Published Date

March 16, 1998

Resource Type

For the Classroom


Teaching Methods

AHA Topics

Teaching & Learning, Undergraduate Education


United States

Author’s Preface: Why it Matters to Historians

I believe that historians, as individuals and through our collective organizations, have an unprecedented opportunity to address the larger context in which we teach in order for us to become more effective history teachers and build the strength of our field and that of our universities. All of us who teach in the classroom are acquainted to one degree or another with the issues of student consciousness, preparedness, and motivation that I address in this Web guide. We teach courses in which a large majority of the students are nonmajors who do not fully appreciate where history fits into the mission of our universities or into the schemes of their lives. Particularly at our public urban universities, we face a large percentage of students in our classrooms who are ill-prepared and ill-disposed to fully use and sharpen their capacities for reading, writing, and thinking critically.

This situation, I believe, has been created by two social tendencies, one positive and one negative. The positive force is the democratization of access to the university. The negative one is the increasing pressure from the public, politicians, and students to turn the university into a corporate-model vocational school that values practical training over the conceptual life of the mind. The capacity of history and liberal arts to sharpen analytical and communication skills and impart a deeper understanding of the human condition seems to be increasingly irrelevant in our highly specialized economic society. Faced with these social pressures, the university, as a national institution, will increasingly need to address issues of mission and organization. However much we as historians acknowledge or ignore the dilemma, we are confronted with a present and a future in which we are increasingly challenged to teach our students how to learn, and even why to learn, in a university context and environment.

Given the dimensions of the challenge, it would be easy to take the attitude that if students are not as prepared as they should be in order to fully understand the intellectual purpose of the university and adjust to it for success, that it is the problem first of the students and second of counselors and specialized retention experts, not of the in-class instructor with limited time and full courses to teach on specialized subjects. We could then continue to teach history, happy in the delusion that we are doing our job within our discrete, separate educational components isolated from the rest of the university. I do not believe many of us take the attitude that the issues facing the university as a whole do not concern us. However, I do believe that a good number of us may feel frustrated because we lack the adequate tools for tackling the larger issues that intrude into our classrooms and shape the teaching and learning environment in them.

There are practical reasons, other than the in-class environment, why historians may want to be concerned with finding solutions to the challenges we face. If we are at all interested in the health of our field as a teaching and research discipline, we need to overcome the anti-intellectual character of the political and social forces that are laying siege to the liberal arts. We need to create proactive ways to persuade nonmajors into a better appreciation of history and a fuller participation in our courses. We need to convince more of them to enter the field even if they do not plan to become university teachers. We need to address the core reasons why our universities are turning out larger numbers of anti-intellectuals who do not recognize the importance of history as part of a basic and universal college education. Unless historians join the rest of the university community in addressing the deeper and larger issues, we will continue to be part of the process in which we pass the problem on to somebody else who may also not be doing the job of bridging the growing gap between the mission of the university and the expectations of students and employers.

The guide that I have developed here addresses both the classroom issues faced by history teachers and the larger context from which they stem. History teachers who want to bridge the gap between what they expect and what students are willing to deliver in terms of preparedness, interest, and motivation will find this guide useful, although it is not addressed to them specifically as history teachers. I try to establish the basis for a dialogue by identifying the basics for student success in college, countering the popular myth that conceptual learning is irrelevant to real life, and suggesting how a vision and goal of self-transformation can motivate a student to find immediate gratification in academic activities that are only burdensome tasks without an appreciation of the university’s functional paradigm. I know many historians are already doing this either as teachers or as academic advisers. The virtue of this guide is the systematic, comprehensive, and readable focus on how students can empower themselves–with the assistance of their professors and counselors–to achieve a fuller integration into our universities and into our classrooms.

The value of this guide will be self-evident to my fellow faculty in history and other disciplines. However, it may be an additional incentive to examine and consider using the power tools if you know that it is the work of a fellow faculty and not the work of a professional counselor or an education specialist. As a director of a complex student services program, I have maintained my identity as a researcher and teacher. It just happens that a good deal of my intellectual energy has been diverted and applied to the issues of student survival and success. Think about the utility of the proposal of giving a university faculty member a reduced teaching and research load, to concentrate on finding solutions to the problems of teaching and learning in an urban university environment. For nine years, three counselors and I have thought and rethought, designed and redesigned a program to address these issues. No formula or structure was safe if it did not work. This is the product of that active experimentation with a faculty perspective at the core. If you believe that the discipline of history is not an island in an academic sea, you will find this packet of tools relevant to your life as a professional teacher of history.

Author’s Introduction: When the Paradigm Shifts, We Reinvent Ourselves

The power tools for teaching and learning contained in this guide were developed to address the growing gap between the ideal of what professors normally expect of college-ready students and the reality in awareness and preparedness of many students coming into our universities today. The shift in the paradigm, the motion in the ground on which our universities are founded, has been caused by complexly intertwined multiple forces. As a consequence of the accelerated democratic and technological changes taking place in our society, it has become a general public expectation that all high school students have the opportunity to go to college. However, caught on the shifting ground in the transition between old and new social paradigms, the schools that channel students to our universities have not been fully able to adjust for the task of preparing massive numbers of students for the new expectations. Families, communities, governments and the general public–major players in the capacity of our schools to adjust to the new challenges–are, themselves, caught in comparable transitions. Large numbers of students are thus coming to the university unconditioned for what they are about to face. Many of those who do survive an experience that often amounts to cultural shock often suffer losses in resources, time, academic performance, and self-esteem. Public universities that serve as gateways for working-class students have dramatically large drop-out and stop-out rates. The losses among students who come from inner-city schools are higher than the losses among students who come from suburban schools, but the latter are by no means immune to the personal crises they may experience at the university.

Two dimensions of preparedness that have to do with student attitudes are unrelated to skills or background. First, even middle-class students (whom educators and the public presume have an advantage in preparation) are coming to college with the attitude that the university should be primarily a vocational or technical training school, and that the liberal arts are not very relevant to their career plans. The idea that the liberal arts impart analytical and communication skills and a depth of understanding of the human condition, which enrich one’s opportunities in life and work, seems to ring true only for a minority of modern-day college students. Second, it is my impression, gained from my own classroom experiences and from conversations with other professors, that more than a few students half-consciously apply to university classes expectations that are more appropriately associated with television and spectator events in which the passive observer expects to be entertained. The great technological advances of the 20th century in communications have accentuated the audiovisual character of our culture and made us less receptive as a nation to the charms of reading and writing and the critical thinking that goes with them. The expectations of vocational training only and of entertaining classroom experiences is a deadly academic combination at the university level. For students who combine these two expectations, the university becomes superfluous, boring, and unjustifiably expensive. The resulting lack of interest and motivation undermines many undergraduate careers, even those of students with high skill levels who are unable to apply their skills to their studies.

The power tools are meant to empower both teachers and students in redefining ourselves within the new paradigm and enabling us to create a better foundation of interaction. They are particularly relevant for use at urban universities that serve students who may be the first in their families to go to college or who have to work while they are going to school. Teachers, counselors, and students on residential campuses will also find the power tools useful because of the deliberate attempt that is made here to identify the specific components of the bridge between what are often two distinct realities–of the educators and students–that often coexist and dialogue with each other without communicating effectively. I believe that teachers in the classroom must not only teach but also teach how to learn. Students, on the other hand, need to be more fully aware of the university environment and become more proactive in making a place for themselves within it. “A”-level undergraduate students and graduate students will also find the power tools useful because they identify and review the basics of academic survival and success that most of us learn through hard knocks, and which we often have to relearn after life pressures force us out of our good habits and into a neglectful mode.

The power tools distill the insight from nine years of experience directing a Latino student recruitment and retention program and teaching Latin American history at Wayne State University in Detroit, as well as six years of teaching at a private university. The power tools need to be unpacked and used over the course of an entire university education. Chapter two, “I Must Want a University Education,” and the other sections of this document, including chapters five and six (”A Student Code for Academic Success” and ”Do You Want to Go Higher?”), are intended to persuade students to achieve a proactive internalization of the values that will focus their thinking and concentrate their behavior on a path of thought and action that will make each one of them a success at the university. Chapter three, “The Fundamentals for Studying a Liberal Arts Subject,” describes power tools that have been particularly useful in the classroom in assisting students to understand the mission of the university in transforming them into powerful conceptual beings, not just into technical experts.

Together, these power tools constitute an intensive but readable reality check and a minds-on manual for how students can empower themselves to survive and succeed at the university. They are teaching tools as well as learning tools, because it is imperative that teachers and counselors undertake a dialogue with students about the contents of these documents. If they are just handed out to students without the organized structure of discussion, many students will simply file them away and eventually lose them without fully examining their value or implementing the advice in them. Engaging the students in a series of discussions about the nature and quality of their education will help bridge the gap between professor and student that everyone knows is there, but which few are willing to address. As teachers, we need to overcome the fear of facing our own inadequacies and the arrogance of our intellectual self-assurance. Although some students will flee the discussion out of insecurity and fear–many have a sense that they do not belong at the university–most students will respond with interest and intelligence.

By the same token, students will benefit from reading those sections that seem to be primarily written for educators. The first chapter, on the key issue of student motivation, is addressed to teachers, counselors, and administrators who are involved in programs that promote student success. However, students will benefit from reading it because the programs of which I speak are designed for them. Students need to take up a partnership role to help solve the challenges that we all face, albeit from different perspectives. Those of us who have roles as educators cannot afford to treat students as the objects of paternalistic or maternalistic social engineering. Ultimately, it may be that components of a university education that are much larger than those addressed here will need to be reorganized and transformed in order to enhance the university’s ability to fulfill its mission in the new environment. When that happens, students need to play a large role in the analysis, planning, and implementation of the restructuring.

The goal of a quality education for large numbers of persons in a democratic society can only be achieved if the struggle is individualized and personalized, even when universities and programs target their services at large social groupings for logistical reasons. The goal of individualization can be achieved only if each student is fully empowered with the tools he or she needs to build a successful university career. Because these are intellectual and behavioral tools, each student needs to make his or her own personal box of power tools. Thus, students learn not only how to fish, but also how to make the fishing equipment.

The tools for empowerment contained here are undergoing continuous revision and expansion. I would appreciate any suggestions for improving them and for creating new ones. Comments and suggestions can be sent to me at the contact numbers or at my e-mail address,