History, M.A. Examination Questions (Before Fall 2012)

Below you'll find American or European History comprehensive examination questions.  These questions are for students who began the program before Fall 2012.  Follow this link to the exam questions for students who entered the program in Fall 2012 or later. 


American History

1. Describe and analyze the processes by which a distinctively American identity was created and changed over time. What historical forces and events helped to forge this identity? In what specific ways has this identity been contested? Has this identity been broad and inclusive, or has it tended to creatn un-American or non-American “Others?”

2. Devise a new periodization of American history based on changes and continuities in economics. From the perspective of an economic historian, what would be the key turning points and disjunctures? How and wh would this periodization differ from the “traditional” periodization (i.e., in textbooks) of American history? [substitute “race” for economics.]

3. “The United States” is not only a political entity, but a geographical one as well. Analyze the impact of geography (and environment, more broadly) on American history. What factors have been the most important in shaping American history? How has the impact of geography/environment changed over time?

4. One way in which Americans have tended to differ from people in other cultures is our relative rootlessness. Population movements have punctuated American history. Outline the key eras of popular mobility, and how these were similar to or different from each other (who moved, where they moved, why they moved). What have been the implications (social, political, economic) for American history as a whole?

5. Throughout history, powerful elites have dominated (socially, politically, economically). How do the relatively less powerful and the truly disenfranchised (as variously defined, depending on the era and region in question) fit into history? To what degree are they merely victims or puppets of the elite? To what extent are they active shapers of history? Explain the most salient examples over time.

6. Some historians view wars as catalysts for profound social, political, and economic change. Others believe that wars entrench the status quo. Looking at the major wars fought by the US (Indian wars may be considered collectively as a single war), with which side (if either) do you most agree, and why? [If you agree with neither, what conclusions would you draw about the impact of wars, and why?]

7. Americans are proud of their revolutionary heritage and often allude to various ‘revolutions’ in our history. Explore the various events or trends that have been called ‘revolutions’ or ‘revolutionary’ (or which you think could bear that title). In what ways were these revolutions ‘revolutionary?’ In what ways not? How are you defining the term, and does this differ from the ways other Americans might define it?

8. The concept of ‘manifest destiny’ emerged fully in the nineteenth century, but elements of the idea can be traced back into earlier times, as well as forward to the present. How has this ideology shaped American culture, poltiics, and economics?

9. America has been swept by repeated moral, political, and religious ‘crusades.’ Which 2-3 of these have had the most impact on American history, and why?

10. Which has been more significant in shaping American history: race or class? [Note: It is acceptable to argue that the significance of race or class has varied in different eras, but make sure you give concrete evidence.]


European History

Note: In their answers, students should focus on EITHER European history before 1519 or European history after 1519.


1. How has “the Other” functioned in defining Europe? Explain how Europeans have defined themselves in distinction from these “Others” in two time periods (defined above). What affect has this process played in shaping European identity?

2. Devise a new periodization of European history within two periods (defined above) in terms of cultural and/or intellectual thought. How and why would this periodization differ from the ‘traditional’ (i.e., textbook) periodization?

3. In discussing nationalism, historians are divided over whether or not people had any sort of national identity prior to the nineteenth century—many say that it had its roots in much earlier periods. Do you agree? What other kinds of identity competed with national identity in two periods (defined above) of European history?

4. A complex relationship exists between secular power and sacred authority in European history—a relationship of competition, cooperation, and ultimately separation. Focusing on two periods of history (defined above), argue for the dominance of one power over the other as the driving factor in European history.

5. The history of Europe is the history of the unfolding of secularization. Assess the validity of this statement for two periods of European history (defined above). Note that while the previous question focuses on the issue of sacred and secular power and authority, this question requires you to think more broadly about the process of secularization.

6. Premodern Europe is often characterized by Three Orders or Estates—thow who work, those who pray, those who fight. Trace the development of ONE of these orders or estates through two major periods of history (defined above). Consider the privileges or special burdens of your chosen order/estate, significant cultural, political, technologicals, social, or religious developments in that order/estate, and whether their lot in life improved or declined in the periods under consideration.

7. Some historians views wars as catalysts for profound social, political, and economic change. Others believe that wars entrench the status quo. Looking at the major wars in two periods of European history (defined above), with which side (if any) do you most agree and why? [If you agree with neither, what conclusions would you draw about the impact of wars, and why?]

8. Examine the relationship between the government and the people (citizens, subjects, estates, as the case may be) in two major periods in European history (defined above). How would you characterize their relationship? How would you explain it? (i.e., why did it take this particular form at this time?)

9. Some historians look at the history of nations using the concepts of ‘core’ and ‘periphery.’ They define these as regions of relative significance (politically, economically, culturally), with the core being at the center of systems of power, and the periphery being in one or more ways outside it. If we apply this model to two major periods of European history (defined above), what would you identify as the core and periphery? Have these changed over time? If so, how and why? If not, why not?

10. How have people who have not had formal institutional power shaped events or been shaped by them in two major periods of European history (defined above)? How significant is their informal power? What accounts for its relative strength or weakness?


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