U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Professional Historical Societies and the History Curriculum

In a recent Chronicle essay, Thomas Bender asked whether historians “still have a public audience.” Although Bender appreciates all that academic historians have done in the last half-century to broaden the scope of historical inquiry beyond elite political figures, he laments that the larger public ignores us, and claims that the fault is partly our own because we no longer write accessible narratives about the nation. Bender believes that we need our public because “the scholarship of the past couple of generations is too valuable to keep to ourselves.”

Bender’s essay is familiar. Historians have been writing similar jeremiads for decades. And we have also been debating the merits and accuracy of such declension narratives for decades. My point in this essay is not to engage in this seemingly timeless and tireless debate. But rather to point to one area of public engagement open to historians: the public school history curriculum.

In the past few decades, the two major American historical societies—the American Historical Association (AHA) and the Organization of American Historians (OAH)—have increasingly sought to shape the history curriculum in the nation’s public schools. Such a mission is based on the assumption that it is the duty of professional historians to disseminate knowledge beyond the academy, and that the best way to do this is to shape the history curriculum that millions of American children are taught in the public schools.

It has not always been thus. As Robert Orrill and Linn Shapiro show in their important 2005 American Historical Review article—“From Bold Beginnings to an Uncertain Future: The Discipline of History and History Education”—the professional historical societies largely conceded the field of public school curriculum to others for a good portion of the twentieth century. A lot of this had to do with the trend among professional educators to emphasize social studies education as opposed to history education. I analyze this history in my first book, Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School.

Social studies education arose in the early twentieth century as part and parcel of the larger progressive education movement and bore all of its contradictions. On the one hand, social studies emerged because it was believed to be more efficient than history as a way to teach citizenship. Social studies focused on knowledge, historical or otherwise, that was considered immediate and relevant, as opposed to history, a discipline in which some of the knowledge learned would presumably go unused. Social studies was first introduced at black vocational colleges, including Tuskegee and Hampton, understood as a better means to “civilize” blacks. Shortly thereafter, it was extended to secondary schools across the county when the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, a curriculum group within the National Education Association (NEA), endorsed the widespread implementation of the social studies. Influential educators understood social studies as an effective means to condition the rising number of immigrants with those norms and values necessary to be decent American citizens, which they defined as “obedience, helpfulness, courtesy, punctuality and the like.” Social studies was a means to a more orderly society.

But social studies could also be a means to social transformation. During the 1930s, progressive educators understood social studies almost exclusively as a tool for justice, as a method to be used in their quest to reconstruct American society along socially democratic lines. At a 1939 meeting of leading progressive educators, the implementation of social studies, consistent with the movement “toward an increasing emphasis on the human values of all subject matter,” was conceived as a mission of the highest order, more and more important in a world threatened by economic dislocation and war. The conference participants had tired of those who considered “the transmission of the cultural heritage… an adequate means of preparing for the present and the future.” They were extremely critical of what was considered the dominant methods of instruction, “a more or less severely didactic presentation of historical fact.” They believed that an emphasis on tradition and authority was outmoded in a world of constant social change, a world marked by “serious strains and maladjustments.” Such a world required that people rely upon “self-dependence in the location of our information and power in reflective thinking,” skills that would be fostered by the new social studies. The new social studies were “revolutionary” in that they, in opposition to the mere study of history, “focused attention upon the vital problems of everyday living.”

There has always been ambiguity in defining social studies in its relationship to the discipline of history. Prior to the invention of social studies, most high schools offered a four-year course of historical study that included ancient history, European history, English history, and American history. In contrast, social studies instruction was tailored to the present needs of children, and thus substituted history courses deemed irrelevant with courses vaguely affixed with such titles as “civics.” In an ideal scenario, a civics class was activity-based: students would learn to be civic-minded citizens by participating in American civic life, a methodology not practiced in primarily book-centered history classes.

That the differences between history and social studies were real is undeniable, but these distinctions were blurred by a transformation in historiography that paralleled the transformation in social thought. Just as John Dewey and the pragmatists theorized that the study of philosophical knowledge was only noteworthy in the context specific to its production, Charles Beard and his fellow “new historians” wrote that historical knowledge was primarily significant in its contemporary social meaning. Those who were resistant to social studies and the so-called “new” history often critiqued both for their instrumentalism. However, Beard and his colleagues had teased out larger questions than whether or not knowledge was important beyond immediate use. For example, if knowledge was relative to a specific historical time and place, then how were intellectuals to prioritize one idea over another? And if historical understanding was also relative in that it was underpinned by our spatial and temporal existence, then how were historians supposed to order historical knowledge?

In short, historians like Charles Beard helped usher in the dominance of social studies because they preferred it to the irrelevant mode of historical learning that had predominated in the public schools up until the 1930s. The historical societies largely followed suit, and quit seeking to influence the public school curriculum for decades. The history profession lay dormant in the realm of public school curriculum-building barring the individual crusades of a select few historians in the 1950s, most notably Arthur Bestor, who had come to disdain the shadowy premises of social studies (and is a key figure in my first book).

All of this changed in the 1980s when a number of prominent figures made sweeping claims about a disaster in the nation’s history education (as I detail in Chapter 9 of my second book: A War for the Soul of America). In their contention, they relied upon a 1986 survey of a representative sample of 8,000 eleventh graders, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), that revealed American high school students had serious gaps in their knowledge of basic U.S. history. Over 30 percent of those assessed failed to properly identify the significance of the Declaration of Independence, and over 65 percent placed the Civil War in the wrong half-century. For the traditional-minded authors of this growing body of crisis literature, such as Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch—authors of What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?—the survey results represented “a devastating indictment of U.S. high schools.”

Lynne Cheney, author of American Memory, another book in this crisis genre, lectured that by not teaching young people the traditional American narrative, “we do to ourselves what an unfriendly nation bent on our destruction might.” Thanks to the left-wing social studies approach, which accentuated contemporary problems to the neglect of historical study, Americans no longer had a shared sense of the American past. This was a dangerous development to those who believed that the nation’s heroic history was the best means by which to instill moral and civic duty. Putting aside whether or not there was any political merit in such a vision of history education, what Cheney and her fellow traditionalists ignored was that such surveys had always garnered poor results. Americans, in other words, never really knew their history. In 1943, decades before the social and cultural turns transformed the history curriculum, a similar survey showed that only 25 percent of college freshman—an elite cohort by 1943 standards—knew Abraham Lincoln was president during the Civil War.

The supposed crisis in history education propelled curriculum reforms in several states. The history standards put into effect in California in 1988, The History-Social Science Framework, authored by Ravitch and Charlotte Crabtree, were the best known of such reforms and became something of a national model. The Framework was designed to rise above the longstanding debates between those who advocated for a history-centered curriculum and those who pushed for a more generic social studies method. As I argue above, ever since the 1930s, many schools had deemphasized historical learning and had instead implemented a social studies approach, which focused on contemporary problems. Proponents of social studies had long argued that, since Eurocentrism had tainted the study of history, teaching students how to think critically about the present was a better and more relevant method for inculcating democratic values in a multicultural society. In contrast, the Framework repositioned history at the center of the curriculum. Moreover, it restored formerly prominent aspects of the history curriculum, such as the history of religion, which publishers and teachers had long avoided for fear of offending a religiously diverse student population.

For these reasons, some conservatives, including Cheney and Finn, applauded the Framework. They believed it offered a remedy to the social studies approach, which, in their view, was a left-wing technique for ignoring the nation’s exalted history. Although the new California history curriculum recognized the legitimacy of multiculturalism as one factor among many that shaped the nation’s historical narrative, some conservatives supported the Framework because it also accentuated that which bound Americans together in common cause. Students were to “realize that true patriotism celebrates the moral force of the American idea as a nation that unites as one people the descendants of many cultures, races, religions, and ethnic groups.” Due to such language, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr believed the California approach resolved “the conflicting commands of our national motto, E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one.”

In spite of the support it garnered from conservative culture warriors like Cheney, Finn, and Schlesinger, the California history curriculum included plenty of features that offended traditionalist sensibilities. Yes, the Framework focused on history; but not the celebratory type that conservatives revered. Students were to learn a set of historical thinking skills designed to engender a critical perspective on conventional interpretations of the American past. In this way, the Framework opened up the curriculum to the modes of historical analysis that had reshaped the historical profession in the wake of the sixties. Furthermore, the Framework set up a sequence of courses that mandated three years of U.S. history and three years of World History—at a time when most states only offered one year of World History, if at all. In this, the Framework shifted the trajectory of history education away from the traditional Western Civilization curriculum, which linked up the contemporary United States with Ancient Greece as part of a great chain of enlightened civilization. This was a bold move that sought to close the gap between how university historians conceptualized their craft, and how history was taught in the nation’s public schools: a decentralized World History curriculum, which university historians had been developing since the 1970s, was explicitly intended to blunt the Eurocentric biases that had long colored how Americans thought about the world beyond their nation’s borders. In short, although the Framework was in some ways designed to sidestep the culture wars, in other ways, it set the stage for one of the archetypal skirmishes in the war for the soul of America—the battle over the National History Standards.

In her role as chair of the NEH, and in her enthusiasm for history standards, in 1987 Cheney requested proposals for a research center that would build bridges between academic historians and public school teachers. A group of scholars at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) responded to the request, won a grant of $1.6 million, and established the National Center for History in the Schools (NCHS) in 1988. The grant stipulated that NCHS would need to be a collaboration between academics from both a school of education and a history department, thus Crabtree, the co-author of the California Framework and the first director of NCHS, was brought together with renowned social historian Gary Nash. NCHS quickly set to the task of gathering data about how history was taught across the nation, while also establishing a national network of history educators. Thus, after a 1989 meeting of state governors in Charlottesville, Virginia made the creation of national standards in five core subject areas, including history, de facto national policy, NCHS was ideally situated. On the basis of what it had already accomplished, Cheney pushed to have NCHS take the lead in writing national history standards.

With such federal support, NCHS convened a diverse group of scholars, educators, and policymakers. The ambitious goal: create national history standards. Aware that history standards had the potential to spark controversy, NCHS sought to foster a broad consensus. This was not an easy task. For instance, the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) was hesitant to join the project out of fear that history-centered standards might deemphasize the social studies. Professional historians were also skeptical, not because they opposed more uniformity in the national history curriculum, but rather due to suspicions about Bush administration objectives. But both the NCSS and the major historical associations, including the AHA and OAH, came around. NCSS officials were convinced that the standards would accentuate a skills-based methodology consistent with the social studies approach, and also recognized that national standards were going forward with or without them, so they may as well have a say in the process. The concerns of the AHA and OAH were allayed by the fact that Nash was serving in a lead role at NCHS, an indication that the standards would indeed cohere with modern professional historiography. Thus, with most major constituencies aboard—aside from Afrocentrists and conservative Christians, who were deliberately left out of the process for fear that their historical visions could never be reconciled—and with financial backing by the NEH and the Department of Education, the National History Standards Project was launched.

The rest, as they say, is history—for more on the heated national controversy that arose as a result of the National History Standards, please consult my book.

Fortunately, the hullabaloo caused by the Standards did not scare the AHA and OAH away from getting involved in efforts to shape the public school curriculum. As such, the professional historical societies remain implicated in our ongoing history wars, such as the current battle over the Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH) framework that the College Board recently revised (a controversy that I analyze in a recent article in The American Historian, titled, “The Internationalization of the US History Curriculum—and Its Discontents”).

One of the most prominent right wing critics of the revised APUSH framework is Stanley Kurt, who wrote a scathing critique of the College Board published at the National Review website in August 2014. The bulk of Kurtz’s National Review hit piece is dedicated to retracing the ways in which international-minded historians shaped College Board efforts to revise the APUSH framework. The OAH is a key villain in Kurtz’s narrative. According to Kurtz, the inspiration for the new APUSH framework is “The LaPietra Report,” a 2000 OAH publication based on a project, led by Thomas Bender (of all people) and involving almost 80 historians from around the world, that sought “more complex understandings of the American nation’s relation to a world that is at once self-consciously global and highly pluralized.” The LaPietra Report, which reflected the work done by dozens of historians in seminars held over the course of several years at a villa near Florence, Italy, was a programmatic response to increased awareness of globalization: “A history that recognizes the historicity of different forms of solidarity”—including solidarities that cross national boundaries—“promises to better prepare students and the public to understand and to be effective in the world we live in and will live in.” For Kurtz, any solidarity beyond traditional American patriotism is inherently suspect. This is why he accentuates the supposedly sinister fact that Lopez Civeira, a Cuban historian from the University of Havana, was among the foreign historians who helped prepare “The LaPietra Report.” “How can American conservatives, moderates, and even traditional liberals,” Kurtz asks, “trust an AP U.S. History redesign effort led by figures who were so deeply enmeshed in a leftist attempt to reshape the American history curriculum?”

It is a good thing that the professional historical societies are once again seeking to shape the history curriculum taught in American public schools. Engaging the public is a good thing—on that Bender is surely correct. But engaging the public, especially in the context of curricular reform, will always engender conflict. Such is the cost of business. Let us support the AHA and OAH in these difficult endeavors.profess

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great and meaty post, Andrew, thank you. A great essay to share with my students. Can I put in one quibble? If historians who work in universities are “professional historians,” what are historians who work in high schools? Maybe we could finesse this by saying (honestly) that the OAH and AHA earnestly seek to include historians who teach in high schools, as well as those who work in archives, libraries, parks, and museums. In practice, though, most OAH and AHA members and leaders are historians who work in universities. The labels we use are a quibble, but the broader idea is not. We historians, IMHO, should work harder to broaden our ranks, and thus potentially, our political presence. Splitting the ranks of “professional historians” by calling some of us “historians” and some of us “teachers” doesn’t seem savvy to this teacher/professional historian.

    • I agree with that, Adam. Part of the move on the part of the AHA and OAH to reach a larger public has been to be more inclusive in terms of membership, in ways that you point to.

  2. As expected, a very well-written (and concise) overview of the issue. I also might use it with my social studies students!

    If readers are interested in the early part of this story, Ian Tyrrell’s “Historians in Public” (2005) is another book with lots of interesting insights about the frayed but never severed relationship between historians and schoolteachers during the early- and mid-twentieth century.

  3. I believe it was the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, who gets credit for stating that “teaching is a political act.” As Professor Hartman has shown, the profession’s professional societies have had only shown spotty involvement at best. I question whether the AHA and OAH would, in fact, be reliable allies for secondary school teachers who are under attack from the corporate and political sectors.

    As someone stated earlier, “professional” historians are often considered to be those who are tenured employees of our nation’s universities. Considering that only a handful of schools produce fifty percent of the tenured faculty, and that the professional societies have been largely ineffective in combating the ever increasing use of adjuncts or in providing meaningful aid to graduate student unions, I think secondary school teachers would be wise to question the AHA & OAH on questions of solidarity.

    In the mid 1990’s, Gary B. Nash wrote a fine piece on the standards controversy in the pages of the William and Mary Quarterly. One of his important points concerned the structure of the textbook market, specifically the inordinate power of three states, California, Florida, and Texas. History is not the only subject that is warped. The sciences are curtailed when it comes to subjects like evolution and climate change. In a nation that prides itself on the local control of education, how does the profession insure that nut jobs like Cynthia Dunbar, Ken Mercer, and Don McElroy aren’t in positions of power in Texas to subvert professional standards. (Google them to get a taste of their beliefs. Then shower.)

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