Playing to Strength: Teaching Public History at the Turn of the 21st-Century

Article excerpt

Historians in the United States are at present deeply engaged in a conversation about the nature and future of graduate education, and the place of public history in it. Over the past several years, sustained institutional energies have been directed toward the review of current conditions in the teaching of public history, and the development of an improved practice that is more consistent and coherent across programs. Several of those efforts have come to fruition in recently-released reports and ongoing studies that assess the key challenges facing the field and suggest specific strategies for improvement. In 2000, the American Historical Association (AHA) directed its Committee on Graduate Education (CGE) to undertake a comprehensive study of current practices in graduate training; their findings and recommendations were published in the December 2003 volume, The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century. (2) The AHA CGE followed this study of doctoral programs with an initiative to examine the nature of the master's degree in history, the degree level where most public history education occurs. In 2001, the AHA council also established the Task Force on Public History (TFPH), charged with, among other things, considering "whether degree offerings in higher education institutions--including undergraduate as well as graduate programs--adequately take into account the role public history can and does play in the nation's cultural life and within the profession." The report of the Task Force was delivered before the AHA's annual meeting in January 2004. (3) In these same years, the National Council on Public History (NCPH)--the main professional organization serving public historians broadly defined--has turned its attention to graduate training; the NCPH Committee on Curriculum and Training is currently surveying and assessing a selected group of existing master's degree programs with the goal of developing broad curriculum guidelines for public history programs. Finally, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) dedicated one of the 2004 "State of the Field" sessions ("State of the Field" sessions are a staple element of the OAH's annual meeting, which itself draws almost three thousand historians; these sessions are intended to introduce non-specialists to current trends and practice) to the topic of public history, creating an opportunity for sustained conversation about the state of public history education and the most promising directions for future development. (4)

The impetus behind this present and growing interest in public history from a number of professional quarters can be traced to developments that are both encouraging and troubling. On the one hand, public history programs in the U.S. are reaching a certain state of maturity. The field has clearly reached a collective milestone as a number of programs founded in the 1970s and 1980s have or will achieve landmark anniversaries in the early twenty-first century, including Middle Tennessee State University (which began to offer a concentration in historic preservation as early as 1973), the University of South Carolina and University of California--Santa Barbara (both founded in 1976), Arizona State University (founded in 1980), Loyola University (founded in 1981), Indiana University/ Purdue University Indianapolis (or IUPUI, founded in 1984) and my own institution, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (founded in 1986). In 2004, the NCPH itself reached its twenty-fifth year. Public history is without doubt gaining real ground as an area of emphasis within traditional degree programs. As Connie Schulz of the University of South Carolina has put it, "Public history is becoming a central element in the professional education of all historians in the departments fortunate enough to have a public history component in their curriculum." (5) Today, more than sixty programs across the United States, largely grounded in history departments, offer students a certificate, master's degree, or, in some cases, a Ph. …

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