The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century

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All of us, and not just historians younger than I, have had to adjust our understanding of the discipline of history and of its structure, practices, and prospects. It has been a struggle but a formative and enlivening one. Historians themselves have pushed hard and increasingly successfully to apply historical knowledge in other occupations and professions and to bring that knowledge to bear on public issues. Being a Historian is my attempt to make that assessment.

I strongly believe that the discipline of history—not only in the United States, which I know best and which this book alone treats, but elsewhere—is significantly better poised than it was when I entered graduate school to serve historians and the general public. It better prepares young people for their world of professional history. It is much more sensitive to the possibilities of applying history to civic and other affairs. That said and as the book suggests, the discipline has further to go.

In what ways? First, I think, in altering the history of the discipline we tell ourselves and our students. Historians now inhabit a discipline pursued in many occupations. It turns out, however, as new histories of the discipline are revealing, that practitioners of history, especially academics, always have operated to some extent beyond college and university walls. We should be preparing them for the entire range of purposes they can pursue, the occupations they can follow, and the places in which they can practice. Third and finally, there exist many issues—of ethics and standards, of writing and teaching, of the public service ideal, and, in my view the most important, of being true to oneself as historian—that historians collectively rarely take up.

I like to think that this book will encourage them to do so and to move the discipline of history even further ahead than it has recently come. In , the American Historical Association began a study to determine the status and condition of history education in U. Published in and addressing such issues as the supply and demand for teachers, student recruitment, and training for advanced degrees, that report set a lasting benchmark against which to judge the study of history thereafter.

Now, more than forty years later, the AHA has commissioned a new report. The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century documents this important new study's remarkable conclusions. Both the American academy and the study of history have been dramatically transformed since the original study, but doctoral programs in history have barely changed.

This report from the AHA explains why and offers concrete, practical recommendations for improving the state of graduate education.

Teaching Students to Think Like Historians

The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century stands as the first investigation of graduate training for historians in more than four decades and the best available study of doctoral education in any major academic discipline. Evans , who compared illegitimate distortion of the historical record practice by holocaust deniers with established historical methodologies.

Schneider distils these seven points for what he meant by an objective historian: [5]. Schneider uses the concept of the "objective historian" to suggest that this could be an aid in assessing what makes an historian suitable as an expert witnesses under the Daubert standard in the United States. Schneider proposed this, because, in her opinion, Irving could have passed the standard Daubert tests unless a court was given "a great deal of assistance from historians".

Schneider proposes that by testing an historian against the criteria of the "objective historian" then, even if an historian holds specific political views and she gives an example of a well-qualified historian's testimony that was disregarded by a United States court because he was a member of a feminist group , providing the historian uses the "objective historian" standards, he or she is a "conscientious historian". It was Irving's failure as an "objective historian" not his right wing views that caused him to lose his libel case, as a "conscientious historian" would not have "deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence" to support his political views.

The process of historical analysis involves investigation and analysis of competing ideas, facts, and purported facts to create coherent narratives that explain "what happened" and "why or how it happened". Modern historical analysis usually draws upon other social sciences, including economics , sociology , politics , psychology , anthropology , philosophy , and linguistics. While ancient writers do not normally share modern historical practices, their work remains valuable for its insights within the cultural context of the times. An important part of the contribution of many modern historians is the verification or dismissal of earlier historical accounts through reviewing newly discovered sources and recent scholarship or through parallel disciplines like archaeology.


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Understanding the past appears to be a universal human need, and the telling of history has emerged independently in civilizations around the world. What constitutes history is a philosophical question see philosophy of history. The earliest chronologies date back to Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt , though no historical writers in these early civilizations were known by name.

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Systematic historical thought emerged in ancient Greece , a development that became an important influence on the writing of history elsewhere around the Mediterranean region. The earliest known critical historical works were The Histories , composed by Herodotus of Halicarnassus — c.


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Herodotus attempted to distinguish between more and less reliable accounts, and personally conducted research by travelling extensively, giving written accounts of various Mediterranean cultures. Although Herodotus' overall emphasis lay on the actions and characters of men, he also attributed an important role to divinity in the determination of historical events.

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Thucydides largely eliminated divine causality in his account of the war between Athens and Sparta, establishing a rationalistic element that set a precedent for subsequent Western historical writings. He was also the first to distinguish between cause and immediate origins of an event, while his successor Xenophon c. The Romans adopted the Greek tradition. His speculation about what would have happened if Alexander the Great had marched against Rome represents the first known instance of alternate history.

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In Chinese historiography , the Classic of History is one of the Five Classics of Chinese classic texts and one of the earliest narratives of China. His written work was the Shiji Records of the Grand Historian , a monumental lifelong achievement in literature. Christian historiography began early, perhaps as early as Luke-Acts , which is the primary source for the Apostolic Age. Writing history was popular among Christian monks and clergy in the Middle Ages.

They wrote about the history of Jesus Christ, that of the Church and that of their patrons, the dynastic history of the local rulers. In the Early Middle Ages historical writing often took the form of annals or chronicles recording events year by year, but this style tended to hamper the analysis of events and causes.

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Muslim historical writings first began to develop in the 7th century, with the reconstruction of the Prophet Muhammad 's life in the centuries following his death. With numerous conflicting narratives regarding Muhammad and his companions from various sources, scholars had to verify which sources were more reliable. To evaluate these sources, they developed various methodologies, such as the science of biography , science of hadith and Isnad chain of transmission.


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They later applied these methodologies to other historical figures in the Islamic civilization. Famous historians in this tradition include Urwah d. During the Age of Enlightenment , the modern development of historiography through the application of scrupulous methods began. French philosophe Voltaire — had an enormous influence on the art of history writing. He was the first scholar to make a serious attempt to write the history of the world, eliminating theological frameworks, and emphasizing economics, culture, and political history.

At the same time, philosopher David Hume was having a similar impact on history in Great Britain. In , he published the History of England , a six-volume work that extended from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in Hume adopted a similar scope to Voltaire in his history; as well as the history of Kings, Parliaments, and armies, he examined the history of culture, including literature and science, as well. He was also one of the first historians who understood the importance of general and universally applicable ideas in the shaping of historical events.

The apex of Enlightenment history was reached with Edward Gibbon 's, monumental six-volume work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire , published on 17 February Because of its relative objectivity and heavy use of primary sources , at the time its methodology became a model for later historians. This has led to Gibbon being called the first "modern historian".

Biographer Leslie Stephen wrote that thereafter, "His fame was as rapid as it has been lasting.