Teaching History Research Paper Starter

Teaching History

(Research Starters)

This article discusses the teaching of K-12 history in the United States. History was not always a central subject in American public school education, but it took on an increased significance as the United States experienced successive waves of immigration in the 19th century. World and American History were used to show immigrants that the sympathetic imagination - an understanding and appreciation of the contributions made by diverse races and cultures - is central to the outworking of the democratic ideal in American society. This message was reinforced into the 20th century by the rise of New Education and Progressive Education, both of which sought to relate the experience of the individual child to the broader themes of World and American History. As the 21st century began, the National History Standards and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 emphasized the value of objective historical knowledge and ignited heated debates concerning the relative importance of western culture and values within a multicultural context.

Keywords Educational Psychology; History; Multiculturalism; National History Standards; New Education; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001; Progressive Education; Public Schools; Standardized Tests


Teaching history at the K-12 level is designed to instill in students what has been called the sympathetic imagination. By developing an increasingly secure grasp of history, students will gain a better understanding of themselves, other people, and the communities and societies in which they live. As the United States becomes an increasingly multicultural and pluralistic society, and in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, history teachers are being called upon to help raise awareness of, and tolerance for, other cultural and religious traditions.

In the United States, the teaching of history in primary and secondary school has never been far from controversy. History instruction has been used at various times and in various places to promote literacy, patriotism, morality, and, most recently, an awareness of past injustices against indigenous peoples and others. Arguments continue to rage about the methods used to teach history, at what grade level history instruction should begin, and whether there are objective facts of history that should be taught to all students. Against the backdrop of these shifting cultural and political sands, new technologies such as the internet are giving history teachers and students' ever-expanding access to information about the histories of different cultures, and a global, networked community of learners is being created in the hope of applying the lessons of history to present geopolitical challenges.

While the writing of history in western culture goes back at least as far as the ancient Greek historians (Aristotle recommended it as an important subject), the institutionalized teaching of history is much more recent. It was largely neglected in classical and medieval times in favor of subjects thought to be more practical, such as religion, grammar, composition, and arithmetic. Only in the intellectual ferment of the Renaissance and the Reformation in the 16th century, when the individual became the main actor on the human stage, was there a renewed interest in learning, and learning from, the past.

In the United States the teaching of history began as a means to an end, and in some respects it has remained that way. Though American public schools date to 1643, the organized public education movement was established in the 1830s to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic - the three subjects thought to be essential to a good education. When history was taught in the classroom during these early years of public school education, it was primarily in the form of examples to illustrate literary, geographical, or grammatical concepts (Ballard, 1970).

Teaching history began to come into its own in the second half of the nineteenth century. Despite the protests of influential British intellectuals such as Herbert Spencer, who argued in his Essays on Education (1861) that teaching history amuses far more than it instructs, an influential segment of American educators began to see that the teaching of history could be a useful way to assimilate immigrants into the mainstream of American life. Hearkening back to concepts first articulated by the Greeks, they saw history education as central to the health of the nation because it helped to create good citizens who gave their assent to the nation's core democratic principles.

Children of immigrants weren't the only group these educators had in mind - after the maelstrom of the Civil War ended in 1865, teaching history was also seen as a way to remind the children of the North and the South of their common American heritage. In 1876 the National Educational Association (later the National Education Association) - which had been founded in 1857 to unite ten state education associations - recommended that United States History be taught in all public schools, and by 1890 the group was recommending the teaching of age-appropriate history lessons beginning in second grade. While history education in the United States remained far from universal at the end of the nineteenth century, its utility, at least in theory, was beyond doubt (McMurry, 1946).

Missing in this growing enthusiasm for teaching history were methods suited to the task. In the nineteenth century the most common methods of teaching - the Aristotelian idea of repetition, as well rote memorization and reading questions from a textbook - were applied to history teaching, often with dismal results. Researchers who interviewed history students found that most students quickly forgot what they memorized, and, even more troubling, were unable to derive meaning from the facts they had learned.

In the final decades of the 19th century, a movement called New Education took root in America as a reaction against the entrenched methods of teaching history (and other subjects). First developed in Germany by Johann Friedrich Herbart, supporters of New Education argued that students of history and other subjects should be taught to think systematically and to ask questions, rather than memorize lists of facts. Supporters of New Education thought that the classroom syllabus should be organized around themes or units to get at truths common across historical events. For Herbart and the disciples of his New Education philosophy, education's grand purpose was delivering moral and ethical lessons (McMurry, 1946).

American educational theorist John Dewey continued this thread in the early decades of the twentieth century with his emphasis on learning by doing. Dewey and other educators introduced a school of thought called Progressive Education, in which importance was placed on tapping the life experience and cultural background of students in preparing and delivering lessons. They believed in the concept of learning by doing, and they stressed that students should be active, rather than passive, learners. Advocates of Progressive Education tended to emphasize the subjective experience of the student as he or she approached history, rather than the memorization and assimilation of specific historical facts.

Such progressive ideas were sidelined during the Cold War era, when the focus was on the rapid inculcation of science and math concepts as part of 'space-race' competition with the Soviet Union. In the eyes of many educators, American students did not have the luxury of indulging in a journey of self-exploration while the fate of the western world was under threat from the menace of Communism. The argument at the time was that a steady stream of scientists who were well-versed in the objective truths of math and science would provide a bulwark against Soviet aggression and demonstrate the superiority of western capitalist societies. Improvement in these fields was sure to place the U.S. at an undisputed power advantage over the Russians.

But when the Cold War ended in the late 1980s, and politicians and educators took stock of the American educational system, there was a widespread push for reforms that would bolster what many considered lackluster student performance. As with other subjects, the teaching of history came under close scrutiny. Under a 1992 Congressional mandate, the National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) formed a committee to draft new guidelines for teaching history in American public schools. Funding came in part from taxpayer dollars through the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of...

(The entire section is 3800 words.)