Why History? A Note on the AHA Tuning Project

If you are at a university, the April issue of Perspectives on History probably arrived together with finals or midterms. Your time is even more precious than usual, and general reading is probably not your first priority. But I would strongly encourage you to make time for the forum on the AHA’s Tuning project—even, or perhaps especially, if you are skeptical of the effort.

Like it or not, we face increasingly intense pressures to explain what benefit there is in studying history, either for the student or for society. Some of the challenging questions about our history programs may indeed be posed in such skewed ways that they appear easy to dismiss; but some people posing them have power. And other challenges are far more thoughtful. These include forms of the question “Why study history?” from within our own discipline; after all, every time a department modifies its major, it is at least implicitly asking what students doing such a major are supposed to accomplish.

They also include questions from sympathetic sources that deserve compelling answers. Anne Hyde begins her essay in this forum with a story about a student who was excited about history, and wanted help in explaining to his parents why majoring in it was not a mistake. I suspect most of us would find, as Anne did, that this is not easy to do—no matter how convinced we are that majoring in history can be a great idea.

I suspect still more of us would agree that even many of our best students have a hard time explaining their choice of majors to parents, potential employers, or friends, and that we have left whatever wisdom we have on this point largely implicit. (The ongoing decline in the legal job market—long a “practical” career option for which history was good preparation—may make these explanations still harder.) Sustained inquiry into what we want our teaching to do, and how to explain that to varied audiences, is a valuable endeavor because it will make our collective wisdom more explicit and widely known. So we should view this task as an intellectual opportunity as well as an urgent practical necessity.

The Tuning project is not, of course, the only form that our responses will take, but it is a very important one—both because it has the AHA’s name behind it and because it represents a collective endeavor, involving historians from a wide variety of institutions. While some parts of the answer will vary with the type of institution we work at and the kind of history we do, others will not; we will all benefit from thinking about the work of our colleagues on this project rather than inventing our answers from scratch when, as is bound to happen, we need to do so.

Nobody needs to adopt the answers that any particular “tuner,” or even the whole group, comes up with, any more than we need to adopt whatever current consensus may exist on a given issue in our research fields. But just as we generate good research questions by placing our own enthusiasm and curiosity in dialogue with what colleagues have already written, our individual answers to why history is valuable will be much better if we frame them while listening in on Tuning’s intensive structured dialogue on this question. We must have at least partial answers capable of surviving strong challenges: from historian colleagues, from other disciplines, and from both friendly and hostile members of the general public.

The April issue of Perspectives on History is now open to all readers, members and nonmembers alike, online. The April forum on the AHA Tuning project can be found at the links below.

The AHA’s Tuning Project at Twelve Months

By James Grossman

Tuning and Recharging:Tales from Twelve Months In

By Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt

Tuning, Teaching, and Taking Care of Students

By David Trowbridge

Advising Mom and Dad: History Majors and Family Worries

By Anne Hyde

Tuning the Core: History, Assessment, and the St. John’s University Core Curriculum

By Elaine Carey

An Unexpected Bridge: The AHA Tuning Project and Writing Across the Curriculum

By Daniel S. Murphree

Does History Matter? A Cautionary Tale for the Tuning Project

By Johann N. Neem

Tuning Resources and Ongoing Discussions

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