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Enlivening the Historical Parade of Kings, Presidents, and Wars

By Peter N. Stearns — October 17, 1984 8 min read
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The social historian’s proposition is simple. History teaching has demonstrably lost ground and fervor in the schools, even though it is often competently done. It has, not unrelatedly, failed in the main to keep pace with exciting developments in the discipline. Historians’ ability to provide insight into complex societies has increased, even as social complexity has increased. It is time for social-studies educators to turn to the promising beginnings individual teachers have established and launch the difficult but rewarding process of bringing history up to date.

These basic changes in history’s list of topics, moving toward a concern for a wide range of behavior and for groups far removed from daily political action, have brought with them a shift in the key unit of historical analysis: Instead of events alone, historians now deal with changes in processes or patterns. The result has been a significant expansion in knowledge about how society works and about the range of small events that add up to historical change. Seldom, indeed, have those practicing the discipline of history displayed more creativity than in the recent past.

Yet while the nature of historical thinking has shifted, most historical teaching remains confined to a conventional list of topics featuring a standard parade of kings, presidents, and wars. The teaching of history has also, not entirely by coincidence, suffered from declining enthusiasm on the part of students and practitioners alike. So a gap has opened up, between what history has become as a means of inquiry and the humdrum of many classrooms. While not as dramatically urgent as gaps in more technical subjects, which seem to bear on our ability to compete with the Japanese, the history gap is as serious a problem because it limits our capacity to understand how society functions.

The remedy, of course, is simple: Introduce more social history into the classroom. But as with many remedies, simplicity shatters in practice on the hard edge of routine.

Publishers of high-school-level textbooks, made unusually timid by a numerically shrinking student market, have been willing at most to introduce a snippet or two about daily life in the past or to confirm the existence historically of women and minorities. Social historians have typically been bent on pursuing their own monographs, without elaborate attention to the teaching implications of their approach. Teachers at many levels, pressed to emphasize “basics” or to train in citizenship values or consumer economics, have often been loath to undertake the serious reconsideration of traditional history content that social history demands. There is no question that considerable effort is involved in incorporating social history into a traditional curriculum. First, customary coverage must be re-evaluated to make room for the new topics of social history. And second, traditional styles of presentation must be rethought, to make room for a kind of history that does not proceed neatly from event to event, that cannot be tidily embraced in one Presidency after another.

Yet a serious conversion of history teaching to include substantial use of social history has long been desirable, and, despite difficulties, is becoming increasingly feasible as well. A number of individual teachers--in California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Texas, for example--and even some school districts in New York have taken the plunge. The College Board, not only in Advanced Placement history directives but also in the more broadly based Project EQuality on secondary-school standards, has urged extensive integration of social history into the social-studies curriculum.

The reasons for the new attention to the teaching of social history are many. Social-history topics, such as the evolution of family roles, are analytically demanding, but they involve aspects of the students’ immediate experience and often serve better for the development of critical-thinking skills than conventional political topics do. This is not an argument against the importance of political history; but actual classroom experience indicates that social-history topics can, for many high-school students, facilitate for the first time the vital transition from history as the memorization of concrete facts to history as a means of categorizing and explaining change. Students drawn to an understanding of how present concepts of adolescence derive from the past gain a sense of the nature and utility of a historical perspective that they can then apply more widely.

Social-history materials and themes also suggest a wealth of activities and projects, using local records and artifacts, that can help move history teaching from excessive reliance on lecture-based instruction, to student-participant, hands-on learning. Work with census materials, local police records, or evidence from gravestones and other local artifacts provides not only immediate access to varied materials not already chewed over by established scholars, but also the equally important prospect of linking resultant research and discussion to more general analytical issues.

Social-history teaching also extends the possibility of relating social-history courses to other segments of the school curriculum--another important challenge too seldom confronted. Here again, the claim is not that social history is the first to provide interdisciplinary contacts, but that it en-hances such contacts. The concerns of many social historians parallel interests of modern novelists in exciting ways, while social history also demands quantitative skills taught in mathematics courses, such as graph- and chart-making. Social history’s link with sociology, anthropology, and social psychology even more obviously helps relate history courses to other branches of a social-studies curriculum. For example, an American history course with a strong social-history component on crime patterns relates well to social-studies segments on criminal justice.

Enhancements to the learning process and interdisciplinary contact aside, social history has quite simply altered the framework of both U.S. and world history in ways that must affect the teaching of the subject in the name of accuracy. A host of familiar topics in U.S. history have been recast because of social-historical work, from the origins of the American Revolution to the nature and impact of Progressivism. What political historians call the early federal period, from the 1780’s to 1820, turns out to have been not only a formative time for the political institutions of a new nation, but also a time when crucial transformations in American agriculture (with the increase in commercial transactions) and in American attitudes (on subjects as diverse as emotional expectations in the family or the importance of youth) began a more profound alteration of American society and culture.

Social history also brings to center stage developments in American (or other) history that have long been recognized but only tentatively treated because of lack of knowledge and the difficulty in meshing the examination of sweeping processes with a tidy, event-filled narrative. Thus, to take the leading example, social history propels a discussion of the nature and impact of the industrial revolution to its proper pivotal role in 19th-century American and West-European history.

In sum, the familiar parade of leaders and political institutions cannot be understood without reference to the findings and approaches of social history, and at the same time can no longer be seen as the only standard by which the past must be measured. And in this sense, in turn, the “basics” of survey history teaching have been transformed.

It is important not to claim too much. Not all social-history topics, certainly not all of the detailed findings and debates, can be translated into secondary-school courses, in part because coverage of political developments must be retained. Social-history components will not be panaceas for classroom boredom or the social-studies-teacher blues. Nor, more fundamentally, can social history at any level resolve all the genuine problems anyone must have in trying to figure out what makes people and societies tick. But it can help. Social history has generated an enthusiasm in a discipline often regarded as hopelessly stagnant or conveniently unchanging during the past two decades. Some of this enthusiasm can now inspire a growing number of teachers and their charges.

Will we form better, more productive citizens as social history gains ground in the schools? It is not possible to prove that good social-studies teaching improves citizenship, much less that it creates more zealous workers. But a better understanding of how society functions has at least potential bearing on informed citizenship and responsible behavior in work and family life. It also provides the basis for an interest in social change, and some basis for assessing such change, after schooling has ended--in other words, an intellectual orientation that can enrich life.

The social historian’s proposition is simple. History teaching has demonstrably lost ground and fervor in the schools, even though it is often competently done. It has, not unrelatedly, failed in the main to keep pace with exciting developments in the discipline. Historians’ ability to provide insight into complex societies has increased, even as social complexity has increased. It is time for social-studies educators to turn to the promising beginnings individual teachers have established and launch the difficult but rewarding process of bringing history up to date.

A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 1984 edition of Education Week as Enlivening the Historical Parade of Kings, Presidents, and Wars

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