ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS: Why Historians Can Be Usefully Irritating

By De Leon, David | Negro History Bulletin, July-December 1998 | Go to article overview

ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS: Why Historians Can Be Usefully Irritating


De Leon, David, Negro History Bulletin


The book of Proverbs tells us that where there is no vision, the people perish.... What then is our vision here at Howard University? In my vision, Howard University is a comprehensive research university, unique and irreplaceable, defined by its core values, the excellence of al/of its activities -- its instruction, research and service, and by its enduring commitment to educating youth, African-Americans and other people of color in particular, for leadership and service to our nation and the global community.... The intellectual leaders of the ancient worlds of Africa and Greece had none of the resources as they are known today, and hardly any budget. But the great intellectuals of the past had the ability to think, and to think critically. And in doing so, they were able to pose the questions. They may not have had all of the answers, but the quest for the answers and the response to the questions themselves have fired our imaginations over a millennium.

Excerpt from convocation speech,
September 29, 1995,
H. Patrick Swygert,
President of Howard University

Honest history is often uncomfortable. People who have power want to be glorified, and everyday people want their assumptions to be sustained. "Critical thinking," even if endorsed in the abstract, usually implies that someone else should be criticized.

The teaching of history at Howard University, from its founding in 1867, has reflected both the hopes and the frustrations of African Americans. On the positive side, Howard has been praised as "the capstone" of black education, a mecca to the race, and a champion of democracy. On the negative side, it has been dismissed as the service academy of the black bourgeoisie, producing obsequious "house Negroes." While an official history of both the University and the history department probably would skip over contradictions involving such problems as sex discrimination, racial slights toward darker skinned students and faculty, elements of xenophobia, authoritarian administrations, and class snobbery, such a history would be incomplete or inaccurate, if not dishonest. One of the reasons why official histories are usually so tedious is that real life has been repressed in favor of "we're all one happy family." Yet, how many families are actually like that?

During the earliest decades of Howard University, there were no separate history courses. This was typical of an educational system that focused on the Greek and Roman classics, both for knowledge and for the discipline or character that they were supposed to instill. History was absorbed, therefore, through the study of such authors as Cicero, Homer, Virgil, and Tacitus. This may seem very conservative today, but the main alternative was "industrial education." The founders of Howard regarded the classical curriculum, as found in New England colleges, to be the highest educational standard. They were determined to prove black intellectual potential by meeting that standard, and leaders as diverse as Frederick Douglass and Alexander Crummell did not challenge this goal. It was not until 1882 that the first separate history course was taught at Howard by a Presbyterian minister in an English curriculum that prepared students for the study of literature.

By the 1870s and 1880s, another model of education began to emerge that was based on the German emphasis on specialized research in original documents, student-faculty discussions in seminars, and allegedly objective publications. The change was slow. In 1884, when forty-one white Protestant males founded the American Historical Association, there were only twenty-four full-time teachers of history in more than four hundred American colleges and universities. At Howard, one faculty member was expected to cover several subjects. In 1889, for example, the word "history" first appears in the title for Reverend Charles H. A. Bulkley, professor of English literature, history, rhetoric, logic and elocution. …

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