Journal of American History

More than the Sum of Its Parts:
Rethinking the History Curriculum

Scott E. Casper

Contributing Editor, Textbooks and Teaching

Every history curriculum is a historical artifact. It reflects changing notions within the discipline at large: the fields we value (or have valued at some point in the past), the geographical and chronological division of national and regional histories (as imagined currently or long ago), and perhaps the importance we place on methodological thinking, seminar-style teaching, and independent student research. It offers evidence also of a department’s institutional history: course descriptions written by faculty long since departed or retired, classes that reflect the changing interests of particular faculty at mid-career, new courses or entire new fields introduced by recently hired scholars fresh out of graduate school. In many departments, the curriculum is an artifact of accretion rather than design.

Several national projects over the past two decades have sought to spur a more holistic imagination regarding history curricula. In 1990 the Association of American Colleges (aac) collaborated with twelve learned societies, including the American Historical Association (aha), to rethink the content and structure of liberal arts majors. The resulting aac/aha report, “Liberal Learning and the History Major” (1991), became the framework in which eight institutions received “support for a two-year project to re-form academic majors.” The Quality in Undergraduate Education (que) project, launched in the late 1990s by the Education Trust and the National Association of System Heads in association with Georgia State University, brought together “faculty at selected four-year public institutions” and “partner two-year colleges” to devise “discipline-based standards or student learning outcomes for student learning” in biology, chemistry, English, history, mathematics, and physics majors. Most recently, a working group of the National History Center, supported by a grant from the Teagle Foundation, has produced a white paper, “The History Major and Undergraduate Liberal Education” (2008), which seeks to offer “a more explicit understanding of the relationship between the history major and the broader goals and processes of liberal learning” and thereby to encourage discussions about the history curriculum in a larger context.[1]

The “Textbooks and Teaching” section that follows aims to advance this conversation, through a general examination of challenges and two case studies. Stephen D. Andrews considers the evolution of the “traditional” history curriculum, the barriers to revising it, and several demographic and intellectual spurs to change. Linda J. Borish, Mitch Kachun, and Cheryl Lyon-Jenness describe the two-decade process of curricular development in the history department at Western Michigan University. The department participated in the aac project of the 1990s and since then has continued to reshape its curriculum in response to changes in student demographics and objectives as well as to developments in the discipline.[2] In particular, the department has sought to rationalize the “middle” of its curriculum—the zone between survey courses and senior-level independent work—and in the process has built a vibrant culture shared by history majors and faculty. John Savagian describes a very different but no less long-term process at Alverno College, a liberal arts college in Wisconsin. At Alverno, discipline-based departments align their majors with a college-wide curriculum that seeks to foster certain abilities in all students. The result is a department of history with a strong sense of connection to a larger institutional mission.

Thinking holistically about students’ history education—and applying that thinking to a curriculum, not merely to one’s own courses or a departmental “methods” course—can easily pale against the semesterly and daily press of teaching, the imperative of scholarly productivity, and myriad other faculty responsibilities. To reimagine the history curriculum, rather than merely clear away “dead” courses and update descriptions of “living” ones, requires significant collective endeavor across fields and periods of specialization. But as these three essays suggest, the endeavor can pay rich dividends for departmental culture as well as student learning.

[1]Scott E. Casper is professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Readers may contact Casper at casper at unr dot edu.

Association of American Colleges and American Historical Association, “Liberal Learning and the History Major,” 1991, American Historical Association, The quotation is from Joanna Schneider Zangrando, “Introduction—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. That History Teacher forum includes reports from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the College of Charleston, Western Michigan University, and Rowan College of New Jersey. “About que,” Quality in Undergraduate Education, 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, p. 1, National History Center,; Miriam Hauss, “The Role of the History Major in Liberal Education: White Paper Report for the Teagle Foundation,” Oct. 22, 2008, American Historical Association: aha Today, -paper-report-for-the-teagle-foundation. For a discussion of one department’s work in thinking holistically about its curriculum, see Arlene Díaz, Joan Middendorf, David Pace, and Leah Shopkow, “The History Learning Project: A Department ‘Decodes’ Its Students,” Journal of American History, 94 (March 2008), esp. 1221–23.

[2] See Linda J. Borish, “Re-Forming the History Major at Western Michigan University,” History Teacher, 28 (Nov. 1994), 72–78.

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Rethinking the History Curriculum

Revising the Undergraduate History Major

Borish, Kachun, and Lyon-Jenness