History, Memory, Research, and the Schools: A Report on the Pittsburgh Conference

Peter Seixas, Peter Stearns, and Sam Wineburg, March 1999

The complex entanglement of history and memory has recently been recognized as a key issue for historians. It has sparked interest in commemoration, museum displays, historical fiction, and popular film, to mention only a few. Informed by Halbwachs's notion of a history of memory and by Pierre Nora's lieux de memoire, historians have focused a scholarly gaze on virtually every practice where nonhistorians invoke, narrate, or display representations of the past. Historians' interest in what David Lowenthal has called heritage (in contrast to history) has never been greater. Moreover, as they engage in these practices, they find themselves crossing disciplinary lines, using reception theory from cultural studies, working next to anthropologists, and confronting epistemological issues thrust upon them by philosophers and literary critics. In North America, however, there is one gaping hole in this broad scrutiny of memory practices outside of the academy: the teaching and learning of history in the schools.

It could plausibly be argued that schools are the major site for the construction of collective memory in contemporary society. With universal, compulsory schooling, and mandatory history classes for at least some years of that schooling, the entire population is exposed to school accounts of the past during formative, impressionable years. Prima facie, schools must have considerably more impact on collective memory than, say, the construction of the past by museums and through monuments. But historians have generally been drawn more to the latter than the former as objects of scholarly study. Perhaps, even in this era when the texts of low culture—from comic books and popular romance to TV sitcoms and theme parks—attract their share of scholarly interpretation, schools still remain uncomfortably beyond the fashionable pale.

Alternatively, the reasons for this relative neglect may be due to a more significant problem than the low status accorded to precollegiate education. Perhaps the problem is that historians fail to see what happens in elementary and high school history as a memory project, as heritage. In other words, historians may prefer to understand the subject of school history less as practice of public memory than as the first steps toward a critical, disciplinary practice of history. Herein lies an interesting conundrum: Is school history primarily an uncritical heritage exercise—again, in Lowenthal's terms—meant to convey a particular version of the past? Or is it an elementary version of the critical, disciplinary history that some will encounter in undergraduate or graduate programs, meant to prepare young people to think critically about the past and its legacy for the present? Of course, it bears some elements of each, and in different teachers' hands can be molded into one or the other.

While historians' recent spate of work on history and memory has only rarely addressed school history head on, academics in related fields have undertaken research that has a lot to say about these questions. Under the auspices of the American Historical Association, a small number of these scholars met recently with historians and teachers to discuss the issues of history and memory in the schools. Funded by the Spencer Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the Pittsburgh Conference on Teaching, Learning, and Knowing History started with discussions on fundamental epistemological and historiographic issues. The three-day invitational colloquium then moved deliberately to consider recent research on teaching and learning history and the state of history education reform. The implications for teaching and learning history in schools, as well as in undergraduate, graduate, and teacher education programs, were addressed throughout the sessions. The colloquium was organized around 22 precirculated papers, which will be revised and published by New York University Press.

Choices, Beliefs, and Understanding

In recent years, one central debate about history in the schools has galvanized around the National Standards: which history should be taught? Papers from Gary Nash and Ross Dunn (both active contributors to the U.S. National Standards) set the context. But the colloquium discussion did not reenact the controversy of the last several years. Rather, it examined a question that lay underneath that controversy: What is the relationship between exposure to particular narratives of national (or world) development on the one hand, and the learning of disciplinary practices and habits of mind on the other?

Participants acknowledged that all teaching of history—like all study of history—involves choice and selection. The question then becomes on what grounds choices are made. The colloquium discussion insightfully sketched the outlines of a resolution to the dilemma: One cannot avoid choices, one cannot simply "include more." But one can make explicit the criteria for choices of inclusion, and those criteria can themselves be the subject of teachers' and students' discussions. While historians make these choices consciously, teachers often proceed without a forum for deliberation and students, too often, assume that their task is simply to learn what has been taught.

Shaping Understanding

A second fundamental issue that emerged from the papers involved the role of history in what some called "the identity project." How do beliefs about the past, including unconscious projection, shape "everyperson's" understanding of themselves and the contemporary world? Cultural psychologist James Wertsch distinguished between belief and knowledge about the past, drawing from his research on historical consciousness in Estonia during the collapse of the Soviet regime. He found that people could store elaborate constructions of "official" history while actually deeply believing alternative, oppositional accounts of the past. The latter, though often less coherent, contributed more to identity formation and moral and political outlook.

Beliefs about the past were the subject of two large-scale research projects: Roy Rosenzweig spoke about his (and David Thelen's) survey of over 1,000 American adults, and Bodo von Borries discussed the European "Youth and History" project, which surveyed 32,000 students in 27 countries. Other studies examined young people's beliefs at closer range. History education researcher Linda Levstik found a mismatch between students' beliefs about historical significance and the events and issues that teachers felt prepared to take up in class. She and others underscored the potential of building on students' beliefs, to make history education a more potent contribution to a contemporary identity project.

The task of understanding students' beliefs and understandings met with universal support from colloquium participants. Studies by educational psychologists Sam Wineburg, Gaea Leinhardt, and James Voss, among others, showed that these beliefs cover a wide range of issues, not all of which are immediately obvious, including what historical sources to believe, how to handle conflicting sources, and the nature of historical argument. But what to do with students' beliefs generated some important differences.

On the one hand, Rosenzweig celebrated his respondents' "intimate uses of the past" and Levstik favored students' "vernacular" version of history in contrast to "'official' views justifying the contemporary social structure." On the other hand, the British participants, veterans of the widely influential Schools History Project of the 1970s and 1980s, downplayed the "identity project" as a variant on Oakeshott's "practical past."

History education researchers Peter Lee and Rosalyn Ashby, for example, focused on students' developing sophistication in handling conflicts among differing historical accounts. They advocated a view of learning history as "coming to grips with a discipline." The aim of their research is ultimately to help schools enhance students' historical thinking. In this, they recall Lowenthal, who noted the "sustained effort and judgement" required by history. Similarly, Wineburg has distinguished the difficult and act" of history from students' facile beliefs about the past.

Between Collective Memory and Critical History

The problem with this approach is that school history has a hard time avoiding present political purposes. Given the inherent moral implications of any historical narrative, insofar as school history engages with and shapes a collective memory, it is inherently fractious in a diverse society, whether the agenda is focused on national progress, the struggle for human rights, ethnic identity, or something else. And so a third underlying issue for the colloquium was the question of the political purposes of history education. This question always threatens to push fine-grained history education research to the sidelines, as conflicting political purposes for the teaching of history are much more easily understood, deeply felt, and reducible to the media soundbite. Participants in the colloquium were able to examine the problem one step removed, in historian Desmond Morton's review of history education in Canada. Quebec school history, he reported, is alive and well. Yet those who are pushing history as a means to foster Canadian unity outside of Quebec do not necessarily regard this as good news. He questioned whether they—or, for that matter, teachers, parents, or the public in general—could get excited about a disciplinary approach to historical thinking, one which fosters caution rather than passion, critique rather than celebration. The view from Canada, like those from the United Kingdom and Europe, offered an important comparative view for the conference participants.

Peter Seixas introduced a third paradigm to this dichotomy between collective memory and critical, disciplinary history. He asked whether postmodernist perspectives offered any theoretical contributions to history curriculum for the schools. Although postmodernist theory opens a way for students to understand the relationship between the narratives about the past and the political interests of those who construct them in the present, he remained wary about the side effects of a regimen of pedagogical postmodernism, including problems of excessive relativism and nihilism.

Recommendations for Reform

These three relationships, between learning particular accounts and learning the discipline, between historical knowledge and historical belief, and between history education and the political motives that lie behind its presence in the school curriculum, informed not only the conference research reports, but also the reports and recommendations on practice. Christine Gutierrez, whose teaching practice has been deeply affected by her school's location in South Central Los Angeles, drew attention to the community within the school and the community beyond and their implications for the teaching and learning of history. Passionate political conviction underlay both her own teaching, and what she was trying to foster in students. Robert Bain, using his experience in the high school history classroom and knowledge of history education research, explored what it meant to be a "scholar of history teaching." He showed how history education research, informed by cognitive science and cultural psychology, had shaped what he did in his own classroom and how his classroom generated questions and opportunities for further history education research.

Like those of Gutierrez and Bain, several other papers described innovations that might serve as models for deeper historical thinking among students and clearer direction for teachers. History education researcher Veronica Boix Mansilla noted that the links that students made between historical and contemporary events were often simplistic, if not altogether mistaken. Comparisons between past and present are fraught with difficulty, and yet it is hard—and undesirable—to avoid them. Boix Mansilla presented four explicit criteria on which to judge students' analogies and thus to guide them toward more complex, tentative, and generative analogies between historical events and those in the present.

In a similar way, Peter Stearns identified particular tasks of historical analysis—including intercultural comparison, theory testing, and assessment of historical change—that students encounter in his undergraduate world history course. These tasks require understandings that college instructors frequently either neglect or assume that students already possess. Stearns argued that these must be defined explicitly as curricular goals, broken down into smaller, manageable components, tested often, and measured over time. By so doing, he helps students to progress more quickly in a mastery of the discipline.

Psychologist Charles Perfetti's computer program, "The Sourcer's Apprentice," helps high school students to read and interpret historical documents in ways closer to those practiced by historians. Perfetti's work stands out in that it draws on the core insights of cognitive scientists working in domains other than history. But, like each of the teaching innovations presented at the conference, Perfetti's program rested on a more explicit definition of the tasks involved in historical reading, thinking, and writing than is customarily entertained in history curricula and classrooms. Only with such definition can learning history be systematically advanced beyond the simple accumulation in memory of more historical facts.

But these innovations cannot stand on their own as a reform program: they require broader structures of support. One of the key avenues of reform of the teaching of history, if it is to come, will be in teacher education. Diane Ravitch's quantitative study noted the history-poor backgrounds of many of the nation's social studies teachers. But any call for more undergraduate history courses for future teachers must have as a corollary a commitment to investigate what actually goes on in those courses. Further, researchers need to question what kinds of connections students make between their undergraduate history education and their tasks of teaching in the schools. Aiming to make the processes underlying these connections explicit and at the same time to ensure that they took place, G. Williamson McDiarmid provided an account of a history teaching methods course taught collaboratively by a historian and himself, a teacher educator. The project generated a dynamic and productive interplay between the disciplinary knowledge and procedures on the one hand and pedagogical considerations on the other.

Successful reform, however, will be broad and multifaceted. Much energy has been devoted to the articulation of standards at the national, state, and local levels. Equally important, and less well-developed at the present moment, are assessments that will measure what students do and provide opportunities for teachers to talk about their practice. There will need to be new classroom materials not only in the form of new textbooks like those from the Schools History Project and document collections like those being produced by Nash's National Center for History Education, but also in electronic forms like that being pioneered by Rosenzweig's History Matters web site. Shelly Weintraub's presentation to the colloquium, on the Oakland School District's history education reform efforts, gave a glimpse of what an interlocking set of reform initiatives might look like—at the local, district level, in any case—tying together professional development, history standards, materials development, and student assessment.

Finding Consensus

In a colloquium representing national, ideological, institutional, and disciplinary diversity, drawing people from departments of psychology, education, and history, from schools, district administration, and teacher education, was there any consensus? On a number of points, we think there was.

  • First, we shared a sense of the productivity—potential, if not fully realized in Pittsburgh—of talking across each of these divisions. Almost every paper exemplified this productivity, and certainly the colloquium discussions did. This is not to say that the discussions were without challenge. In particular, talking across disciplinary divides raised problems of vocabulary and outlook that we only began to explore.
  • Secondly, we shared a common sense of the opportune moment, derived from at least two—and possibly more—broad intellectual sources. Psychology's cognitive revolution has called for the need to attend to young people's ideas, their structures of understanding, and their processes of conceptual change. This movement provided the context for the involvement of all of the psychologists, the educators, and some of the historians. On the other hand, the historiographic revolution of the past few decades (within which the work of all the historians present had flourished) provided the sense of opportunity for all of the historians and some of the psychologists. Together, the two movements generate a powerful dynamic.
  • Third, we shared a sense of the complexity of issues in history education. In contrast to the colloquium discussions, the public debates over the U.S. History Standards appeared to occupy only one layer of a multilevel set of issues. Participants recognized the importance of articulating the contending purposes of history education; the relation between history in the schools, public memory, and disciplinary history; students' beliefs about the past and the relation of those beliefs to their own identities; the processes of conceptual change and growth in historical understanding; and the multiple avenues through which educational change might be sought. Which history should be taught is only one (albeit important) question among many.
  • Fourth, if we were to search for a simple way to differentiate the educational agenda of the colloquium participants, in contrast to the status quo in history education, it might be articulated in the words of Denis Shemilt, the British history educator responsible for the evaluation of the Schools History Project. He noted that we sought both a deep understanding of the past and a deep understanding of history. That is, students should gain facility with understanding the variety, the difference, the strangeness of life in the past; the interplay of continuity and change; the multiple causes and consequences of events and trends; the role of individuals, collectivities, and states; and so on. But they should also understand the processes of knowledge-making, the construction of a historical narrative or argument, the uses of evidence, and the nature of conflicting historical accounts. This second level of understanding acts as the best insurance against dogmatic transmission of a single version of the past, a practice that violates the core tenets of the discipline.
  • Fifth, participants shared a sense that history is one special and specialized practice in a whole array of what we might call memory practices. Awareness of this should help us to situate the particular tasks of teaching history in the schools, where the public's and the politicians' desire for a reinforcement of tradition and memory will continue to compete with critical, disciplinary history for space on the curricular agenda.

All of the participants exemplified and shared what both Robert Bain and Lee Shulman (representing the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching) discussed as a scholarship of history teaching. As scholars of history teaching, we were working toward a deep and considered understanding. Whether this understanding would yield immediate solutions to particular problems of instruction was not a question on which all else hinged: as Shulman pointed out, nobody expects historians' scholarship to yield immediate solutions to problems of state and society. Educational scholarship should be seen in the same light. Its purpose is to broaden perspectives and deepen discussion. The Pittsburgh Conference on Teaching, Learning, and Knowing History unquestionably accomplished this goal.

Further Reading

Carretero, Mario, and James F. Voss, eds. Cognitive and Instructional Processes in History and the Social Sciences. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994.

Levstik, Linda S., and Keith C. Barton. Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle Schools. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997.

Stearns, Peter. Meaning over Memory: Recasting the Teaching of Culture and History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Wineburg, Samuel S., ed. "The Teaching and Learning of History." Educational Psychologist 29:2 (spring 1996).

—Peter Seixas teaches at the University of British Columbia; Peter Stearns teaches at Carnegie Mellon University where he is also dean of academic affairs; and Sam Wineburg teaches at the University of Washington.