Educating Historians

Linda K. Kerber, September 2006

Over the past few months, I have been re-reading a remarkable little book, The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century.1 Produced as the report of the AHA's Committee on Graduate Education, the book is simultaneously an eloquent meditation on the meanings of historical knowledge and a practical manual for reinvigorating and, to some extent, redirecting the work of departments in which the next generation of historians are being taught. Ably led by Thomas Bender (New York Univ.) and Colin Palmer (Princeton Univ.), and supported by the work of Philip M. Katz, the committee's research director, the committee, which had been set up by the AHA in 2000, was hard at work for more than three years, interviewing professors, deans, students, and anyone else interested in graduate education; sending out questionnaires; and compiling data to produce the most comprehensive survey of graduate education in history in several decades.2 Developments in the two years since the report's publication have made its advice even more timely. I think it would be a shame if its readers were limited to those of us who are directly engaged in graduate education; it has much to say about the practice of history, broadly understood. In this column I shall underscore some elements of the authors' critique and invite you to join me in reflecting on its prescriptions for change. The text of the book is available on the AHA web site at; it can also be obtained as a paperback from the University of Illinois Press.

The authors capture, as well as I've ever seen in print, the foolishness of assuming that history is or can be practiced in rigidly separate configurations—liberal arts colleges here, national historical sites there, research universities, K–8 teachers and secondary school teachers in separate environments, community colleges in another sector, archivists in one place, documentary editors elsewhere, and all constrained and conflicted by erratic understandings of hierarchy. The authors do their part to undermine these divisions, distinguishing between the discipline of history, which examines "human experience over time, with a commitment to the explanatory relevance of context, both temporal and geographical," the professional commitments historians share for "quality and intellectual responsibility," and the varied career and work settings in which professional historians practice our discipline. [pp. 4–5 this and all subsequent references are to the print edition] Measurements have been sporadic, but whenever they have been done—from 1880 to the present—it seems that about one-third of professional historians practice their craft outside the academy. [p. 5] Graduate departments of history undermine the status of history when they ignore the dependence of academic practice on vigorous non-academic institutions like archives, museums, state humanities councils, national and international historic sites. Graduate departments of history are invigorated when they cease treating these ways of practicing history as marginal, exotic, outliers to the profession.

But first the primary challenge: from whatever location we practice history, the authors of The Education of Historians declare, the central challenge is a deeply intellectual and moral one, "of sustaining and strengthening historical values and knowledge in a present-minded society." [p. 3] They demand of us all that we "take more responsibility for the place of history in our society." [3]. And they ask us all to struggle with the paradox that although virtually all scholarly historians have abandoned the "teleological, progressive assumptions" that once reassured us that history provided an optimistic linear narrative of improvement over time, such romantic assumptions continue to infuse the writing of popular histories and, often, educational policy.

This paradox can poison dialogues with nonprofessional historians about the past, and makes it hard to strengthen historical values and to expand historical knowledge widely. Many of us remember the angry public reaction in 1995 when the curators of the proposed Smithsonian exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki developed an exhibit which did not cast the event as an unambivalently ethical choice. The sustained use of the term "founding fathers," casting as it does an assurance of infallibility over apprehensions of hard-edged political maneuvering, is another way in which the public provides a comforting history for itself. And most recently the legislators of Florida have turned into law their own wistful definition of what constitutes historical knowledge and historical values, requiring that in the schools of the state: "American history shall be viewed as factual, not constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence."3Persuading the public that the central work of historians involves context, nuance, and ambiguity has rarely been more challenging. If we are to strengthen historical values and knowledge in this present-minded and distracted society, we would be wise to strive to "extend the civic role of professional history" [p. 106] and to close the gap between the scholar and the citizen, the professional and the amateur.

The authors of The Education of Historians compliment the profession on notable developments in the last generation: the expansion of the range of subjects historians study; the increasingly comparative, transnational, and otherwise cosmopolitan redefinitions of what counts as history; and an equally cosmopolitan redefinition of who is appropriate to practice it. Indeed, the authors declare that the growing heterogeneity of the profession —forced by the claims of women, African Americans and other minorities (although there are cautionary notes about the declining numbers of African Americans even as more historians are Latino/a and Asian Americans)—has "brought new energy, rigor and intellectual richness to the discipline." [p. 32] To this list I would add the increased density of research made possible by new technology which, in making more resources accessible, has silently ratcheted up our standards of evidence: if a document is findable we are expected to find it. Assertions that were once buttressed by two bits of evidence are expected to be sustained by much more. More robust accounts pose greater challenges.

But the authors are sharply critical of the failure of graduate programs to refine what they teach, how they test, and most importantly, how they socialize students into professional work. Structures of historical education remain rigidly traditional: the shape of seminars, the forms of examinations, the parameters of the dissertation. That the committee felt it necessary to urge a commitment "to fairness in both examination procedures and the substantive content of exams...[that is] clear to faculty and students alike" suggests a worrisome erosion of confidence that departmental practices are reliably equitable. [p. 53] Examinations seem rarely to have been themselves subjected to examination since the 1950s: the number of books on each field's reading list still stable at roughly 65, the purpose of the examinations rarely connected to the graduate program's explicit aims or to the program's coursework and other requirements. [pp. 51–53] Virtually no doctoral program has made "a systematic discussion of professional values and ethics....a formal part of doctoral education." [p. 70]

Meanwhile "the number and scope of required fields in the examination of doctoral students has declined"—in part in response to "the explosion of monographic literature," but also, the authors believe (though not everyone may agree with them), as part of a tilt in doctoral training toward research, "at the expense of intellectual breadth and a wider sense of the discipline." [p. 55] Unintended consequences accompany this drift, including an impractical, even irresponsible narrowing of the boundaries of the profession. One not atypical graduate student wistfully told the committee of keeping "my interest in nonacademic careers...entirely covert...because I feel such pressure from my advisor to find a job at a good four-year university...that, should she ever find out about this she will decide that spending her time or the department's resources on me is wasteful." [p. 68]

The authors warn that narrow focus becomes effectively "a hidden curriculum" which sustains parochial tendencies that counteract cosmopolitan trends, undermining our profession even at a time of its greatest intellectual opportunity. They find little interest, sometimes crossing the line into "disdain" for the liberal arts and its role in undergraduate education and, indeed, for the university as a whole. Finding it rare for faculty or students in history doctoral programs to think of themselves as part of an expansive community of K–16 educators, they fear a loss that "undermines history education at all levels." [p. 64]

We have, they fear, simultaneously exaggerated the disciplinary and professional distinctions between academic and public historians, making yet another artificial gap in the profession, and marginalizing much important work as alternative, not central, to the health of the profession, and therefore, as the student noticed, undeserving of the best energies of our academic leaders. Indeed, according to a "recent Pew survey of advanced doctoral students, historians are more aware of nonacademic career paths than are graduate students in any other humanities discipline. But this knowledge only makes them more committed to an academic career, not less." [p. 67]

These are chilling conclusions. A career like that of Richard B. Morris, a distinguished scholar and former president of the AHA who wrote splendid children's books on early American subjects, seems hard to conjure up today.4 It is possible, of course, that what the student marked as disdain for a wide range of historical practice may have been understood by the professor as a reasonable focus of abilities in a world that makes ever greater demands on our energies and attentiveness. But whatever its sources, scorning important historical practices devalues crucial work and is shortsighted and unrealistic. The work of the book-writing scholar is deeply entangled in and dependent on work that is done across the landscape of historical practice—not only by teachers, but by editors, archivists, curators and by historians who direct historical societies and staff our learned societies, like the AHA. All historians will be strengthened by developing a range of skills, because one way or another, at one time or another, each of us will rely on historians with skills that we do not have. All historians will be strengthened by developing a wide range of skills —and also an appreciation for our own reliance on each others' skills: research-oriented scholars on archivists, teachers on researchers, researchers on teachers, teachers on museum curators—and on and on in endless variations. From the many possibilities of these mutually sustaining skills, I offer a few examples:

1. Archivists

If an archivist decides a document is not worth collecting, it won't be there for the historian to use. It is important that some historians move into the realm of archives, bringing with them their specific knowledge and sensibility. There are documents that are too important for their own good and sometimes great physical courage is demanded of those who defend them. A century's worth of the records of the National Police of Guatemala were discovered only a year ago, the largest known collection of secret government documents in Latin America. There are file cabinets marked "disappearances" and "murders." The judge who ordered them protected has been stalked, suspicious fires have been set, and archivists have been intimidated. Do we truly appreciate the often risk-laden work that created the archives on which historians rely?

2. Documentary Editors

At the end of the 21st century, most of our books, even the best of them, are likely to be regarded as charmingly outdated or will have been completely revised by rapidly advancing historiographical developments. What is likely to stand firm, perhaps only beginning to show marks of their age, are the great documentary editions of the last half century: the Papers of the Adams Family and of Thomas Jefferson, of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, of the First Federal Congress and the first decade of the U.S. Supreme Court, of the Freedmen's Bureau, of Frederick Douglass, Thomas A. Edison, Emma Goldman and Eleanor Roosevelt. And standing firm, too, are likely to be the great digital archives of the Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History , begun as the filmed and indexed interviews of the survivors of the Holocaust, and now, as that project moves toward completion, expanding to include survivors of Rwanda and, ultimately, other genocides. Work like this has set new standards for assessing authenticity; it has established context for otherwise elusive "facts." It is a shame when such powerful work is professionally marginalized; yet few documentary editors have tenure even in universities that house their projects; most editors, despite some funding from the NEH and NHPRC, must scramble each year for funds to pay their own salaries, that of their staffs, and the expenses of the project, and are lucky if their work is briefly acknowledged in a note.5

3. Museum Staff

After formal schooling is complete, whether at the age of 18 or later, most people learn most history serendipitously, generally at museums, historical societies, and on state and national historic sites. If we seek to convey to a vast public that interpretations of historical events and phenomena should change as historians revise their perceptions of the past, people must come to this instruction voluntarily. The agents of this most important, even if informal, instruction are the directors, curators, docents, and park rangers, in the United States and throughout the world. UNESCO World Heritage Sites like the slave trading forts in Ghana, Cape Coast Castle and Elmina, the remnants of Auschwitz, the walled city of Carcasonne, draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, each an opportunity to widen historical understanding. The recent exhibition on "Slavery in New York" at the New-York Historical Society has surely done more to persuade more people that slavery polluted the republic north of the Mason-Dixon line than any of the fine books that have been devoted to the this subject over the years; the number of people who visited was so large that an edited, smaller version is now a permanent exhibit. Changing the outdated interpretation of what happened in the slave cabins at Mount Vernon or at Harper's Ferry or Little Big Horn surely has taught more people about the past than many prize-winning books. Simultaneously, new interpretations embedded in the physical exhibits are themselves the creations of the academic book- and article-writers. The N-YHS exhibit rested on a generation's worth of scholarship.

4. Teachers

K–12 teachers and teachers of college students are ever more deeply dependent on each other's work.6 A stunning infusion of new resources now invigorates that interdependence: the "Teaching American History" grants initiated by Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia five years ago. Dozens of school district/university collaborations are now maturing all over the country thanks to $50 million a year from the U.S. Department of Education. In the program closest to my own department, "Bringing History Home," kindergarteners in Washington, Iowa, make timelines of their own lives, third graders study the history of segregation, and high schoolers study much the same materials about the World War II internment camps for the Japanese that my colleague used in his university survey course.7 As these young people appear in college classrooms they will challenge generalizations college teachers have made about the appropriate level of sophistication for introductory courses. We have only just begun to assess the difference the TAH grants are making, but surely the intense involvement of several thousand K–16 teachers—a requirement of the grants is that they be initiated by a school district and involve consultation with college or university teachers—will be doing much to help strengthen that expansive community of teachers that the authors of The Education of Historians long for.

The major argument against the narrowing of graduate education is that it is naive, postponing the day when the student will discover, as all of us are likely to discover, that if we are to practice our profession well we will need a wide range of competencies individually and collectively—skills in writing and in research, skills in teaching a variety of audiences, and the knowledge and reasoning that defends academic freedom, persuades a legislator to put resources into history work instead of some other worthy work, persuades a school district to abandon an outdated antiquarian interpretation, persuades donors to contribute the resources to save a threatened archive. As you read this, the U.S. Department of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education is preparing to publish a new report. Preliminary drafts have been criticized in the press, and it is already clear that the recommendations are likely to challenge much familiar practice. Who among us will be prepared to respond persuasively?

The authors of The Education of Historians challenge the next generation of graduate students to ask tough questions before they commit to any particular program. The tougher the better. There is much in this wide-ranging report that I have not touched upon here. It should not get dusty on our shelves.

—Linda K. Kerber (Univ. of Iowa) is president of the AHA.


1. University of Illinois Press, 2004.

2  The committee's members were: Colin Palmer (Princeton Univ.), chair; Thomas Bender (New York Univ.); secretary; Constance Berman (Univ. of Iowa); Allison Blakely (Boston Univ.); Ramón A. Gutiérrez (Univ. of California at San Diego); Fiona D. Halloran (UCLA), student representative; Nadine Hata (El Camino Community Coll.); Lynn Hunt (UCLA); Stanley N. Katz (Princeton Univ.); Theresa Mah (Bowling Green State Univ.); Kristin Stapleton (Univ. of Kentucky); Arnita A. Jones (AHA), ex officio. Philip M. Katz served as the committee's research director.

3. For an eloquent rebuttal, see Mary Beth Norton, "History Under Construction in Florida," New York Times, July 2, 2006.

4. Morris wrote many children's books, some in collaboration with others. His early books: The First Book of the American Revolution (1956); The First Book of the Constitution, (New York: Franklin Watts, 1958); both with illustrations by Leonard Everett Fisher, remain among the best of their kind. I am indebted to Mary-Jo Kline for these references.

5.For a list of NHPRC partially funded projects, go to last accessed July 4, 2006. For efforts to eliminate funding for the NHPRC in recent years, see the reports of the National Coalition for History, (See, for example NCH Action Alerts of April 26, 2005; June 22, 2005; April 3, 2006; and June 26, 2006).

6. See, for example, Robert Orrill and Linn Shapiro, "From Bold Beginnings to an Uncertain Future: the Discipline of History and History Education," American Historical Review, 110:3 (June 2005), and online discussion forum that followed: at the History Cooperative.

7. A collaboration between the University of Iowa and the Washington Community School District.