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February 29, 1988 - Image 35

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

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Moving away from what someone else deemed important: Massachuset

* economics, politics and other consider-
ations that affect decisions. "History na-
tionally is in a state of considerable vitali-
ty," says Kelley.
No matter how exhilarating the new at-
titudes about history may be, some depart-
ments seem mired in the not-so-wonderful
past. A few senior members of the history
department at Harvard, for instance, ap-
pear to have gotten it into their heads that
they are the only ones fit to be tenured. At
their urging, the university in 1986 denied
tenure to two of its best young teachers
and scholars, Alan Brinkley and Bradford
Lee. The move sparked persuasive student
protest as well as some faculty complaints,
but to no avail. The result of the furor is
that the university now has a shortage of
j: Americanists, and new fuel for the charge
that it undervalues teaching.
ut even in well-regarded depart-
ments, where teaching is stressed,
sETMANN ARCHIVE the issue remains: teaching what? In
tts pact (1621) 13fact, the more renowned the history
department, the more likely it is to
downplay survey courses covering great-
events in favor of specialized offerings
thought to be at the frontier of the pro-
fession. That "frontier" is constantly mov-
ing. A recent convention of the American
Historical Association featured panel dis-
cussions on such topics as "Sodomy and
Pederasty Among 19th-Century Seafar-
ers" and "Black Women in the Work
Force." The latter reflects the latest trend
in historical scholarship: the notion of view-
ing history through the lens of male and
female sex roles. This "gender" analysis
has replaced Marxist, or class, criticism as
the rage among young historians.
For professionals, the diversity means
new areas of exploration, which is always
healthy. History, after all, really should
account for the lives of ordinary humans,
as well as great ones. But the criticism
of this emphasis, leveled by historians
like Gertrude Himmelfarb of the City
CULVER PICTURES University of New York, takes on more
ent(World WarIV weight when applied to the education of
undergraduates. Focusing too narrowly on
the history of women and minority groups, she wrote recently, can
have a distorting effect. The Austro-Hungarian empire, for in-
stance, is not really a matter of gender.
At Princeton, arguably the capital of "new history" just now,
the attitude is that there's room for both the older and newer
versions of the discipline. Natalie Davis, a specialist in early
modern France who is outgoing president of the AHA, stresses an
interdisciplinary approach. This means resisting a trend among
some universities to set up separate departments for women's
studies. "You get in an intellectual ghetto with people exchang-
ing ideas between themselves," Davis says. Although the Prince-
ton department is most noted for scholarship in social and
anthropological history, its broadness and the opportunity
for personal contact with professors are what attracts students.
"It seems the philosophy of the department is that history is

Toward a more pluralistic understanding: Japanese-American internm
Revolution happened, or the Reformation. It may be that stu-
dents are recognizing that in themselves, wanting to get some
framework." Warren Lerner, chairman of the history depart-
ment at Duke, accurately faults many high schools for teaching
only a "trivial pursuit" approach to the past. "Then the kids
come to us not realizing that there are other ways to look at it,"
he says. (A comparison of what high-school and college students
know, page 18.)
History keeps changing in both presentation and content. The
University of North Carolina, for instance, has developed com-
puter software that immerses students in historic events, allow-
ing them to face the same choices as the original participants.
And at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Prof. Robert
Kelley created an undergraduate major in the History of Public
Policy that encourages students to analyze all the issues of law,

MARCH 1988


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