Do history majors need the U.S. survey?

The U.S. survey course used to be a rite of passage for history majors, but more and more colleges and universities are dropping it as a requirement.  George Washington University is now one of them. 

The department eliminated requirements in U.S., North American and European history, as well as the foreign language requirement. Thus, it is possible that a student can major in history at GWU without taking a survey course on United States history.

The new requirements mandate at least one introductory course, of which American history, World History and European civilization are options. Yet, like at many elite universities, the introductory course requirement may be fulfilled by scoring a 4 or a 5 on the Advanced Placement exams for either U.S. History AP, European History AP or World History AP.…

This change was motivated by a need to “recruit students” and “to better reflect a globalizing world,” according to faculty comments to the George Washington University student newspaper, The Hatchet.

Faced with declining enrollment, from 153 majors in 2011 to 72 in 2015 to 83 in 2016, the history department decided changes were necessary, it reported.

Department chair Schultheiss told the Hatchet “the main gain for students is that they have a great deal more flexibility than they had before, and they can adapt it to whatever their plans are for the future. Whatever they want to do, there’s a way to make the history department work for them.”

I suppose this makes sense for students who already know they’re going to work on, say, the Byzantine Empire or twentieth-century Africa.  But discovery is an important part of the undergrad experience, as students sample a variety of subjects to discern what they want to do with the rest of their careers.  How many aspiring historians who have just declared the major know what subfield they’re going to specialize in?

Beyond that practical question, is there some sort of moral or civic imperative to make history majors at an American university take a U.S. history course?  Many critics of higher ed would probably say yes.  But given the increasing emphasis on education as preparation for global (rather than national) citizenship, and the growing appeal of transnational approaches to history, I suspect more colleges will make U.S. history optional, even for history majors.  That’s assuming state legislatures don’t try to step in and mandate otherwise.  Given the legislative involvement in higher ed that we’ve been seeing lately, that’s a distinct possibility.


Filed under Teaching History

2 responses to “Do history majors need the U.S. survey?

  1. Jimmy Dick

    What good is any survey course when it is taught in a huge lecture hall? I teach these at a community college and it is a great way to get students to appreciate history. Part of my approach centers around developing that appreciation as a major outcome of the course. That requires changing the way the course is taught. Unfortunately, we have far too many instructors who still rely upon lecture as a means of teaching (which means they are not teaching) or who don’t want to bother with the course at all and let TAs handle it who then rely upon lecture.

    I am really getting tired of hearing about how boring history is from people. I’ve got stacks of student comments about my courses where the students are appreciative of the way this course is taught (I don’t use lecture) and state that history is anything but boring. I have students coming to me and telling me they have changed their major to History or are now minoring in History to go along with their K-12 teaching program so they can teach history in school.

    You sure don’t get those responses by herding a few hundred students into a lecture hall and boring them to death. You get these responses by actually teaching students, not by lecturing them. The lack of pedagogical training in our profession is crippling our ability to sustain this discipline. If legislators want to step in and actually help students, the best thing they can do is get rid of the huge lecture halls and require class sizes cannot be greater than 40:1. Then they can require that instructors have X hours of pedagogical training regardless of discipline.

    I am amazed at how the most basic course in the history discipline is the most maligned course in our discipline.

    • Michael Lynch

      One of the things I like about the graduate program at UT is the fact that they require us to take a course in teaching the world history survey. They take pedagogy seriously.

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