Presenting History to Policymakers: Three Position Papers
Patrick Manning, March 2006
In recent years, professional historians have increasingly recognized the need to present themselves to the public more assertively and to reemphasize the value of their work. Gone are the placid days of the early 20th century, when leading historians could make confident summaries of the nation’s past and its meaning, and expect that they would be implemented in the curricula of the expanding secondary school system. Other interests began to dominate in the schools and the legislatures, and historians lost their central place in the curriculum and their place on the national stage. As Peter Novick amply demonstrated in his remarkable 1988 review of the profession, competition from social studies—among other things—encouraged historians to withdraw to the ivory tower.1 We are now on a long road back from that position of public marginality.
The Teaching Division offers a modest step forward in this direction: three position papers on major aspects of the work of historians, for an audience that will include not only the public at large, but also national legislators and other policymakers. The papers, which address the work of the historical profession, the teaching of world history, and the introductory college courses in history, are printed here for readers of Perspectives to peruse and reflect upon. We would be happy to hear comments from readers, or indeed suggestions for other such briefing papers.
As we move toward the goal of regaining the influence we exercised once, we are in an advantageous position. The extent and sophistication of historical knowledge has advanced greatly. History has become a cosmopolitan, analytical, and subtle field of study, in touch with diverse fields ranging from the humanities to the natural sciences. While historians of today offer neither technological breakthroughs for the future nor immutable truths about the past, they do offer disciplined reflection about the full range of human experience that yields not only pride in the past but a critical guide to the complexities of the present. Society at large is demanding more information about history, and members of the profession are ready to re-enter the public platform and make the case for excellence in the teaching and learning of history.
With great changes facing our nation and our planet, historians can offer essential information for great decisions. In our research and our teaching, we can assist members of society in understanding the pace of conflict and change in the past, to help us develop an informed and critical approach to the challenges of the future. Historians play a central role as guardians and interpreters of human experience, the principal resource on which we rely in making choices for the future.
The AHA, modestly but persistently, has expanded its activities in legislative advocacy and in curricular review for some years. The creation of the National History Center is a major contribution to the public face of the historical profession. The Teaching Division wishes, with these position papers, to facilitate and inform the public discussion of the teaching and learning of history. These three short papers have been prepared in the last two years to expand communication among the historians, legislators, others in public service, and academics and educators with whom we interact. Members of the Teaching Division drafted and revised the papers, with comments from AHA staff, then approved them. We are grateful to R. Bruce Craig, director of the National Coalition for History, for his support and advice as we prepared these documents. We hope they will convey the seriousness of the history profession and especially of its teachers. And we hope they will encourage readers to reflect on the importance of providing adequate support and maintaining adequate standards for the teaching of history.
—Patrick Manning (Northeastern Univ.) is vice president of the AHA’s Teaching Division.
- Briefing Note 1: What Does the Historical Profession Do?
- Briefing Note 2: The Benefits of World History in the Nation’s Schools
- Briefing Note 3: Introductory History Courses in U.S. High Schools and Colleges
The historical profession meets a steadily wider set of public and disciplinary responsibilities, expands the breadth and depth of knowledge of the past, and conserves traditions and resources on the past.
Research. Historical research is highly innovative because it touches on almost all fields of human endeavor, and unifies a wide range of disciplines. Historians address the ecological changes of El Niño, the political challenges of nationalism, new and old waves of economic globalization, patterns of disease, changes in gender roles. Historians use electronic databases and archaeological sites as well as paper and pencil at archives. Recent years have brought major new results, for instance, on life in colonial America, global economic change, and patterns in water use.
School and College Teaching. The teaching of history is undergoing major advances in world history and U.S. history. World history, now taught in schools and colleges in every state, provides a broad but orderly curriculum that brings greater awareness and new analytical skills to students at all levels. The Teaching American History grants are strengthening the skills and resources of thousands of history teachers. The AHA remains deeply concerned, however, that such a large proportion of teachers in history classrooms have no professional training in history: it is difficult for them to get beyond memorization to teach historical knowledge and analysis. Introductory courses and specialized courses at community colleges and four-year colleges convey intermediate knowledge of the past to undergraduate students.
Public History. Over a third of all employment of historians is in government, private business, communications, museums, archives, and as independent scholars. Public historians conserve our archives, prepare museum exhibits, write environmental impact reports, conduct research in government and private firms, write historical books and television scripts for general audiences, and do family and genealogical research. These public historians combine with teachers and university researchers to direct the historical profession.
Graduate study. The nation’s 160 PhD programs and 450 master’s programs prepare professionals for all the above activities. The AHA is leading in an active review and upgrading of graduate education, as shown on the AHA web site. Despite shortage of funds for language study or research trips by graduate students, history graduate programs train graduates who are sophisticated in data collection, interdisciplinary and international connections, and writing analyses of social change over both short and long periods.
History and National Priorities. The newly formed National Center for History has as one of its missions the organizing of historical discussions in the public arena. It will thus help reaffirm the priority for the leaders and citizens of the United States to be historically well informed—about the country’s social and cultural complexity, its interactions with other regions, and its place in global transformations.
World history spread widely through the curriculum of middle schools and high schools in the 1990s. While the expansion of this new and demanding curriculum has required a great deal of professional development for teachers and other adjustments for school districts, the benefits of the new curriculum are considerable, and instruction in world history is deserving of continuing support. Four major benefits of study in world history stand out.
1. World history helps make sense of globalization. The world of today includes instant and global communication, worldwide flows of goods, and crosscultural connections both positive and negative. Yet much of the curriculum is still about simpler days and simpler problems of the past. World history helps students to see how the connections among peoples and regions have grown out of our earlier, simpler lives.
2. World history demonstrates our expanding knowledge about the past. World history is more than an assemblage of local histories; it includes the interplay of localities with global patterns. Professional historians have been developing important new information on many areas of the past, including new information from the natural and social sciences. New understanding of the global changes in the economy, environment, migrations, and politics confirms that our knowledge of the past is growing. World history, because of the breadth of its information, helps to integrate the school curriculum.
3. World history shows links of the United States to the rest of the world. World history in early times shows the developments of all the areas of the world before the United States came into existence. In recent times, world history shows the global connections of the American Revolution, the worldwide connections of both slavery and the industrial economy, and the emerging global leadership of the United States. At the same time, world history shows how much the United States shares with other countries in national identity, education, and multicultural communities.
4. World history sustains citizenship. Studies of world history reveal the ways that individuals in the past have participated in local communities, nations, and empires, and how they have influenced the wider world. The study of individuals in the past—the variety of their situations, their perspectives, and their destinies—confirms the importance of citizenship as a factor in history. Citizens of today make their decisions on responsible actions through combining their understanding of past and present.
High schools and colleges in the United States offer three kinds of history courses that are intended as introductions, surveys, general education offerings, or mass-enrollment, non-specialized courses. These are courses in American history, Western civilization, and world history. In high schools these courses are offered in different combinations and sequences from the 9th to 12th grades. In colleges, they are generally offered in the first two years.
These three courses share similar goals. All provide narratives and information that help students locate themselves in their time, country, and world. All train students in civic awareness and responsibility by engaging them in issues that transcend their immediate surroundings. All help students develop their capacities to synthesize information, weigh evidence, evaluate points of view, and think analytically.
The three courses have been integrated into the history curriculum at different times and under different auspices. American history courses emerged in the 19th century as the chief vehicle to teach national identity and civic responsibility to a nation of immigrants in the world’s first experiment in mass education. Western civilization courses originated at colleges and universities struggling with the implications of new American Atlantic commitments between World Wars I and II. World history courses developed in response to the needs of Americans facing a new wave of globalization since the 1960s.
Despite these different origins, however, today all three courses prepare students for a future in the same complex, interconnected world. The same forces that have made the study of world history the fastest growing area of research and teaching in the profession have also shaped courses in American history and Western civilization in recent years. Thus, courses in American history increasingly study Native Americans as well as Europeans; French, Spanish, and other British colonial societies for comparative perspective; the American Revolution as model and manifestation of a wider Atlantic upheaval; the building of nation and economy as part of Western industrialization; and the expansion of America’s global role in the context of international challenges. Western civilization, once limited to Italy and the northwest corner of the continent, now embraces “new Europe,” replaces national narratives with European ones, compares the experiences of the West and Byzantine worlds, and understands European history in the context of Islamic civilization, Mongol expansion, and an emerging global economy. Even world history, or world civilization, courses have become more global in recent years, seeking to encompass as well the history of the Americas and the story of the United States.
That all three of the history introductory courses attempt to prepare students for the shrinking world of the 21st century is a sign of our times. If all students took all three courses, they would gain strength in historical knowledge and especially in analyzing multiple perspectives. Unfortunately, however, most college students take no more than a single course in history. They choose among these three. Each course must therefore prepare them for the challenges and responsibilities Americans will confront in the future.