Skipping the nuts and bolts of history

The mass failure of a basic American history test by seniors at elite US colleges and universities last June set off blaring alarms among educators and politicians. The reaction is understandable - after all, 50 percent of participants could not identify the decade during which the Civil War was fought.

Commentators have noted a seemingly obvious reason for the multiple-choice test's 60 percent failure rate: None of the schools the students attended required a course in American history.

But what if they did? As a graduate student working to finish a PhD in United States history, I'm certain that, even if colleges required several courses in the field, it would contribute only minimally toward a better understanding of the American past. The US historical profession rewards intense specialization from the first day of graduate school until the last day as a full professor. This specialization, in turn, supports the irony that American history professors may actually be one of the least prepared groups to correct our students' increasing historical ignorance.

Even the best graduate students start off with a flimsy grasp of the past. However, instead of taking courses that initially promote a broad understanding of American history, we are quickly submerged in "historiography" classes. These courses do not survey American history per se, but rather investigate how historians have argued over interpretations of narrowly framed issues. By the first semester's end, students must decide which single debate especially appeals to them, choose an adviser, and begin the long process of mastering an esoteric subfield.

After my first semester as a graduate student, I did just that. I was coming to think of myself as an actual historian, perhaps even an "expert."

Then, when I was teaching a high school history course that summer, a student asked me which president succeeded James Polk. I had no clue.

It was a fortunate wake-up call, and one that inspired a concerted effort to master a basic interpretation of American history, teach advanced-placement history, and transfer to a graduate school that encourages more independent work.

But what of those who don't have these chances, or lack any professional impetus to reach a broader audience? More of the same. Comprehensive exams test for a mastery of the most finely nuanced of historical interpretations. Dissertations are often ridiculously specialized. PhD candidates are asked to root out a minuscule speck of an unexplored topic, spend years researching it, and then produce several hundred pages explicating their findings. Many of us find the experience an intellectual boon, but the results are usually irrelevant to a wider field of readers.

Graduate students, of course, become professors, and the development of expertise on a narrow topic only intensifies. Tenure requires publishing in peer-reviewed presses and journals, so professors write articles and books that are of keen interest to one another, but otherwise inaccessible. In classrooms, they come face to face with undergraduates who can't place the Revolutionary and Civil Wars in their respective centuries.

An uninformed student body matched with professors who design classes around their specialty make for a wasteful combination. At many universities, students who have never taken a survey US history course might find themselves enrolled in courses called "Post-War Identity Politics" or "Gender and Power in Early America." Without a general background in American history, students remain unable to synthesize their disparate discoveries into anything resembling a conceptual whole.

Packaging America's diverse past as a conceptual whole for undergraduates is a task that demands tremendous thought and dedication For professional historians, every aspect of our insular world mitigates against the effort. Our job, after all, requires us to absolve ourselves from any guilt over historical ignorance in the quest to make "a contribution" to our field.

Plus, my students can always rent "The Patriot."

James McWilliams is finishing his PhD in history at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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