Teaching History (No China content. Not much history, either)

Via HNN some information on standards for teaching  history at the college level. For those of you who are not Americans, there has been a big push towards “accountability” at all levels of education. At the Primary and Secondary level (up to age 18) this has meant No Child Left Behind, a set of standardized tests that students take, the results of which should be used to figure out what school reforms are needed.1 At the college level this has meant much more focus on “outcomes assessment” when you go up for re-accreditation and such.

Up to this point history teachers in college have not had to think too much about this. So far outcomes assessment has just meant that that pointless drivel you send to accrediting bodies now is slightly different from the old pointless drivel. At the NCLB level history is not a tested subject. This means that in the schools my kids go to history is now slightly less intellectually important than gym. High math scores mean more funding. History does not mean money, and therefore does not mean anything.

Now the states of Indiana, and Utah are moving towards establishing standards for their undergraduate history majors. These have been inspired by the Bologna process2 in Europe, which is an attempt to harmonize education throughout the EU.

If you click through and look at the standards the bulk of them are about what American administrators would call competencies. “Ability to define research topics suitable to contribute to historiographical knowledge and debate” etc. A fair number of these are things that it is hard to imagine an American school requiring of its students, like mastery of a foreign language. Most of them however are thing that I think most historians would like their students to know how to do. The thing I find odd about all of these lists of skills is how poorly they line up with how American academics and American students think about curriculum. My department has a methods course that is supposed to teach students all the research skills and whatever they need to be a historian. We assume that these skills will be reinforced in other classes but we are perfectly well aware that there is not much systematic attempt to do this. Instead most classes have geographical, period and thematic names (U.S. since 1877, Byzantine History,  Mob Violence in American History etc.) We think, and students seem to agree, that the process of becoming educated as a historian (and most of our kids are not going on to Ph.D.s) is partly a process of learning a set of skills (and practicing them over and over, hopefully) but mostly a process of learning about lots of different times and places and different types of historical questions. Students in for advising rarely get excited when you tell them that they could take a class on “Knowledge of and ability to use the specific tools necessary to study documents of particular periods (e.g. palaeography, epigraphy” but they do like the sound of “French Revolution”

Of course this may just be a sign that we and our students don’t know what we should be doing. Outcomes assessment people hate classes. From the linked NYT article

Go to a university catalog and look at the degree requirements for a particular discipline,” Mr. Adelman said. “It says something like, ‘You take Anthropology 101, then Anthro 207, then you have a choice of Anthro 310, 311, or 312. We require the following courses, and you’ve got to have 42 credits.’ That means absolutely nothing.[Italics mine]

One complaint that turns up in both the NYT and the IHE pieces is that current degrees are not transparent enough. I find this true, but a minor point. If school board looking to hire a history teacher has nobody who can figure out what “HIST 104  U.S. to 1865” means the solution is more competent HR people. There is a deeper divide here however between those who want to “tune” or harmonize higher ed (lets call them river crabs) and Us, (who I guess you could call the Grass Mud Horse brigade)3 Traditionally faculty like to split knowledge up into chunks, which we call classes, and becoming educated, or at least getting a degree, is a process of passing a certain number of chunks. Lots of us are unhappy with various aspect of how this model works, but the Bolongna process is not just a tweaking of the old model, it is replacing it with something totally different. For the River Crabs the study of the past is not learning a set of skills fairly quickly and then applying them to as many cases as possible, it is mostly a process of learning skills (which are pretty much portable between times and topics), and applying them is pretty much an afterthought.

In the Bologna document only a handful of the 30 requirements deal with  “coverage” issues, and they do so in very short bullet points.

-Detailed knowledge of one or more specific periods of the human past.

-Knowledge of European history in a comparative perspective

-Knowledge of local history

-Knowledge of one’s own national history

-Knowledge of the general diachronic framework of the past.

-Knowledge of the history of European integration

-Knowledge of world history

So I guess if they did dirty themselves with coming up with a set of classes for students to take it would be 70% methods classes and 30% or less content, with very little student choice. Yes, I don’t like the method/content distinction either, but my point here is that these are two very different ways of approaching education, and I doubt that they can be harmonized.

My college roommate was a music lover. He had a lot of records and a fairly cheap stereo to play them on. Mostly he spent his money on records. The guy next door was an audiophile. He had a really incredible stereo system that he was constantly tweaking and buying new parts for. He had about 20 records.

  1. It’s more complex than that, of course 

  2. Restrain yourself from the puns. I did 

  3. China joke. If you don’t get it don’t worry, but I just could not leave the “tuning”/ harmonizing thing alone  

1 Comment

  1. Oddly enough, there are times when Harvard gets it right, and I’ve heard that they’re moving away from this model, so it must have been a good idea. The Harvard model of majors starts early: most of them start with a full-year seminar (aka “tutorial”) in methods in the sophomore year, followed by a junior year seminar in advanced methods and a senior year thesis seminar. Obviously, this is supplemented by content courses, and the seminars use content themselves as the medium for methodology. But the intense focus on process in the tutorials means that the “content” courses very rarely deal with “skills” or “theory” (at least in History).

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