The Forum | General Education

Strengthening the History Major at Kenyon College

August 3, 2018 by Erik Gross

College administrators are often torn between requiring a core curriculum, and allowing students to immediately begin specializing their studies. While an entirely set curriculum for a major discourages creativity and passion, a loose curriculum can lack order and structure. My alma mater, Kenyon College, and my two programs of study, economics and history, provide examples of how to find the ideal middle ground, and the administrative challenges of finding the right balance.

At a Glance: Kenyon’s Economics Requirements

All economics majors must take ECON 101, 102, 201, and 202 (Principles of Microeconomics, Principles of Macroeconomics, Microeconomic Theory, and Macroeconomic Theory), in that order. Students cannot take upper-level courses until 101 and 102 are completed, although most students find it advantageous to complete 201 and 202 before progressing onto third- or fourth-year level seminars. After building a strong foundation, students can pursue advanced economic courses or even specialize their studies.

A Looser History Curriculum

In contrast to the economics department, Kenyon’s history department requires all history majors to take one semester each of Asian or African history, American or European history, pre-modern history, and modern history, at any point during a student’s four-year degree. Majors must also specialize in a defined field of history and take two common classes: Practice and Theory of History (generally a third-year course) and a senior seminar.

This structure may deprive students of core classes that would prepare them for their specialized areas. For example, a student with a U.S. history focus could complete the concentration with narrowly-focused courses like “Hard Times: Great Depression” or “Black History through Fiction and Film,” without taking an introductory class like “United States History, 1865-Present.” Students may gain a thorough understanding of one aspect of U.S. history, but they may have trouble contextualizing it.

The department’s current structure also allows students to take courses that may not match their grade level. During my time at Kenyon, I took two 400-level seminars that contained freshmen; it’s even more common for juniors or seniors to take 100-level courses to fulfill their distribution requirements. The disparities between age groups and academic readiness makes both teaching and grading difficult for professors.

Can the History Department Transition to a More Structured Curriculum?

Due to these weak requirements, not all history majors receive the same caliber of education: some focus too deeply on one subject area without exposure to different historical fields; others take a plethora of different history classes without deep immersion in a specific area. The faculty itself is in a precarious position. Kenyon’s history faculty are burdened by the requirement that the department’s course offerings be made accessible for other majors. For example, American studies and international studies are separate majors, yet only offer a handful of courses within their respective departments, which are very small. Beyond the introductory level, American studies and international studies majors take upper-level history and political science classes to fulfill their major. An extensive history core could adversely affect these programs.

The economics department is under much less outside pressure. If non-majors wish to expose themselves to economics, introductory-level courses are readily available and generally popular among most students. In addition, taking Principles of Microeconomics as a freshman, regardless of academic interest, is common practice.

Furthermore, students are unlikely to come to Kenyon on a narrow history-track, but instead often seek out history as a program of study part-way into their academic careers. Requiring a core course for freshmen would likely decrease the history major’s already low numbers (no more than 20 per year), as well as the number of non-majors that would be able to take history courses. Because of this, it is difficult for the history department to require an extensive core curriculum without significantly hindering its outreach.

Because the history department has to make its advanced course offerings accessible, a rigid core is not feasible. The department could instead promote academic structure through optional guidelines. Yale University’s department of history offers possible inspiration for Kenyon in its optional “Pathways” program. Yale lists courses in order of difficulty within specific historical fields, and encourages students to follow the department’s guidelines. This flexible approach could help guide history majors while also allowing history course offerings to still be attainable for outside majors. Because Kenyon is a small institution, it offers comprehensive individual advising. Students can thus be guided through a sensible progression via Kenyon’s strong advising program.

Better guidelines for the major would be an encouraging step towards cohesion among history majors and a more well-rounded history education. This model would encourage Kenyon students to transition from broad studies to specialized areas, thus creating a stronger educational foundation and the flexibility for students to pursue their passions.

Erik Gross is currently an intern on ACTA’s What Will They Learn?® project. He is a graduate of Kenyon College, receiving a B.A. in history and economics.


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