Historians and the Public(s)
The Struggle for History at the Precollegiate Level
John Pyne, May 2000
The precollegiate history classroom has become much more than a place where minds meet to consider historical questions. Teachers continue to be pressed to accommodate a broad range of competing agendas from numerous groups promoting their own ideas of the relationship between history and the public good. These efforts often occur beyond the view of many historians, but the outcome of these struggles determines the knowledge students will bring to college—and to their roles as citizens. Professional historians need to be aware of the interactions between the public and precollegiate history.
Although history has remained a core academic subject at the precollegiate level, the discipline is in trouble because in recent efforts to define that core, history is often submerged under the amorphous general heading of "social studies," a frequently agenda-driven category of study. From this perspective, history is presented as mere background for studying contemporary policy issues, or sidetracked altogether into a nebulous amalgam of present-minded and special-interest courses emphasizing the learning and development of attitudes, values, and useful skills such as consumer education, environmental studies, substance abuse, conflict resolution, and self-esteem education. Furthermore, some social studies educators deprecate the teaching of history itself for three major reasons: (1) they regard it as "pastology," and therefore irrelevant to today's students; (2) they feel it "squeezes out" the other social sciences while providing students with a limited and provincial way of viewing and resolving societal issues and problems; and (3) they believe it is essentially "boring," placing a premium on names and dates—"one damn fact after another"—while emphasizing the role and significance of a power elite of mostly dead white males. In state after state, such educators have fought the inclusion of more history in the K–12 curriculum.1
The pressures from this quarter affect personnel as well as curricular issues. It is not necessary to study history in order to be certified as a social studies teacher in many states. Over a quarter of secondary school teachers nationwide have no major or minor in the subject they are teaching, including over 50 percent in history and science. While two-thirds of high school teachers have majored in an academic field, only 44 percent of middle school teachers and 22 percent of elementary teachers have majored in an academic field. The certification issue is vital because it has been estimated that over the next 10 years the nation will need to hire two million new teachers—200,000 every year—a number greater than the population of 16 states and the equivalent of "having to replace every doctor in the United States two and a half times over."2
Another area where academic historians need to inject their voices is the setting of history/social studies standards in several states. Advocates of the new state standards and assessments also challenge the efforts of teachers to present history in the classroom. In 1996 and 1999 the nation's governors, along with prominent business and educational leaders, met at a National Education Summit in Palisade, New York. Chaired by Louis Gerstner, chair and CEO of IBM, and Governor Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, the National Education Summit leaders lamented the mediocre education most public school students are reported to be receiving, and outlined several policies for the states to institute, including developing more stringent academic standards, state assessments, and accountability systems. By the time of the 1999 National Educational Summit, 45 states had adopted standards in the core academic areas of English, mathematics, science, and history/social studies, while four others are presently developing such standards. Only Iowa has failed to join the bandwagon. Thirty-six states presently issue a report card measuring the performance of each school based on a variety of indicators. Twenty-four states have mandated high-stakes tests that students must pass in order to receive a high school diploma, while three additional states plan to do so in the next several years. In addition, six states have instituted policies to end social promotion in the earlier grades.3
Many states, however, have experienced difficulty developing standards and assessments in the fields of history/social studies due to a number of factors, including (1) conflicts over the goals and objectives of a sound history/social studies program, specifically the significance of history in the social studies curriculum; (2) debates between advocates of content- and process-oriented approaches to study; (3) political pressures resulting from efforts to assuage public perceptions of widespread educational failure in our public schools and its perceived threats to our country's economic future and well-being; and (4) fiscal and political controversies over how the states might best "raise the academic bar" and provide their students a "world-class" education. Yet, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) continues to report that many state standards, especially in the fields of history/social studies, are clearly lacking in clarity, specificity, and, most important, content.4
History reforms have been so controversial that many educators want to further reduce the role of history. They regard history as an elitist subject for the college-bound and believe it is far better to teach students practical skills such as how to complete a job application, balance a checkbook, or fill out a tax return.
What does the public want? Despite pressures to drop or alter historical study from some quarters and the present inability to achieve a consensus concerning the overarching themes of history, parents largely want to retain history in the classroom—but not necessarily address themes regarded as central by historians.5 Research from interviews by Public Agenda in 1998—with over 800 parents, including 200 immigrant parents, all with children in school—provides an account of how the public views our nation, its history, and how they would like that history taught in our schools.6 While the parents in the random sample exhibited "serious gaps in knowledge about the nation's history," they were overwhelmingly in agreement (90 percent) that the United States is an "exceptional" country, far better than most, and they want their children to learn this in school. Eighty-nine percent of the parents believe "there's too much attention paid to what separates us and not enough to what we have in common."7 In addition, parents of all demographic groups clearly favor the teaching of "traditional" history, especially the conventional ideals and stories of what it means to be an "American." While 69 percent "think the schools should teach students about the holidays and traditions of different cultures from around the world," 87 percent of the parents "think that given the great diversity in the background of kids today, it is more important than ever for the public schools to teach all kids the history of our Founding Fathers and how this country was created." Moreover, a majority of the parents—72 percent—responded "that it is absolutely essential for the public schools to teach kids practical skills such as how to balance a checkbook or write a resume."8 Overwhelmingly, the parents favored a return to "consensus" history and eschewed the emphasis on conflict in our past. While it is important for schools to respect diversity and teach students to esteem all groups, parents believe it is equally important for the schools to teach their children about American heroes, traditions, and beliefs. The fact that the parents' view of our nation's history is often at odds with current historiography leads to increased pressure on teachers to conform to a view of history at odds with what they know.
The search for ideal solutions is affected by the great diversity of ability present in the classroom. A 1999 poll by the Albert Shanker Institute noted that almost 75 percent of teachers nationwide and over 90 percent of administrators favor higher standards to improve student achievement.9 But teachers and administrators are also concerned about what happens to those students unable to meet the more stringent demands. In recent months there has been a backlash against high-stakes testing that often penalizes students for what they have not been taught. Educators are concerned about increased dropout rates for students who fail the high-stakes tests. Additionally, there is widespread fear that students are being overtested, especially younger students, and that states rely too much on standardized, multiple-choice type tests that emphasize one right answer and place a premium on "nickel knowledge."
In schools across the country, teachers deal with a variety of pressures from parents, politicians, and community leaders, especially in regard to what to teach in the history/social studies classroom. Academic standards in the fields of history and social studies remain hotly contested at the local and state levels. But the failure of historians to participate in the debate has left the field to social studies educators, many of whom are opposed to history as the core of the social studies curriculum at the precollegiate level. In addition, it has resulted in politicians, educators, and business representatives, often with little background in history, determining what will be taught in our nation's classrooms. Historians need to be actively involved on an ongoing basis in efforts to reform social studies by increasing its history content and by better training social studies teachers to improve the quality of history teaching in the schools.10
—John Pyne teaches in the West Milford Township Public Schools, New Jersey.
1. Representative examples of the hostility to history on the part of some social studies educators may be found in Handbook on Teaching Social Issues, NCSS Bulletin 93, edited by Ronald W. Evans and David Saxe (Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies, 1996), especially the essays by Wilma Longstreet, pp. 317–26, and Ronald W. Evans, pp. 152–60; and, Kevin D. Vinson, "National Curriculum Standards and Social Studies Education: Dewey, Freire, Foucault, and the Construction of a Radical Critique," Theory & Research in Social Education 27 (summer 1999), 296–328.
2. Laurie Lewis, et al., Teacher Quality: A Report on the Preparation and Qualifications of Public School Teachers (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1999), iii–vi, 1–20; 1999 National Educational Summit: Briefing Book (New York: Achieve, Inc., 1999), 15–17, 37, 40, quotation from p. 37. Most teachers lack the high-quality professional development they need to remain current in their field. Many states are presently revising their rules for teacher certification in areas like history and social studies, as well as providing additional resources for professional development, yet the voice of academic historians is virtually absent from the discourse in both arenas.
3. 1999 National Educational Summit: Briefing Book, 1–12. In his keynote address at the opening of the 1999 Summit on September 30, for example, Louis Gerstner noted that "half of all our 17-year olds leave school without the math and reading skills to land a job in a modern automobile plant." Furthermore, he noted the results of a recent survey by the American Management Association of more than 1,000 companies, which "found that more than one-third of job applicants are turned away because they do not have the math and reading skills they need to do the jobs they seek." Three years earlier, according to the survey, the figure was only 19 percent. For Gerstner's keynote, see http://www.achieve.org/joinvirtual/speechgerstner.html.
4. John Pyne, "Why History Should Be the Core of the Social Studies Standards, Progress Indicators and Framework," Ourstory (fall 1999), p. 11; American Federation of Teachers, "Making Standards Matter 1999: An Update on State Activity. Educational Issues Policy Brief 11 (November 1999). The AFT's entire report is available on the Internet at http://www.aft.org/edissues/standards99. Only 17 states presently assess students in history/social studies at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, although 12 additional states plan to do so over the next several years.
5. See, for example, Anthony Molho and Gordon S. Wood, eds., Imagined Histories: American Historians Interpret the Past (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998); Joyce Appleby, "The Power of History," American Historical Review 103 (February 1998), 1–14.
6. Steve Farkas and Jean Johnson, A Lot to Be Thankful For: What Parents Want Children to Learn About America—A Report from Public Agenda (New York: Public Agenda, 1998).
7. A Lot to Be Thankful For, 9–15. For a critique of the "exceptionalist" theme in modern historiography, see Daniel T. Rodgers, "Exceptionalism," in Molho and Wood, eds., Imagined Histories, 21–40.
8. A Lot to Be Thankful For, 16–21.
9. AFT, "Making Standards Matter 1999: An Update on State Activity," 1.
10. See, for example, Louis R. Harlan, "Social Studies Reform and the Historian," Journal of American History, 77 (December 1990), 801–11.