History Content and Teaching: A Historic Struggle

The past two posts have made the point that content and pedagogy are joined at the hip. Yet in science and math, too often, policymakers and reformers have focused on content rather than the art and craft of teaching in the mistaken belief that one is far more important than the other. Like the left foot or right foot–yeah, the body metaphor works for me–which one you step off with first is the question that curriculum developers and teachers need to answer not whether one is more important than the other.

So now I turn to the subject of U.S. and world history where the issues that arose in science and math reform (e.g., periodic battles between “traditionalists” and “reformers,” struggles over which purposes should drive the study of the content, and the wide variation among teachers in responding to each swing of the reform pendulum) appeared repeatedly in the century-long saga of doing something about the subject of history in schools.

In the early 20th century, history professors and teachers worked together closely to shape both content and teaching approaches. Beginning in the 1920s as a new subject “social studies” aimed at improving society through problem solving, and building better citizens; it spread across the nation’s schools, shrinking the number of history courses in the process. Those history professors walked away from K-12 teachers and stayed away for three generations.

Then, in the 1980s after the Nation at Risk report spurred a growing awareness of  how poorly American students fared on international tests and the critical importance schools played in helping the U.S.  compete globally for markets, a later generation of university professors rejoined(pp.105-114)  K-12 teachers in the quest to improve the teaching and learning of science, math, and history.

Why teach history in K-12? For over a century, two purposes have competed for teacher attention. One abiding purpose has been to cultivate a national identity, patriotism, and a faith in one’s nation.  The heritage approach uses the past to recreate the present to “tell ourselves who we are, where we are from, and to what we belong.” (pp. xi,xiii, 123) Beyond the U.S. flag in every classroom and Pledge of Allegiance, examples of the heritage purpose at work in schools are lessons that focus on the “founding fathers” of the Revolutionary period and heroes such as Davy Crockett, Frederick Douglass, and Susan B. Anthony to recoup from the past a legacy that all American students should know. In the hands of some legislators, textbook authors and teachers, the heritage purpose comes close to an official  story encased in state standards; it aims to inspire pride in the U.S.

A competing purpose has been  historical approach. It is not a single account of the past but many accounts. The goal is to equip students with the skills that historians and citizens use daily. Historians seek verifiable truth as they sift evidence to answer questions and interpret what happened in the past; they reduce bias in their accounts by closely examining their own values as they read and analyze sources. In history classrooms, it means that students investigate the past through different sources and produce impartial stories and analyses from many accounts, consistent with the evidence they have before them. In doing so,  students acquire skills of smelling out bias in sources, analyzing documents, providing multiple perspectives on an event or person. They think, write, and discuss different views of what happened.  Students learn that history is an interpretation of the past, not a fax that yesteryear has wired to the present. In short, they become historically literate.

These contending purposes–which kind of history gets taught?–have spurred tensions between “traditionalists” and “reformers” for decades erupting in the 1960s and later in the late-1980s and early 1990s in policy circles and in classrooms.

What happens in classrooms as these battles begin and unwind periodically?

The battles over what teachers should teach too often devolved into struggles over content vs. skills, a false dichotomy at best. There was the New Social Studies in the 1960s following New Math and science curriculum revisions. Then, new history textbooks got students to work like historians in analyzing and interpreting sources. In the 1980s and since the New History (see here, here and here) has produced different textbooks, lessons, and engagement by historians in working with K-12 teachers.

For “traditionalists,”  “good teaching” stressed the importance of facts, specific dates, names, and places; they took precedence over skills of determining accuracy of sources, analyzing documents, and crafting interpretations of the past. “The job of educators,” one historian  (p.175) summed up this position, “is simply to train children’s memories in the facts they need to be loyal and industrious citizens.” Some analytical thinking would fit “traditionalists reasoned, but students must absorb a rich funds of ‘basic facts’ before starting to think about them.”

“Reformers,” however, saw “good teaching” as giving students “opportunities to examine the historical record for themselves, raise questions about it, and marshal evidence in support of their answers….Good teaching should equip students with a solid knowledge base of information but also demonstrate that facts are only the raw materials of historical understanding” (pp. 175-176).

Many history teachers, however, saw virtue in both positions without divorcing content and skills; they bundled together both heritage and historical ideas to craft class activities, use textbooks, document analysis, lectures, small group work–to create hybrids. Nonetheless, most history teachers still engage in a variety of text-driven practices that tilt toward a heritage rather than historical pedagogy.

In light of the evidence, thus far, of how teachers teach, professional historians–given their erratic but episodically vigorous efforts especially since the 1980s–have succeeded in raising public and professional awareness of the importance of history as a school subject but failed in their mission to substantially alter how teachers teach history (see here)


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

13 responses to “History Content and Teaching: A Historic Struggle

  1. Jeff Bowen

    Your comparative analysis is perceptive and intelligent. Love the turns of phrase. As a former history teacher who is following current changes in the teaching and learning of history, I do believe we need the heroes and events of the heritage approach, but even more relevant with so much info at our disposal is the historical approach. Unfortunately this entails critically important and often lacking reading skills along with contextual understanding. Regrettable too is the problem that historical literacy and our stubborn inability to learn lessons from the past make for continuous lost opportunities.

  2. I’m an English teacher who constantly argues for the importance of teaching history in school. I believe that human beings are hardwired to “do” history, but without training and instruction, we’re not always very good at it. Thank you for laying out some of the issues wrapped up in the teaching of history in today’s climate.

  3. May be I am in such a left-leaning state that I have lost perspective, but I don’t know a single high school teacher in the greater Hartford area who uses the ‘heritage’ approach. In pursuit of ‘critical thinking’, the so-called ‘historical’ approach has OVER-emphasized skills and point of view, almost to the exclusion of helping learn content (cf. the Social Studies strand of the Common Core). Further, more kids seem to know that Th. Jefferson bedded his slave than that he was a president or ambassador or an author of the DOI. The pendulum needs to find a happy middle that SYNTHESIZES higher order thinking skills with a narrative approach to history that isn’t driven by left or right wing agendas, but GOOD HISTORY.

    • larrycuban

      Louise, thanks for your comment. My hunch is that the narrative/chronological approach exists even in the greater Hartford area in which you teach. There are lots of social studies teachers out there. That the “historical” approach is “in” among history teachers now is also self-evident. What happens behind closed classroom doors–and this is where my hunch comes into play–differs somewhat from what teachers may say in public. Your example of Thomas Jefferson is a fine one. Like yourself, the blending of both approaches is what I would seek.

  4. Gary Ravani

    “Then, in the 1980s after the Nation at Risk report spurred a growing awareness of how poorly American students fared on international tests and the critical importance schools played in helping the U.S. compete globally for markets,”

    Yes, A Nation at Risk (ANAR) “spurred” awareness about schools and international competitiveness. The problem is, the international test scores told us nothing about that relationship. The economic bogeyman of ANAR’s time was Japan. Within a decade Japan’s economy sank into a recession it is just barely emerging from, though its test scores remained high, and the US went through several spurts of economic growth unparalleled in human history with those same “mediocre” kids ANAR was so alarmed about as the belt-buckle of that highly productive workforce. US test scores have remained in the middle of the pack. The US recession of the mid-1980s that generated the hysteria of ANAR was due to terrible decisions by, amongst a number of groups, executives in the US auto industry. The US still has mediocre international test scores and its economy has slipped in “competitiveness,” as rated by say The World Bank, but schools and tests have nothing to do with it. It was “instability” (aka, greed and recklessness) in the financial sector that tanked the economy and US international rankings. Again, as with ANAR, schools, teachers, unions, kids, whatever, are being used as scapegoats to divert public attention from the real culprits. As they say, we do not learn from history.

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  6. Charles White

    When would you say was the Golden Age for teaching history, when it was taught the way it should be taught and people’s historical knowledge was at the level it is should be? It must have been before social studies banished history from the curriculum, so before 1920? Seems like we should be investigating how history was taught and how schooling was conducted during that Golden Age so we can stop experimenting and stick with what worked during that time.

    • larrycuban

      Charles, thanks for your question and comment. In my view, there has never been a “golden age” for teaching history. There has been, as I say in the post, a struggle between two or more factions over what is the best way to teach history since the late-19th century with the “heritage” and traditionalist views dominating curriculum. In classrooms, there have been teachers, then and now, who have adopted the “historical” approach but they have been a minority.But no “golden age.”

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