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.
Emphasis on political, economic, diplomatic with some social and cultural.
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?