Sam Wineburg: Shouldn't Teachers of History Have Majored in History?

Roundup: Talking About History

Sam Wineburg, in the LAT (2-24-05):

[Sam Wineburg, author of"Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts" (Temple University Press, 2001), is a professor in Stanford's School of Education.]

Imagine this: Nearly a third of the students who apply to Stanford's master's in teaching program to become history teachers have never taken a single college course in history. Outrageous? Yes, but it's part of a well-established national pattern. Among high school history teachers across the country, only 18% have majored (or even minored) in the subject they now teach.

I don't doubt the dedication of these people. The application statements I read at Stanford shine with a commitment that renews one's faith in the passion of today's youth. And nearly every one of these young people is willing to forsake a more lucrative career — in law, medicine, business — to pursue teaching.

But how can you teach what you don't know? Would someone who wanted to teach calculus dare to submit a transcript with no math courses? Would a prospective chemistry teacher come to us with a record devoid of science? Yet with history, the theory goes, all you need is a big heart and a thick book.

The state of California encourages this state of affairs. Although it requires teachers to earn a rigorous teaching credential before they may teach math, English, biology or chemistry in the public school system, there is no such credential for history. Instead, the state hands out a loosey-goosey "social science" credential.

To qualify to teach history in California (and in many other states), you can possess a major in almost anything — anthropology, psychology, ethnic studies. All you've got to do is earn the "social science" credential and pass a multiple-choice exam of historical facts. But a storehouse of facts is the beginning, not the end, of historical understanding.

History courses made up of all facts and no interpretation are guaranteed to put kids to sleep. And that's exactly what seems to be happening. In a national survey some years ago, 1,500 Americans were asked to "pick one word or phrase to describe your experience with history classes in elementary or high school." "Boring" was the most frequent answer.

It should be obvious why this is. I don't care how much you know about child psychology or cultural anthropology, when you have to teach the Marshall Plan, the partition of India or the bombing of Hiroshima, you will be no more than a brittle pedagogue if you have no choice but to obey the textbook. History engages students only when their teachers possess deep knowledge; when they don't, history has the vitality of sawdust.

History comes alive when viewed as a patterned story open to ongoing debate. Did Truman drop the bomb because he wanted to save American lives, as a typical textbook claims, or because he sought to intimidate the Soviet Union and dissuade it from pursuing territorial expansion?

The shopworn saying that a good teacher needs only to stay a chapter ahead of students is widely believed — but patently false. History is about how events in one age sow the seeds for what happens next. Good teachers foreshadow later lessons when teaching earlier ones — by helping students see, for instance, that the configuration of power left in the wake of World War II would eventually erupt as the Korean War. History is just a random mess to those who remain a chapter ahead.

Lack of knowledge encourages another bad habit among history teachers: a tendency to disparage"facts," an eagerness to unshackle students from the"dominant discourse" — and to teach them, instead, what the teacher views as"the Truth." What's scary is the certainty with which this"Truth" is often held. Rather than debating why the United States entered Vietnam or signed the North American Free Trade Agreement or brokered a Camp David accord, all roads lead to the same point: our government's desire to oppress the less powerful. It is a version of history that conjures up a North Korean reeducation camp rather than a democratic classroom.

We're in an age when states are tripping over each other to beef up standards for students. But how can we expect students to attain high standards when we set the bar so low for teachers?

Reprinted with permission of the author.

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More Comments:

juliana danielyn frank - 10/29/2009

Good Day everyone! My name is Juliana Frank. This is my first semester at Citrus College, recently transferred from Victor Valley College. I am majoring in Math.. I realley like history, dont know why but i think its very interesting. also what im hoping to get out of this class is ofcourse a wonderful grade and a better view.. now for the response.

Bender: ha, I have to laugh out loud on the article that Bender wrote. Its about time i hear such an argument about how The United states became a so called "Our Great Nation". I liked how he pointed out "American History as a series of stepping stones leading inevitably from wilderness to democracy" bender.. reciting the fact that it did take a long time for us to be so great, but what about the horrible things we had to do in order to have this vast nation...? also he mentions how the country was born in the North. True but false there are the great discoveries but what about the peple that were here first?.. The article has much to discuss about. Bender points out the facts on how we view America. America is soppose to be about freedom, one nation,.. bogus.. in reality we are just living in this cylical that never diesdown..

Wineburg: WOW!! The school system is a little off.. by alot!.. I would have never known.. Also why are our teachers teaching subjects without any backround in it?.. (Hey Arnold!..) its like calling your plumer to fix your broken computer?... yes, they are both broken but how is he to fix it?.. The Article pertains intersting facts that only needs to be fixed.. VERy VEry good stated facts on the article... "makes me want to learn more!.." is how I personally describe History..

victor valdez - 9/10/2008

article 2. I agree with Bender to many history classes focus to much on american history. There are many other important events that influenced or shaped the way things are in america.

article 3. I agree with Calkins on the fact that its important to provide students with a solid world history foundation. In todays age we are surrounded by many cultures, and it would help the world be a better place if everyone had a better understanding of where everyone is coming from.

victor valdez - 9/10/2008

Hi, my name is Victor Valdez i am a continuing student and i play for the Citrus Owls Football team.

I think Wineburg is right when he says that its outrageous that a third of students trying to become history teachers have never taken a single college course in history. I dont like the fact that any teacher can teach history. If the state is going to make teachers get a teaching credential for math, english or chemistry then it should also be required for history.

Estrelita Cruzat - 9/11/2007

History is a course of knowing where did we really came from and how did we ended in a nation of peace and freedom. The history of the United States is considered one of the most interesting and intriguing in World History. Our country is the most powerful in the World and so people around the globe are excited and curious to know the history of the United States. If we do not have knowledgeable teachers to teach history, then I don’t think that students would be getting the right information. How can one make the subject interesting when you do not have enough background or knowledge. I think it would be boring for your students because you cannot explain or elaborate more to make it interesting and exciting for your students. I hope we will have more teachers who have more backgrounds in History, so that we will have high standard of education and learning about our country’s history as well as The World.

Adam Flowers - 3/22/2007

My name is Adam and I am finishing my last semester at Citrus and am transferring to either UCLA or Berkely in the fall with a major in finance/economics.

The first article by Thomas Bender gave insight into a growing national problem that I have only heard about once before, in high school. The article addresses the predominant “me” attitude that has engulfed our nation. It is a nation of self interest that covers not only political and military action, but also the unconscious belief that the United States is the center of the universe. If one were to look at a map of the world, the U.S. is located in the center, and is the sole center of our historical studies. The interconnection between the events of Europe, Asia, Africa and the United States is very evident to the rest of the world, but our government feels as though they must impress this world super power view on its people in order to maintain control of such giant and ever growing nation. The political theories of John Locke and Rousseau are deeply embedded and in some cases the fundamental capitalistic ideals on which our country was built. It is finally time for the people and the government of the United States to remove their heads from the clouds and step off their pedestals and face the fact that we live in a global society where the ideas and actions of one nation effect many other nations.

The second article by Sam Wineberg finally shed some light on a problem that students have known about for a long time, inadequate teachers. It is amazing to see that only 18% of history teachers have majored in that subject, though the percentages of the other subjects and teachers who majored in that subject are not shown. The inference of the article leads me to believe that this percentage must be upwards of 90% maybe even 100%, but that is all speculation. Almost every student I have spoken to about their history classes have given the same response, boring or uninteresting. I believe that this is the result of a lack of interest on the teacher’s part, originating from their lack of knowledge on the subject. The best teachers are the best because they can captivate and challenge a students mind, not cram it with dates and names, but with ideas and understanding. The monotonous dates and facts of U.S. history seem to be taught by those who have little knowledge on the subject and it is destroying our youth’s fascination and understanding of our past. It is because history not only tells us where we have been but can also show us many possible futures that we, as Californians and Americans, must hold the knowledge of our past to as high of standards as we do English, math and science. To understand the past is to know the future, and this cannot be achieved without the educator’s proper understanding of these events. It sounds as though we must change our history teaching credentials in order to keep history alive in the minds of the students, and if this is the course we must take, then there is no better time to change than the present, in order to save our past.

Elise Fillpot - 2/28/2005

I respect Professor Wineburg tremendously, but take exception to his implication in this piece that by attaining a major in history, pre-service teachers will have experienced an immersion in or deep understanding of historical thinking processes. A number of colleges of education today provide courses that introduce pre-service teachers/students to progressive pedagogies in teaching history. When those same students then take a concentrated number of course hours in history, the primary mode of teaching is most frequently lecture. Consequently, pre--service teachers themselves rarely experience the sorts of learning activities that help individuals develop the historical thinking processes identified and eloquently described by Professor Wineburg.
I understand and agree with Professor Wineburg's advocacy for more rigorous subject-area course requirements for pre-service teachers. I also believe successful advocation for this change won't serve its intended purpose unless accompanied by simultaneous advocacy for pedagogical reform in the teaching of post-secondary history courses.

John H. Lederer - 2/27/2005

Socrates would not be qualified to teach.

John H. Lederer - 2/27/2005

Socrates would not be qualified to teach.

John H. Lederer - 2/27/2005

Socrates would not be qualified to teach.

Michael Glen Wade - 2/26/2005

No, Mr. Pitts, not right. To be minimally interesting in a public school classroom, you must have good command of the material, its context, and its contemporary relevance, as Prof. Wineburg clearly indicated. Pedagogical training is important, and what is necessary can be accomplished in 3-5 courses and student teaching. The terminology "advanced skills in pedagogy" conveys a sense of the superfluitiy of "education" coursework that pervades undergraduate teacher training. For years, we have surveyed our graduates who have gone into teaching about the relevance of their coursework. They have had some suggestions as to how they would restructure their history training, but the most common set of responses involves complaints about the intellectual vacuity and just plain irrelevance of many of their education courses. Invariably, they suggest far fewer of such courses in favor of courses in the subject(s) they intend to teach. At our institution, and I suspect at most, our education majors have, on average, the school's highest GPAs and the lowest SAT and GRE scores. I believe this to be indicative of the lack of rigor which also pervades teacher training in colleges of education. It reminds me of my undergrad days at Maryland when I suggested that I might stay for a fifth year to take some education courses. A fellow history major said, "You don't want to do that. That's where all the dummies are." Certainly not all of them, but I suspect that he was on to something, and I don't wonder when the brightest of the teaching majors chafe at having to take unchallenging, vacuous courses, often from people who have little or no public school classroom experience. As for your reference to Professor Franklin, I can only guess that you have never heard him. I suspect that adolescents would learn quite a lot from him. Best wishes to you for success in your career.

christopher noel pitts - 2/26/2005

I suppose the real question is - what is more important, a mastery of domain knowledge or advanced skills in pedagogy? One could argue both, but what does matter more? I am a History major at the University of Oklahoma and am seeking alternate certification to teach. I could not decide which matters more, so I am taking a full load in both. I want a strong understanding of history and the teaching of children. Put John Hope Franklin in a room full of adolescents and see how well they learn. If you really know how to teach children then it should not be a problem that you do not possess expert knowledge on the subject. Right?

Richard Strean - 2/26/2005

Of course all teachers should be as knowledgeable and well-prepared as possible. The question is whether this article by a professor in an education school is really only designed to enhance the quality of education or to help create barriers to entry to the profession. I know plenty of top-notch history teachers with deep historical knowledge who stimulate student thinking and avoid indoctrinating, boring, and otherwise failing to educate students, yet they have undergraduate degrees in classics, political science, French, Asian Studies, and plenty of other fields. Not education, though, by the way.