In part one of this series, I introduced a new academic field, “deep history,” that is emerging in history departments. A New York Times article this week drew attention to “deep history” as grounded in a critique of contemporary history departments as overly focused on the 20th century. These critics assert both the need for historians to pay attention to “the long march of human existence,” and the possibility of making valid historical inferences from data such as 35,000 year-old perforated shells found in Greece, which might even be understood as a step toward the development of “credit cards, bank notes, [and] gold coins.”
Up to the Minute
Well, maybe. The concept of “deep history” is a welcome one, but the practice may prove a little tricky. One important reason we need “deep history” is that our academic detour into five-minutes-ago history leaves undergraduate students in the dark about matters of real significance. For example:
- Earlier this year, my organization, the National Association of Scholars, released a study, The Vanishing West, 1964-2010, which traced the disappearance of Western Civilization survey courses at elite private and top public colleges and universities over the last half century. A few universities have made feints in the direction of “world history” as a substitute overview, but even world history is seldom required. American higher education has essentially kicked out the one course that attempted a broad narrative overview and replaced it with…nothing.
- We hear with great lament that the idea of evolution is under assault because the advocates of creationism and intelligent design have pushed so hard for their agenda, but in truth, colleges and universities that are entirely secular in spirit pay scant attention to teaching the evolutionary macro-narrative of human development.
- A few years ago, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute administered a 60-question multiple choice exam about civic literacy to 14,000 freshmen and graduating seniors. It produced the astonishing result that at several top universities (Princeton, Yale, Cornell, Duke, and Berkeley) seniors scored lower than freshmen. The strong suggestion was that a four-year liberal arts education had resulted in a net loss of historical knowledge. The study, “Failing Our Students, Failing America” (2007) was conducted by researchers at the University of Connecticut, and combined multiple-choice factual questions (e.g. “What battle brought the Revolutionary War to an end?”) with simple interpretive ones (“The dominant theme in the Lincoln-Douglas debates was: _________”)
College students today have abundant access to courses that explore race, gender, and class in all their permutations, and a superfluity of courses on niche historical topics, but relatively few courses that attempt anything in the way of integrating historical knowledge over the wider arcs—human development, civilizations, or the American experiment.
Ann Arbor and Reed
To offer such a criticism is a bit perilous. Thousands of history professors offer tens of thousands of history courses in American colleges and universities. Many members of the history faculty are very good at what they do, and history curricula are inevitably wide ranging. Any loose generalization can be met with dozens of examples of exceptions. But to look at the undergraduate history offerings at almost any college or university is to encounter a mix that includes numerous niche courses. Here are two examples, one from a major research university, the other from an elite liberal arts college.
The University of Michigan has a robust undergraduate history major, but it includes courses such as History 331, “Poland in the 20th and 21st Centuries,” and History 397, “Colloquium, Occult Internationalism: The Global Spread of Secret Knowledge.” These may be fine courses in their own right, but an undergraduate student has time for only so many history courses. Are these the best choices to fill out a student’s knowledge of history?
At Reed College, a student can take History 311, “Food in American History: Burgers, Fries, and Apple Pie,” History 379, “The 50s in America”; and History 321, “Support the Qing, Destroy the Foreign: Interpreting and Remembering the Boxer Uprising.” Interesting topics these, but are these courses grace notes that add a little flourish to a Reed student’s otherwise systematic exploration of history? A student seeking a context at Reed for the “burgers and fries” course can take History 230, “Empire and Liberty: The United States in the Nineteenth Century;” History 270, “Nature, Culture, and Society in American History”; History 276, “Culture and Society in Twentieth Century America;” History 278, “U.S. Politics and Culture, 1929-1979;” History 302, “Origins of the Second World War;” History 303, “The Cold War,” and quite a few other courses. These latter courses add up to an intellectually serious undergraduate history curriculum, and Reed’s “Food in American History” course looks a good deal less frivolous in that context.
But there is at least one other way to consider that particular collection of courses: what does it leave out? It would take me too far down a different road to attempt that analysis here, but I’ll offer it as a homework assignment to the interested reader. Reed’s history curriculum is here.
As far as demonstrating the nonce character of history offerings around the country, that’s as easy as canoeing downstream, as in Guildford College’s History 324, “American Rivers,” which “uses American rivers and their watersheds as focal points to study the various ways in which people have interacted with their environments and each other,” and invites students to “select a river of their choice on which they conduct a semester-long research project.”
Or History 3530 at Auburn, “Science Fiction as Intellectual History.”
Or History 2452 at Cornell, “Dress, Cloth and Identity in Africa and the Diaspora.”
Second homework assignment: Find a college at which the undergraduate course offerings do not include at least one such divertissement.