Transforming the Preparation of Historians: Much More to Do

James M. Banner, Jr., February 2014

In the January 2014 issue of Perspectives on History, Thomas Bender, with his characteristic lucidity and cogency, reviewed the consequences of The Education of Historians for the Twenty-First Century, the compelling report he wrote with Colin Palmer and Philip M. Katz a decade ago. He concluded that while some progress has been made toward the implementation of its recommendations, this progress has been insufficient in view of the challenges that history, the humanities, and American institutions of higher education face today. Bender’s sobering assessment, which can’t be gainsaid, deserves the attention of all historians, as does the original report.

The members of the commission overseeing the report’s preparation emphasized the miseducation of aspiring historians for the basic occupational realities of their professional world—for the increasingly diverse, multidimensional, and unstable nature of their future work foremost. The commission focused, in Bender’s words, on “a misfit between the production of PhDs and the academic market for them.” It rued an “information deficiency” about history graduate programs. It decried the “unintentional and unknowing” acculturation to academic-professorial ways during the years of fledgling historians’ training. That some salutary efforts to address these and related problems have occurred since the report’s appearance—whether because of or independent of it we cannot tell—Bender is surely correct to note and applaud. That more, much more, is also left to be done no one can deny. But what now should be done?

If what I write suggests some of the limitations of The Education of Historians, it is not in derogation of that report, exemplary as it was in its clarity, authority, and good sense. In every respect, it represented a major advance in thinking about the way graduate school preparation ought to be conceived and carried out. But because we’re 10 years beyond that report and now into the second decade of the century it addressed, it seems to me that, with full fidelity to its recommendations, we need to undertake two other things—first, to set in motion a continuing discussion about what additionally might be endeavored to further improve the education of historians; and second, to motivate and encourage historians and history departments to make more changes in their graduate programs.

Surely, as the report emphasized and as remains so now, the most important objective of all further changes in aspiring historians’ professional preparation should be a thorough introduction to the great diversity of professional choices and opportunities among which young historians should be able to make rational, not reflexive and conventional, choices—decisions about the kinds of work they will pursue and the kinds of places in which they will pursue it. That was the major thrust of the Bender/Palmer/Katz report, and it should remain at the center of all thinking and efforts relating to graduate education. To be a professor of history is a wonderful privilege and an understandable aim of many historians, but other equally worthy and productive careers, ones that also allow for the creation, evaluation, presentation, and conservation of historical knowledge, increasingly abound, even if they still lack the recognition and respect they deserve. Consequently, to do little to counteract the early graduate school acculturation to the professorial ideal as the only mete and fit model for historians when that ideal is no longer functional or even desirable for an increasing proportion of history students borders on the unethical.

If historians’ preparation for the extra-academic professional world—that is, their preparation to be public historians or to enter the public and private sectors—is of critical practical and ethical importance, then the sooner it is effectively undertaken and achieved, the better. No justification exists for postponing what the report urged upon PhD-granting institutions 10 years ago. But in my estimation, still more is needed.

Few graduate programs—and, after all, these are graduate programs in history!—introduce their students to the history of historical knowledge; instead they treat the subject of historiography as an opportunity to expose their students to specific topics only, say debates over the French Revolution or the American Civil War, in keeping with professors’ interests, not to expand the general intellectual breadth and understanding of their students. Equally regrettable, they rarely introduce their students to the history of their own discipline, even to the history of their own departments—subjects, like that of the large history of historical knowledge, that relate to knowledge of their intellectual and professional world and not just to broadened career horizons, the focus of so much due attention now.

Few graduate programs—in fact, none to my knowledge, although I hope I’m mistaken—introduce their students to the ethical issues they will face in the course of their careers, wherever those careers may develop. And this despite the fact that, since the 1970s, the AHA and other organizations have promulgated a thick set of standards of conduct covering a host of practices, and new laws and public regulations concerning everything from racial, gender, and other discrimination to human subjects research have come into being and continue to accumulate. While reading and studying the contents of and problems raised by these standards is no fun, have we a leg to stand on in criticizing the behavior of others (let’s just mention bankers) when we do so little to expose successor generations of historians to these standards and to their strengths and limitations? In short, the actions recommended byThe Education of Historians need to be supplemented with others and then all of them put into effect.

In addition, there ought not to be long gaps in the attention we pay to the preparation of historians. Forty-two years elapsed between The Education of Historians in the United States by Dexter Perkins, John L. Snell, et al. and its successor—the Bender/Palmer/Katz report. Therefore, taking advantage of the opportunity created by the inauguration of AHA Communities, a web-based discussion forum, I have created a community dedicated to “the preparation of historians” in the hope that it will generate not only an enduring conversation on a subject at the very foundation of our professional lives, but also concrete suggestions about what individual historians and individual departments might do to improve and refine their programs. Early participants in that community have already begun to suggest ideas as to what might be done. I hope that more historians will chime in so that we can accumulate a set of new ideas that might be widely debated by us all.

But that will not be enough. Historians should know better than others that reports are neither self-propelling nor self-fulfilling and that discussion and debate can be useful and clarifying without leading to anything concrete. One of the oversights of those who prepared The Education of Historians and of the AHA, under whose auspices it was issued, is that the former failed to propose the creation of a continuing body to monitor their recommendations while the latter didn’t do so. Here was a splendid report in search of an audience and of follow-through that it never really found. (I regret to say that I’ve encountered many historians who seem never even to have read it.) As a result, it is little wonder that the original momentum and publicity created by the document soon faded and that what Bender calls the “culture of departments” has been little affected. It is not, however, too late for the AHA to create a standing committee or some other body to assess the preparation of historians on a continuing basis, to offer recommendations to history departments, perhaps even to set up a consultative service to help departments make changes in their curricula and practices. Such actions might, for instance, address two of the deficiencies that Bender, in his Perspectives on History article, specifically names—the failure of departments to collect information about themselves in organized form and to make it broadly available.

Anyone who cares about the welfare and future of the discipline of history—about the enduring robustness of historical inquiry, presentation, and understanding—will recognize the critical importance of how we prepare young people to be historians at any time anywhere. As Bender writes, some progress on this front has been made. Some departments have reduced the number of graduate students they admit. Many institutions are trying to reduce the number of years it takes to secure a doctoral degree. The funding and advising received by students have improved. And attitudes toward nonacademic careers for historians have begun to change for the better. But these are largely instrumental, even if essential, steps. We need additional ones, some of which I’ve suggested, that are intellectual and ethical. Collectively, we ought to address them better. And given the current institutional strength of the discipline, collectively we surely can.

—James M. Banner, Jr., a Washington, DC-based historian, is the author of Being a Historian: An Introduction to the Professional World of History.