On the Education of Historians in the United States (1963)

By W. Stull Holt[1]

On numerous occasions the Carnegie Foundation or Corporation has supported studies of the training required for admission to various professions. The most notable of these important contributions was Abraham Flexner's report in 1910 on medical education, which had a profound impact on that profession. Consequently, it was natural to turn to the Carnegie Corporation when the American Historical Association, the major organization of the historical profession in the United States, decided that a study of the recruitment and training of new members of the profession was urgently needed. The requested funds were provided, and a committee of six prominent scholars, with Dexter Perkins as chairman, assumed responsibility for the project. Professor John Snell, on leave from Tulane University for two years, acted as director of the study, visiting many graduate schools, where he interviewed both faculty and students, and doing the research that made possible this first intensive and careful report on The Education of Historians in the United States.[2] Of the ten chapters, Snell wrote all but the introduction, which was written by Perkins, and the last, which contains the recommendations of the committee.

Now facts supported by many statistical tables are available to guide thought and action. Now students and faculty can compare their situation and practices not necessarily with what are the wisest possible solutions but with those that are currently prevailing in the profession. Naturally, the statistics must be used with the grains of salt scholars customarily apply, with the knowledge that they, however accurate, may be inadequate bases on which to erect large generalizations. In some cases they are themselves necessarily merely estimates. This is notably the case in Chapter II, in which Snell forecasts the number of college teachers of history that will be needed in the near future. He makes a convincing case for his conclusion that the number, while large, will not be as great as has frequently been predicted and will not compel emergency measures.

Next comes a chapter devoted to graduate students in history. Do they compare favorably in quality with those in other fields? The answer is "no" except when compared with "other social science majors." What do they report as the most serious inadequacies in their undergraduate preparation? The leading item is foreign language training. Where do they come from? They typically received their baccalaureate degrees from large institutions. "All but four of the 25 largest undergraduate producers of history Ph.D.s between 1936 and 1956 were large institutions." If the sample of 182 recipients of the Ph.D. in 1958 is an accurate index, one was a Negro, two were Orientals, 10 per cent were women; 63 per cent came from Protestant families, 20 per cent from Catholic, and 13 per cent from Jewish; two-thirds were married males, and 44 per cent had children; 1 per cent were under twenty-six years of age, 75 per cent had passed their thirtieth birthday, and 35 per cent their thirty-sixth. Their parents were not products of higher education; only 31 per cent of the fathers and 18 per cent of the mothers had received bachelor's degrees, and 40 per cent of the fathers and 37 per cent of the mothers had not completed high school. Perhaps those facts explain the further fact that only 24 per cent of the graduate students in 1958 were receiving financial aid from their parents. Aid was relatively scanty from other sources. Both in number and in size, the stipends received by graduate students in history were smaller than those received by students in the other social sciences: and of course than those by students in the sciences. More than half the Ph.D.s of 1958 had worked full time for more than one academic year between beginning graduate study and the award of the degree.

Following two chapters, one devoted to the teaching of history in the colleges and one to the master's degree, are four on the Ph.D. degree, which constitute the heart of the report. The first of these contains much significant data. There were, in 1960, apparently eighty-eight institutions that had programs leading to the Ph.D. degree in history. Seven universities, probably assisted by the National Defense Education Act, initiated programs after 1958. Two other institutions awarded no degrees in the eleven years, 1948-1958. Others were not active, four granting only 1 degree each in the eleven-year period. In fact, twenty-seven of the seventy-nine universities granting degrees averaged fewer than 1 degree a year. Harvard, including Radcliffe, produced 377 of the 3,133 degrees in the period, or more than the combined production of the forty-two smallest producers. Columbia, with 288 degrees, produced more than the thirty-eight smallest producers. The eighteen largest producers awarded 67 per cent of all the Ph.D.'s of the period, and the twenty-eight largest producers awarded 81 per cent of the total.

Some interesting facts emerge from the analysis of the Ph.D. degrees granted by fields and by geographical sections of the country. Of the 1,458 degrees awarded in the five years, 1955-1959, just over half (748 or 51 per cent) were in United States history. The twenty-nine institutions in the East granted 45 per cent of their degrees in United Sates history; the seventeen institutions in the South granted 69 per cent; for the seventeen institutions in the Midwest the figure was 52 per cent; and for the eleven institutions in the West, 51 per cent. The southern universities also concentrated on Latin American history since 31 of the 68 degrees granted were from southern institutions. In fact, one southern university, Texas, gave 15 degrees in Latin American history or more than all of the universities of the West (11), or the Midwest (10), and almost equal to all from the East (16). The southern universities granted no degree in ancient history, the western only 1, the midwestern and eastern 5 each, making a total of 11 or about 2 a year for the entire country. Obviously that field of knowledge is in danger of drying up.

In the same chapter are statistics showing the teaching loads in the graduate institutions, the size of classes, and the library resources. The last, it is pointed out, are lamentably low in the seven universities that have inaugurated Ph.D. programs since 1958, even much lower than in the thirty-six universities rated in third rank as centers of Ph.D. training in history.

There is a chapter on the kinds of programs in use: the nature and number of fields required, the lecture and seminar courses offered, the part played by the doctoral dissertation (should it be a publishable book?), and the examinations generally required.

All of us in the profession and especially those in graduate institutions can find much in the chapter on the major criticisms of training for the Ph.D. degree. Both graduate students and employers of the new Ph.D.'s complain that not enough teaching has been included in the graduate program. A second widespread criticism is aimed at overspecialization and its converse, the absence of breadth. The third major criticism is on the length of time it takes to attain a Ph.D. degree. All of these points are hackneyed, but precise data are made available so that a more enlightened discussion is possible.

More valuable because the contents are less well known is the unfortunately short chapter on experiments being made at various universities. Although no radically different or fundamentally new features are incorporated, efforts are being made by a number of graduate departments to alleviate the most obvious existing difficulties. Some of these attempts to include experience in teaching, to make courses and examinations more meaningful, and to shorten the time involved are described. It is hoped that they will be noted and adopted.

The committee recommendations in the final chapter will not, I believe, have an impact on the profession comparable to that which Flexner's report had on the medical profession. The opportunity for reform is not as great because the historical profession and the educational system by which its new members are trained are not in the deplorable condition of medical education before Flexner. As long as so large a percentage of the profession receive their training in universities that by common consent are among the best, the situation is relatively good. Yet, there is pressing need for improvement, and the recommendations of the committee must be judged in this context. Everyone will readily accept in principle the standards set by the committee. In many cases, they are like sermons against sin and are as ineffective. Who could object to the recommendation that "Ph.D. candidates should write dissertations on significant subjects, even though they may explore in detail only one aspect or a few aspects of a large topic"? But will present practice be affected?

In discussing the need to reduce the period of graduate study the committee, after stating its belief that the degree "should require no more than four academic years for most full-time Ph.D. candidates, including study for the master's degree and the completion of the Ph.D. dissertation" and after noting that the major cause of delay "is most often the financial inability of students to undertake full-time study," recommends that more nonduty fellowships and scholarships be made available. The committee further notes that many students are delayed by difficulty in passing foreign language examinations. Their solution is to suggest that the knowledge be acquired during undergraduate years and that an examination in one language be required before admittance to graduate school or by the beginning of the second year of graduate study, and in the second language by the beginning of the second year and in any case by the beginning of the third year. On the subject of length of the thesis, which has also become a serious cause of delay, the committee recommends that it should be restricted sufficiently to permit the student to do the research and writing in one calendar year of full-time work and that it "usually need not be longer than 300 typed pages." Snell stated that history theses in 1957-1958 averaged 351 pages. Will all this exhortation result in any reduction in the length of graduate study for future members of the profession? I doubt it.

On one very important subject the committee differs from Snell's recommendations. The committee asserts that three conditions "should be met by history departments that offer Ph.D. training." These are: the department should have faculty members in at least three broad fields of history, the majority of whom must be experienced teachers whose "scholarly research contributions are recognized by fellow historians in the nation"; "financial resources for the assistance of graduate students, allocation of faculty time, and the development of faculty members as scholars"; and library resources "adequate for training in research seminars and for preparation for the general examination." Snell is both more specific and more exacting. He maintains that a department should have at least ten members in at least five broad fields of history, most of whom are recognized by fellow specialists, and adequate funds and library resources which, he urges, should exceed those of most of the seven newest universities offering the doctorate.

This leads me to a final comment. Suppose, under the pressure of a real or anticipated acute shortage of Ph.D.'s in history, many of the present weak or new and still weaker institutions begin granting degrees in large numbers. How can the standards of the profession be protected? The committee does not discuss that possibility. It is probably assumed that the competition of the market place will be adequate protection. I wonder if it is.

1. Mr. Holt is professor of American history at the University of Washington.

2. Dexter Perkins, John L. Snell, and the Committee on Graduate Education of the American Historical Association, The Education of Historians in the United States (New York, 1962).