Tearing Down Walls and Building Bridges: Creating a Local History Community
Robert Cassanello, April 2001
From the Noteworthy column in the April 2001 Perspectives
The May 2000 issue of Perspectives questioned the role or responsibility we have to the general public as professional historians. While we clearly have a role in the public sphere, I believe that we also have a responsibility to the local social studies secondary education community as well. To its credit, the profession has engaged in dialogue concerning the role historians in academe can play in precollegiate education, but that dialogue has been dominated by the struggle for consensus over the national and state history standards between representatives of the profession and reactionary nonacademics. While this debate is important to the profession and it places us in an influential position concerning curriculum development on the national and state level, we should also focus attention on our local communities, specifically our responsibility to our local-area high school social studies departments.
Throughout the past decade, professional education associations as well as many state lawmakers have been addressing the decline in the effectiveness of current education standards by requiring future teachers to have greater depth in their subject area. In response to this, more colleges and universities are beginning to shift the responsibility of advising and training social studies education students to history departments. As this trend becomes more popular, we will find ourselves enjoying a greater role in determining exactly how history is taught in our surrounding high schools. This becomes even more a factor for those of us at commuter colleges and universities, since many of our students will likely move on to teach in a school of secondary education within the local community. If adequately handled, this shift could be a positive move in two ways for a struggling history department under attack from low enrollment. First, it will increase the number of history majors who would have previously majored in social studies education, and second, it can give history departments a greater influence in how history is taught within the local community, thus elevating the importance of the contribution that the departments make to their local communities.
Unfortunately, there has hitherto been a phantom wall between history teachers in universities and social studies teachers in schools. In the past, many departments have trained undergraduate history majors to be graduate students, and have left the methods, theory, and practice of history education to the colleges of education. As we concentrate our efforts on professional conferences and research, we mostly keep our ties with students who trained in our own image and who eventually move on to graduate school, while we generally lose touch with former students who go on to teach in the local high schools. In turn, this ties those high school teachers closer to their departments of education than to their history departments. This reinforces an imaginary divide between teachers of history in higher education and secondary education. This imaginary divide comes full circle when we have students in our introductory classes who have been taught outmoded interpretations and given outdated information, primarily because their social studies teachers have lost their connection (or were never encouraged to keep a connection) with the profession.
Several universities have, however, begun to tear down this invisible wall that separates their history teachers from the local-area social studies teachers. With the lead of National History Day (located at the University of Maryland at College Park), places like the University of Missouri have become active participants in local History Day celebrations and competitions. Not only do the University of Memphis and the University of South Dakota sponsor local History Day competitions, but they also sponsor institutes, seminars, and workshops for local-area social studies teachers and their students, thus building a bridge to the local-area high schools and extending their influence to the surrounding local education community.
Here in Birmingham, we have taken on a similar role through a grant from an organization of the local-area colleges and universities (Miles College, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Samford University, University of Montevallo, and Birmingham Southern College) called the Birmingham Area Consortium of Higher Education (BACHE). In May 2000, we sponsored a teaching conference for local-area high school social studies teachers. The theme of the conference was "Incorporating Multiculturalism in the Daily Curriculum." We had representatives from eight local-area high schools attend as well as six presenters from BACHE faculty member institutions. Our mission was twofold. First, we wanted to take a role in improving teacher education by exposing teachers to the ways they can cover multicultural issues on a regular basis rather than, for example, just during Black History Month or through the biographies of individuals. Second, we wanted to create a wider social studies community and support system, so that if local teachers wanted advice or answers to their questions, they would have a local scholar to contact, and if our departments and divisions sponsored programs or guest speakers, we would have a way to invite local social studies teachers and their students. While these goals were quite clearly ambitious for the first year, we were, nevertheless, able to create a foundation to build upon in the future.
Even though attendance was limited to a few schools this first time, reaction from the participants was quite positive. From the feedback, we learned that the participants were able to utilize the curriculum suggestions presented. Some participants not only stated that they were pleased that local scholars took interest in helping them improve their craft but also invited some of us to their classrooms to meet and talk to their students during the next school year. We also found that some participants wanted us to provide them with future conferences concerning how to constructively incorporate sexuality and gender issues into the classroom, which of course we were delighted to hear, since many of us cover these same issues in our own classes and had thought these issues would hold no interest for high school teachers or possibly be too taboo a subject for them to even consider. No only did we offer curriculum guidance for our participants, but we also gained a greater understanding of how history is being taught in the local area.
For local-area scholars this effort is important for building bridges and connecting to the public. For a place like Birmingham, with five commuter schools, conferences such as this can help foster a continuity in education from high school to college that is quite clearly lacking presently. As the responsibility of teacher education shifts to academic departments and with the public debate about whether our teachers are grounded in their subject matter, it is imperative that history departments become proactive in this effort and extend their reach well beyond the campus.
—Robert Cassanello is assistant professor of history at Miles College in Birmingham, Alabama.