Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, January 13, 2013

History vs. Genealogy?

If genealogy deals with the history of families, then aren't genealogy and history really the same thing simply with a different focus? You would think this would be a simple issue, but in fact, it is not. History, as such, is generally defined in terms of the study of past events or the branch of knowledge dealing with past events. Genealogy is defined as a record or account of the ancestry and descent of a person, family or group. Some definitions of genealogy include the study of families and the tracing of their lineages and history. To me, this pretty much sounds like the same thing.

But if you look at say, Arizona State University, (which claims to be one of the largest, if not the largest university in the United States), and closely examine their curriculum you find that they have three colleges that might deal with history:

  • College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
  • New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences
  • School of Letters and Sciences
Altogether ASU offers about 128 or so different undergraduate degrees with one each in "History" in each of these three colleges. So if you went to ASU, you could get a BA degree in history from each of these different units. So how do they differ?

A degree in history from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences requires a total of 120 hours with about 38 of those hours in history related classes. The non-history classes are in general education, English, Languages, computers etc. None of those courses, as far as I can tell, even mention "genealogy" as a subject. 

ASU does have non-credit classes in genealogy through the ASU Retirees Association held at the Family History Center in the LDS Training Center (Institute of Religion) adjacent to the campus. 

Here is the description of the course work required for a BA in History:
The Bachelor of Arts in history allows students to focus on a single geographic concentration. There are four geographic concentrations: Asia, Europe, Latin America and United States. Students must take five courses within a single concentration. Europe (EU) and United States (US) students must take two courses outside US and EU. All students must complete one course from HST 302-307. All students must also complete HST 300, taken in the junior year, and HST 498, taken in the senior year. 
Students must complete 30 hours of history course work (HST prefix only); 18 hours must be upper division. A minimum of 12 hours upper division hours must be completed at the Tempe campus. A minimum grade of "C" (2.00) is required in all history course work. A minimum of a 2.25 GPA must be attained in history course work.
There are only a very limited number of universities in the United States that offer courses that include genealogy as even a consideration. Why is this?

The answer is both complex and simple. Genealogy is not considered an "academic" subject. Merely documenting peoples' lives is not considered to be something worthy of university level study. Of course, if you want to study the life of a "prominent" person, that becomes history. Here is an example of part of a course description for a graduate level course in Historical Methods from ASU:
This course serves as an introduction to different methodologies and theoretical frameworks used by historians. Professor Manchester will coordinate the course and be present for each session, but most weeks different professors from the history department will take turns teaching either their areas of theoretical expertise, or methodologies with which they are particularly familiar. The course will introduce the students to the major approaches to history they are still employed by historians while also exploring some sub-fields of history. Sessions will include topics such as intellectual history, social history, cultural history, post-colonialism, post-modernism, the new economic history, history of the nation-state, collective memory and the integration of categories such as race, class, and gender into the reconstruction of the past, while also highlighting specific philosophers, such as Weber, Marx and Foucault, who have had a profound impact on how historians approach their craft. Requirements: Weekly essays.
Interestingly, if you read the graduate course descriptions carefully, you will find that nearly every skill they purport to enhance relates directly to doing genealogical research as well as general historical research. But at the same time, you can appreciate how different academic historical studies are from what we do as genealogists.

Brigham Young University (BYU) offers a degree in Family History - Genealogy. Comparing that degree to the History degree offered at ASU, the genealogy student at BYU actually take a lot more courses in history than those who are majoring in history at ASU. Out of the 120 hours required for graduation at BYU, a genealogy student might have as many as 79 hours of history related classes and at a minimum, at least ten more class hours than required for a history degree at ASU.

Here is the description of a degree in history from BYU:
History stands at the heart of a liberal arts bridge between the humanities and social sciences. Historical understanding is thus basic to the life of an educated human being. As such, it is the ideal major for the student who wants the broad educational background for entrance into professions such as law, government service, or business, or who wants a liberal arts education. History can also be valuable training for someone who plans to teach.
Now, that statement about the basic nature of history, where are we as genealogists? How many of us understand the basic nature of history? Do we really understand the history of the people we are researching? I find that most genealogists only have the vaguest idea of history. I also find that many historians only have the vaguest idea of what genealogy is all about. Why is this the case?

1 comment:

  1. James, thank you for your discussion of this subject. As a former college history professor and current family historian/genealogist, I find that good, serious genealogy is no different from good, serious history.

    Unfortunately, many who pursue genealogy do not apply any historical methodologies to their work. They have no sources (aside from the ubiquitous Ancestry Family Tree), they don't read the documents they acquire and add to their collection, they do not bother learning any of the geography of the area on which they are focusing, they no little or nothing of local or national or international history, they appear to be interested solely in extending the number of generations in their tree rather than taking the time to learn about the lives of their ancestors, and on and on.

    Sadly, this is true not only of those who are content to "research" their personal family trees, but also of a number of those who advertise their services as "professional" genealogists.

    This, I believe, is why most colleges and universities do not offer courses in genealogy and do not accept genealogy as a "valid" historical pursuit.

    We have been our own worst enemies in this situation. In our desire to encourage any and all to take up genealogy as a hobby we fail to educate them in the historical process, thereby creating an entire class of genealogist who genuinely believe that if it's on the internet it must be true and accurate.

    I have gone on my rant long enough, and should stop here and continue this on my own blog in the future.

    Again, thank you for your excellent and thought-provoking blog James!

    Kate Eakman