Why a College Should Teach Its Own History

July 20, 2016

Pat Kinsella for The Chronicle

For the past six years, I’ve taught a course at Cornell University on the institution’s history and its role in the context of higher education in America. Topics include Cornell’s founders and founding, student life, diversity and inclusion, unrest and activism, and finances and administration. Having observed more than 2,000 students in my classroom, I am a firm believer that one of the best investments a college can make is in teaching its own history.

Upon first glance, the course has little appeal — it’s only one credit, taught in the evening, and fulfills no requirements for most students. So why should other colleges take note?

For starters, a large course with broad appeal across disciplines offers students a unifying experience, creating a sense of community that colleges strive to build. It brings together engineers and athletes, pre-meds and humanists, first-generation students and fourth-generation legacies — students across fields of study and backgrounds, many of whom have never taken a course together. Especially at a large, decentralized university like Cornell, shared experiences are rare and difficult to create. An institution’s own history is a topic that can, and should, resonate with everyone. Students draw parallels with those of the past and are surprised by ways the undergraduate experience and the campus have changed.

Teaching a college’s history is also an opportunity to instill school pride. Every institution has its own identity and traditions. Students should graduate knowing what makes their alma mater special. Whether it’s a victory on the football field or — of far greater consequence — courageous student activists fighting for civil rights, every college has history worth celebrating. Proud students become proud alumni, who will happily contribute their time, talent, and treasure when called upon to do so.

Course assignments can be designed to further build community pride while also expanding students’ knowledge. My students have the option of writing research papers related to Cornell, allowing them to explore their own departments, organizations, or passions. Or they may choose to conduct oral histories with faculty or staff members or alumni to better understand how the university has evolved.

Many of the interviewers find themselves connecting on a new level with their interview subjects, who are often family members or emeritus faculty members. Outside of the classroom, students earn extra points by participating in tours that highlight campus history, including visits to the university archives, chapel, war memorial, and a general walking tour.

Institutional pride and a sense of community are key ingredients for alumni’s long-term engagement with their alma mater. In the face of financial challenges, many colleges have focused on encouraging undergraduates to be "future alumni." From orientation to graduation, they are bombarded with messages from alumni associations and class-gift campaigns in hopes that they will understand how much their alma mater will depend upon their support (financially and otherwise) after commencement. Many such programs emphasize history and traditions based on the assumption that those who take pride in their institution are more inclined to stay engaged and support it.

Many of my students have observed how much more appreciative they are of their education after learning of past struggles.
But guidebooks, giveaways, and orientation events can go only so far, and it is increasingly difficult to get students to digest content longer than 140 characters. Adapting historical content into course material gives institutions a captive audience to engender long-term engagement and deliver key messages. Want alumni to stay engaged with the college? Teach students about the impact and historic importance of alumni leadership and philanthropy at their institution.

Critics may argue that such courses aren’t academically rigorous, or that they blur the line between history and college propaganda. I’m not suggesting sugar-coated histories; every institution has faced challenges and failures, and these should be taught along with successes. Many of my students have observed how much more appreciative they are of their education after learning of past struggles, such as the early challenges faced by women and students of color. Stories of past administrators, faculty members, and students can humanize an institution and help undergraduates better understand the issues faced by college leaders today.

Yes, students in my course are self-selecting; they choose to spend 75 minutes each week learning about their future alma mater. But, at least anecdotally, they will graduate to become some of its most engaged and appreciative supporters. Perhaps it’s a case of correlation, not causation, but it’s hard to ignore hundreds of course evaluations that include students’ comments about how the course changed their relationship with the university. Administrators should take note of any course in which students claim on evaluations to be "excited to give back to the university for many years to come" or that the course "has made me appreciate my alma mater more, and it has made me a proud soon-to-be alumna."

Surprisingly, a glance through the catalogs of various colleges reveals that few offer an academic course on their own history. Even relatively young colleges have points of pride, like pioneering programs or notable alumni and professors. But it appears that no such courses exist at most Ivy League institutions, some of the oldest universities in the country, with the most history to teach.

These courses can create a cohort of knowledgeable ambassadors who take pride in their alma mater, share that enthusiasm with those around them, and remain engaged after graduation. With all of the resources that colleges direct toward doing exactly that, offering a course on your institution’s history should be an easy decision.

Corey Ryan Earle is a visiting lecturer in the American-studies program at Cornell University and associate director of student programs in the Office of Alumni Affairs.