There is a lot in this piece at Inside Higher Ed. Here is a small taste:
What should we do? The first step is to clarify, in our own minds, what students ought to get out of these survey courses. Some of the learning outcomes will, indeed, be narrowly disciplinary. By the end of the U.S. history survey, a student should be able to:
- Demonstrate mastery of essential facts, chronology and periodization and a familiarity with major historical controversies and conflicting interpretations.
- Exhibit the methodological skills characteristic of history, including the ability to locate, weigh and evaluate evidence; appreciate opposing points of view; and construct logical, compelling, evidence-based arguments.
But the value of an introductory class lies, I think, in instilling a particular way of thinking. In history, that means recognizing:
- That everything — every concept, activity, institution and social role — has a history.
- That “we can’t escape history” — that our lives are caught up in long-term historical processes and that many of society’s most pressing problems are rooted in the past decisions and actions.
- That judging the past fairly is hard, since it requires us to recognize that the past is another country, with its own culture, circumstances and moral frameworks.
- That “nothing is inevitable until it happens,” that history is contingent and key events are the consequence of chance, personality, mind-sets, individual and collective choices, and circumstances.
- That “history is problem solving,” understanding the confluence of factors and conjuncture of forces that contribute to historical change, whether this involves the role racism or fear of the Soviet Union played in the decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan or the influence of geography on the outcome of the Civil War.
History offers few clear-cut lessons, but it can be a source of wisdom. It reminds us that:
- Political decisions and policies tend to have unexpected, unintended and, sometimes, uncontrollable consequences.
- Human beings tend to exaggerate present-day problems out of all proportion and frequently assume mistakenly that this time is different.
- People make history, but, as Karl Marx put it in 1852, “they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”