The History Department is changing, as the News reported on Monday (“History plans ‘pathways,’ ” Feb. 27). In order to halt a precipitous slide in the number of history majors (there were 86 fewer in the class of 2011 than in the class of 2002) the major will add freshman seminars and make other seminars more available to underclassmen. It’s not hard to imagine that such changes, if well implemented, could steer at least some students toward a major they might not otherwise have chosen.
But several other changes — including the addition of a number of optional tracks in which history majors can specialize and the creation of a broad survey course on historical methodology — constitute substantive and oddly contradictory changes to the major.
The precise number of specialized pathways students could concentrate in has yet to be decided, though the News listed six proposals, including the history of gender and sexuality, environmental history, and the history of war and violence. It also mentioned that “additional pathways” are being worked on, suggesting that the final number of approved areas of concentration may, in fact, be higher.
Ideally, such paths are intended to give students an official form of recognition for particular interests and efforts that previously were grouped with vastly different ones under that single and broad term history. They might encourage students to pursue thematically coherent programs of study. Students who pursue a path will come away from it with a set of skills and accomplishments that can be much more easily defined, whether in a job interview or at a cocktail party.
The survey course will do precisely the opposite. Instead of encouraging students to self-segregate, it will push them together. Instead of teaching a set of salient facts about a set of specific issues, it will, at least in theory, attempt to teach students about historical and historiographical methods. They will come out of it not with a set of answers to specific questions, but a set of questions whose answers are often unclear and contested.
The fact that neither the pathways nor the survey will be required parts of the major, at least for now, will give the department time to examine how both changes work in practice. It may even be that both changes will, over time, become integral parts of what is still one of Yale’s largest majors. Nonetheless, the changes do make clear inherent tensions between the contradictory impulses towards increased academic specialization on the one hand and towards a broader, shared focus on common questions on the other.
I believe in the freedom to specifically tailor one’s program of study in ways that account for divergent interests and passions. Nonetheless, the increasing trend towards specialization — not just in history, but in most of the humanities and social sciences — does not necessarily bring us more freedom. Choosing a particular path can be just as limiting as the inability to do so. Even though paths are optional, once students start listing official-sounding tracks on their résumés, the pressure to choose one could be hard to resist.
On the other hand, having students study the same thing can contribute, perhaps counterintuitively, to intellectual diversity. Studying common programs grounded in broad questions allows students to develop the common vocabulary necessary to engage with each other and thus make for a true diversity of knowledge and opinion. While students in different specialized paths might not have that much to say to each other, students in the survey course could have a lot to say and argue about. This is especially true if the course is grounded in inquiry for its own sake, rather than for the sake of a narrow set of answers.
When we choose our major, we already pare down not just the classes we take but the students we interact with. This is the necessary price of learning something well. But given the limits already imposed by any major, let’s not start subdividing our majors further.
Harry Larson is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.