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A Missing Piece?: Historical Thinking Isn’t Just for History Majors

Last updated on January 30, 2017

*See update on upcoming discussions of history in general education.

The very timely white paper, “Measuring College Learning in History,” authored by Lendol Calder and Tracy Steffes and sponsored by the Social Science Research Council’s Measuring College Learning Project, is a welcome consolidation of the historiography and key principles of historical thinking.*

Calder and Steffes, with the input of other scholars and faculty in the field of history teaching and learning, distill historical consciousness into five essential concepts and four essential competencies:

A summary of the essential concepts and competencies outlined in the full white paper.

The author’s selections of concepts and competencies reflect the rich debate (which I’ve previously written about here) between scholars surrounding the definition of historical thinking, but handily narrow the focus to the most common and most teachable values and skills of historians. While careful not to suggest too specific a program for teaching these concepts and competencies, Calder and Steffes offer a helpful outline for structuring learning outcomes and assessing historical thinking in undergraduate history majors.

Here-in lies my only critique of the otherwise immensely useful summary and white paper: Calder and Steffes implicitly view the core history concepts and competencies  as the reserve of history majors. They appear to have little concern for how the suggested foci might function within general education history courses.

To be fair, Calder and Steffes point to the reality that not everyone is a history major and that the history major itself is a shifting (and shrinking) institution. They acknowledge the need to consider history’s role in “a moment of declining history enrollments, popular attacks on the humanities, and growing demands that a college education have practical utility and demonstrable economic benefits” (Measuring College Learning in History, p. 41). Beyond that, the authors are also keen to defend the continued benefits of introductory history courses and encourage history professors to work toward including the competencies and concepts in their intro courses (p. 66). In general, though, the white paper is explicitly about facilitating and assessing the learning of history majors.

The omission of concern for history courses conducted for a broader population of students is, obviously, a personal concern for me. I teach a general education survey course in a program that does not have a history major. My students’ exposure to these concepts and skills occurs in three general survey courses (World Civ I, World Civ II, and American Pluralism – essentially the U.S. since 1945). This means I and my fellow instructors have a very limited amount of time (9 credit hours) in which to communicate concepts significant not only to our discipline, but also I would argue to students’ development as critical thinkers more generally. (Calder and Steffes would seem to agree – see p. 63).

The consequence of teaching a general education class and trying to incorporate historical thinking concepts and skills is that it becomes difficult to incorporate all of the core concepts and competencies within a given course in a given semester. At the moment, my course is explicitly focused on two concepts (history as interpretation, the “pastness of the past,” and historical significance) and two competencies (interpret primary sources and construct a historical argument – usually based on secondary, not primary sources). Ideally my counterparts and I would take up carrying aspects to complement one another, we aren’t that coordinated (yet).

My point, in short, is that I think deeper conversations about the role of historical concepts and skills in the context of a liberal arts education – and not just a BA history program – are in order. These conversations are necessary given the greater number of students who take history courses as requirements and electives, as opposed to selecting history as a major, and in light of the continued debate over whether or not history deserves to maintain a place in undergraduate education. To have those discussions, the literature of historical thinking should, I believe, broaden its focus to include a wider variety of courses in which students encounter history.


* The Measuring College Learning (MCL) project also produced frameworks for thinking about core concepts and competencies in Biology, Business, Communication, Economics, and Sociology.

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