Teaching Division 2000

By Leon S. Fink

Over the past three years, as I watched distinguished colleagues bid adieu following their three-year terms on Council, I privately wondered if their professed expressions of personal enjoyment as well as enhanced learning were more an exercise in professional diplomacy than authenticity. Being on the same precipice now myself, I know the latter was the case for them—for like them I certainly feel the tug of both gratitude and instant nostalgia. Rather than in a final p.s., therefore, let me at the outset thank both my Council and Teaching Division colleagues as well as the headquarters staff for a most rewarding experience: thanks to you, the AHA will remain for me a friendly society instead of an institutional abstraction. In particular, I would like to single out fellow Council member Nadine Hata, who has provided unstinting good advice during a tenure that overlapped with mine; Assistant Director Noralee Frankel, a masterful stateswoman who makes the routine fun and the not-so-fun at least interesting; and Administrative Associate Frances Lilly, who always gets the details right. I served with three outstanding AHA presidents as well as two most dedicated executive directors. No question for me; it was all more than worth it.

With sentiment given due respect, let me turn to substance. The division, I think, can take a measured sense of pride in both the general arena of teaching-related affairs and the more targeted agenda we have recently set regarding collaboration between university-centered historians and a larger set of history professionals centered on K–12 history and social studies teachers. Teaching concerns are now well-ensconced in our annual meeting offerings; indeed, so robust is the number of teaching sessions that we will in future exchange the now cumbersome front matter in the program for a simpler system of marking teaching-related panels. The model teaching "workshop" sessions—two each for the past three years—is a further institutional recognition of the value we (like our school-teaching colleagues) place on this professional endeavor. An expanding online directory for K–16 collaborations in history education (including both academic and public history-centered projects) is a tangible sign of continuing commitment. So is an ongoing plan for an AHA-organized professional review of high school textbooks. At a more institutional level, closer working relationships recently arranged with both the National Council for History Education and the National Council for the Social Studies offer us a place at the national teaching "table" that we have too long ignored. Finally, President-elect Wm. Roger Louis's proposed National Center for Historical Studies holds great promise as a focal point for new ideas and practices in history teaching and teacher education; it is a project to which we in the Teaching Division lend our full enthusiasm.

Yet, while proud of our accomplishments and ongoing activity, I want to end on a cautionary note that contains three parts. First, there is the immediate practical challenge of how to coordinate history education projects following the spring 2000 demise of the National History Education Network. If we are to maintain a presence (let alone extend our influence) in the K–12 arena, we must come up with alternatives to the old apparatus. Within the division, we have discussed action on at least two fronts: allocation of at least a half-time staff position to K–16 connections; and a special membership campaign (with sharply reduced entry rates) directed at teachers as well as students enrolled in social studies teaching degree programs.

But I think the challenge goes deeper. Despite a few sallies in the right direction, the AHA in my view has yet to demonstrate effective involvement in the cause of history in the schools. At a time of unprecedented public preoccupation with student learning and educational standards (for both students and teachers)—a subject that rang continuously, if often vacantly, in the recent national presidential campaign—does the Association commit itself in this area or let others speak in History's name? Within the policy discussion of higher standards for teachers, to be more specific, there is a clear call by such respected bodies as the American Council on Education and the Council for Basic Education for direct engagement by the disciplines in teacher education. So far, in my view, we have not answered the call. Believe me, I do not minimize the task involved. For a university and college teaching-centered membership, it is no easy task to enter a new terrain. The problem, I suspect, is not only practical—how do we successfully make the links?—but also conceptual. Perhaps derailed by the history standards controversy, we have not defined for ourselves, let alone others, just what we consider the essentials of history learning for those who arrive at our own doorsteps. Whether the subject requires a special ad hoc committee (such as those currently addressing graduate education and the problems of part-time professors) or can be met by our current deliberative machinery remains to be seen. We can take encouragement from the fact that the best compendium on the subject—the brand new volume Knowing, Teaching & Learning History, edited by Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg—began as an AHA-sponsored conference. Let us hope that there is further programmatic follow up to such worthy initiatives.

A further dilemma for the AHA as a leader of the discipline concerns the financing of programs. During my tenure, the division has searched in vain for the necessary backing for two well-crafted projects: one a literary and video collaboration with exceptional high school teachers on why they entered their chosen fields and the other a pilot project to model best practices in university-school collaboration. These were both cases where we as a division were convinced that our initiative was both useful and needed; yet we could not proceed because the funding agencies—especially the nonprofit foundations—did not share our priorities. On the other hand, we are regularly responding to outside initiatives from these same foundations—participating, so long as we find it productive—in the designs of others. My parting shot on this subject is simply to ask that we try to recover more control over the allocation of our best energies. While necessarily seeking allies, especially regarding funding, do we risk becoming an affiliated society ourselves rather than an autonomous professional society? Is there more that we can do under our own steam? With appreciation and hope, I leave it to my worthy successor and his distinguished staff and colleagues to figure it all out.

Leon Fink (Univ. of Illinois at Chicago) was vice president of the AHA's Teaching Division, 1998–2000.