The Preparation of Historians

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  • 1.  Some additional thoughts

    Posted 01-06-2014 02:40:00 PM
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    While wanting first to acknowledge the messages that have been posted since my original invitation and opening statement, I want to add a few additional thoughts.

    It occurs to me, first, that my own interest in this particular subject concerns the content of graduate education in history.  Many others have devoted attention--and very effective attention--to what I would term the aims of graduate education--that is, to the increasingly broadened opportunities for the pursuit of history work in many professions and occupations.  I am of course intently interested in that aspect of the problem, too.  Most of this kind of preparation takes place under the general name of public history, in which more and more departments, even if too slowly, are offering introductions and solid instruction.  This is all to the good.  But as I reflect on what concerns me most, and when I consider what I firmly believe is most lacking in the preparation of historians, I see that I fix upon content issues more than others.  For instance, I believe that all graduate students should take a course in the history of historical thought starting with Herodotus.  Few do.  There now exist a number of fine works on the history of historical thought--I think principally of those by John Burrow, Donald Kelley, and Ernst Breisach--that can easily and fully support such a course and lead students into their own explorations of the large subject.  To that I'd add a required course on the history of the discipline of history--both in the United States and elsewhere.  That, too, is rarely taught.  The literature of that subject remains a bit immature, but important strides are being made.  One would probably start with Peter Novick's work, but those by Ian Tyrell and Robert Townsend would not be far behind.  If students of history do not know the intellectual and institutional context of their career's work, how can we continue to teach them about, say, the historiography of, say, the French Revolution or the American Civil War?  Is not context everything?  I'd even go so far, as I've written recently in Historically Speaking (see the attachment), to introduce aspiring historians--to say nothing of experienced ones--into the history of the departments in which they're studying.  The trouble is, of course, that few departments do anything to save and understand that history--another part of the context in which historians are prepared.  Few departments have a written history of themselves, and few historians go beyond gossip in having knowledge of their colleagues and predecessors.  Are not history departments part of our shared history?

    Second, I'd have students think hard about the ethical foundations of their work, as well as its ethical problematics.  I know of no graduate course--I know of no course at all--which has as its basis a study of the history and realities of the professional ethics of doing history in all its contemporary forms.  And this in an age in which code after code, statement after statement, of ethics and standards have been promulgated by the AHA, the OAH, and the many other organizations in which historians participate and which help structure our professional lives.  These statements and standards are not easy reading--I daresay that few reading these words have ever read them.  Some of them are embarrassingly deficient in content and wording.  But they provide the grounds for having students examine the inevitable ethical realities and conundrums of their work.

    Third, I'd of course include preparation in teaching in all its forms, for whether we're school, college, or university historians or museum curators, corporate historians, federal historians, National Park Service historian, or any other kind of historian, we teach others.  And not just teaching but deep consideration of what it is we're trying to achieve when we teach others and how to achieve it.

    Finally, I see no reason why consideration of the preparation of historians should not include consideration of the preparation of teachers of history in the schools.  It makes little sense to segregate the preparation of academics from non academics--unless, that is, we want history teachers to think of themselves only as teachers and not as participants in the intellectual community of historians.  Why should not teachers think of themselves as historians just as others do?  This is a subject freighted with a complex and not always attractive history.  But it is one that I think should be considered.

    James M. Banner, Jr.
    Washington DC