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February 29, 1988 - Image 32

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1988-02-29

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E D U C A T I o N

Should everyone learn a
the same things, or is
specialization better?
History," said the 19th-century his-
torian Jakob Burckhardt, "is what
men think about their past." And
women, as many of today's histori-
ans would quickly point out. But if
Burckhardt was a bit limited in his unde Separate womens stud
standing of gender, his definition is none-Seatewmnstu
theless now deeply embedded in the way
American colleges and universities teach
the subject. History is no longer what it onl
once was. The traditional emphasis on
broad-brush treatment and a common heri-
tage has given way to a more pluralistic
approach, often interdisciplinary or ex-
tremely specialized. No longer are students
so likely to learn something simply because
someone else once determined it was
The new approach allows for many dif-
ferent interpretations of the Civil War or
other great historical events. But does it
make studying history more engaging or
more boring? More relevant or simply
more faddish? Does it deepen one's cultural
understanding, or leave one essentially ig-
norant of history-knowledgeable about, " 4
say, the role of Italian immigrant women
on New York's Lower East Side in the mid-
1890s but unable to tell the difference be-
tween Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt?
The answers may be different for under- Acmag o nwh
graduates and graduate students; the l A campaign for 'new hi
ter tend to know the basics and should thus
be freer to test the boundaries of the discipline. But questions of
history strike to the center of larger issues: the role of liberal arts,
the definition of "historical literacy" and the best way to give
meaning to the past.
Certainly, the past is proving to be an increasingly popular
subject. After a sharp fall from the mid-'70s to the mid-'80s, the
number of students taking and majoring in history is now grow-
ing at schools around the nation; at Michigan, for instance,
enrollment has risen 22 percent in the last two years, at Prince-
ton, 57 percent in the last 10. "Kids are beginning to realize that
an M.B.A. is not the [only] road to economic success," says
Christopher Lasch, a noted author and chairman of the highly
regarded history department at the University of Rochester.
Sheila Hulfren, a Rochester senior, argues that "history gives
one an overview and a very good basis for anything you want to

lies courses? Suffragettes take to the streets of New York

story' on the subject of minorities: Slave auction down the river
do in the future." That thinking, represents a historical phenome-
non of its own. A major that only a few years ago was viewed as
something one could "do nothing" with has become a major that
one can "do anything" with.
Still, not many people major in history for the specific purpose
of getting a job. Michigan's Thomas Trautmann and James
Turner, chair and associate chair of the department, suggest a
couple of other possibilities on why history is hot. A course on the
Vietnam War is hugely popular. "Kids who take it may have
members of the family who have been in the war," Trautmann
speculates. Turner mentions the refreshing possibility that stu-
dents are simply trying to make up for what they know are
inadequate secondary-school educations. "Students coming in
from high school are more historically illiterate than 20 years
ago," he says. "They may be less likely to know when the French
MARCH 1988 '


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