Monday, January 9, 2012

Do America's Top History Departments Need to Rethink How they Train Historians?

Yes.

This seemed to be the overwhelming sentiment at this year's annual American Historical Association meeting in Chicago.  Inside Higher Ed reports on Thomas Bender's plenary talk: "Where Did We Go Wrong?: The Past and Prospects for the History Profession.  You can watch the talk here.

Here is a snippet from the IHE article:

“Such students preferred to pursue the profession of history in museums, historical societies, film making, and the park service, among other possibilities,” according to the paper. But the students fear that if and when their advisers find out their plans, they will not be supportive. That’s why a radical change is needed in the way history departments think: not only acceptance of a new normal, but also a realization that the market may even worsen in the years to come.

Bender, in his paper, said that the idea that academe is the only suitable option for Ph.D students in history took hold in the mid-1950s. “Oddly, not only was this narrowing nourished by the flush times of the so-called academic ‘Golden Age’ that ended in the early 1970s, but it even accelerated during the hard times since,” he said.

Bender called out to historians to recover the deep roots of history beyond the world of academics.  He even tackled what many would call the elephant in the room by calling for departments to produce fewer Ph.D.s. and suggesting that the AHA encourage the shutting down of subpar programs.

To expand the field of history, he suggested collaborations with professional schools, including business schools. That means developing the right courses. History of the Constitution, anyone? Or legal history for undergraduates, or a joint B.A. in history and a M.A. in public affairs. History as a discipline could play a significant part in educating those opting to take up careers in civics or business, he said. “Advanced training as it developed in the 19th century included a commitment to civic life and leadership, and I hope we recover that forgotten legacy as we go forward,” according to Bender. “Those students who seek nonacademic careers deserve as much moral and practical support as those who seek to emulate their professors. Both are important and enriching career choices.”

But will history departments take the all-important step of trying to reduce enrollments in their graduate programs like Bender suggests? James Axtell, a history professor at the College of William and Mary, who presented a paper at the session called “A Long View: Graduate Education in America” does not seem to think so. “In a competitive climate of rankings and relative prestige, precious few universities are willing to take the first step toward reducing their graduate enrollments because reduction smacks of entropy and loss of face; some governors, trustees, and state boards of higher education seem less reluctant,” he said. But change is imperative and is needed, he said. Greater costs and sky-high debts demand that hard questions be asked about entrenched processes in the academic world.

No comments: