History Instruction Is 'In Crisis,' Panel Says

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Washington--A panel of prominent historians and history teachers last week judged their subject area to be "in crisis" and urged schools to substantially boost both the quantity and quality of instruction in the field.

History is the "required body of knowledge for the 'profession of citizenship,"' said Paul A. Gagnon, principal investigator for the group, known as the Bradley Commission on History in Schools. "We should stop pretending we are educating citizens when we really are not."

"Whenever the basic curriculum of history is shrunken or half-full,'' the University of Massachusetts at Boston professor added, "schools are violating students' right to know, and democracy is betrayed."

The report the commission released here cites survey results showing that many states do not require history for high-school graduation or for certification as a social-studies teacher. It proposes that history instruction be required for all students, and that the time devoted to it be expanded, particularly in the early grades.

In addition, the panel members urged that teachers be given more authority to develop curricula and select textbooks, and that university history departments assume greater responsibility for what goes on in the schools by writing textbooks and improving their teaching of prospective schoolteachers.

But the proposals will only be effective, said Claudia Hoone, a commissioner who teaches 4th grade at Public School #58 in Indianapolis, if teachers "become policymakers" and improve their instructional methods in ways that make history exciting for all students.

"That's the only way reform will be firmly rooted in reality," she said.

Implications for Democracy

The panel, which included some of the leading scholars in the field--among them C. Vann Woodward of Yale University, William H. McNeill of the University of Chicago, and Gordon A. Craig of Stanford University--was formed last year by the Educational Excellence Network with a grant from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

The group, which met four times over the past year, last spring adopted a set of resolutions that form the basis of the report issued last week. The panel also plans to issue a book-length report next year.

The commission found that the quantity and quality of history instruction has waned over the last few years.

"While other social-science disciplines and many new fields, such as sex and health education, driver education, and computer education, have expanded their roles in the curriculum," the report states, "the number of required courses in history has declined."

"Currently," it adds, "15 percent of our students do not take any American history in high school, and 50 percent do not study world history or Western civilization."

These findings have grave implications for the future of the American political system, said Kenneth T. Jackson, the commission's chairman.

"Is it any wonder voting participation is the lowest of any democracy and is falling?" asked Mr. Jackson, the Mellon Professor of History and Social Sciences at Columbia University.

Variety of Methods, Sources

To reverse these trends, the panel proposed strengthening the teaching of history at every level.

But rather than mandate a single curriculum, the commission proposed several alternatives, so that curriculum planners could choose one that best reflected their own goals and circumstances.

In addition, it suggested a variety of themes and methods, and urged teachers to employ a wide range of source materials and topics. "History, by its nature, is an interdisciplinary subject," the report states. "It should never be reduced to a thin recital of successive dates and facts."

'Inherent Drama'

For the elementary grades, the commission recommended that schools depart substantially from current practice.

The K-6 social-studies curriculum, the panel said, should shift from the current "expanding environments" model--in which children study, in sequence, themselves, their families, their communities, their state, their nation, and then the world--to a "history centered" curriculum.

"The inherent drama of historical events is something kids can understand," said Diane Ravitch, professor of history and education at Columbia University's Teachers College. "They are not getting it in their social-studies classes."

Currently, she said, "they hear dramatic stories about how milk gets to the table."

In grades 7-12, the panel recommended at least four years of history, including two of American history and two of Western and world history.

The additional time could result in better textbooks, according to Mr. Gagnon, who has conducted two studies of history texts for the American Federation of Teachers.8History books have suffered from the inclusion of too many facts in too little space, he explained.

"Authors and publishers who produce books that cover in one year history from the Mayans to moon landings, from pre-history to perestroika, face an impossible task," he said. "With a revision of the curriculum, textbooks can be a whole lot more effective than they are."


Leaders of social-studies and history organizations generally praised the commission's report, and said that the panel members' prestige would help ensure that its recommendations are carefully considered.

Louis Harlan, president-elect of both the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians, said the report "not only alerts us to the crisis, but presents concrete proposals to deal with it."

He added that the report "needs a follow-up" and said he would "do what I can to involve college-level and public historians in the job."

Donald H. Bragaw, co-chairman of the National Commission on So4cial Studies in Schools, said the report would be useful in states and districts that choose to devote greater attention to history.

But, he added, "society has not released us from the responsibility of teaching about government, political science," and other topics currently taught under the rubric of social studies.

Copies of the commission's report, "Building a History Curriculum," are available for $3 each from the Educational Excellence Network, 1112 16th Street N.W., Suite 500, Washington, D.C. 20036.

Vol. 08, Issue 05

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