The following posts are drawn from my forthcoming book on “Teaching History Then and Now: Stability and Change in Urban High Schools” (Harvard Education Press). If readers want specific citations and pages for quotes, contact me and I will send them the citations.
Both participants and researchers have told the story behind the 1995 U.S. Senate vote of 99-1 in favor of a resolution condemning new history standards produced by historians, curriculum specialists, and teachers.
Senator Slade Gorton (WA) summed up the essence of the conflict over what content from the past should students learn by asking his colleagues:
Is it a more important part of our Nation’s history for our children to study—George Washington or Bart Simpson?….With this set of standards, our students will not be expected to know George Washington from the man in the Moon. According to this set of standards, American democracy rests on the same moral footing as the Soviet Union’s totalitarian dictatorship.
Rush Limbaugh, popular radio show host, chimed in with his rebuke of the standards’ focus on historical thinking and interpreting the past by telling his listeners: “History is real simple. You know what history is? It’s what happened.” The authors of the standards, he went on, “try to skew history” by saying “Well, let’s interpret what happened because we can’t find the truth in facts…. So let’s change the interpretation a little bit so that it will be the way we wished it were.”
What Gorton and Limbaugh wanted students to learn was a commemorative version of the past—the familiar “heritage” view–rather than one where students apply historical thinking. Historian Gary Nash and colleagues stated the issue this way:
Should classrooms emphasize the continuing story of America’s struggle to form a ‘more perfect union,’ a narrative that involved a good deal of jostling, elbowing, and bargaining among contending groups? A story that included political tumult, labor strife, racial conflict, and civil war? Or should the curriculum focus on successes, achievements, and ideals, on stories designed to infuse young Americans with patriotism and sentiments of loyalty toward prevailing institutions, traditions, and values?
Nash and his colleagues who drafted the standards wanted content invested with historical thinking skills (e.g., grasp of chronology, differentiating between facts and interpretations, analyzing sources, considering multiple perspectives) and students crafting meaning from the past. Or as a sympathetic U.S. Congressman put it: “History isn’t like math where two plus two equals four. It’s a lot more than facts, and they don’t always add up to the same sum.”
Those who created the New History Standards also wanted students to be patriotic but not in the traditional sense of unquestioned loyalty to the U.S. They wanted, according to scholar Joel Westheimer, a “democratic patriotism” that saw the past as a struggle to put constitutional and Judeo-Christian ideals into practice.
Or as teacher union leader Al Shanker, a member of one group who advised Nash and his colleagues, put it:
The struggle to define our democracy still continues and it will as long as our country does. It has helped turn abstract principles like equity, justice, individual rights and equality of opportunity into political movements, laws, programs, and institutions—concrete things. And if our children walk away from an American history course without understanding this, the history they have studied is a travesty.
The conflict over what students need to know and how they should study the past and its political purpose—citizenship transmission–is, of course, a familiar conflict fought by earlier generations of historians, teachers, and voters. Another way to capture those conflicting traditions of teaching, ones evident in the New Social Studies of the 1960s and occurring again in the 1990s, is to consolidate the contending ways of teaching into the heritage and historical approaches to creating a usable past for students to learn.
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.” 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, Abraham Lincoln, 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— recall Senator Slade Gorton–pundits –recall Rush Limbaugh– textbook authors, and teachers, the heritage purpose comes close to an official story encased in state standards with knowledge aimed at inspiring pride in the U.S., loyalty toward country, and achieving the overall purpose of inculcating “good” citizenship.”
In mapping out those competing strategies for teaching history evident during the New Social Studies in the 1960s, champions of the heritage approach sought to transmit their version of citizenship. The key word is “transmit” which often is translated to mean teacher lecture, student note-taking and teacher-directed lessons. The fact, however, is that “transmitting” citizenship can mean using different pedagogical approaches in classroom lessons. That diversity in pedagogies became clear during a decade of federally funded Teaching American History grants.
The heritage strategy became official federal policy in 2001 with the passage of Teaching American History legislation sponsored by Senator Robert Byrd (WVA). The law made available over $120 million dollars a year in TAH grants to universities and school districts to teach U.S. history and improve student achievement. As the Federal Register put it:
Students who know and appreciate the great ideas of American history are more likely to understand and exercise their civic rights and responsibilities. Their understanding of traditional American history will be enhanced if teachers make the study of history more exciting, interesting, and engaging. Students need teachers who have a thorough understanding of American history as a separate subject within the core curriculum, and incorporate into their teaching effective strategies to help students learn.
With over a thousand TAH grants made in nearly a decade costing almost $900 million, many universities and school districts worked with thousands of veteran and novice teachers across the country. Anecdotally, teachers gave positive marks to university professors increasing their historical knowledge and opportunities to develop lessons in summer and yearlong TAH programs. When it comes to evaluating these decade-long efforts, however, the verdict was damning. The external evaluators examined 16 programs. They found no evidence that these programs raised student achievement, or that teachers used their class-friendly lessons that they had developed after they returned to their schools or that project directors created district networks of teachers to implement lessons.
But the heritage approach has then and now contended with the historical approach. History is not a single account of the past but many accounts. The goal is to equip students with the intellectual and academic 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 closely read and analyze sources.
In history classrooms, it means that students investigate the past through different sources and produce stories and analyses from many accounts consistent with the evidence they have before them. In doing so, students gain skills of sniffing out biased sources, evaluating documents, and 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 telegram that yesteryear has wired to the present. In short, they become historically literate.
This historical approach was integrated into those standards denounced by the U.S. Senate and eventually junked in the mid-1990s. So unlike the purpose of transmitting a national story that heightens students’ appreciation of country, the historical approach combines the purposes of working as historians do and engaging in reflective inquiry. Champions of the historical approach claimed that they helped students become “good” citizens. Of course, these competing aims in teaching history are an incarnation of that paradox facing public schools of having both to conserve community beliefs, values, and traditions and simultaneously prepare student with the knowledge and skills to change those very same traditions, values, and beliefs.
The resounding defeat of the New History Standards in 1995 was hardly the end of the tensions between the heritage and historical approaches in teaching children and youth. An echo of that media-hyped conflict was heard in 2014 after the Educational Testing Service (ETS) announced that it had revised the “Framework and Examination” for the Advanced Placement United States History course. Keep in mind that AP courses in history exemplify the historical approach to teaching the subject with students handling primary sources (“document-based questions”), interpreting facts and writing accounts that interpret the past.
In Jefferson County, Colorado’s second largest school district, school board members Julie Williams and her colleagues, part of a politically conservative majority elected to the school board in 2013, objected to the new ETS “Framework” for the AP course in U.S. history; the school board voted to have their own homegrown AP course for 10th graders. The Williams-led majority on the five-member board said that the AP Framework “rejects the history that has been taught in the country for generations. It has an emphasis on race, gender, class, ethnicity, grievance and American-bashing while simultaneously omitting the most basic structural and philosophical elements considered essential to the understanding of American History for generations.” Instead an AP U.S. history course needs to “present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage” and “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system.”
The board action triggered protests from over 1,000 students who walked out of their schools over a 10-day period protesting what they and supportive parents called censorship of content taught in schools. Heated school board meetings where parents on different sides of the issue tangled and raw feelings about the proper content for the course in U.S. history erupted throughout the county.
The Jefferson County protests have died down. No “war” erupted. The conservative majority on the school board backed away from dumping the revised AP course and substituting another one that taught the benefits of “free enterprise” and “patriotism.” But the incident reveals anew that the heritage approach to history content remains alive among voters, taxpayers, parents, teachers, and students.
Part 2 describes the onset of another national effort to engage U.S. students in the historical approach to studying the past.