When I first read the news of the American Historical Association’s “History Tuning” project last week, I was excited about what seemed to me to be a timely undertaking to rethink history education at the university level from a skills-based perspective that would undergird assertions of the relevancy of historical study to many career paths and professional arenas.
The project, it appeared, dovetailed helpfully with the AHA’s recent, welcome calls for expanding graduate education and enlarging the universe of possible professional outcomes for the profession’s Ph.D.s (the articles on “No More Plan B” and “Plan C” in Perspectives last fall by Jim Grossman and Tony Grafton, for instance). Indeed, I forwarded news of the “Tuning” project to my own Ph.D. department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is just beginning a conversation about “Historians and the Public Sphere,” in which I, as an adjunct member of this department, am to be involved.
Imagine my surprise, then, upon reading this morning the call for participants in the project that the AHA has issued seeking “an enthusiastic group of 60 history faculty” who are employed full-time as “history faculty at the post-secondary level.” As an active professional historian building a “portfolio” career that encompasses full-time “alt-ac” employment, ongoing historical research and publication, and adjunct teaching of my university’s only public history course, I am stunned by this narrow definition of potential participants in this very important undertaking.
If the project aims (as the AHA web announcement noted), to “spell out the distinctive skills, methods, and substantive range of [the] field,” articulate “the significance and value of a history degree,” include “historians front and center at all stages,” understand “how potential employers value the skills and knowledge of history majors and how students have used their degrees over time,” explain “the significance of historical study to audiences beyond the profession,” and “answer the critique of history as an irrelevant luxury,” it absolutely must incorporate at its core professional historians who, in their own practice, deploy those skills in a variety of settings and provide employment for future history majors trained in these new ways.
While it is true that, to succeed, the Tuning Project must involve those history faculty members who have the power to enact curricular change, and while I see that the funder has defined the project as “faculty-driven,” I believe that leaving the conversation to be controlled exclusively by this group is to doom it to insularity and, ultimately, marginality and limited effect – for students, for history departments, for universities, and for history practice.
Reforming the history curriculum cannot productively proceed in the absence of sustained participation, from the outset, by historians who represent the full breadth of the history profession writ large. It is hard to imagine faculties in other professional fields (journalism, public health, education, social work, law) undertaking such a project without engaging practitioners in all of those areas. It’s high time we stop thinking that the domains “historians” and “history faculty” are fully, or even largely, congruent.
As has been well documented elsewhere, historians whose entire careers have unfolded within the academy (as history faculty careers most often do, since there is little room for “lateral re-entry” in traditional arts and sciences academe) often know little about how history skills are deployed outside of a few areas (primarily teaching, discipline-based research, and scholarly publication). Such historians often know little to nothing, for instance, about historic preservation and the matrix of laws and regulations that shape the lives of other historians who make their living in “cultural resources management,” to name one single public history arena.
How, then, can a group composed solely of full-time academic faculty be expected to take charge of a radical re-envisioning of history curricula to make it sufficiently flexible and broad so as to prepare history graduates who are well positioned to move into the wide variety of fields often touted as common paths for the undergraduate history major?
Consider a single concrete case: Working with three other historians (all holding Ph.D.s from major universities) who are leaders in the field, I have just completed a three-year study of “the state of history” in the National Park Service that was commissioned and sponsored by the NPS Chief Historian’s Office (Dr. Robert K. Sutton) and the Organization of American Historians. That study (Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service), will be released within the next month.
This study was built on a survey of NPS professionals whose work shapes NPS history practice. One of our key findings is that historical research and interpretation in the parks is often managed by staff with little to no post-secondary training in history. Indeed, the minimum educational requirement for being hired as a federal historian (series 0170) is only 18 hours of history at the college level, and many ranger-interpreters in the parks have no disciplinary training at all.
Since two-thirds of our national parks are designated for their historical/cultural significance as opposed to grand natural features and scenery, one of our major recommendations is that the standard for hiring historians be raised, and that more MA-trained historians be hired to manage the NPS’s important history work. In making our case, we argue that MA-level training in history imparts an indispensable set of skills and awarenesses that are critical to effective, accurate, flexible, and relevant public history practice. These are, no doubt, many of the same skills that the Tuners will identify: an ability to assemble, judge, read, and understand the fragmentary records (both written and material) left to us from the past, an understanding of the constructed and changing nature of historical knowledge, and an ability to cope with and present multiple perspectives in and on the past.
Yet, we recognize, hiring more conventionally trained historians will not, by itself, be enough. It is also evident to us that historical work in many non-university settings, such as the parks, requires additional knowledge, skills, and experience: in historic preservation, digital presentation, archival description and organization, curation of material objects, architectural history, K-12 pedagogy, and collaborative work styles — things that that most history majors do not routinely get exposed to. This fact, indeed, may at least partly explain why so much history work in the public sector seems to be done by non-historians who have colonized our field while we have focused so internally.
If correctly managed, the Tuning Project offers an outstanding opportunity to build curricula (at all levels) that will give real meaning to the assertions of countless history departments that the study of history opens many doors. Such curricular reform, indeed, has the potential to re-invigorate “the connection between history and civic life” that historian Thomas Bender argued for in his recent Chronicle of Higher Education article (“What’s Been Lost in History,” February 12, 2012, login required). If left only to history faculties in academe, however, the project will be simply one more bit of evidence of how out of touch academic history and the AHA are with where the history profession is and needs to go.