The History-Only College

Last week, the Boston Globe reported on the founding of a two-year college (for junior and senior transfer students) in New Hampshire. The curriculum of the American College of History and Legal Studies will consist solely of history classes. The college will accept community college transfer students, and has promised small classes that focus largely on discussion.
The founding dean, Lawrence Velvel, described the project: “In a sense, the whole school is the history major you would get in a traditional college . . . This is sadly a very ahistorical country, and we think that perhaps some mistakes could be avoided if Americans knew some history.”
In an earlier interview with Inside Higher Ed, Velvel explained the institution’s pedagogical rationale. IHE reported, “The focus in hiring, [Velvel] said, would be on generalists in history. While there will be a range of courses on different topics in history, most courses will look broadly at periods or regions (especially the United States) as opposed to highly specialized offerings. The new college will assume that general education has been covered in students’ first two years at a community college or elsewhere, and will not attempt to offer a breadth of courses.”
In one respect, Velvel’s approach raises intellectual concerns. Any good History Department should have a wide array of courses, ranging from more generalized surveys to more specialized offerings that reflect either differing pedagogical interpretations of the past or narrower topics on which to focus. Velvel’s description sounds a little like the curriculum at most community colleges, which typically offer general surveys in Western Civilization, World History, and U.S. history, and perhaps a few History electives. If this is what the American turns out to be, it would contribute little to the broader discussion about higher education.
On the other hand, self-interest dictates a reasonable curriculum: it’s clear that Velvel and the school’s founders view it as a feeder program for law schools (and particularly, it seems, for Massachusetts College of Law, where Velvel is dean). It’s hard to see how the American College of History and Legal Studies could prepare students for law school with the typical History department fare of fidelity to the holy trinity of race, class, and gender at the expense of “traditional” topics such as political history, diplomatic history, and constitutional history. Self-interest, therefore, suggests that the American College of History and Legal Studies will offer far more pedagogically diverse fare than what exists in most History departments around the country today.
In the end, instead of experiments such as the American College of History and Legal Studies, I would prefer to see the trustees and administration of one college or university, anywhere in the country, commit to pedagogically diverse hiring and curricular practices as a prime goal of their institution. As we wait for a university’s leadership to show some courage, we can hope that the the American College of History and Legal Studies succeeds.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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