Ways to Require History

I’m going to be a bit of a bore, and keep going on the question of requirements, if only to see if we can go beyond Withywindle and I exchanging tit-for-tat in the comments on the last post.

Because this discussion started with Shakespeare, we’ve been concentrating on literary and philosophical canons. Let’s think instead about history. If you were going to have a highly prescriptive, strongly structured and heavily sequential history curriculum, how could you potentially organize it so it was intellectually and programmatically coherent rather than just making ad hoc offerings into requirements?

1. The Rise of the West

This is the old “Western Civilization” sequence, which is a lot more recent in its implementation in higher education than one might think. As with many claims about what is traditional in education, we’re really pointing back to the 1940s and 1950s. (The study of history in universities in general is more recent: before the 19th Century, “history” tended to get folded into other, broader subjects.) In any event, this is at least a very coherent, tightly organized curricular structure that most historians would intuitively know how to implement even if they objected to it. A typical Western Civ sequence might look something like:

Western Civilization survey (2 semesters)
Mid-level course extensions of the survey: Greece and Rome; Medieval Europe to the Renaissance and Reformation; the European Enlightenment; U.S. Revolutionary to Civil War; 20th Century World history. (Maybe require 4 out of the 5, or all.)
Emphasis on intellectual, cultural and political history.
Question: what do the electives, if any, look like in this sequence?

2. World and Comparative History

This is the more recent updating of the Western Civ sequence.

World history survey (2 semesters)
Mid-level extensions of the survey: Comparative Ancient World, European Imperialism 1400-1950 (maybe a 2-semester sequence), Globalization Since 1750. (Require all three?)
Topical or thematic extensions of the survey: Atlantic System, Comparative Slave Societies, Comparative Urban History, etcetera. The point here is that the electives in this structured curriculum all need to be strongly disciplined kinds of comparative history, not just ad hoc kinds of area studies courses. (Makes up the remainder of the major, but allow students to choose which ones to take?)
Emphasis on economic history, social history, historical sociology.

3. Methodology and theory of history

Core course on historical method (2 semesters)
Philosophy and theory of history, historiography (1 semester)
Courses on methodology in specific forms of history (political, social, diplomatic, economic, cultural, etc..)
Research seminar (1 semester)
Subject area courses open to student selection (since subject area is secondary to this structure for a major).
Emphasis on methodology and theory, obviously.

4. Area studies

No integrative course requirement, or maybe a world history survey.
1 required class in 4 geographical areas (Europe, Middle East, Africa, Latin America, North America, East Asia, South Asia, etcetera). Maybe also require temporal spread (ancient, medieval, early modern, modern).
Requirement for specialization in geographical and temporal area (2-3 courses).
Language training in area of specialization.
Emphasis differs in different area studies literatures, but predominantly social, cultural and economic.

5. American history

On the logic that students should specialize in the history of the nation where the university or college is located.

American history survey sequence (2-3 semesters)
Mid-level extensions of survey: Colonial and Revolutionary era, Civil War, Reconstruction to Great Depression, World War II to present.
Topical electives.
Emphasis on political, economic, diplomatic with some social and cultural.

6. Integrative

Western Civ survey sequence (2 semesters)
World history survey sequence (2 semesters)
Course on theory and methodology in history (1 semester)
American history survey (2 semesters)
Non-Western history area studies courses (2 semesters)
Comparative history topical courses (2 semesters)
(That’s a lot of courses.)




Part of my argument about requirements and open curricula is based on a general sense I have about what works best in institutional practice overall. But at least some of it is occasioned by thinking through these kinds of structures and recognizing that the kind of teaching I do and the kinds of courses I design would not fit well into any of these kinds of structures for a history major. So at least some of my thinking is selfish and personal. I like what I teach, I like how I teach it, and I feel that I’m reasonably successful at teaching in the way that I teach here.

I’m sorry if there’s a Withywindle in our current student population who looks at my courses and wishes that I were instead teaching Cicero and Thomas Aquinas (though there is a classics department right downstairs from my office, I hasten to add). I can’t help but think that this is a “let a thousand flowers bloom” scenario, however, that someone who wants a highly structured, requirement-laden curriculum can voluntarily choose an institution that accomodates that vision (like St. John’s) and someone who wants the chance to look over a tray of goodies and choose The History of the Future, the History of Reading, the Environmental History of Africa and so on from the offerings should choose to be here. Why is that kind of institutional pluralism a bad thing? Would it be a good outcome if the curricular commissars descended upon Swarthmore and got me to teach just African history as it is commonly taught, or restricted me to very precise kinds of comparative history courses, or assigned me to integrate what I know about Africa and Atlantic history into the modern half of a Western Civilization survey?

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14 Responses to Ways to Require History

  1. Our major here at UHH used to be a lot like your integrative major, but we got seriously dinged at program review for requiring too many courses, so we’ve backed it down to something more like your area studies version. And that Area Studies model can encompass the Western and World models pretty well, actually.

    One quibble: why are you restricting theory courses to the methodology track? A significant subset of those courses should be (and are, most places) required for all history majors regardless of topical focus: at least one general historiography class and a senior “capstone project” are recommended by the AHA and are in place most of the history departments I’ve looked at.

  2. Alan Jacobs says:

    I’ll add my vote for institutional pluralism — I mean, I teach at an intentionally Christian college, what else am I going to do? — but if I were named Emperor of Higher Education, one of my first Imperial Decrees would be to mandate that every undergraduate student spend at least one semester at a school with a very different character than the one which he or she normally attends. People who go to large public universities should spend a semester at a small liberal arts college, and vice versa; Ivy Leaguers should spend a semester taking classes at a community college; and so on. (Yes, I know there are intractable logistical problems with this scheme, but as Emperor I can assign people to fix those problems or, as Borat says, “be execute.”) I have found over the years that when my students spend a semester or a year somewhere else, especially at a large public university, they get a much more balanced and reasonable and healthy attitude towards the distinguishing traits of this particular institution. They don’t necessarily come to *like* it better — sometimes they see policies that they wish we would implement or courses they wish we would teach, or they hear voices that they wish were heard on this campus — but they get a much stronger understanding of the *fact* of institutional pluralism, along with a real sense of the trade-offs that you have to make to implement any one model of higher education.

  3. ikl says:

    It would probably be worthwhile pointing out that at least when I was applying to colleges (1996-7), there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of variety as far as elite liberal arts colleges and core curriculum requirements (other than St. John’s). I applied to U Chicago and Columbia partially because I like their core programs, but ended up choosing Swarthmore instead for other reasons. My memory from my research during the application process is that most of the top liberal arts colleges had some version of distribution requirements and not much else. So I’m not sure that there really are a thousand flowers blooming when it comes to liberal arts colleges – curriculum-wise they mostly seemed pretty similar at least when it comes to requirements and core courses (Swarthmore’s honors program is very distinctive but that has no impact until junior year and is about depth rather than breadth).

    I’m pretty sure that whether or not there should be Shakespeare requirements has next to nothing to do with what history requirements should be like. These strike me a totally separate questions. History and literature are really different. As are other disciplines. One example of a discipline that is still more committed to a cannon is philosophy – it is not necessary reflected in terms of explicit requirements, but there is a pretty stable historical cannon the most students end up studying if they are a major whatever else they in terms of contemporary topics they happen to be interested in.

    That said, the above proposals seem interesting and might work if they were really thoughtfully executed. Though I agree that there would be a serious loss if they completely crowded out other more “non-traditional” courses that might reflect somewhat idiosyncratic faculty interests.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Oh, I’d never want anything like a pure methodology/theory structure–I was just trying to think of strict requirement-laden conceptual frameworks that you could use to organize a history curriculum.

    I think it’s correct that literary studies and history as majors are different things. Though that makes me think that there is a way to organize an extremely requirement-heavy approach that integrates them, and that’s something like the St. John’s approach–a general conception of the humanities that would combine history, philosophy and works of “great literature” into the same requirement structure.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    I do think ikl is right, by the way, that there is not nearly so much institutional pluralism as I personally would like to see. Again, I think that’s one place where an organization like ACTA could play a valuable role if they were so inclined to do it. Rather than shilling for their own very evidently narrow, specific and non-debatable vision of good academics, they could be arguing for liberal arts institutions to spread out and explore a wide variety of highly “disciplined” or coherent models for structuring a curriculum. If not them, someone else should be doing that. This is another problem with my use of the rhetoric of the marketplace: to some extent, the mainstream providers are converging on a kind of middle-muddle rather than branching out and being distinctive or particular. We need more “long tail” institutions.

  6. jim says:

    There may not be as much pluralism as you’d like to see, but compared to other countries there’s an enormous amount. I grew up (and first went up to University) in England. Higher education there is in a straitjacket compared to here. What I fear most about “outcomes-based” accreditation is it will destroy the existing pluralism. You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

  7. withywindle says:

    Keeping in mind that I’d really prefer that students actually learn history in high school, such that we don’t have to do remedial history teaching in college in the first place … out of desperation, the Western Civ sequence and an American history sequence, as the first priorities. At places where you can do more than that, some sort of course focusing on the writing of history as moral instruction, formation of Western identity, mode of thought–Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch, Tacitus, etc. If I can get away with it, Nancy Struever, *The Language of History in the Renaissance*.

  8. David says:

    Let me weigh in a bit by saying most departments I’ve been associated with could have a structured and unstructured tract within one major without too much effort. The key would be combination of good advising and a department that maintains some semblance of intellectual coherence (allowing for some diversity, but not the kind that hit literature in the 80s). I think most history departments would do best to make space for both types of students, the structured learner and the free agent, market actor. The key is really sparking intellectual curiosity more than anything, which is probably the thing most lacking among large swathes of American college students or at least those that go to big state universities in the midwest.

    I’ll add a couple caveats/experience that perhaps add to or complicate that statement.

    1. I think that the structured versions work best when you have a true class experience, such that a group of people move through the curriculum together and can consistently refer back to shared knowledge gained. Obviously the danger is always a dud group and then more are setback by the weak experience, however moving through a coherent and interacting body of knowledge allows one to think deeper probably quicker than dipping into a wide variety of areas.

    2. As to the more open system, let’s say market style system, the key is maintaining a consistently high quality of courses over the 3 or 4 years that a student can draw from a departments well of knowledge. If a department can be confident in that ability then the students can swim in a fascinating field with teachers who are really engaged in what they are teaching. It also opens up new vistas or allows old ways to looked at again with new eyes for the students and the faculty.

    3. A couple experiences, perhaps relevant perhaps not as much. I had something of this experience being in a small honors college within a large state uni, where the university English distribution requirement was replaced by a Great Books courses spread over the 1st and 2nd year. It worked because you had class with a lot of the same people and worked from a canon. It all fit together well and you came away with a much stronger sense of the material than the freshman comp. series produced. Then I shifted into the ocean that was being a history major, where I couldn’t have possibly have taken a more random accumulation of courses based mostly on random availability and the lowdown on the teacher. This went mostly toward poor advising and a department that lacked any coherence as colleagues, teachers, or researchers. I guess I bring these experience forward to say on the ground it is hard to make either one work really well.

    4. One ‘methodological’ constructed version are departments that push students into original research almost from the get go. I mostly read about but not experienced this. I find this deeply problematic as it makes history too vocational and not adequately disciplinary or intellectual.

    I hope I’ve advanced the discussion a bit.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Very much. Those are really good observations, every one of them.

  10. Building on The Valve’s recent book event, I would suggest historians as well as literary scholars consider oceans/seas/basins as an interesting variation on area studies–consider the work done on the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, the Black Atlantic, and the Asian Pacific, for example. Thus the comparative nation-based work that often goes on under an area studies umbrella can be put in a transnational frame.

    You can check out SUNY Fredonia’s history department’s model for world history and see what you like/dislike about it–they switched over to a version of world history in the mid-’90s….

  11. oconnor says:


    You say “there is not nearly so much institutional pluralism as I personally would like to see. Again, I think that’s one place where an organization like ACTA could play a valuable role if they were so inclined to do it. Rather than shilling for their own very evidently narrow, specific and non-debatable vision of good academics, they could be arguing for liberal arts institutions to spread out and explore a wide variety of highly ‘disciplined’ or coherent models for structuring a curriculum.” But ACTA does do just this. See Becoming an Educated Person, which advocates for a strong core undergraduate curriculum and explores how different colleges and universities (among them Brooklyn College, Cal Tech, Columbia, and Notre Dame) have designed such curricula to suit their particular missions and institutional needs.

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes, I thought that was a good report (I commented on it here, in fact). I don’t think it’s the spirit of the more recent reports, however. “Institutional pluralism” seems the opposite of what ACTA advocates at present. I don’t think you can argue that every institution which fails to require Shakespeare is unacceptable and still claim you’re looking for the spread of many different models for structuring undergraduate curricula.

    One of the basic things that an interest in pluralism requires is exploration of questions, notional open-mindedness, curiosity, a taste for difference and innovation, generosity, all things which ACTA’s rhetoric lacks in recent reports.

  13. Doug says:

    The introduction to Norman Davies’ Europe is a good overview of the construction of “Western Civilization” as it came to be taught. His axe is its neglect of the eastern half of Europe, and the complaint is entirely justified.

    One of the things that’s happening to the discussion here is that many levels are overlapping. Are we talking about institutional variety within US higher education as a whole? Are we talking about variety within relatively small, liberal arts colleges? Does it make a difference if those colleges stand alone, or are part of a larger institution? Are we talking about requirements for a major? Or requirements for anyone who wishes to earn a B.A.?

  14. Great discussion. One brief addition – teaching at a SLAC, my experience is that students navigation of a major is driven by factors other than intellectual interests more often than not. The two primary motivations seem to be faculty reputation/perception and schedule (with the order varying by student & scenario). Then comes meeting requirements, and finally academic interest. Ideally the choice of major is driven by intellectual interests, but alas perceived credentialing, job placement, parental pressure, etc. often steers that boat as well. Just a pragmatic addition to how designing curricula by admirable aims often fails to achieve its goals for fairly random or extraneous reasons.

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