Why History Needs the M.A.

July 20, 2005

Last spring, The Chronicle, published a column of career advice for community-college instructors, both current and prospective, with the plaintive title "Don't Waste My Time." The author, Dana Zimbleman, a professor of English at Jefferson College in Missouri, began by recounting her frustrating (and frustrated) attempts to earn a second master's degree in history and ended with a list of recommendations directed at history departments for "improving the educational experience for community-college faculty members."

Some of her suggestions -- such as scheduling seminars at convenient times for working adults, balancing historical theory and subject content, and clarifying the mission of particular graduate programs -- would be equally welcome to master's students who have other career paths in mind than community-college teaching.

Along the way, Zimbleman addressed two vital and emotional issues: the place of community-college faculty members within national academic communities and the closely related matter of scholarly preparation for those who will go on to represent the values and views of their discipline to wider audiences, including students at every level and the public at large.

We would like to provide her and the rest of The Chronicle's readers with an update from the history profession.

Over the past five years, the American Historical Association has been studying the state of graduate education for historians and imagining its possible futures. The effort was long overdue: The last study of this kind, "The Education of Historians in the United States," appeared in 1962 and then rapidly disappeared, rendered obsolete by the demographic, institutional, and intellectual revolutions that remade higher education in the '60s and '70s.

In order to get a handle on the changes since then, the association created two committees to look closely at first the doctorate and then the master's degree. (The committees' work was supported by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Ford Foundation.)

We were concerned, of course, about the intellectual content of the degrees and about enduring issues like student aid. But we were also interested in the "invisible curriculum" that socializes new historians into the profession and the range of employment options that professional historians pursue once they complete their degrees.

Relying on a variety of research techniques -- including an unprecedented survey of doctoral programs; site visits and focus groups; consultations with students, professors, administrators, and employers; historical analysis and data-collection -- the association has now produced two substantial reports on the advanced training of professional historians: "The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century" (University of Illinois Press, 2004), written by Thomas Bender, Philip M. Katz, and Colin Palmer, and "Retrieving the Master's Degree From the Dustbin of History" (American Historical Association, 2005), written by Katz on behalf of the association's Committee on the Master's Degree.

Each report combines aggregate data, analysis, and a list of recommendations aimed mainly at graduate history programs (though members of other disciplines are also likely to find something useful in them). Both reports are available free on the association's Web site.

Dealing with the master's degree turned out to be the greater challenge, by far. The M.A. has been largely ignored by higher-education researchers, who tend to treat it as either an extension of the bachelor's degree or a diminished version of the doctorate. Too often it gets relegated to the status of either a cash-cow (usually from the college administrator's point of view) or a "consolation prize" for students unable or unwilling to complete a Ph.D.

Unfortunately, the latter remains a common view at history departments that see their primary task as producing new professors for research-oriented institutions.

The trouble with the master's is that it serves multiple audiences and multiple functions at the same time, preparing history professionals for at least four "destinations": further study toward a Ph.D., work in public-history fields (including museums, archives, and historic preservation), community-college teaching, and K-12 teaching.

As the report noted, "More Americans learn their history from [the last three] groups than from history professors at four-year colleges and universities. Indeed, the holders of master's degrees are the nation's unstudied, even unknown, but ubiquitous teachers of history."

We heard Zimbleman's concerns about history departments with a narrow view of academic preparation and professional training echoed many times during the course of our research, especially in focus groups with public historians, community-college instructors, and high-school teachers.

The hierarchical nature of academic disciplines and the high regard for specialization places the teacher of survey courses (as well as the curator of museum exhibits or the presenter of public programs) at a disadvantage in many master's programs. That is regrettable, and the academics who promote hierarchy at the expense of common purpose should be called to task.

Missing from Zimbleman's brusque command of "Don't Waste My Time," however, is a recognition of the gains made by community-college faculty members in recent years, especially among historians. Our two main professional associations -- the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians -- have worked hard and successfully to include community-college historians in activities that reach well beyond a cash-bar reception at the annual convention.

Historians and others should also note the vital efforts of the National Endowment for the Humanities to bridge the gap by relentlessly requiring the participation of community-college faculty members in a wide variety of projects. Similar efforts have been made to embrace public historians and secondary-school history teachers (with the help, in the latter case, of the federal government's Teaching American History grants, which oblige collaboration between school districts and academic historians).

More than ever, the door to fuller participation in the national disciplinary community is open to all history professionals, regardless of where they work, as long as they are willing to walk through it.

But as Zimbleman notes, despite many admirable developments, historians and graduate schools still have work to do. They should begin by recognizing that all of the career destinations that lead from a master's degree are equally valid and valuable. That means that all professional historians should be trained together, rather than segregating the "future professors" from the "public historians" or allowing the schools of education to monopolize the training of K-12 history teachers.

Yet we also need to pay more attention to the optimal goals and outcomes of the master's degree in history, from the varied perspectives of departments, students, and the discipline as a whole. Are there things that all historians should know and be able to do when they complete a master's degree, regardless of their intended or probable careers? We think there are.

We agree with Zimbleman that history departments should strive, as much as possible, to tailor their degree programs to the particular goals and career paths of their graduate students -- but not at the expense of the common goal of training historians. As a framework for defining that goal, the historical association's Committee on the Master's Degree has proposed five "elements of mastery" that all M.A.'s should have:

  • A base of historical knowledge.

  • Research and presentation skills (including the ability to conceptualize a survey course or other synthetic presentation of the past).

  • A solid introduction to historical pedagogy (in the broadest sense of how learners obtain their understanding of history at all ages).

  • The foundations for a professional identity as a historian/history educator.

  • The ability to "think like a historian."

Other historians will disagree with those basic elements, and may never agree on the kinds of specific details needed to transform such a loose framework into formal guidelines or accrediting standards. But at least the association has started historians talking about the master's degree as a valuable credential in its own right, not as an afterthought but as the potential key to improving history education at all levels in the United States.

And that's not a waste of time.

David S. Trask is a professor of history at Guilford Technical Community College in North Carolina and was chairman of the American Historical Association's Committee on the Master's Degree. Philip M. Katz is the former research director for graduate education at the association.