Basic-Education Panel Urges Return to the Study of History

By Susan Walton — October 20, 1982 5 min read
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History is a required subject in the public schools of every state. By the time they graduate from high school, most students have taken courses in American history, the history of their state, civics, and “world cultures.” Many have taken some of these subjects twice.

Under the circumstances, can one argue that the amount and quality of history being taught and learned in the schools is in-adequate and becoming more so?

Indeed one can, says a panel of historians, teachers, and administrators who spent several years pondering the subject. The panel is the Council for Basic Education’s history commission, which this month issued its final report, Making History Come Alive.

The council, a nonprofit educational organization based in Washington, formed the 12-member commission in 1979. The members were drawn from all levels of edu-cation. James Howard, a council staff member, and Thomas Mendenhall, former president of Smith College, wrote the report on behalf of the entire commission.

The panel is critical, on several counts, of the way educators handle the teaching of history:

The territory in the curriculum that was once occupied by history has been colonized by 24 other “disparate areas” that are classified as “social studies.” While urban studies, career education, citizenship, and the like may be valuable, they are not history.

What history is included too often consists of “imposed values and meaningless facts.”

Many teachers lack adequate knowledge and understanding of history and rely on “innovations” in the hope of keeping students interested.

Underlying all these reasons for the “lamentable” state of history in the curriculum, the panel concludes, is one misapprehension. “The misconception is the persistent and pervasive notion that history is nothing but an aggregate of facts; the presumption is that mere knowledge of the facts--knowing them ‘by heart'--will ensure the benefit of good citizenship.”

Rather, the commission’s report states, history is “essentially narrative, and that out of history’s narrative dimension comes its creative power.”

While the panelists point out that there are exceptions--some teachers excel at the teaching of history and some schools place a high value on its presence in the curriculum--the general state of the discipline in the schools is dismal, they say.

The schools’ failure to include enough unadulterated history in the curriculum has broad implications, according to the panel.

A sound knowledge and understanding of history, its report argues, is “basic to all learning in every subject.” By providing “a way of weaving together the threads of learning--current, traditional, analytical--into the whole cloth,” history gives students a sense of continuity that they need to understand the world.

The study of history began to decline in the 1920’s, according to the report, when educators became concerned that the schools were not meeting the needs of students who had to adjust to a rapidly changing society. “The aim has become to provide ‘an integration of experience and knowledge concerning human relations for the purpose of citizenship education,”’ the report says.

The decline in the rigor of teachers’ preparation was a product of the new emphasis, the panel points out. “To carry out that intention, teachers’ colleges and university schools of education raised up professional social studies educators who, over the years, have adapted social sciences for use in the schools, revised the treatment of history, and introduced a variety of new subjects.”

As a result, teachers may be well grounded in the social sciences and “citizenship studies,” according to the report, but lacking an understanding of the “story of a particularly creative sort” that is history.

Educator Awareness

The problems are solvable, the report continues, but only if educators become aware of how they are now teaching history. Much of the material now being used can and should be included, but only after it is modified.

One key change, the group suggests, would be to require teachers to have a solid background in history and the liberal arts. Teachers’ training in history, the panel says, should include learning to write about history, studying the historical method, and learning the best methods to teach history. Once they have this basic knowledge, they should be required to continue studying--in inservice, preservice, and college-level courses--for the rest of their careers.

The amount of history that schools can provide is, the panel points out, limited by the enormous scope of the subject. “There is always more than history teachers can cover, however well prepared they may be, and no school should overreach its capabilities with a curriculum that is too ambitious,” the authors write.

But they do describe an “irreducible minimum” of history that schools should provide, as well as a framework for teaching it.

“The irreducible minimum begins in the elementary grades by giving the [kindergarten through 6th-grade] student an acquaintance with the past through progressively sophisticated narratives,” the group contends.

“What young children need,” they write, “is acquaintance with the past. They need to become aware of the past, and to be helped not only to find it interesting, but to perceive it as real and credible.”

For secondary-school students, the panel suggests a topical study of U.S. history, a survey of European history, and a survey of U.S. histo-ry. The two different approaches to American history, the panelists note, will allow students to remain interested in a subject that they have had before and will encourage them to develop a broad range of skills.

Beyond this “irreducible minimum,” the panel recommends that secondary-school students take a course in the history of a nonwestern country or area.

In order to include these basic history courses, educators may have to eliminate other topics covered in social-studies classes, the report says. But it argues that “the implication of this suggestion is not that history should take over the social studies, although social studies courses of questionable worth might well give place.” Which “add-ons” should be cut, however, is a controversial issue and is, the panel says, beyond the scope of its report.

The report, Making History Come Alive, is available for $5.50 from the Council for Basic Education, 725 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005.

A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 1982 edition of Education Week as Basic-Education Panel Urges Return to the Study of History


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