Diane Ravitch: History’s Struggle to Survive in the Schools

Roundup: Talking About History




History has a story unlike that of any other school subject. It entered the high school curriculum in the late nineteenth century as a so-called “modern” subject, along with science; then it enjoyed four decades of solid growth and esteem. But in the second and third decades of the twentieth century, the study of history became the target of relentless—and unfortunately successful—efforts to diminish its place in the elementary and secondary curriculum. Historians did little or nothing to save their subject. Only in the past twenty years has the study of history regained a prominent role in the schools, thanks to leading historians such as Kenneth Jackson and Theodore Rabb.

American school children have always had some exposure to our national history. In the reading books used in nineteenth-century schools, such as the famous McGuffey readers, there were almost always biographies of great men, stories of important incidents in the nation’s evolution, and orations about important issues that students were expected to recite. The earliest high schools and private academies typically taught ancient history, knowledge of which was considered essential for an educated person.

As the high school population began to grow in the 1880s, schools tended to offer and often to require history courses. The course that was most frequently offered was called “general history” or “universal history.” This was a course that was akin to world history; it began with ancient history, centered on the Greek and Roman antecedents of Europe, and included medieval and some modern history, again centered on Europe. Surveys have shown that significant numbers of school districts also offered U.S., ancient, medieval, modern, and English history. During the 1880s and 1890s, the proportion of high schools offering history courses grew steadily. While there was a dramatic increase in the proportion of U.S. history courses in the latter years of the nineteenth century, the predominant course in high school continued to be ancient history.

Beginning in the 1890s, leading educators worried that the high school curriculum was growing helter-skelter, and they wrote a series of reports to help guide the nation’s schools towards some uniformity. The first and most prestigious report was produced in 1893 by the Committee of Ten, chaired by Harvard president Charles W. Eliot. This illustrious committee, sponsored by the National Education Association, included William Torrey Harris, who was U.S. Commissioner of Education and a former superintendent of the St. Louis public schools. The committee appointed conferences of distinguished scholars and teachers to review nine academic subjects. One of them was the study of “history, civil government, and political economy.”

The Committee of Ten recommended the study of biography and mythology in fifth and sixth grades, American history and civil government in grade seven, Greek and Roman history in grade eight, French history in grade nine, English history in grade ten, American history in grade eleven, and an intensive study of a selected period of history in grade twelve. Since historical study was commonly associated with memorizing and reciting from a textbook, the Committee of Ten emphasized better methods of teaching history, especially questioning, critical discussion, student participation, primary documents, and the use of maps, reference books, and historical novels (sic!) rather than reliance upon a single textbook.

The report of the Committee of Ten was much debated. Its admirers credited it with improving history instruction; its critics complained that it sought to impose an academic curriculum on all children. The report of the Ten was soon followed by the report of the Committee of Seven, a group of historians sponsored by the American Historical Association. Its 1899 report proposed that the first year of high school be devoted to ancient history and the early Middle Ages, the second year, medieval and modern European history; the third year, English history; and the fourth year, American history and government. Like the Ten, the Seven condemned rote learning and advocated critical thinking, multiple sources, and correlation with other disciplines. Subsequently, critics of history (who preferred the social sciences and social studies) attacked the Ten and the Seven as too traditional, but in fact the two groups were reformers of history instruction.

In time, the schools received advice from other “numbered” committees, including the Committee of Eight (an AHA committee that reviewed the teaching of history in elementary schools in 1910) and the Committee of Five (an AHA committee that reviewed the high school curriculum in 1911). Both agreed that the history curriculum should be coherent, cumulative, and sequential and that methods for teaching history should engage the students’ imagination, energy, and critical intelligence. Like the earlier reports, their recommendations supported the idea that the teaching of history deserved to have a place in every student’s program.

These days we are accustomed to hearing about the reports of dozens of committees and knowing that most of them will gather dust. But at the dawning of the new century, a report by a national commission of distinguished persons was new enough to make a large impression. A surprising number of the reformers’ recommendations were implemented by school districts, simply because it made sense to have some uniformity from year to year and from district to district....

History in the schools is making a slow recovery from the dark days of the 1930s-1980s. But there is still a long way to go before anyone can feel assured that students in the United States are taught by well-educated teachers of history; that the materials in their classrooms are up-to-date; that they have a chance to read history books, not just textbook simplifications; and they they learn not only to use history to understand the world, but to enjoy learning it.




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