To the Editor:
I read your In Perspective article “Let History Reign” (Jan. 9, 2008) with great interest. I was the founding history department head at Mendham High School in Mendham, N.J., in 1970, and served as such through the decade. We believed our program was on the cutting edge, and now see that it was substantially ahead of its time.
New Jersey required two years of U.S. history, but did not provide a defined structure. We were able to build a program in which students took a survey course covering up to 1920 in their sophomore year, and then in their junior year they studied 1920 to the present in the first quarter. It was in the final three quarters that innovation bred motivation, interest, and excitement.
Students were able to build their own history program by choosing from a menu of quarter courses, including ones on the American presidency, the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship, American labor history, American humor, diplomatic history, and American political and economic perspectives from the left to the right. The last course spawned the successful federal case Paton v. La Prade, which challenged the use of mail covers as an investigative tool and as an impediment to free inquiry.
It took a remarkably gifted team of teachers to implement a program unlike any other. With department members moving on to greater challenges, and the unfortunate imposition of curricular uniformity, the program began to erode and eventually disappeared. But perhaps a spark from our shining decade has landed on these U.S. History Schools and reignited the fire for history that we had.
A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2008 edition of Education Week as U.S. History Schools Recall Teacher’s ‘Shining Decade’