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Do History Programs Lose Their Identity by Broadening the Focus?

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The historian Leopold van Ranke, the father of source-based history, once sought to write a history of the world. Beginning with ancient Egypt, van Ranke only managed to reach the 12th century before his death. Many historians of van Ranke’s age penned multi-volume monographs with far-reaching themes. In many ways, the modern academy has ended the days of large epic works by historians.

Typically, master’s programs take two years and doctorates four. To ensure that graduate students graduate in a timely manner, we as educators direct them to microcosmic examinations of the past. As a result, historians become experts on small areas of history. When these same students have completed their degrees and enter the academy as professors, where “publish or perish” is the rule, they will inherently investigate those areas with which they are most familiar. As a result of this process, we are producing historians that typically research narrowly focused periods in time that are restricted further by the race/class/gender paradigm.

Are history programs losing their identity?

The downside of this is that in response institutions have hired new faculty based on ever narrowing fields, which has resulted in many programs losing their identity. There are now some departments that do not have traditional Americanists. Instead, their faculty focuses on gender history, or ethnic studies, or any number of sub-fields. The advantage to this phenomenon is that we now understand the past with greater depth than at any other time. The advent of “bottom-up” or social history has also contributed to this new understanding.

It is the hope of many historians that the time will come when these microcosmic studies will be synthesized into histories similar to the epic works of the past. a single historian, with the help of a few assistants, labored for years to produce a monograph, these new histories will result from the collaborative efforts of historians working together.

The current state of the academy is self-perpetuating and the trend appears that institutions will continue hiring a narrow scope of historians. Educators need to take the next step in opening up the divide and remove areas in which their students are funneled. Stay tuned for American Public University’s involvement in the Tuning Project. It’s a step forward in keeping history programs relevant and competitive in today’s market.

The days of a single historian, with the help of a few assistants, laboring for years to produce a monograph, are gone. These new histories will result from the collaborative efforts of historians working together.

By Richard Hines, Ph.D.
Director, Graduate and Undergraduate Programs in History and Military History at American Public University

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