If you’ve had the chance to look at our study, The Vanishing West, you know that we think history education is in pretty bad shape. Or better, make that no shape at all: as our report illustrates, there isn’t a whole lot that most mainstream history programs ask of their majors these days, apart from completing a specified number of courses within some very general geographical, thematic or “multicultural” categories.
For the most part, students usually design their own majors a la carte, often with a bewildering range of available courses from which they can choose. Gone almost entirely are the traditional broad surveys in Western Civilization, Greco-Roman civilization or US history. Once the meat-and-potatoes for most history majors, these courses imparted an indispensable sense of the “big picture:” the rise and fall of major civilizations, and the events, ideas and personalities that made them what they were. In many contemporary programs, as our study documents, they‘re no longer available at all, even as an option. Good courses are usually still there for the taking, but it’s left up to students to decide between US Foreign Relations in the 20th Century or the Social Impact of All-Night Bowling Alleys in the 1950’s. Well OK, I did pull that last title from my hat. But check out the voluminous course listings at most of the large academic history departments included in our survey, and you’ll see that caricature is often indistinguishable from reality.
Even so, good programs, as we like to say, are out there: you simply have to find them. By happy chance, I’ve found one such at Holy Cross College, a small liberal arts school in Notre Dame Indiana, affiliated with a more high-profile institution located just across the street. And small though the history department is at Holy Cross, its major, by NAS lights, compares very favorably with most of the programs included in our survey. For one thing, there’s some real structure: all majors must take at least one half of a comprehensive, two-semester survey of Western Civilization and both parts of a traditional two-course survey of American history. And while there are indeed electives from which majors can choose, the range of these courses is small and confined to solid offerings such as Greek or Roman Civilization, European Civilization in the Middle Ages, Civil War and Reconstruction and other similar examples, with none of the narrow and distracting niche courses that swell the catalog listings of most other programs.
Many history professors these days teach courses that reflect their individual interests or their current research pursuits; the program at Holy Cross, by contrast, seems designed to teach its majors what they ought to know. It’s a small college and a small department with vastly smaller resources than many larger and better known schools; but pound for pound, it’s one of the most solid history majors that I’ve seen for some time, the kind that can really prepare students for teaching, law school, graduate work in history or any number of professional callings.
And while you’re at it, I suggest that you have a look at the Liberal Studies major at Holy Cross as well. It’s a very attractive interdisciplinary curriculum that examines perennial issues of the human condition through the insights of the Great Books and Ideas across several millennia, combined with the modern analytic tools provided by economics, political science and psychology. “Interdisciplinary studies,” I know, are often academic mush, but this one really measures up.
There is, as I noted, some very good stuff out there, programs off the radar screen that are real gems; we’re happy to add this one to our list.