Johnson discusses misteaching history

January 22, 2014 by James Hitchcock, Contributing Writer

Professor K.C. Johnson of Brooklyn College talks about the shifts and controversies arising in history education in colleges. Photo credit James Hitchcock, Contributing Photographer.

Professor K.C. Johnson of Brooklyn College talks about the shifts and controversies arising in history education in colleges. Photo credit James Hitchcock, Contributing Photographer.

The student-run “Uncomfortable Learning at Williams” speaker series kicked off this past Wednesday night with a talk on the dangers of “misteaching” history by Professor K.C. Johnson of Brooklyn College and the City of New York Graduate Center. Johnson spent several years teaching at the College, before eventually moving on to Brooklyn, where he teaches history.

Held in Griffin 3, Johnson’s talk addressed the evolution of historical pedagogy over the last several decades and the ways in which those changes detract from the overall quality of history programs across the country.

Johnson began with a brief history of higher education in Maine, explaining the move away from limited teaching of traditional history toward a curriculum emphasizing the study of gender, race and other types of identifiers as they have influenced the past. Bowdoin College, he argued, was a chief agent of this shift in historical focus in higher education. Though he introduced the left-leaning school as the principal culprit in this evolution of history programs, Johnson established a distinctly non-partisan feeling to his talk with his humorous criticism aimed both at liberal politicians as well as current Republican Governor of Maine Paul LePage.

Johnson’s central argument was that the move away from traditional history, which he described as an intended “expansion of knowledge,” had instead been “contracted” by universities. These universities had, he maintained, overzealously cut military, business and constitutional history programs and replaced them with ones giving considerable focus to social identity issues. He demonstrated this with charts detailing the internal composition of several American history departments at various colleges, illustrating a strong weighting towards exploring matters of social tension and identity politics. Johnson also highlighted the considerable problems with such an approach and linked them to controversies some of these shifts have generated on American college campuses.

He continued on to explain what he observes as the politicization of American universities on both sides of the political spectrum. As the curricula of history departments have shifted, universities have recognized the benefits of appealing to specific political demographics to increase their applicant pools. Johnson specifically cited Brigham Young University and Hillsdale College as schools that offer a more conservative education and mentioned as well the success the George Mason University School of Law has found in shifting its academic focus to attract academically talented, conservative or libertarian-leaning students.

He noted that public universities provide easy targets to build political clout for state legislators, who have begun to demand greater oversight over curricula as a means of championing their own politics.

The talk was well attended, filling up nearly all the seats in Griffin 3. Afterward, Johnson responded to five or six comments from the audience during a question and answer session, further illuminating the topics of his talk. His final words forecast the future of history programs at universities as well as some gave general advice for those looking to improve the balance between more traditional and liberal education on campuses.

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Norman Birnbaum 1946 February 6, 2014 at 6:12 pm

I took what was then History 1 in the fall of 1942 with the very helpful and exacting Professor Buffinton. He would have regarded what now counts as traditional as unfathomably new……in any event, it seems as if it was a lively talk by someone who knows what he is talking about. Bowdoin as a vanguard institution? That is new……

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