How To Remake (i.e. Save) the History Major in 7 Steps

People often ask me how I might, for example, remake a college history major.  Given the drastic decline in students majoring in or even taking history courses, it’s time to think about remaking history, not to train future professors of history (the replication model we are now in) but because history is a vital and important tool that we can all use and all need in every aspect of our lives.  We are easily duped, manipulated, or misinformed because we do not know how our particular historical moment is or is not different from previous ones. 


For those we are not on Twitter, this blog is cut-and-pasted from tweets, with a few additions, that show how the remarkable “1619 Project” produced by the NY Times could be turned into a major that is global, timeless, expansive, research based, and provides students with the kinds of essential skills that employers say are lacking in our test-based, teach-to-the-text, memory-based forms of learning.  This kind of history major isn’t about repeating what an expert says it is about learning how to become an expert, learning how to use history well (sorting complex information, doing research, following a thread to find an answer, presenting that to others, understanding context, sorting real from fake news, and on and on).

From Tweets:  How To Remake (and Save) the History Major.  One Model, Many Possible Adaptations

1-People often ask me how I might, for example, remake a history major. Here’s one example: Take the 1619 Project of NYT and build a whole year of history around it. Of course you need a research methods course, an archives course.  Go for it—based on that one amazing 1619 Project plus curiosity:  

  • What else happening in 1619 (and 1618, 1629 etc) in Spain, in Ghana, in China, in Portugal, among indigenous peoples throughout the Americas, etc? 
  • What did the world sound like, look like, taste like, feel like?
  • What did that country’s map of the world look like then? What was their science and their math? Their music and their art and their dancing? 
  • Build a world!  And find your place in it. Where did your ancestors come from? What were they up to in 1619 . . . and what impact does that have on your life today? There will not be one answer. You won’t like everything you find. But you will learn.
  • And then the research question: even in this comprehensive 1619 Project lots of voices were left out–voices of scholars in this field, voices of other racial groups (what about the South Asians and Pacific Islanders who were crews on many of the slave ships? what about poor whites who were indentured servants? what about all women–even rich, white women–who could not vote, be represented on legal documents, collect their own wages)? 
  • Ask tough questions. Don’t settle for easy answers.  History = life.  Life = complex problems with no easy answers.  “Thinking like a historian” means making a story of available evidence . . . and that means leaving things out of the story.  What’s left out here?  Be curious! Dig! Make your own story!

(NB:  The Pulitzer Center has partnered with the New York Times to make the entire 1619 Project available as a pdf along with resources, readings, teaching guides, and more.)



2-The brilliance of the NYT “1619 Project” is how it connects what happened in 1619 to the traffic jam you’re in today in Atlanta. Literally. History is not a dead thing. Have students explore the rest of the world of 1619 and connect to today. Find the threads, pull and pull and pull and learn.


3-In the process, students learn to be historians, not just to learn from someone else’s history, and they learn to ask deep, difficult, unanswerable questions, and to find links and causes and to debunk pseudocauses. They learn no one person has all the answers so they must share.


4-And think what it does to the profs too? This shakes up all the standard divisions of country and periodization while still honoring and valuing specialized knowledge. It revitalizes profs, challenges them, and brings them together for a common project.  Too often, the only time faculty members meet is at the department meeting where sometimes it feels like the only job is to defend turf (period and nation—“we need another 17th century France specialist!).  What if everyone who was teaching a part of the “1619 Project” sequence had a role in teaching—for a week or two—the methods course? Learn from one another . . . and from original research by your students.



5-The 1619 project is one example. In the one, same issue of the NYT, there’s brilliant analysis of Gamergate that could form the start of a course, and of what’s happening in South Asia (a different course). History is alive and well. Let students find it and learn!


6-You could do a parallel curriculum overhaul in the literature curriculum.  Same principle.  Example:  The great writer, Toni Morrison, passed away this week.  Her novels have as many threads to follow as the “1619 Project”—she read deeply, richly, everything.  Go for it.



7. James Baldwin wrote:  “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”  Take that in.  But then you read . . .  (And I would say the same is true for joy and celebration. And then you read . . .