National History Project Aims to Advance K-16 History Education
Richard Bennett, January 2002
The advent of universal secondary education over the course of the 20th century transformed the educational landscape in the United States. Now, as we enter the 21st century, the nation is crossing another significant educational threshold. Like high school education earlier, postsecondary education is fast becoming a near universal experience in our society. Already, about three-quarters of high school graduates enroll in postsecondary education within two years of graduation. Meeting these transformed educational expectations will require a significant reassessment of what and how students learn both in high school and college.
While expanded access is welcome, the prospect of near universal postsecondary education highlights a deep-seated problem in U.S. education. Excellence at the highest levels coexists with low achievement for the majority of high school and college graduates. Even though our graduate programs in history are admired across the world for their quality, reports continue to show that graduates of high schools and colleges lack the historical literacy expected of a democratic citizenry. Thus, if the gap between expert and citizen is not to widen, to the detriment of the health of our democracy, the community of historians must address the challenge of providing a K–16 education for all students that produces a fundamental understanding of history and its significance.
To address this need for a more integrated K–16 approach to history education, a new national initiative has been launched to bring together professionals responsible for introducing history in the nation's high schools, community colleges, and colleges. The National History Project (NHP) is an initiative of the National Council on Education and the Disciplines (NCED). From its home at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, NCED focuses on strengthening the quality and continuity of learning in the later years of high school and the early years of college.
Motivated by the challenge to bring school and college faculty in history together to address current and future educational needs, NHP has a number of specific goals. First among these is to strengthen the school-college continuum in history education so that institutional separation does not result in educational disjunction. A second important goal is to make historical inquiry and research a core learning experience for all students in high school and college. In other words, the NHP believes that "doing history" should lie at the heart of effective teaching and learning in the discipline. Another goal, following from this, is to foster a genuine professional community in the discipline of history that enables high school teachers and college faculty to develop a common intellectual identity and to address issues of common concern. The fourth goal is to promote historical literacy as a private and public good.
To achieve these goals action will be required both in classrooms and in the policy arena, demanding the engagement of historians and organizations committed to the discipline of history. To make progress in the classroom, the National History Project has launched a pilot process, involving sites in Illinois, New Jersey, and Ohio. These pilot sites will begin with summer institutes that bring together teachers of history from high schools, community colleges, and colleges.
Substantively, the activities of the summer institutes will be based upon the shared school-college experience of teaching introductory U.S. history courses. In these institutes, high school and college faculty will share their insights into introducing students to a lifelong engagement with history. They will also consider how to manage the recurrent tension between the goal of encouraging students to think historically and the "forced march" that survey courses often represent. Out of these discussions they will develop strategies to make historical thinking and historical inquiry active and meaningful for students.
NHP sites will use rich local historical resources such as archives, libraries, historical societies, museums, and public records to enable and encourage research that will animate students to make connections between their local experience and the history of the United States. Placing a strong emphasis on working with primary sources, sites will instill an appreciation of the wide variety of historical sources, as well as those resources that are continually becoming available via new technologies.
By identifying and nurturing a cadre of leaders, NHP sites will provide a platform for year-round activities within local schools and school districts, regionally and nationally. With a new and growing leadership base, history faculty will develop a network that will facilitate exchange on ongoing historical research and teaching. These activities will encourage high school faculty to become an important part of the professional intellectual community of historians.
In order to address the policy dimension, the pilot process will adopt a state-oriented approach. Underlying this approach is the recognition of the important role that states play in educational decision-making. Three sites in Illinois—the Newberry Library, Illinois State University, and Northern Illinois University—are working together to form an Illinois History Project, while Rutgers University-Newark and Kenyon College are establishing the foundations for statewide projects in New Jersey and Ohio, respectively.
To guide this initiative, the NHP has formed a National Steering Committee, composed of distinguished historians, committed to advancing history education. Led by co-chairs, Stanley N. Katz of Princeton University and Suzanne Lebsock of the University of Washington, the steering committee will help the NHP to generate a broad conversation to give history education a greater prominence in educational policy discussions. As Senator Byrd's recent intervention illustrates, the moment to focus the attention of the discipline and the broader educational community on the role of history education is upon us.
Strong connections with the AHA are an important part of this work, and the NHP is pleased to have on the steering committee Stanley Katz who is a member of the AHA's Committee on Graduate Education, as well as AHA Teaching Division Vice President William Weber. Thus, the NHP, which is generously supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, is happy to be working cooperatively with the AHA's Teaching Division and its Committee on Graduate Education.
—Richard Bennett is program officer at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.