The American Historical Association Tuning project

In February, the American Historical Association announced its discipline-wide “Tuning” project with a grant from the Lumina Foundation. Based on previous work in the European Balogna process and a U.S. pilot project in history in Utah, the AHA will be formulating a generic list of what students leaving various history programs should know and be able to do.

Anne Whisnant has an interesting objection to the framing of the project: it focuses on a narrow academic definition of history and does not involve a broad range of history practitioners outside academic departments. A staff member of the AHA emailed me a non-official reaction, which I didn’t ask for permission to quote, but essentially is “we have to put together the group from those who have the authority to speak for their institutions so we are not a top-down effort, and we’re working with a variety of institutions to help them meet specific missions and demonstrate the value of a history major/degree/program.” I think that’s also a response to the argument of Briann Greenfield (Central Connecticut State University) and the Connecticut Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, concerned that sponsorship by the Lumina Foundation makes this unacceptable.

My concern is the opposite: if the AHA effort ends up close to what happened in Utah, the result of the AHA’s Tuning effort will be a far-too-vague list of skills that address neither the craft temperament of a working historian nor the grounding of that temperament in the study of specific times, places, and combinations thereof. My concern is bolstered further by what I have seen in the development of K-12 history and social-studies standards, which have all too often been either vague skills pap or fetishized lists of trivia.1 In either case, such lists ill serve both history programs and public understanding.

Is it possible to describe the “ingredients” of good history work that avoids these extremes? I think so, but I am not sure if this is the type of objectives list that the Tuning project will develop:

1. Good history programs lead students to wrestles with important puzzles about specific times and places. This requires a few developmental steps:

  • Students need to learn specific, generally-accepted historical understandings about specific times and places.
  • They need to learn about more than one or two specific times and places — in some programs, where U.S. history is treated as a national history, this is often framed as “U.S. history plus two other regions and times.” But while breadth is important, it is not clear whether that requires a national history as one core (though it will be most common).
  • Students need experience wrestling with a broad range of puzzles and problems historians see as important.

2. Students need time to develop and practice important parts of the historical craft:

  • Reading of and analyzing primary sources in the context of learning about specific times and places.
  • Reading and critiquing the use of primary sources by historians.
  • Constructing historical arguments using both primary and secondary sources.
  • Engaging in discussions about important historical questions using the norms of historians.

3. Students should understand and demonstrate reflective practice:

  • Students should wrestle with the academic, public, and popular uses of history: how they are different, what uses people make of history, and how such cross-sector conversations could be (more) productive for specific purposes.
  • Students should understand how historians have intellectual ties to related disciplines and practice drawing from both the humanities and social sciences.
  • Students should understand and practice some breadth in methods, including but not exclusively restricted to archival research. Other methods include analysis of published material, oral history, analysis of census data, geographic information systems, and others.
  • Students should understand and practice professional norms in how to be part of an historical discourse community: what is integrity in making an historical argument and responding to others?
  • Students should understand how history is an evolving field: How does a “consensus” among historians form and change?
  • Students should practice communicating historical information for multiple audiences, including but not being restricted to a standard analytical paper. Other types could include a curated museum exhibit, a lesson for teaching a class, an op-ed column providing historical perspective on a current issue, and more.

This may not be “meta-” enough for some readers and will probably strike several as vague, as vague as the ones I criticized above. Feel free to critique in the comments!

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  1. This is not surprising: why would anyone ever think the first generation of state-level curriculum standards would be anything but roundly bad? []