Colleges are implored to teach their own historyHistorians in the News
tags: education, Cornell
For the past six years, I’ve taught a course at Cornell University on the institution’s history and its role in the context of higher education in America. Topics include Cornell’s founders and founding, student life, diversity and inclusion, unrest and activism, and finances and administration. Having observed more than 2,000 students in my classroom, I am a firm believer that one of the best investments a college can make is in teaching its own history.
Upon first glance, the course has little appeal — it’s only one credit, taught in the evening, and fulfills no requirements for most students. So why should other colleges take note?
For starters, a large course with broad appeal across disciplines offers students a unifying experience, creating a sense of community that colleges strive to build. It brings together engineers and athletes, pre-meds and humanists, first-generation students and fourth-generation legacies — students across fields of study and backgrounds, many of whom have never taken a course together. Especially at a large, decentralized university like Cornell, shared experiences are rare and difficult to create. An institution’s own history is a topic that can, and should, resonate with everyone. Students draw parallels with those of the past and are surprised by ways the undergraduate experience and the campus have changed.
Teaching a college’s history is also an opportunity to instill school pride. Every institution has its own identity and traditions. Students should graduate knowing what makes their alma mater special. Whether it’s a victory on the football field or — of far greater consequence — courageous student activists fighting for civil rights, every college has history worth celebrating. Proud students become proud alumni, who will happily contribute their time, talent, and treasure when called upon to do so.
Course assignments can be designed to further build community pride while also expanding students’ knowledge. My students have the option of writing research papers related to Cornell, allowing them to explore their own departments, organizations, or passions. Or they may choose to conduct oral histories with faculty or staff members or alumni to better understand how the university has evolved. ...
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