Beth Salerno: History: The public option

MANCHESTER, N.H. If you ask Americans what is studied in history classrooms, many will answer “facts and dates.” If you ask them what people can do with a history degree, they answer “teach.”

Yet those same Americans acknowledge the power and practical relevance of history as they flock to national parks, historic sites, museums and cultural heritage sites; buy nationally best-selling biographies; see history-infused films like Twelve Years a Slave or any of documentarian Ken Burns’s epics; or research their family history within a larger context of national trends.

Among the humanities disciplines, history has a broad and positive public profile, even as the number of majors rises and falls with economic indicators. History programs are increasingly taking advantage of that public enthusiasm for the past to strengthen the discipline’s academic reach and successfully compete for majors and funding when much of the federal and institutional attention is on STEM programs or career preparation.

Public history courses and programs encourage students to take the deep content knowledge provided by traditional history classes and apply it to public problems or in public locations. It takes advantage of the increased higher- education focus on experiential or applied learning and an emphasis on practical experience and outcomes. At the national graduate level, the American Historical Association (AHA) has recognized the need to expand even traditional history graduate experience to include exposure to public history theory, methodology and areas of practice.

With a $1.6 million grant from the Mellon Foundation, the AHA will partner with four universities to broaden both the career prospects for and the impact of history PhDs. According to the AHA, “Expanding the employment horizons and qualifications of history PhDs is not just a matter of finding jobs for our students. We are also interested in widening the presence and influence of humanistic thinking in business, government, and nonprofits. Implicit assumptions about historical context inform thousands of decisions made every day in nearly every institutional context, and we believe that a substantial proportion of those decisions are made without recognition of those historical assumptions, and certainly with very little actual historical knowledge.”

Programs that prepare history master’s students for active engagement in the public application of history are not new, particularly in New England. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst has had a thriving graduate public history program since 1986. Northeastern University’s public history master’s program claims to be one of the oldest in the United States. The National Council on Public History lists 15 public history programs in New England, with nine in Massachusetts, two in New Hampshire, two Rhode Island and one each in Vermont and Connecticut, but none in Maine.

The majority of these programs offer only graduate-level courses. However a half dozen have more recently developed public history minors or concentrations within the major. For Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H., a new concentration in public history stresses that “planning and completing historical research projects are also part of the curriculum.”

Project management skills are one of the most valuable job skills public history programs can provide to students. Salem State University has a public history concentration that benefits from public history projects on campus including one that is mapping the area’s Franco-American heritage and linking older Franco-American immigrants with the Dominican immigrants that now dominate the previously Franco-American neighborhoods. Public history programs make clear the powerful impact historical knowledge can have when applied to public issues, discussions and needs. Studies by scholars also suggest that public history courses increase student engagement and can increase the number of students who declare history majors.

My course at Saint Anselm College is one such recent development. It was created in 2006 in response to requests for a course that “prepared students to explore history options other than teaching.” Of course, history, like many humanities disciplines, prepares students for the widest array of careers by teaching high-quality writing, respect for detail and causation, awareness of the impact of diverse viewpoints, and the ability to make logical and careful argument. However neither students nor parents always see that, particularly in periods of economic downturn as we have experienced for half a decade.

Therefore this course introduces students to specific career paths in public history such as museum curation, the national park service or archival work. Each student completes three “history labs” getting hands-on experience completing a nomination for the historic register, or designing a museum exhibit. These practical labs serve as the training ground for their final project, a tangible public product that serves an existing need—whether for an oral history, a museum education lesson plan to accompany an exhibit, or an archival inventory of an area cemetery with walking tour brochure available on the web.

Public history courses drive collaboration between history departments and community cultural heritage institutions. They give organizations an infusion of excited, apprentice labor to complete public projects made difficult by budget cuts, while the students gain real-world experience, workplace orientation, and a chance to produce a signature project that can anchor a budding professional portfolio. Institutions of higher education generally, and history programs in particular, will continue to face pressures to produce return on investment.

Public history programs enable a humanities discipline to capitalize on engaged learning, hands-on praxis, student research and community collaborations to produce students who have, and are perceived by employers to have, employable skills, without sacrificing the deep knowledge and clear thinking that mark the best history graduates.

Beth Salerno is an associate professor of U.S.  history at Saint Anselm College. This first ran on the New England Board of Higher Education's news and opinion Web site,