Center To Publish Detailed Plan for Teaching History

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

The National Center for History in the Schools is set to publish a plan for teaching history that lays out in massive detail, for virtually the first time, one group's view of what students across the nation should know about the subject and why they should study it.

The 311-page document, entitled "Lessons from History: Essential Understandings and Historical Perspectives Students Should Acquire,'' was developed over four years by a team of prominent scholars and educators. Its publication by the federally funded center for history, based at the University of California at Los Angeles, comes as policymakers and educators are debating setting national standards for what students should know and be able to do in most subjects.

The document, which is to be released in the coming weeks, is expected to influence the development of such standards in history.

A number of national commissions have called for revisions in teaching history in recent years and a handful of states--most notably California--have developed frameworks for teaching the subject. None, however, appears to provide as much detail on how to do it as "Lessons from History.''

"This is meant as a kind of intellectual road map for teachers of United States and world history who haven't had a lot of training in history or have not had a lot of time to catch up on new history or parts of the world that haven't had much attention in schools before,'' said Gary B. Nash, the history center's associate director.

More than a listing of study topics, the document offers background knowledge for teachers, provides perspectives for viewing and analyzing historical events and movements, and gives a comprehensive justification for studying history.

Like the 1989 report of the Bradley Commission on History in Schools, the new guide is built on the assumption that students should be exposed to more history, sooner, than they are now. To cover all of the material outlined in the document, students would need to study the subject for at least four years between grades 7 and 12 and have some history included in their studies during each of their elementary-school years.

According to the national center, American students get an average of one-and-a-half years of history study during their precollegiate schooling. A few states, such as California and Florida, have moved to lengthen the amount of time devoted to the subject to six years or more.

"For those states, it's realistic [to cover the recommended amount of material],'' Charlotte Crabtree, the director of the history center, said. "For states that do not devote that much time now, the document is definitely ambitious, and they will have to make choices.''

The guide calls for an approach to the subject that features lively storytelling and active learning. It says teaching should allow for differing interpretations and should provide pauses for greater depth and exploration of the complex causes of events.

'Converging' Cultures

The volume also goes further than many traditional textbooks in discussing non-Western cultures and religions and long-ignored minorities.

Christopher Columbus's landing in the Americas, for example, is described as the "great convergence'' of three worlds: those of the Europeans, the inhabitants of North and South America, and the African slaves forced to labor on sugar-cane plantations.

"Students will not grasp the import of the 'great convergence' without understanding the extensiveness and complexity of the societies of pre-Columbian America and West Africa,'' the document says.

Entire sections are also given to the rise of Islam, the flowering of Chinese civilization during the Tang and Sung dynasties, and feudal Japan.

Members of some minority groups, however, say the document does not go far enough.

"I found some discomfort in it when talking about Africa and African-Americans,'' said Adelaide Sanford, who represented the National Association of State Boards of Education on a national panel that met this month to provide input for the development of national standards in history. (See related story, this page.)

She noted, for example, references in the document to the "fanaticism'' of abolitionists and to "black Africans,'' as opposed to white Europeans. The latter reference was used in the text to distinguish "black Africans'' from whites living in Africa.

Nguyen Minh Chau, who spoke to the panel on behalf of the group National Asian and Pacific American Education, criticized the document for failing to discuss Indochina or to illuminate, among other topics, the historical tensions between the Chinese and the Vietnamese.

"We also do not have a specific focus on Brazil, or the Pacific Islands, or France or China,'' Ms. Crabtree acknowledged. "There simply isn't enough time between kindergarten and grade 12 to do it all.''

Recurring Themes

To help teachers "cut pathways to understanding through the forests of historical data, themes, and questions of enduring significance,'' the guide identifies four major narrative themes that run through history.

They are: the development and changing character of human societies; the economic and technological development of human societies; people's development and representation of their understandings of themselves, their moral imperatives, and their place in the universe; and the development of political theories and organizations in the quest for order, power, and justice.

And it identifies "habits of mind'' schools should seek to nurture in their students, such as a tolerance for the "complexity of human affairs'' and "historical empathy,'' or the ability to view events through the eyes of those living at the time.

In order to understand the Salem witch trials, for example, the document says that "students should be encouraged to put themselves in the places of Massachusetts settlers, to examine the kind of religious liberty the Puritans sought--not individual freedom from religious constraints, but the freedom to establish for their community the binding religious mores and restraints they saw as scriptural imperatives for a covenant of people.''

The document does not recommend the ages at which children should begin to learn such complex ideas.

"As Gary Nash has said, 'This is the loaf and it's up to the teachers to divide it,' '' Ms. Crabtree said.

Critics of similar calls in the past for teaching more history to younger children have questioned whether small children can grasp the subject.

"Children can understand more than we give them credit for,'' Ms. Crabtree said. "There are wonderful stories and biographies that children love.''

Though the document will not be officially published for three to four more weeks, copies have been made available to the educators and historians working on national student-achievement standards in history.

'Foundational Piece'

"I see this as an important foundational piece,'' said Samuel Banks, an administrator with the Baltimore city schools who sits on the standards-setting panel, known as the National Council on History Standards. That effort is also being directed by the U.C.L.A. center with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Education Department.

"The text is superb,'' said A. Graham Down, the executive director of the Council for Basic Education and a member of the National Forum for History Standards, the panel formed to provide input to the standards-setting group. "It's substantial, comprehensive, balanced, and nontraditional in the sense that it is inclusive.''

However, some members of the national forum contended at its meeting this month that the document places too much emphasis on U.S. history.

"The history offered should be world history ... folding U.S. history into it,'' argued Marilynn Jo Hitchens, a past president of the World History Association.

Mr. Nash of the U.C.L.A. center said the intent of the text was to strike a balance between the two.

Copies of "Lessons from History'' will be available next month for $17.95 each, plus shipping. Prepaid orders may be mailed to the National Center for History in the Schools, University of California at Los Angeles, Moore Hall 321, 405 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles, Calif. 90024-1521.

Vol. 11, Issue 31, Pages 1, 18

Published in Print: April 22, 1992, as Center To Publish Detailed Plan for Teaching History
Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories