From the National History Center column of the December 2008 issue of Perspectives on History

White Paper Presented on the Role of the History Major in Liberal Education

Miriam E. Hauss, December 2008

In a white paper issued in October 2008, a working group set up by the National History Center urges history departments to reassess their curriculum for history majors, with an eye towards emphasizing the goals and values of liberal education. A history major curriculum, the report argues, should “nurture [students’] liberal and civic capacities, in part by integrating disciplinary knowledge, methods, and principles into the broad experience of undergraduate education.”

The National History Center submitted the white paper, “The Role of the History Major in Liberal Education” to the Teagle Foundation, which had generously supported the project. The Center, with a working group headed by Stanley N. Katz (Princeton University) and James R. Grossman (The Newberry Library), took up the exploration of this critical dimension of undergraduate curriculums in response to a request from the foundation, which also made grants to groups representing five other disciplines (modern languages, classics, religion, economics, and biochemistry/molecular biology). The Teagle Foundation has been interested in exploring various facets of liberal education, and has been particularly interested in understanding the role played by disciplinary major curriculums in preparing students both for diverse career paths and for contributions to their communities.

Taking the definition of “liberal education” offered by the American Association of Colleges and Universities as its starting point, the Center’s working group defined liberal learning (a term it preferred) as “a broad and interactive approach to undergraduate education that prepares students for a future of active and responsible democratic citizenship, and for fulfilling lives, including an appetite for lifelong learning.” The white paper, written by Katz and Grossman, with assistance from Tracy Steffes (Brown University), argued that the goal of undergraduate history teaching is not to train students to become historians, but to “nurture their liberal and civic capacities, in part by integrating disciplinary knowledge, methods, and principles into the broad experience of undergraduate education.” Explaining why the working group considered the discipline of history to be more crucial than any other humanities subject to liberal undergraduate education, the authors of the white paper declare:

What the discipline of history has to offer goes far beyond the “historical turn” in other disciplines, which usually means little more than longitudinal perspective. History is a mode of analysis of contingency—it is not inevitable that we are what we are; or, where we are. Nor even that we were what we were or where we were. Neither stasis nor change can be taken for granted, and both emanate from both process and agency. History is about taking advantage of and making sense of an open-ended world of evidence, which assists the historically educated in living on the edge of open possibilities. What could be more important in the twenty-first century?

The authors of the white paper recognized also that because one of the virtues of historical thinking was the imperative to step outside oneself, it tended to contribute to a more empathetic perception of diversity. History as taught at the undergraduate level particularly developed “distinctive forms of literary expression,” analytical skills, and a capacity for synthesis.

The working group (see box on this page for a list of the group’s members) sought to supplement its own analysis and perceptions through a survey of about 55 history departments around the United States. The survey was intended to gather impressions—rather than comprehensive data—about history major programs. The working group also conducted a workshop with department chairs to discuss the draft white paper.

The working group made a set of recommendations, which are summarized below (the full white paper can be read online at
http://nationalhistorycenter.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/nhc-teagle-report-final-9-29-08.pdf):

  • History departments should discuss and develop learning outcomes for the history major that emphasize historical content, historical skills, and the broader contributions history makes to liberal learning and civic engagement.
  • In crafting requirements for a history major, departments should aim to both introduce students to diverse geographic, chronological, and thematic subjects and build upon content and skills in a meaningful way, while exploring the feasibility of enabling students to study at least one subject in depth.
  • Because historical skills are an essential component of the history major, departments should ensure that all history majors have the opportunity to “do” history and that they receive training in information literacy, new media, and historical methods.
  • Institutions of higher education should facilitate faculty discussion of issues relating to the role of disciplinary majors in the context of liberal education.
  • PhD granting institutions should explore ways of introducing graduate students to their role as members of a community of liberal arts educators.
  • History departments should discuss and craft assessment tools for history majors that effectively measure student mastery of these learning outcomes that integrate the goals of history education and liberal learning.
  • History departments should craft assessment tools for history majors that effectively measure student mastery of learning outcomes that integrate the goals of history education and liberal learning.

The group also recommended that the Teagle Foundation should consider supporting various measures that would carry forward discussions of the theme, including organization of workshops to discuss the white paper, providing financial support to departments to try out and implement some of the recommendations, holding regional meetings of department chairs, and setting up other working groups to consider important dimensions of the history major curriculum such as assessment (in terms of evaluating both the value of a liberal education with a history major as well as the methods of assessment within the discipline).

Indeed, the National History Center is taking one of the first steps in this direction by sponsoring a session at the American Historical Association’s 123rd annual meeting in New York (on Sunday, January 4, 2009, at 9 a.m., in the Hilton’s Midtown Suite) to discuss the white paper and its recommendations. The session will be chaired by the report’s coauthor Stanley Katz, and the panel will include Donna Heiland of the Teagle Foundation; Kenny Morrell (Rhodes College), who was involved with the classicists’ report for the foundation; and Thomas Bender (New York University) and Constance Berman (University of Iowa), who were members of the National History Center’s working group. All interested in history education are invited to attend the session.

—Miriam Hauss is the administrative officer of the National History Center.