member of the AHA Council. I served as secretary with the understanding that I would write the report, Palmer managed the project as a whole, and Philip M. Katz served as research director.
2. At an AHA session in 2012 titled “Did We Go Wrong?” I gave a talk, an abridged version of which was published as “What’s Been Lost in History?” The Chronicle of Higher Education (February 17, 2012), B4–5.