History and the Liberal Arts and Sciences at American University

Although the origins of liberal education are rooted in classical antiquity, the study of the liberal arts and sciences is also distinctly modern, offering students both a deeply informed understanding of the human enterprise, as well as “the critical intellectual skills to navigate a rapidly changing world.”   The arts and sciences in general have also served historically as a foundation for service and civic engagement, a connection that leaders in higher education are increasingly emphasizing. As Janet Holmgren, chair of The Carnegie Foundation’s board of trustees and president of Mills College, has written: “In a complex world, the ability to integrate learning from different sources is increasingly important for professional success, for civic responsibility, and for one’s own understanding. One of the defining features of liberal education is achieving this sense of connection—among courses, between academic course work and life experiences, between theory and practice, understanding and action, ideas and values.”

In the history department, we recognize the fundamental role we play in contributing to the liberal education of all of American University’s undergraduate students and to providing advanced study for our undergraduate and graduate majors. We see no necessary conflict between the goals of liberal education and the professional aspirations of many of our students. We also understand the intimate connection between the liberal arts and sciences and American University’s historic identification with public service, internationalism and the fostering diverse communities.  Thus, we seek to sustain our traditions of excellence in teaching and scholarship, while making explicit our long standing commitments to internationalism, civic engagement, and diversity.

While historians have always been among the most internationally minded of humanities scholars, in recent years we have consciously sought to transcend historical studies that are bounded by the nation state.  The theme for the January 2009 annual meeting of the American Historical Association is “Globalizing Historiography.”  Similarly, prominent U.S. historians have challenged their colleagues to “rethink American History in a Global Age.”  Here at AU, we are building on our existing strengths through new faculty appointments and new curricula that highlight the global reach of our discipline.

AU history faculty members have also long employed their expertise outside the classroom in the larger public arena.  To cite only a few examples: Richard Breitman’s work at the Holocaust Museum and with the Nazi War Criminal Records Interagency Working Group; Alan Kraut’s chairmanship of the Liberty-Ellis Island History; Allan Lichtman’s role as an expert witness (most recently in the notorious Texas re-districting case); and Kathy Franz’s creative work as a curator at the National Building Museum.  But the department’s commitment to civic engagement is perhaps best embodied in our rapidly growing public history program, which is dedicated to nurturing the importance of cultural institutions beyond the university; to working with the public on social justice issues; and to training the next generation of historians who will continue to research, teach, and practice history in a variety of forums.

As historians, we are also deeply committed to understanding the rich diversity of human experience over time and space and to the roles played by race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, class and gender.  Here again, we build on the excellent scholarship of our faculty, on our location in a vibrant, culturally diverse metropolitan region, and on American University’s values-based commitment to internationalism, human rights, social justice and diversity.

Robert Griffith
Connections, September 2008

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