Even before the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, university professors in math and science were building the New Math, New Biology, Chemistry, and Physics materials to transform traditional curricula. After Sputnik, public and private money flowed into the math and sciences to get more U.S. students to become mathematicians, engineers, and scientists to compete with its Cold War enemy. President Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act in 1958.
As with math and science, a few years later, academic experts led the movement to revitalize the teaching of history and other social studies courses. They created “new” texts for high-achieving students and piloted the materials in schools where eager teachers would try out the experimental materials in their classrooms. The New Social Studies was a latecomer to the movement. But in the early 1960s, it made up for lost time.
Historians Edwin Fenton and Richard Brown along with cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, and other academics received federal, state, and private funding to develop new courses, instructional materials, and ways of introducing experienced and novice teachers to the discipline. And they were prolific.
By 1966, there were over 50 social studies projects (history, economics, political science, geography, sociology, and psychology) aimed at K-12 public schools’ “able” students funded by the federal government, National Science Foundation, corporations, professional associations, and private donors. Creating instructional materials, training teachers, piloting lessons in classrooms and entering agreements with publishers, these projects sought to transform traditional fact-after-fact history teaching through lectures and use of a textbook into new courses characterized by engaging materials where teachers used methods of inquiry to get students thinking, seeing, and writing about the past beyond reliance on the textbook. They wanted to get at the very structure of history and teach it in ways consistent with how historians approach the past.
Fenton, for example, describes a lesson in the 10th grade European History course that he and colleagues developed in Pittsburgh in the mid-1960s.
For the third lesson, students read two accounts of the Hungarian Revolution. One is from Radio Moscow; the other from TIME. We tell them to pretend that these two pieces of evidence are all that remain after a nuclear holocaust and that they have just landed from a spaceship with the ability to read both Russian and English. What happened in Hungary?
We make two points with this lesson. First, we ask students to try to agree on three pieces of data from the two accounts which they will accept as facts. They quickly isolate three on which both accounts agree. This procedure leads to a discussion of the criteria which historians use to test the credibility of data…. We then list three facts about Russian and American society which we gleaned from the documents. This enables teachers to return to the point previous made [in prior lesson] about the way in which a person’s frame of reference determines how he classifies data.[ii]
Richard Brown, a historian in charge of the Amherst Project in American History, also caught up in the national mood among so many academics that their time—historians, that is—had arrived. The Amherst Project focused exclusively on history, Brown, a historian at the University of Massachusetts, pointed out the distinction that he and his colleagues made about what students need to learn from history:
We were committed to the idea that ‘history’ is primarily a way of learning and secondarily a body of knowledge…. To be sure, we agreed that history as a body of knowledge is also important—the more that one knows of the past the better one’s ability to ask good questions of it—but nonetheless, we viewed the body of knowledge as essentially a treasure trove to be used rather than ‘mastered’ as an end in itself….
And what students had to master was how to make sense of different sources, the use of evidence, and the asking of questions. Those questions would come out of their experiences.
The polestar of the Amherst Project was the idea that student learn best when they are acting as inquirers, pursuing into evidence questions that grow out of their own lives….We thus viewed history in the classroom as essentially utilitarian, not something to be ‘learned’ as an end in itself but as a body of experience to be delved into by students learning how to learn while growing in the process…. The focus of [our work] was on critical inquiry…. The teacher’s role was to pique the curiosity, to aid, abet, and guide, and to be a role model of inquiry rather than the answer-giver.
Brown gave as an example of the Amherst approach to history in a unit that I and hundreds of social studies teachers used in their classrooms in these exciting years of the New Social Studies, “What Happened on Lexington Green: An Inquiry into the Nature and Methods of History.”
…[T]he student is faced with conflicting eye-witness accounts of a dramatic modern confrontation [e.g. an urban riot] and asked how one knows what happened about anything in the past. Using the Battle of Lexington as a case study, he or she confronts eyewitness accounts of what happened, moves on to conflicting historical interpretations of the same evidence, analyzes several examples of how modern textbook writers recount what happened, and ends up with Plato in the cave reflecting on the nature of truth and reality. [iii]
The Amherst project completed 70 units for 11th grade U.S. history (most of which were aimed at college-bound students with a few slated for “slow learners”). They conducted workshops for hundreds of teachers in the writing and teaching of these units. Unlike Fenton, they did not create new textbooks. Their federal funding ended in 1972.
By that year, the entire New Social Studies was in decline. Except for the public turmoil generated by one of the projects led by Jerome Bruner and a team of academics and specialists. Called “Man: A Course of Study” (MACOS), the uproar over the anthropological content of the material about the life of Netsilik Eskimos triggered yet another social studies war over content. The flaming end of the New Social Studies was spectacular but it was the end nonetheless. The curtain fell on the third act of that drama.
[i] Edwin Fenton, “The New Social Studies: Implications for School Administration,” Bulletin of National Association of Secondary School Principals, March 1967, 51 (317), pp. 62-76; Edwin Fenton, Teaching the New Social Studies in Secondary Schools: An Inductive Approach (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966); John Haas, The Era of the New Social Studies, (Boulder, CO: Social Science Education Consortium, Inc., 1977).
[ii] Edwin Fenton, “Curricular Experiments in the Social Sciences,” Proceedings of the Regional Conference on the Social Sciences in College Education, University of California, Los Angeles, November 7, 1964, p. 7.
[iii] Richard Brown, “Learning How to Learn: The Amherst Project and History Education in the Schools,” The Social Studies, 1996, 87(6), pp. 267-273.