The Preparation of Historians

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Further thoughts and proposals

  • 1.  Further thoughts and proposals

    Posted 02-21-2014 09:56:00 AM

    The publication in the February 2014 issue of Perspectives on History of a short essay of mine, "Transforming the Preparation of Historians: Much More to Do" ( gives me the chance to expand a bit on my earlier posts as well as to encourage others-both those already in this community and others who learn of it and join-to enter the discussion.  I should also make clear here my strong hope that this community become more than simply a forum for the exchange of ideas, as valuable as that may be.  I hope that it may lead, somewhere down the road, to some concrete acts and changes in the ways we prepare aspiring historians for their careers as thinkers and practitioners.  If we limit ourselves only to conversation, the preparation of historians will remain roughly as it has remained for decades while such an old and comfortable way of proceeding becomes steadily less and less appropriate, defensible, and, in some respects, unethical.


    My essay followed a related one by Thomas Bender in the preceding issue of Perspectives on History in which he summarized his views about the consequences of the book that he, Colin Palmer, and Philip M. Katz wrote and that appeared in 2004 as The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century.  If I am correct, Bender implies greater discouragement than he states about what has not happened since the publication of that cogent report and set of proposals.  As Tom and Phil Katz know, while I am a great admirer of that work, I believed from the outset that it hadn't gone far enough in its recommendations.  Also, as I state in my Perspectives piece, I believe that the book's authors and the committee that stood behind them made a serious error in failing to propose a mechanism-either a new body or the AHA itself-that could have seen to the implementation of the report.  One of the reasons that I inaugurated this community on the anniversary of the Bender/Palmer/Katz report was to see whether we could not pick up where its authors had left off and, even after ten years, kick the discussion and activities relating to the preparation of historians into a higher gear.


    Since my initial post and follow-up posts from others, as well as further thought and the criticisms of a few others, both on and off this community's membership, I've concluded that I should make my own current thinking and proposals more concrete and clear.  First of all, anything that I've written or write now is written in no criticism of those changes to graduate history instruction that have in fact occurred in the past 20 or so years.  The principal ones of these have been the slow introduction of exposure to extra-academic history pursuits into graduate preparation.  The other is similar exposure to teaching skills.  Who would not put these high on the list of the knowledge and competencies at the core of the definition of a historian in the 21st century?  They should be pushed resolutely ahead.


    But second of all, in my earlier posts and in my Perspectives essay, I singled out three matters that, in my estimation, we grievously neglect in the standard preparation of historians.  They are 1) the history of historical thought; 2) the history of the discipline of history; and 3) the ethical conundrums that all scholars and practitioners of history will inevitably face.  Skeptics, one of them none other than the executive director of the AHA, have said to me that I must be mistaken on the first matter, that of historiography; he, like I, took such a course in graduate school, and surely the subject continues to be taught.  But I've made an informal survey of roughly ten graduate program curricula; and though a couple of them offer a course in historiography, it is usually twinned with methodology and frequently focuses on the specialty of the historian teaching the course.  The course never goes back to Herodotus to exposes graduate historians to the long history of history in the West.  So here, I stand by my earlier list of subjects that I believe critical to the training up of historians: public history, teaching skills, historiography of the West, the history of the discipline; and ethics.  To these I would add what Amos Bitzan has suggested in this string of posts-namely, a course in historical methods.  And I will not be bashful and withhold my strong conviction that these be core-that is, required-courses for everyone in every graduate history program.


    Regarding teaching, by the way, what many departments are essaying and the AHA itself effectively involving itself in-more instruction in teaching-does not in my view go far enough.  Jim Grossman is correct in slapping my wrist privately for not having mentioned the AHA's Teagle and Tuning projects-efforts to spread knowledge of the scholarship and research now being undertaken in regards to history teaching and to bring some coherence to the undergraduate history curriculum.  Victoria Harden in this community and past AHA president Kenneth Pomeranz in his final Perspectives column have suggested the teaching skills and sensibilities to which all historians should direct their attention.  But if by "teaching" we mean only classroom teaching, we are not going far enough.  Just as parents, athletic coaches, and "bosses" are by definition teachers (if they're wise enough), so are museum curators, film makers, National Park guides, and government officers who do history.  To confine the preparation of historians to the teaching of students in classrooms simply isn't enough.  We must begin to broaden our definition of history teaching.


    I conclude this long post in the hope that others in the community will join in to add to what I've written, take issue with me, and encourage others to engage in this debate about a critically important and large subject.  My impression is that were, say, Charles A. Beard and James Harvey Robinson still alive to visit our graduate history programs, they'd recognize much going on in graduate history classrooms as precisely the way things were done in their days as students a century ago.  Many new subjects, to be sure.  But lectures, seminars, and courses similar to those in which they were taught.  And some subjects, like historiography, missing.  If I'm correct in thinking so, if after 100 years we're still following, without full and constant re-examination, the course laid down by our worthy predecessors, if I'm correct that we're closer to their way of producing historians than to a better way, more appropriate to our era, that can now be envisaged, we have much work to do.  Tom Bender agrees.  I believe that Jim Grossman does, too.  So do many others.  But how can these concerns be focused so that our individual history departments take the additional steps in preparing historians that are so much needed?  That, it seems to me, is the toughest question we face.

    James Banner
    Washington DC