Journal of American History

Structuring the Past: Thinking about the History Curriculum

Stephen D. Andrews

Indiana University

When newly hired history faculty members arrive on campus for their first semester, they can usually be sure that they already know the curricular landscape. They can safely assume that they will teach courses that trace the expected life cycle of the history undergraduate. Their students will start with large surveys taught in a lecture format, move to slightly smaller, more specialized classes on particular topics or periods taught through a mix of lecture and discussion, and possibly conclude with seminars taught mainly to honors students, senior history majors, or graduate students. In short, it will be the same curriculum they experienced as undergraduates. Although the exact numbers involved and the internal architecture of the courses may vary, the overall trajectory of history education remains remarkably constant in departments across the country.[1]

That relative uniformity is surprising given the extent of change in the college classroom in the past decade. Since the 1960s, many pedagogical theories have encouraged opening and de-centering the classroom, so that students take a more active role in setting the intellectual agenda. More recently, wired campuses have provided a wealth of technological tools, which present another opportunity to rethink the relationship between teachers and students. The availability of primary texts online, the access to video and audio material, and the ease of sharing information have produced new ideas about the boundaries of the classroom experience. Many institutions have recognized the possibilities unlocked by those changes and offer classroom observation and consultation, pedagogical workshops, and instruction on how to integrate technology into the classroom. However, while individual classes are highly differentiated in their pedagogical methods and approach, there seems to be less variety when it comes to organizing an overall curriculum. Over the past two decades, a gulf has widened between the innovation that characterizes individual classes and the uniformity among department curricula.

The Evolution of the Present Curricula and Challenges to Change

The traditional pyramidal structure, in which students are expected to move from broad acquisition of information toward mastery of a particular subject, has long been the standard format of history instruction. In its most general outline, the now-traditional model was hammered out in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when it replaced older models of textbook recitation. In his brief description of the emergence of the modern curriculum, W. Wayne Dedman argues that “by 1900 the lecture was the accepted method of instruction at the undergraduate level, and shared with the seminar the attention of graduate students.” By the end of the nineteenth century, with a proliferation in the variety of courses offered (often following a periodization that would not be out of place in today’s course catalog) and the adoption of new methods of instruction, the modern curriculum had emerged. “The day of the ‘big’ history department,” Dedman argues, “as well as the day of the ‘big’ university was clearly dawning in 1900.”[2]

In 1988, John Simmonds surveyed the curricula of twenty-three history departments and examined how they had changed over the years. In the 1950s a broad agreement reigned about the curriculum, which was designed around “the unassailable principle of a liberal education.” The first two years of course work were governed by a strict set of distribution requirements, heavily weighted toward the humanities and with a prominent place for history: “United States history and the inevitable survey of Western Civilization were the backbones of the humanities and social sciences general education requirements.” In the 1960s and 1970s, colleges and universities rolled back these requirements in favor of a more open and flexible “smorgasbord” that allowed students to construct a more individualized curriculum. Later decades saw a reversion as schools reinstated certain requirements (such as language and mathematics) and set stricter standards to fulfill a major. One respondent interviewed by Simmonds described this as “the faculty taking back control of the curriculum.” However, change often occurred through university-wide regulations rather than the development of a new curriculum. The regulations specified the numbers and types of required courses but paid little attention to how those classes fit together in a coherent pattern. In Simmonds’s words, it was “little more than a hurried return to some form of traditional liberal education.”[3]

That series of transformations has produced the structure seen today in most departments. The history curriculum still centers on a process of progressive data accumulation in which students move from broad introductory classes toward more specific courses in which they increase their depth of knowledge on particular topics or periods. This model encourages the gradual acquisition of raw material before students are finally taught how to put it together. This structure has such wide and enduring acceptance across the country for many reasons: the weight of institutional precedent, faculty expectations, institutional hurdles for changing curricula, and the demographic pressure of large numbers of students at the introductory levels. While history departments across the country operate in diverse curricular environments (those at large state schools face different sets of issues than those at smaller liberal arts colleges, for example), they all face some of these challenges when they consider curricular reform.

The longevity of the traditional structure—that it has survived to be called “traditional”—provides a disincentive to change. Faculty members in the humanities are used to making their own decisions about how best to structure their classes, and many are wary of structural changes that might encroach upon academic freedom. In many departments, the procedure for changing curriculum is cumbersome, even if the desire is present. A department needs to begin with a sense of collegiality and a dedication to spending time and energy on what promises to be an intensive process. This kind of change requires numerous meetings, the formation of committees, and the patience to shepherd a revision through departmental, college, and university bureaucracies. Given the work often required to add a new course to the catalog, the thought of transforming the entire curriculum appears understandably daunting. With the annual challenges of hiring, budgets, and staffing, even the most collegial department might see remaking the curriculum as an impossible, impractical, or unwise task.

Imagining a new curriculum—for example, one that emphasizes thinking skills rather than accumulation of information at the introductory levels—also quickly becomes a question of staffing and scheduling. If thinking-skills courses replace the survey at the lower division, then who will teach all of the new sections (which presumably require faculty as instructors), and what will happen to the graduate students who usually fill those roles as part of their support packages? Similarly, in a world where administrators are concerned with enrollments and are watching departments and faculty members’ full-time equivalent generation, is it wise to sacrifice student numbers for a deeper student skill set? The pressures on departments are both internal and external.

The traditional structure has not survived simply because of its longevity or the difficulties inherent in effecting curricular change; it also successfully meets many of the challenges that face history departments. Demographic pressures make the traditional curricular structure attractive to teachers and administrators alike. Big lecture classes at the introductory level allow departments to serve large numbers of students with the fewest faculty members. The pressure to keep enrollment high and the limited number of faculty available to teach in a semester militate against any desire to see classes taught in a more intimate setting. The need to keep student numbers up permits few departments the luxury of maintaining the same number of classes while also placing stringent restrictions on their enrollments. The number of students in a classroom also restricts the kinds of potential interactions between students and instructors. The intellectual frisson of the seminar room, for example, can be hard to capture in the lecture hall. Large class size can also limit the kinds of assignments that can be required. Even for departments that employ graduate assistants, substantial and frequent writing assignments can be hard to manage in a class with hundreds of students. Discussing complicated and challenging texts or even designing assignments that test basic comprehension can be difficult in the largest lecture classes. Any reform of the curriculum must take into account these demographic and bureaucratic realities.

The Spur to Change

Given those factors and the ability of the traditional structure to meet some of the challenges of the modern university, what would press history departments to consider the difficult task of change? One issue that can affect potential change is whether the traditional model is working. Often, the model of increasing specificity—in which students gradually and consistently increase their knowledge—does not, in fact, reflect the actual experiences of students. For example, a registration and enrollment system that does not require students to complete classes in a particular order can foil the progressive accumulation of knowledge. In the traditional structure, instructors in upper-level classes can assume that the students are already familiar with material taught in introductory classes. However, without any guarantee that students have previously taken particular classes, teachers in even advanced classes must often assume that their students have little content background and no training in historical thinking. Curricula in mathematics, languages, and many sciences are strongly vertical: departments mandate the order in which classes will be taken, because mastering the content of a particular course requires skills taught in previous courses. The border between upper- and lower-division courses appears less stark in the humanities than in sciences or languages; perhaps because introductory courses in the humanities teach content rather than a particular set of skills, there is less sense that the technical challenges of upper-division work are impossible without the preceding courses.

That openness, however, creates the challenge of a widely varied constituency in the history classroom. An introductory history class (usually a survey in the traditional model) includes students who are or know they will be history majors or minors, students who are taking the course for other degree requirements (such as social-studies education majors in education programs), students who are shopping for a major but who will not ultimately choose history, and students just out of high school for whom a history course is simply what seems familiar and what they are used to taking. Upper-division classes feature a different mix: history majors and minors; students in related fields such as political science, international relations, or area studies; and those taking classes out of sheer interest. Many upper-division social science and humanities classes attract students outside the major who want to learn about Shakespeare, the Civil War, or Chinese politics but who have not taken any introductory or survey classes. While there may be no need to discourage these students by instituting a rigid system of prerequisites, there may be real value in devising more coherent curricula for the history majors who sit alongside nonmajors in upper-division courses. Is it possible, however, to insure that majors (or minors) come to those classes with finely developed historical thinking skills, even as we recognize that many students in those same courses will not possess those skills (yet) but may in fact gain some of them by working alongside the history majors and minors?

If that is a goal, then is the current system the best way to teach students the basic skills and tenets of the discipline? Many students do not “do history” until deep into their college careers, sometimes in the last semester of their senior year. It is only then, in some kind of seminar class, that students experience the process so familiar to historians: identifying their own questions, selecting their own sources, pursuing those sources and constructing arguments, documenting the research process, producing multiple drafts and rewrites, and finally presenting the work in a formal document. For some students, the first comprehensive use of the skills of a historian may be the final act of their education.

Beyond the challenges of actually executing the traditional model, academic departments also face other challenges in a changing academic marketplace. In history, as in many disciplines, shrinking enrollments can threaten a department’s strength and leverage when dealing with higher administration. This is not a new problem; a sense of crisis has been circulating in history departments for decades. In 1987, Barrie Ratcliffe, writing from the viewpoint of a Canadian university, described “the decline in enrollments, funding, and prestige that university history departments have suffered in the last ten or fifteen years.”[4] Ratcliffe argued that this crisis came as a shock, especially after the expansion of interest in history that emerged in the 1960s. It was even more worrisome, Ratcliffe believed, because it appeared to be caused by factors that history departments had little ability to influence—such as the size of the college-age cohort, student interest in more career-specific and vocational courses, and school-wide reductions of history requirements.

If those worries echo ones heard today, perhaps historians are prone to needless fretting about the state of their discipline; but there do seem to be legitimate reasons for concern. A wide range of reasons explains the drop in enrollment, including the reduction of required courses, students’ ability to enter college with history credits, and increased competition with other courses of study. Historians, particularly those who taught the American survey course, could once be relatively sure that their classes were required of most, if not all, of the students on their campus. A captive audience would begin the process of data acquisition at the base of the traditional model. Even as some institutions restored the liberal-arts requirements that they had jettisoned in the 1960s and 1970s, many abandoned specific general-education requirements that mandated students to take particular history courses (usually world or American history) in favor of broadly defined distribution requirements. History became one of many options to meet a humanities or social science requirement; in many universities, “students could avoid history entirely in their general education.”[5] Although there is room for debate over the quality of work performed by students forced to take any particular class, requiring history courses guaranteed enrollments and ensured that almost all students would be exposed to the courses and faculty of the history department. With the decline of specific requirements, that advantage is disappearing.

Even at schools with specific history requirements, the expansion of Advancement Placement (ap) programs, and the International Baccalaureate Program in high schools enables more students than ever to earn credit for history courses before they arrive on campus. Many of those programs are utilized by some of the most academically proficient students of each incoming class; receiving college credit for high school work, they have fewer reasons to take history courses unless they are a major or a particular class catches their attention. Those students represent a drop in the enrollment in introductory history classes. Of course, there is the hope that students willing to take ap history in high school will continue taking history courses, perhaps starting with middle- or upper-division classes. However, many of these proficient students could feel that they are “done” with history and never take the opportunity to experience college-level history and decide to major in it.

Departments and programs must now compete for students’ attention and enrollment in a far more aggressive academic marketplace. This raises a host of questions beyond curricular reform. To what degree should class topics be changed to be “sexier” or more “student-friendly”? Should instructors devise more interesting or controversial titles to appeal to students scanning the course listings? Should course syllabi and assignments be changed to enhance retention? If so, what changes would accomplish this? Do instructors and professors have a responsibility to advertise their classes and boost enrollments? Many of these questions are beyond the scope of this discussion, but they do shed some light on the issues of curricular reform. If students take our introductory classes, do they get a sense of the kinds of questions, issues, and debates that led us to become historians? Do they get excited about taking more history classes? Can we wait until they have taken three or four semesters of large lecture classes before we show them what it means to “do history”?

Those questions go beyond the demographic and institutional factors that serve as a spur to curricular change; they point as well toward the intellectual reasons to consider changing the way we present history to our students. Over the past two decades, concerns over what history students were learning have driven some of the most comprehensive and innovative attempts to address curricular change. Among the most important of these was the joint effort of the Association of American Colleges (aac) and the American Historical Association (aha) to reassess the history major. Began in 1990, the aac/aha report, “Liberal Learning and the History Major” (1991), issued recommendations for rethinking the structure of history curricula and suggested guidelines for assessing the quality of the history major. The report stressed the need for departments to ask big questions, such as “what is the discipline of history, and what are the purposes of the history major?”; to “consciously articulate the interrelations among history courses”; and to provide a coherent structure in the history major. The aac/aha report expressed ways to encourage the intellectual development of students through the acquisition of historical thinking skills, and it included a template for curricular change that strongly supported introductory and capstone courses, classes on historical methodology, synthetic courses, and research seminars. In conjunction with the report, the aac provided support to eight institutions for a two-year project to reform their academic major programs.[6]

Faculty from four of those institutions described their efforts to transform their curricula in the History Teacher in 1994. Their essays revealed both the possibilities and the problems in implementing curricular change. In some cases, self-examination revealed that their curricula had developed with little coherence (two authors described their departments’ curricular evolution as “haphazard”). To begin solving this, the history department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, for example, spent a semester drafting a philosophical statement that described its view of the discipline of history. Following the template outlined in the aac/aha report, several departments created introductory methods classes designed to emphasize the acquisition of particular skills and instituted more requirements for faculty-student mentoring. The Western Michigan University history department also created senior seminars to serve as capstone courses, while the departments at the College of Charleston and Rowan College took their evaluation of the major as an opportunity to reformulate and expand their requirement of a student portfolio. All of the departments found the effort a rewarding exercise, but they achieved different levels of success. Some of them were able to introduce new courses and make relatively large changes to their curriculum; others came to agreements about the need for change but were unable to implement it beyond relatively limited additions to their departmental requirements.[7]

Changes and Steps

In the years since the aac/aha report, many history departments have made efforts to change their curricula. Often, as with the departments that participated in the aac/aha program, these evolutions have taken the form of additions—classes added to address particular shortcomings—rather than reconstructions of the entire structure. My own survey of history department Web sites in 2008 suggests that many have instituted similar curricular changes. Some departments offer or require classes on historical theory or “thinking historically,” while others provide a more expansive view of the profession through courses that focus on historiography or writing. Examples of those kinds of courses are the Historian’s Craft (Columbia University), Historical Methodologies (Whitman College), Historical Investigation (University of Nevada, Las Vegas), Historical Writing (California State University, Bakersfield), and Seminar in Historiography (University of Indianapolis). Some departments have also added senior seminars or other capstone courses, in which students (particularly majors) are expected to synthesize their experiences in preceding classes to conduct their own research and present original work.

Such additions help overcome some of the weaknesses of the traditional curriculum, but they introduce their own concerns. Adding required classes into an already full schedule could add to the strain on faculty staffing. By design or through inertia, one faculty member or a small group of faculty could bear the weight of curricular change by being expected to teach theory or historiography classes repeatedly rather than classes in their field of interest. Conversely, if particular instructors dominate those classes (particularly if teaching them offered relief from large lecture classes or a teaching assignment seen as onerous) other faculty could feel disenfranchised from them and they could come to be seen as less of a departmental commitment. Also, requiring all majors to take a seminar—especially in large departments—can create scheduling logjams that could prevent students from completing their graduation requirements in timely fashion (another area of growing institutional concern nationwide).

A key question when adding a historiography requirement, a senior seminar, or other types of benchmark classes is, How will they fit with the other requirements for a major? Although the organization of course catalogs at many schools is similar, history departments have different expectations of whether their major should produce a student who is a broad generalist or one who has substantially begun the process of specialization. All departments require a certain number of courses or credits for the major, but vary on the kinds of classes that count toward that number. Many require students to take a certain number of courses on the United States and on non–North American topics; many departments also demand some degree of chronological variety. Beyond this widely shared desire to have some general breadth in a student’s class selections, however, departments perceive differently the goals their majors are pursuing. Some departments, such as those at Duke University and Columbia University, require students to declare an area of specialization, while others, such as Grinnell College’s department, urge students to take classes in as many areas as possible.[8] Others have no specialization requirements but offer ways for students to create a specialized field of study.

In some departments, this thinking about the kind of student a history major should produce sometimes leads to a substantial reconsideration of the goals of every course. Rather than adding new classes, some departments have changed their expectations of what students will take away from the courses already listed in the catalog. One method is to insist that every course provide more emphasis on acquiring skills or on learning to build and use historical models. Rather than create a new class on historical thinking and leave the other classes fundamentally unchanged, this skills-based or model-building approach follows from a departmental decision about what students should learn to do in a history course and then urges the instructors to introduce and develop those skills in their classes. For example, a department could encourage that every course teach the basic methods of selecting a research question and determining which sources would best lead to productive answers; or it could urge all instructors to present historiography and the evolution of scholarship in every course. This method achieves many of the goals of the capstone or theory classes without entailing increased staffing or adding new course requirements. It also helps ensure that all students who have taken classes within a department have been exposed to certain concepts and methods of historical thinking.

All of these developments show how history departments continue to explore ways to change the traditional model to better meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. Many of these developments, such as instituting new requirements, adding new classes, or establishing department-wide goals for skills acquisition, demand frank discussions about what faculty see as the essential historical tools and concepts that history majors should learn. Making those kinds of additions, or moving beyond them to a more fundamental shift in the way that history education is organized at the university level, requires thinking about the curriculum in a new way. It also often pushes faculty members to see their classes as part of a larger, and more structured, whole. Changing the curriculum is difficult. However, the process also offers the possibility of a heightened sense of collegiality and a unified sense of purpose for a department that accepts the challenge.

[1]Stephen D. Andrews is associate editor of the Journal of American History and adjunct assistant professor of history at Indiana University.

Readers may contact Andrews at standrew at indiana dot edu.

This piece began with a sense that there was a generally shared structure in the curricula of history departments throughout the United States. This was reinforced by an impressionistic and unscientific review of the requirements listed on the Web sites of fifteen departments at schools of differing sizes and profiles throughout the country. Although each school offered a unique approach to the study of history, the broad outlines of a traditional structure emerged. The sites consulted represent the history departments at Elon University, University of Indianapolis, Grinnell College, Oglethorpe University, Whitman College, University of California, San Diego, California State University, Bakersfield, University of Alabama, Virginia Tech, University of South Florida, Texas Tech University, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Stanford University, Duke University, and Columbia University. Thanks to Erin Cummings, a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno, for compiling information for this review. As this essay was being completed, a report on similar issues was issued by a working group of the National History Center. The group was co-chaired by Stanley N. Katz of Princeton University and James R. Grossman of the Newberry Library and was supported by the Teagle Foundation. See Stanley N. Katz and James Grossman, “The History Major and Undergraduate Liberal Education: Report of the National History Center Working Group to the Teagle Foundation,” Sept. 29, 2008, National History Center,

[2] W. Wayne Dedman, “The Rise of Historical Studies in American Colleges,” in Studies in History and Social Sciences: Essays in Honor of John A. Kinneman, ed. Department of Social Sciences, Illinois State University (Normal, 1965), 13.

[3] John C. Simmonds, “History Curriculum and Curriculum Change in Colleges and Universities of the United States: A Study of Twenty-three History Departments in 1988,” History Teacher, 22 (May 1989), 294–95.

[4] Barrie M. Ratcliffe also cites a 1984 report to assert that “declines have been most marked in the United States where in the decade of the 1970s the annual number of history graduates fell by 58 percent.” Perspectives, 20 (Nov. 1984), 3–4. Barrie M. Ratcliffe, “History in Crisis: Crisis Management through Curriculum Planning,” ibid., 21 (Nov. 1987), 23.

[5] Simmonds, “History Curriculum,” 297.

[6] Association of American Colleges and American Historical Association, “Liberal Learning and the History Major,” 1991, American Historical Association, Some of the report’s recommendations were summarized in Joanna Schneider Zangrando, “Reforming the History Major: Four Examples of Action Taken in Response to the aha/aac Project on Liberal Learning and the History Major,” History Teacher, 28 (Nov. 1994), 57.

[7] The articles ran in the November 1994 issue of the History Teacher and contained reports from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Western Michigan University, the College of Charleston, and Rowan College of New Jersey. Edward M. Anson, “The History Major at a Metropolitan University,” ibid., 60; Linda J. Borish, “Re-Forming the History Major at Western Michigan University,” ibid., 75; Amy Thompson McCandless, “Reconstructing the History Major at the College of Charleston: A Focus on Skills,” ibid., 68; David R. Applebaum, “Re-Forming the History Major: The Rowan College Plan,” ibid., 83–85. See also Linda J. Borish, Mitch Kachun, and Cheryl Lyon-Jenness, “Rethinking a Curricular ‘Muddle in the Middle’: Revising the Undergraduate History Major at Western Michigan University,” Journal of American History, 95 (March 2009), 1102–1113.

[8] The Grinnell College Department of History “strongly recommends that students complete a history curriculum that embraces geographic and chronological diversity.” “History,” Grinnell College Course Catalog, http://www


Rethinking the History Curriculum

Revising the Undergraduate History Major

Borish, Kachun, and Lyon-Jenness