History 340: A Vital Foundation

European History will return to the Andover curriculum next year, last week’s Phillipian announced, not in its previous form as a full-year, test-in AP course for Lowers but as a series of term-contained Senior electives. This is a serious error on the part of the History Department, and I can only hope that those who control these matters reconsider it. Prior to being discontinued last year, History 340 provided underclassmen with an opportunity to pursue a passion for history through a rigorous, comprehensive curriculum in a class of likeminded and interested peers. History 340 was Andover’s only history class that required an entry test and the only high-level history offered before Upper winter. Not only would the department now permanently eliminate underclassmen’s sole opportunity for a more advanced study of history, but it would also force students to take a two-term leave from the subject altogether, thus deterring potentially passionate history students, who could instead turn to a more flexible discipline. Enthusiastic and qualified students in many other departments—natural sciences, foreign languages, music—are given a chance immediately to participate in high-level courses. For two terms of Lower year, the History Department would now bar students from taking any classes at all. The postponement of European history until Senior year is intellectually and academically unwise. Europe provides the foundation of Western civilization, so a serious student of history is much advantaged to have at least a basic understanding of its history before turning to the study of the United States. To study Europe after the United States is to study geometry after calculus: still of deep intrinsic merit, certainly, but you sure wish you had learned it earlier. Furthermore, making the course term-contained severely curtails the presentation of one of 340’s most enduring historical lessons: the interconnectedness of historical events and lasting influence of any given action on all subsequent ones. History 3(or 5)40 is a survey course, and it deserves to be taught on the scale of a survey course: considering one large swath of European history in the absence of the others reinforces the false notion of historical compartmentalization. The events of history are inextricably connected, and, ideally, as in History 340, studied as such. To study 19th century Europe without 17th is a shame. To study the United States without Europe is senseless. Of course, a student who loves history could study Europe after the States, however jumbled that may be, and take an enormous amount from the experience. The question remains, then: at Andover, will he or she do so? The only honest answer, of course, is sometimes. However, making the student do so effectively forces him or her to choose between Europe and Economics (the only current full-year History elective sequence) or other electives. Yet the Senior electives are generally considered the best History courses Andover offers, and further, many of them are seriously enhanced by a background in the broad ideas of European history. Meanwhile, hardworking, diligent Lowers are likely to get more out of any course, generally speaking, than would a Senior, however bright, already in college and simply waiting out the ride. Of course, there are arguments to be made for the proposed change. The foremost, cited by Mr. Drench in last week’s paper, is the idea of a common foundation for all students entering History 300, our three-term United States History course. Yet whatever classes students take, a true common foundation is an impossible goal. Different students, inevitably, will have different background knowledge, different fields of past study and different things retained from the courses they have taken. Although presumably convenient for History 300 teachers, a common foundation is, arguably, unattractive as well as unrealistic. The most passionate history students should have a stronger foundation than those who simply wish to fulfill the requirement. Just as the most dedicated Physics students go deeper into their curriculum, so too should those with a love of history. In addition, as I wrote in an article regarding History 340 last year: “Objections that 340 damages the curriculum by taking the best students out of History 200, the one-term alternative lower year history course, are also quickly overcome when one considers that 200 is the only term of seven required in History without those students, that other departments split their entire curricula without problem or complaint and most importantly that the premise is false: plenty of exemplary students, who simply do not have the schedule opening or interest to take 340, can be found in 200 classes. On the flip side, many of those students who take 340 enrich the standard curriculum considerably when they, honed by a year of rigorous study, are returned to 300.” It is also noted that the elective format will afford more students the opportunity to take the course. This is true and is a good argument for adding an elective alongside History 340. However, for the reasons outlined above, I believe that students would in fact get more from the course as Lowers and before U.S. History than afterwards as Seniors. Moreover, the best way to get talented, motivated Seniors interested in taking history electives to begin with is by providing a chance for budding underclass history buffs to tackle a challenging, full-year curriculum with other especially interested students. Making European History a Senior elective serves to discourage passionate history students, throw the natural progression of historical inquiry into disarray for those students interested in a more comprehensive consideration and weaken the course itself. Thus, I implore you to reconsider this decision and offer European History for Lowers in the 2010-11 school year. Jake Romanow is a four-year Senior from Cambridge, MA. He is a former student of History 340.