The New History in the 1960s (Part 3)

This post is third and final one in series. See here and here.

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.[1]

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.


Filed under how teachers teach

22 responses to “The New History in the 1960s (Part 3)

  1. Jerry Heverly

    So what was so controversial about Eskimos?

    • larrycuban

      A series of ethnographic films of the Netsilik inuit Eskimos show traditional ways of living that included customs of determining whether females should live or die at birth and putting the elderly who were close to death outside to freeze. Parts of the films about customs that show different values and other aspects of MACOS were investigated by Congress and funding for MACOS was cut off. See: (scroll down to the portion on MACOS). Also the film series is summarized at:

      • art

        We used MACOS in our 4th grade for 10-12 years but finally dropped it because the teachers felt that despite their best efforts, too many students were coming away with stereotypes, rather than learning about people’s similarities. This program had great materials and several of our better teachers were trained in it but we just couldn’t make it work.
        We did use some of the films for years in high school courses.

      • larrycuban

        I guess your school avoided the debilitating controversy over the films and the course itself. Your colleagues dropped the curricula for quite different reasons than most other places. What you describe as to the aftermath–using films in upper grades–is what I call the residue of reforms. Thanks, Art.

    • Jerry Heverly

      This reminds me of a minor controversy we had in the English dept last year. We were using To Kill A Mockingbird as a summer reading book for honor students. Some teachers objected, feeling that the students might come away from the book with the message that southern African-Americans needed a white man to save them. So we put it back in the regular year and selected another book for summer.

  2. art

    As a junior at UNH in the fall of 1967, our social studies methods course, taught by Dave Draves, spent about half of our class time reviewing various of the “New Social Studies” programs. There were great materials in all of them but they weren’t the only thing needed.
    As a first-year teacher, I used the Fenton US History text with college-bound Juniors, and I particularly remember the “Pound Laundry” intro lesson [We’ll see how many old-timers know what I’m talking about here ;-)]. While there were some great lessons in all of these programs, the thing I learned that stood me in good stead for 40 years was that no one method\text\theory works all the time with all students. ‘Variety is the spice of life’ is a hackneyed cliche but it is still true in terms of materials and methods!
    For my whole career, I picked and choose from Fenton, the Amherst Project, Larry’s “Promise of America” programs, the High School Geography Project, the great little paperback unit books from the Harvard project, Sociology and Psychology materials and others I’ve forgotten.
    The ‘New Social Studies” gave those of us coming of age as teachers a wonderful set of resources and if we didn’t slavishly used them in lock-step but carefully selected lessons that fit our goals, we could provide students with great lessons.
    It was only in the mid-2000’s, as I was ending my career and the internet was becoming ubiquitous, that I found such a treasure-trove of resources and lessons. And, I still put “Pound Laundry”, “What Happened On Lexington Green”, and Wesley Culp’s Dilemma on the night of July 1st at Gettysburg to good use!

  3. Many of the issues and processes that are addressed in your article, Larry, and the eight posts above, were also symptomatic of the ‘New Social Sciences / Studies’ in schools in Queensland, Australia.
    MACOS was banned here too in those years but for some very different reasons. Some may remember that there were two key questions, one associated with each of the two semester frameworks of the program: Part 1 – What is animal about animals? And Part 2 – What is human about humans?
    Some members associated with the religious right in Australia joined the dots between Parts 1 & 2, claiming that this was an explicit case of evolutionary thinking invading the curriculum. They were veheremently opposed especially to young children of Primary / Elementary school age and became very politically active to pursue their means and ends.
    Some Queensland parents were concerned about the exposure of Year 5 Primary / Elementary students to ‘critical and/or controversial social issues’ as well as ‘inquiry approaches’ to studies using stimulus materials related to, for example, the Baboon Troop and the Netsilik Eskimos. Many opposed the values being investigated as well as the pedagogical and methodological approaches that were being promoted in these new, creative and innovative approaches represented by the ‘New Social Sciences / Studies’. School Social Science / Studies curriculum became a public ‘whipping post’ on which most people seemed to have very contrary opinions.
    Australia also has a controversial Social Educational Matetials Project (SEMP), though publicly funded, was also banned for a wide range of controversial reasons. Space does not permit me to deal with this curriculum project here.
    While there is a need for a variety of curriculum scope and sequences, a variety of teaching and learning approaches, a variety of resource / stimulus materials for a variety of learning styles in a variety of educational settings and year levels, educators seem to have lost the critical engagement with the ‘processes of inductive teaching and learning’ through creative, motivating and divergent approaches that the ‘New Social Sciences / Studies’ were advocating at the time.

    Here’s five (5) Key Questions to stimulate further discussion and debate on issues such as those raised in Larry article and the posts above:
    1. Why do deductive, and perhaps didactic, approaches have such a stranglehold on teaching and learning approaches / methods?
    2. Why, in educational terms, do we so regularly throw the metaphorical ‘baby out with the bath-water’?
    3. Will approaches such as PBL Problem-based learning, ABL Action-based learning and Apple’s CBL Challenge-based learning, … stand the educational test of time?
    4. Why is ‘either/or’ thinking so prevalent yet ‘both/and’ thinking so rare?
    5. Why is ‘change management’, especially in terms of school curriculum, such a difficult process?

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Robert, for your comments on what occurred in Australia. I had not known any of that. Also your useful questions.

    • art

      “Why is ‘either/or’ thinking so prevalent yet ‘both/and’ thinking so rare?” I think that is the key question. Are any of the following involved: unwillingness to do the work necessary to meld\weave material together? lack of awareness of the possibilities which exist? the mind-set that thinks that ‘buying a program’ is the way to solve any and all problems?
      If social studies teachers and the US Congress could figure this out, it would be a much better world!;-)

      • larrycuban

        That is a fair question, Art. You suggest possible answers to your own question. My own hunch is that the culture encourages either/or thinking (it is easier, for example)and one has to be taught and mindful in thinking of alternatives to either/or. For me, it has been a long struggle and I continue to wrestle with dichotomous thinking.

  4. art

    I thought you’d recognize ‘Pound Laundry’, a little reading about future archeologists excavating ‘Washington’, to illustrate the perils of drawing conclusions on too little evidence. Wesley Culp was the historical person at the center of the filmstrip [yup!;-0] about his return to his birthplace in Gettysburg in a Confederate uniform. These 10-12 filmstrips were examples of ‘moral dilemmas’ faced throughout our past, such as John Adams decision to defend the British soldiers accused in the Boston ‘Massacre.”

    • larrycuban

      I guess there was too much going on at that time, Art. Thanks for the reminder, nonetheless.

      • While much of the discussion here is related to the teaching of History, similar comments could be made about the teaching of Geography.

        Currently, this is exceptionally problematic in Australia where Geography, apart from being an elective subject in the Senior Secondary School curriculum (Years 11 and 12), has not been part of the curriculum of Australian schools for over 30 years. But now it is part of the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Agency’s (ACARA: see for details) ‘world class’ curriculum for all Aussie students (Prep to Year 10) and schools.

        But from where are we to get teachers who know, understand, are skilled in, committed to the subject or at least qualified to teach the New Geography curriculum for Australian Schools. We are 30 years behind the ‘eight-ball’ so to speak.

        Any suggestions or creative solutions?

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for the comment on geography, Robert. Like other academic subjects where teachers are in short supply–math, science in U.S.–administrators scrounge to find anyone with minimum credentials and willingness to teach the subject. This deficit in geography teachers may spur universities to pay more attention. As you can read, I have no suggestions.

  5. JMK

    “We were committed to the idea that ‘history’ is primarily a way of learning and secondarily a body of knowledge”

    See, this is where I part ways. In high school, I believe that history is primarily a body of knowledge. And while I do teach skills, I’m teaching skills that allow my students to better consume that body of knowledge.

    Within that context, I think it’s useful to teach kids that history isn’t just “facts that happen”, but that is definitely secondary for me.

    • larrycuban

      I had thought, Michele, that you wanted the skills within the history content you taught also to be transferred to other subjects, the student’s daily life in negotiating social media, reading and writing non-academic texts, etc. Correct?

      • EB

        I’m with JMK. With one caveat: the knowledge is never that vilified “memorizing of disconnected facts” that is used as a straw dog in many arguments about what and how to teach history. Not at all; the knowledge is a long, varied, fascinating story that is the nuts and bolts of how people coped with their environments and interacted with each other over time. The facts are not disconnected; they form a progression that illustrates change, continuity, conflict, and every other human trait.

        The reason to stress the story (even though our understanding of the story undergoes change as we discover new evidence and varied interpretations of the evidence) is that until you have a decent sense of the main parts of the story — at least for any given part of the world, in any given century or era — you are somewhat disoriented. You do a better job of digging up new evidence and evaluating it if you know the basics. A better grounding in the knowledge makes your skills develop much more powerfully,.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for the comment, Jane.

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