Thursday, June 11, 2009

Traditional History Classes Disappearing?

To the pessimists evidence that the field of diplomatic history is on the decline is everywhere. Job openings on the nation’s college campuses are scarce, while bread-and-butter courses like the Origins of War and American Foreign Policy are dropping from history department postings. And now, in what seems an almost gratuitous insult, Diplomatic History, the sole journal devoted to the subject, has proposed changing its title.

For many in the field this latest suggestion is emblematic of a broader problem: the shrinking importance not only of diplomatic history but also of traditional specialties like economic, military and constitutional history.....


  1. I don't think the additions of gender studies and other areas are bad, but it comes at the expense of history being pushed out generally from the overall curriculum. There is a renewed interest in improving science literacy of undergraduates, which is good, but it's often at the expense of history and political science or the humanities, which isn't so good.

    Plus, most campuses are under hiring freezes now and my guess is the humanities generally will be hit hard.

    When I was first an undergraduate student in the University of California system, I had to take three semesters of science (loosely defined), three humanities, and three semesters of foreign language in my first two years. That seems like a good basis to build a general education, but that was back in the stone ages I guess.

  2. Two views of education:

    "Education, the English writer and thinker G.K. Chesterton once remarked, "is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another."

    Cutting education is like eating your seed corn, you fill your belly now but starve later.

    So, which of these views does the change in focus avrds describes fit with?

  3. Something similar has happened in English departments. The dead white male writers, whose work used to monopolize literature textbooks and reading lists, don't get nearly as much space any more.

    In recent years, for instance, we in the humanities have been conditioned to view words like “great” and “masterpiece” with something akin to suspicion and mistrust. The W. W. Norton Company long ago dropped the word “masterpieces” from the title of its world literature textbooks, no doubt because the designation had come to represent, at least in some circles, the narrow critical assessments of a suspect and discredited past.

    Reading lists and tables of contents have been transformed accordingly and today comprise a much broader cross-section of writers. All well and good. However, at the same time many Instructor’s Manuals now present a half dozen different ways to focus a sophomore literature survey almost as if it were a graduate seminar.

    Not surprisingly, social, political, cultural, and historical contexts are much more likely to be emphasized in this framework than the artistry of the writing. It almost seems as if a discredited paradigm of a former time has been replaced with a new one that is arguably just as narrow in focus.

  4. I noticed that when I was in college some 30 years ago, history had already been demoted to pretty much an ancilliary department of the university. In undergrad, you could take a history or economics or language class as your elective. In architecture college, there were two so-called arch. history classes and a building arts class, but they were pretty much blow-off classes. I guess we have "Modernism" to thank for that, despite the fact that the "Modern Masters" drew heavily from Greek and Roman examples. It is shame, I thought at the time, and still do.

  5. Maybe the model of the four year college/university needs to be reconsidered.

    I think education needs to address the legacy issue as Chesterton says above, but it also needs to prepare students to function in the world today which is very different than the one even we were born into (I'm assuming we're all around the same age here). So reading widely and deeply can both be beneficial.

    What is hard to watch is that in the movement to create "contributing members of society," in the name of efficiency education has been pared down to its very core basics -- things that can be tested. And everything else, like art, music, languages, and even history are considered luxuries schools can no longer afford. I attended middle school in Great Falls, Montana and I had French in 7th grade and German in 8th. My guess is there are few schools where that is offered now.

    I still come back to the neurosurgeon's comment which seems more and more right on: the goal is to teach (I would use the word enable or empower) students to think like Darwin and write like Lincoln. How we get them there is the challenge.

  6. Hard to imagine us going back to a traditional Humanities program judging by how much computers and the information highway have come to dominate our lives. I think history is one of those things you can only begin to really appreciate when you turn 40.

  7. Yes, but as the past decade (or more) has demonstrated, those who have no sense of history are doomed and doomed again to repeat it.