Friday, February 7, 2014

James Banner Jr. Takes Us Beyond "The Education of Historians for the Twenty-First Century"

Some of you may recall The Education of Historians for the Twenty-First Century, a report on the state of the historical profession written ten years ago by Thomas Bender, Colin Palmer, and Philip Katz.  The report was groundbreaking at the time.  It focused on the many ways that historians-in-training were not being prepared for a difficult job market. It also proved to be prophetic. 

I not only read Bender et. al, but I also seem to remember sitting on a panel devoted to the book at a meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.  The fact that I don't remember the details means that either the session never took place, I am getting old, or I am too lazy to go check my vita.

In the recent issue (February 2014) of Perspectives on History, James Banner Jr. revisits The Education of Historians for the Twenty-First Century and concludes that we have "much more to do" in preparing historians for the twenty-first century.

Here is a taste:

Few graduate programs—and, after all, these are graduate programs in history!—introduce their students to the history of historical knowledge; instead they treat the subject of historiography as an opportunity to expose their students to specific topics only, say debates over the French Revolution or the American Civil War, in keeping with professors’ interests, not to expand the general intellectual breadth and understanding of their students. Equally regrettable, they rarely introduce their students to the history of their own discipline, even to the history of their own departments—subjects, like that of the large history of historical knowledge, that relate to knowledge of their intellectual and professional world and not just to broadened career horizons, the focus of so much due attention now.
Few graduate programs—in fact, none to my knowledge, although I hope I’m mistaken—introduce their students to the ethical issues they will face in the course of their careers, wherever those careers may develop. And this despite the fact that, since the 1970s, the AHA and other organizations have promulgated a thick set of standards of conduct covering a host of practices, and new laws and public regulations concerning everything from racial, gender, and other discrimination to human subjects research have come into being and continue to accumulate. While reading and studying the contents of and problems raised by these standards is no fun, have we a leg to stand on in criticizing the behavior of others (let’s just mention bankers) when we do so little to expose successor generations of historians to these standards and to their strengths and limitations? In short, the actions recommended by The Education of Historians need to be
supplemented with others and then all of them put into effect.
In addition, there ought not to be long gaps in the attention we pay to the preparation of historians. Forty ­two years elapsed between The Education of Historians in the United States by Dexter Perkins, John L. Snell, et al. and its successor—the Bender/Palmer/Katz report. Therefore, taking advantage of the opportunity created by the inauguration of AHA Communities, a web­based discussion forum, I have created a community dedicated to “the preparation of historians” in the hope that it will generate not only an enduring conversation on a subject at the very foundation of our professional lives, but also concrete suggestions about what individual historians and individual departments might do to improve and refine their programs. Early participants in that community have already begun to suggest ideas as to what might be done. I hope that more historians will chime in so that we can accumulate a set of new ideas that might be widely debated by us all.

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