This essay by Dr. Brad Franco, Associate Professor of History at UP, is part of a series of short pieces that offer faculty across the campus an insider’s tour of one of the courses that make up UP’s Core program. Since the Core involves almost a third of the curriculum for every UP student, faculty can benefit from these discipline-by-discipline essays, to better understand the breadth of their students’ campus experience.
Undergraduates at the University of Portland are required to take one history class as part of the university core. There is great diversity in what students can take, as all 200 and 300 level history classes satisfy the core requirement.
At first blush, having such a broad requirement might seem deeply problematic, as it means that students are studying wildly different topics to fulfill the same prerequisite. Indeed, we offer core classes that span five continents and three millennia; some of these classes emphasize social and cultural history, others focus more on gender, identity, and race, while still others are more oriented toward political or military history.
With such a wide range of core course offerings, one might wonder what students, regardless of which course they take, gain from the core history requirement. To begin, students gain an understanding of what the discipline of history actually is and why it matters. Dispiritingly, many of our students enter their first college history class still believing that history is rooted in memorizing names and dates or in learning about famous battles. Instead, our goal as a department, collectively, is to help students recognize that the value of history, like all disciplines in the humanities, is to help us better understand human nature, human societies, and the present.
Whether one studies the ancient world, early modern Europe, or modern America, to cite some of the subfields within which we offer classes, history provides endless insights about humans and societies that are directly applicable to understanding our world today. For example, any history class within the core will provide students with a greater understanding of how power functions, particularly at the institutional or societal level.
Closely connected to this, students learn the role of culture in shaping societal values and beliefs, the fluidity of gender norms and how they are used to regulate behavior, how societies “other” minority groups, reasons societies go to war, as well as how propaganda works.
The examples that we use to elucidate these topics (and many others) obviously varies dramatically depending on the focus of each course. For example, students studying medieval Europe, learn how “othering” was used to justify wars against religious minorities, ethnic groups, and even fellow Christians (as heretics). While the marginalization of minority groups as a means of strengthening one’s political power certainly looks different in a modern context (or even a pre-modern context), the use of such strategies can be found in nearly every society. Similarly, speeches from the Peloponnesian War (which led to the fall of the first democratic government in history in Athens) demonstrate how demagogues undermine public debate and the democratic process through misinformation, undermining political opponents, using emotional appeals, fear, and othering.
While these debates took place in a world very different from our own, the lessons that can be learned from studying these ancient speeches are remarkably applicable to anyone living in a democracy today. In fact, more broadly, one of the crucial insights that history offers is that nearly all human societies face many of the same kinds of challenges. By studying the past, we can glean all kinds of relational insights about our own world related to issues of justice, power, gender, culture, authority, and more.
In effect, the core history requirement offers students a set of lenses that offer access to entire other worlds full of answers to our own struggles and challenges today. The study of history makes students more curious about learning by exposing them to all kinds of new ideas and ways of thinking about the world that often, they didn’t even know existed.
Moving beyond any specific insights, historical inquiry promotes (or even requires) critical thinking and reading. Analyzing primary sources created in societies with different values and cultural beliefs than our own is extremely challenging because it requires students to move beyond their own worldview and value system. Students must learn to identify authorial intent and bias, and consider questions of genre, audience, and historical context before they can determine what particular primary sources reveal about the society in which they were written.
Closely connected to this, all core history classes help students to become better writers. While college writing is certainly part of many core classes, history papers present the unique challenge of requiring students to practice using primary source material as their evidence. They quickly discover the challenges of recovering the past (as we are limited by the sources that survive and the information or perspective these sources provide). This practice of analyzing evidence (written for a very different audience living in a radically different historical context) to create an argument and then write a persuasive paper rooted in the available evidence helps them to hone a set of skills that will be useful throughout the students’ lives.
In sum, the history core requirement opens students’ eyes to the importance of the past and its value in helping them make sense of our world; it makes them more intellectually curious; it helps them improve their critical thinking skills and become more effective writers. These are just some of the many things students gain from the core history requirement.
-Dr. Brad Franco