Elements at the Heart of History Teaching

Historical thinking–examining primary sources, contextualizing and corroborating them, and forming interpretive narratives–has been a staple of the historical profession since Herodotus and Thucydides debated sources. What has shifted is the concern over how history is taught and how we assess student learning, particularly to young people who will not be historians themselves.  This contest over how many historical facts versus how much procedural knowledge students learn explodes in political debate in the US in semi-regular fifteen-year cycles. Historians and non-historians identify some kind of historical learning as vital to citizenship without agreeing on what history is.

We regularly see this debate unfold around coverage versus critical thinking. Textbooks are a constant since the discipline’s professionalization in the early 20th century (with textbooks appearing as early as the 1700s). Even as their content changes to reflect contemporary understandings of what happened and what mattered in the past, they continue to offer an omniscient authoritative picture of history that obscures the procedural knowledge that defines the field.[1] Many faculty seek ways to teach beyond the textbook by integrating undergraduate research and primary source analysis into their classes.

Similarly, history instructors question the textbook’s corollary: the big introductory survey. Introductory courses became surveys of broad historical knowledge about a century ago, but this was contested even then. Some early 20th-century history faculty thought that students ought to start with narrow topics and immerse themselves in primary sources to understand how historians uncover the past before attempting to understand an entire national history.[2] In General Education programs, however, big surveys remain supreme (probably because they have a high teacher-to-faculty ratio). Over the last two decades, faculty are attempting to upend them with “uncoverage,” devoting class time to primary source analysis, and “flipped classrooms,” where students do textbook and lecture learning of substantive knowledge outside of class in order to devote in-class time to historical thinking.[3] According to Lendol Calder and Tracy Sterres, “In recent decades, new challenges to the coverage model are undermining its hegemony and suggesting different outcomes for history education. An explosion of historical knowledge and subfields makes coverage more than ever an impossible objective.”[4]

Debate about who can do history has also been part of the field since the discipline’s professionalization in the late 19th century. As “peer review, scholarship vetted by presses linked to elite universities, exclusive academic journals, scholarly meetings, extended graduate training, academic tenure, and departmental autonomy” became markers of the new professional status, those who wrote history outside academia, taught schoolchildren, preserved local sites, and worked in museums were excluded. Carl Becker, in his Everyman His Own Historian speech, pointed out the pretensions of the professionals. Edward Ayers explains, “Becker told historians to acknowledge that history was not a scarce resource to be mined and its nuggets carefully meted out to the masses. History was everywhere, free for the taking and shaping.”[5]  Public historians in the 1960s and 1970s embraced Becker’s “Everyman” even as public history became a new “alternative” academic field of study. While some public historians were trained in PhD programs, many more worked through civil rights and feminist groups, local history initiatives, and other community groups.

A simultaneous shift toward social history and educational access has resulted in one of the largest shifts; the field has broadened beyond the white male professoriate of the late 19th and early 20th century, resulting in new questions and content. The subfields of history have expanded as historians of women, African Americans, LatinX, immigration, disabilities, and more have carved out subfields, and mainstream texts have been rewritten to recognize new narratives. Although the discipline’s practitioners are still not proportional to the US population, by 2010, women made up half of history PhD’s in the US and about 35 percent of faculty. As of 2014 less than 15 percent of PhD’s were from traditionally marginalized ethnic and racial groups. A recent study from Stanford’s School of Humanities and Science using data analysis of all dissertations published between 1950 and 2015 indicates that as women’s presence in the field increased, the kinds of questions historians ask have expanded and that the questions that women have raised became mainstream–attended to by men and women (transgender data is not available)–over time.[6]

History content debates are threatening the autonomy of history teachers and college faculty. Nonetheless, I am encouraged by what I see in California schools as teachers grapple with balancing content and methods. My son just completed his first AP class in European History. As I watched from the sidelines, I was both horrified and extremely proud of the amount of factual content he mastered. (He does far better than me in Kahoot!, though that may be from my tendency to resist quiz questions with questions of my own.)  He’s also completed dozens of DBQ’s (Document Based Questions) and begun to see how historians cross-reference documents and how they build arguments from available sources. From what I see, his history teacher is doing a fantastic job of teaching historical thinking while helping students pass an exam that parents and admissions offices have decided is a marker of college and career readiness.  Those of us in the field will need to advocate for procedural knowledge—the kind that will allow students to critique the limits placed on their education by narrow, discriminatory standards while finding ways to accommodate the academic culture that sees factual knowledge as a gateway to college and professional opportunities.

[1] Kyle Roy Ward, Introduction to History in the Making: an Absorbing Look at How American History Has Changed in the Telling over the Last 200 Years New York: New Press, 2006.

[2] Lendol Calder and Tracy Steffes, “Measuring College Learning in History,” Social Science Research Council (May 2016): 43, 46

[3] For a discussion of “uncoverage,” see InterVarsity Alum: Dr. Lendol Calder on “Uncoverage” (2011) at https://vimeo.com/22363437.

[4] Calder and Steffes, 46-47.

[5] Edward L. Ayers, Everyone Their Own Historian. Journal of American History 105, no. 3 (December 2018): 505–513.

[6] Robert B. Townsend, What the Data Reveals about Women Historians, May 1, 2010, https://www.historians.org/research-and-publications/perspectives-on-history/may-2010/what-the-data-reveals-about-women-historians; Academic Academy of Arts and Sciences, “Racial/Ethnic Distribution of Degrees in History,” 2014, at https://www.amacad.org/humanities-indicators/higher-education/racialethnic-distribution-degrees-history; and “Diversity in the discipline of history,” Stanford News, March 10, 2022, https://news.stanford.edu/2022/03/10/diversity-discipline-history/.

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