I had the opportunity this spring to teach the senior capstone class in the History major. A capstone course is one in which we bring everything together, require the kind of work that shows the students ability to work as a historian in this case, with a professional quality. We also engage with serious philosophical topics. What do we know, or can we know in our profession? And what are the limits of that knowledge? How do we make convincing arguments and write or produce persuasive historical narrative? What is the relationship between faith and history, and what is the role of faith for the historian?
One of our foci was on how, when, and why, the Christian interpretation of a “providential” history had been replaced in the secular, Western historical tradition by the understanding of human progress in history. And given the experience of the 20th century, we asked, was this faith in progress warranted? These are just a smattering of the questions and topics we engaged about the writing of history in world cultures.
The seven students in the class (yes it was a small one, even smaller than we like, but this is balanced by some other classes of 30, 40, and an occasional 50) showed their professional ability in two ways.
First in the class they had two write an historiographical essay. This is a history of the history of a topic. The classic one I introduced in discussions was the historiography of the French Revolution. How have historians treated the Revolution? There is a classic interpretation—it happens to be Jacobin and Marxist. And there is a revisionist version, or a liberal revision, if you like, reaching back at least to de ’Tocqueville, and represented today by Francois Furet (also a historian of the collapse of Soviet communism).
Students chose their own topics and researched in professional resources (academic journals, specialist encyclopedias, monographs (books by professional historians) to produce an assessment of the topic. They produced professional level analyses of, for example, the historiography of the Holocaust, Seventh Day Adventism, the Mongol invasions and empire, genocide, and the history of women in the US. Each was a detailed analysis of how the topic has been treated, the evidence used, and how it was interpreted. These essays were some of the more astute I have seen in my years teaching (which by now are many…).
It happened that at the same time, these students were writing and presenting their senior theses. These are the result of a year-long, two course process of selecting, researching, and writing carefully crafted papers and presentations (30-80 pages) on topics of interest and importance. In each case the students who completed and presented their theses produced professional level work. They examined the most important and reliable scholarship (secondary sources). They debated the differences of interpretation. They engaged with and weighed the meaning of relevant historical data (primary sources). They avoided the simplifications of textbooks (tertiary sources). They rose above summaries to produce historical interpretations that can be relied on and brought insight and depth of understanding to their work.
All of us who are professors in the history program guide these senior theses. The students choose their topic and work with the professor who works in the area of their choice. If you are going to write a professional level paper on a topic, you should work with a professional in that field.
Over the last thirty years, one of the major movements of university education has been the professionalization of majors. Having a university degree has come to mean being ready to work professionally in a particular field of study or in a profession itself. We have adapted our emphasis on the liberal arts, which looks to broad ranging considerations, to develop this professionalism at the same time. It is difficult, but it can be done, and the result is a thoughtful, aware, professional graduate. I was proud of our students at the end of the semester. They had, of course, worked hard to finish by the end of the semester, but most importantly they had shown themselves to be worthy of their degrees, and to be ready for the professional world that awaits them. It was a pleasure to cheer them on at commencement as they walked proudly across the stage.