Chapter 3: American History in the Classroom

Do boys and girls in American schools have opportunities to realize the values of history which are described in the preceding chapter? Is the program of studies and activities designed to promote the purposes and ideals of the builders of this country? The answers to these questions can be found in part in the type of program which is carried on in American history. Since this subject is a part of the social studies field, which in turn is only one among several, it is well to visualize the total field before centering attention upon American history.

Students in our schools take courses in English, mathematics, languages, science, social studies, and other fields. Within the social studies they take a variety, of subjects. In the primary grades (I, II, III) the pupils study group living as exemplified in the family, school, community, and among selected groups, such as desert people, the Eskimos, and fishing folk. In the middle grades (IV, V, VI) they study biographies, early peoples, European countries, geography, simple civics, and the early history of the United States. In the junior high school (Grades VII, VIII, IX) they study geography, United States history, and community living, with stress upon the civic aspects. In the senior high school (Grades X, XI, XII) they study world history, United States history, and current problems. The problems course consists of elements of government, economics, and sociology organized around topics or units, some of which are treated historically.

The contents of the social studies field can be visualized from the following lists, which show the programs of three representative schools as they appeared in the fall of 1943.

An additional picture of the social studies field is supplied by the following table, showing the program in Urbana, Illinois, at successive intervals. Urbana is a small midwestern city, located in a typical area. In spite of the fact that it is a university town its school program seems to be typical of the region. The table shows how the social studies program has changed from 1885 to 1943. Several significant developments may be noted. For example, English history, which was required in 1885, disappears from the list before 1920; world history makes its appearance within the last decade; United States history has been a constant in Grade VIII; and civil government (civics) and American history, with one apparent exception, have been required in the high school throughout the entire period.

A. The Status of American History in the Schools

This report does not undertake to present a complete picture of the social studies in the schools of the United States. The two specimen programs are given merely to enable the reader to see the context of subjects within which American history is taught. The pertinent questions here are: Do schools teach American history? How frequently is it taught and at what grade levels? How many students study it? These seem like simple questions which call for clear and definite figures. In reality, however, they are not simple questions, and with the most thorough system of gathering educational statistics the answers would have to allow for a considerable percentage of error. And unfortunately educational reports are not regular, uniform, or up to date.

The person who deals with social statistics soon realizes that many apparently objective facts are hard to ascertain. For example, the number of persons in penal institutions, the number who died of a particular disease, or the number of radios in the United States appear to be easily ascertainable data, but one familiar with such enumerations soon learns that he must accept approximations which may give a correct but not an exact picture of the situation.

In dealing with educational statistics, it should be recognized that there is no national system of education. Education is primarily a function of the states, and in spite of the growth of federal participation the legal structure of school systems remains unchanged. The United States Office of Education has only indirect power to require reports and statistics, and its limited budget has not always enabled it to gather all desirable data, even on a volunteer or sampling basis.

Even if the Office of Education could require reports on subject enrollments, they would need careful interpretation. The absence of standardized terminology makes it difficult to identify the specific nature of many courses. If a school reports Biography for Grade IV, Social Studies I for Grade VII, and Problems of Democracy for Grade XII, even a person familiar with educational terminology may be in doubt as to the nature of the content. American history courses often appear under unit titles, the significance of which is not popularly recognized. Exact reports as to subject offerings can scarcely be expected where there is such diversity of terminology. Thus the problem of identifying American history in the classroom is a complicated one. Many teachers and program-makers feel that unusual and colorful titles have an appeal for students. Under the label of history many extraneous elements are introduced; and courses which do not pretend to be history include many historical materials.

In spite of these facts approximate answers to the questions concerning the frequency of offerings in American history and enrollments therein can be given with great certainty. The evidence comes from four principal sources: (1) state laws, (2) regulations of state departments of education, (3) city courses of study, and (4) special studies made in selected areas, states, and periods.

(1) An examination of the statutory requirements concerning the teaching of American history will throw some light upon the frequency with which it is taught and required. While the laws are for the most part merely a legal recognition of a situation which had already developed, they do furnish a kind of guarantee of uniformity. This examination of existing statutes concerning the teaching of American history is therefore based upon no attitude of either approval or disapproval. It is merely one method of ascertaining the status of American history in the schools.

State laws on the subject of the teaching of American history are usually general, often vague, and sometimes obscure. Often they require that the subject shall be taught but fail to indicate whether it shall be taught in the elementary, the junior high, or the senior high school. They frequently specify that American history shall be taught, but not whether it is to be an elective or a required subject. As a general rule one can assume that nearly all the early laws (i.e. those passed before about 1900) on this subject apply to the elementary schools. In such cases the legislators generally intended that American history should be taught in the upper grades, that is VII and VIII. More recent laws on this subject have been quite generally directed at the high schools, and in application this has meant the two upper grades, XI or XII.

This study undertakes to present an accurate and complete picture of the statutory requirements. The difficulties are numerous. For example, the laws concerning the teaching of state history, state documents, the federal Constitution, the state constitution, and American institutions and ideals, are interpreted in some states as implying a mandate to teach United States history. The phrase “American institutions and ideals” appears in the school laws of Arizona, California, Wyoming, Georgia, South Carolina, and two or three other states. In some states the department of education, the attorney general, or the courts have construed this phrase to mean that American history shall be taught. Whether one should say, in such instances, that it is required by law or by regulation of the department of education is a moot point.

Table V presents an inclusive picture of the requirements for the teaching of United States history in both the elementary and the secondary schools. Three symbols have been employed to show the situation in each state: an x means that a state law exists which either specifically requires the teaching of American history at the indicated grade level, or has been interpreted as such a requirement; the letters D-E mean that a course or courses in American history are prescribed by the state departments of education; a zero means that there is no state-wide requirement for the teaching of American history, either by state law or by state department regulation. In Alabama, for example, there is a state law requiring that American history be taught in the elementary schools, but in the high schools the requirement rests on a regulation of the state department of education. In Arizona the teaching of American history in both the elementary and the high schools is required by state department ruling. In the third state listed, Arkansas, the requirement that American history be taught in both the elementary and the secondary schools rests on state law.

Table V shows that 34 states require by law the teaching of American history in the elementary schools; 21 require it at the high-school level. Those states which require it in high school also require it in the elementary school. In 11 states where there is no law requiring the teaching of American history in the elementary schools, it is prescribed by the state departments of education. In 25 states which have no law requiring the teaching of American history in the high schools, it is prescribed by state departments of education. Thus the teaching of American history in the elementary schools is prescribed by law or by regulation in 45 states; in the high school it is prescribed by law or by regulation in 46 states.

Most of the state laws and department of education regulations concerning the teaching of American history are stated in terms of a subject to be offered. In the elementary schools there are no electives, and so the offering is synonymous with the taking. In a few states a course in United States history is required for admission to high school. Thus the laws and regulations require the offering, and in effect the taking, of American history in the elementary schools, and about three fourths of them require the taking of the subject in order to qualify for graduation from high school.

(2) The second type of evidence that American history is generally taught at two, three, or four grade levels is found in the programs of studies issued by the state departments of education. State departments prepare these programs for all the grades and distribute them throughout the state. They set the pattern for schools outside the larger cities, but there is great variation among the states and within particular states as to how faithfully schools follow them. When the teaching of American history is required by law within a particular state, it is certain to be listed as a required subject in the state program of studies. Even without specific statutory authority the department may require the teaching of American history within those schools over which its curricular control extends.

The accompanying Table VI shows the grade placement of American history in curricula issued by the state departments of education of 32 selected states. The list is representative rather than complete. It supplements the picture of requirements given in Table V. The x on the line between Grades XI and XII indicates that the school or the students have a choice as to the year in which the subject shall be taught. It will be noted that the number of years in which American history is given ranges from 3 to 6, and that Grades V, VIII, and XI are the ones in which American history most frequently appears.

(3) The third kind of evidence for the widespread teaching of American history is found in courses of study prepared by cities, especially larger cities, which are quite generally outside the jurisdiction of the state departments as far as the curriculum is concerned. When the state department of education, however, recommends the teaching of a subject, even the larger cities are inclined to meet, if not to exceed, the suggested standard.

The table of American history offerings in 49 selected cities (Table VII) shows that the subject is taught in every one. The range in the number of grades in which the subject is taught is from two to six; the modal number is four, and the average is only slightly below four. The typical grades in which it is taught are V, VIII, and XI, the same grades to which it was most frequently assigned by state departments of education. By comparing the two preceding tables< one can see that cities offer American history even though not all of them are required to do so either by law or by regulation of the state department of education. For example, Miami, Kansas City (Missouri), Minneapolis, New Orleans, and Newark offer the subject in the high school even though there is no legal, and probably no external administrative, compulsion to do so.

This examination of (1) state laws, (2) the regulations of state departments of education, and (3) typical city programs proves that American history is taught with great frequency. No parent need fear that his child will have no opportunity to study American history.

(4) The fourth type of evidence for the well-nigh universal practice of teaching American history consists of many specialized studies.[3] Most of these investigations present materials showing the status of United States history at various periods. Thus the assembling of evidence concerning the teaching of American history at various levels is in part an exercise in the historical method.

The teaching of American history in the elementary schools began soon after the founding of the Republic. The prevailing trend was to place it in the last years of the school program. The intensification of nationalism following the Civil War, the development of imperialism, and the idea of civic and moral education advocated by the Herbartians encouraged the offering of American history in the middle as well as in the upper grades. The development of history as a source of patriotism and a field of study, exemplified in the publication of the Civil War records and in the founding of the American Historical Association, caused many persons to feel that American history should be taught to the children at several grade levels. By 1903 the teaching of American history in the elementary schools was required by various statutory devices in thirty states.

The Committee of Eight of the American Historical Association in its report of 1909 recommended that some elements of American history should be taught in every grade of the elementary schools. Indian life, stories of national heroes, special celebrations, biographical studies, and European backgrounds as well as more formally organized courses constituted the main content of the recommended program. It is certain that the recommendations of this committee were based upon fairly widespread practice and did not initiate an entirely new movement. It is certain also that this report accelerated the movement for the teaching of American history in several different grades.

Although the historical elements introduced in the primary grades have remained there, they have become more informal and less overtly historical. Formal attention to American history has continued in the middle grades (IV, V, VI). A study made in 1936 shows that out of 1191 elementary schools; 413 offered American history in Grade IV, 723 gave it in Grade V, and 438 in Grade VI. A study of offerings in Texas in 1940-1941 shows that American history is taught seven times as frequently in Grade V as in either Grade IV or VI. Thus there is a tendency throughout the country to place the formal history of the United States in Grade V. Many school systems, however, continue to teach it in Grades IV or VI.

The growth of the practice of offering American history in the middle grades did not lessen its frequency in Grades VII and VIII. A study of 259 school systems made in 1910 shows that American history was taught in 85 per cent of them in Grade VII and in 79 per cent in Grade VIII. A study of 234 junior high schools made in 1936 shows that in 99 American history was taught in Grade VII and in 139 in Grade VIII. These two studies show that the practice of teaching American history in either or both of these grades continued through three decades.

It is clear from the foregoing analysis that American history is offered in the middle grades and in the junior high school. Pupils in the elementary and junior high school seldom have elective subjects. If American history is scheduled as a regular offering at these levels it is certain that pupils in attendance take it.

The rise of the high school witnessed the introduction of an additional course in American history. This was due partly to the feeling that it was necessary and partly because such a subject had been taught in the academies, the forerunners of the high school. The requirements and expectations of the colleges also encouraged the high schools to offer American history. The feeling that this additional course was needed for citizenship training, the influence of the academies and colleges, and additional legislation, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s, served to make the American history course in the senior high school a standardized offering. A study of 40 schools shows that it was offered in 45 per cent of them in 1899. This percentage rose rapidly during the next two decades. As early as 1904, 86 per cent of 160 reporting high schools offered American history. A survey of 1032 schools in the North Central Association shows that 95 per cent of them offered American history in the school year 1916-1917. Another study completed in 1924 shows that American history continued to hold approximately the same status in the high schools. Between 1934 and 1941 the American history course in the senior high schools of Texas retained its position in that state as second in frequency among the social studies subjects.

Another instance of the growing recognition of the importance of American history is furnished by the lengthening of the courses. Prior to 1920 one-semester courses in American history were rather frequent, but by 1934 nearly nine tenths of the courses in both junior and senior high schools were a full year in length. In 1920 only 13.5 per cent of the freshmen entering Ohio State University had studied a full year of American history in high school; by 1940 this had risen to 80.5 per cent.

The fact that American history is offered, however, does not prove that it is taken by all the students. In many senior high schools the students have some choice of subjects. In spite of this freedom of choice, studies covering the period from 1890 to 1930 show that there was a constant increase in the percentage of students who took American history in Grade XI or XII. This growth in the percentage of students studying the subject seems to have slowed up during the early years of the depression, but the Office of Education estimated that in 1934 more than six sevenths of the potential students were actually enrolled in the course.

Further evidence that the number of high-school students taking American history has increased may be found in a recent investigation of the number of students presenting credit in the subject for entrance to Harvard University. Sampling studies were made of the classes which entered in 1937 and in 1940. Eighty-four percent of those who came in as freshmen in 1937 and remained to complete their undergraduate course had taken American history in high school. In 1940, 92 percent of the sample of entering freshmen had studied American history in high school. This growth assumes increased significance when it is remembered that Harvard University draws its student body from all sections of the United States and from private as well as public schools.

The evidence is overwhelming that American history is taught in the vast majority of schools in three cycles, and it is certain that nearly all the pupils enrolled in the schools study it in the middle grades and in the junior high school. In senior high schools, where some choice of subjects is allowed, the mere presence of the student is not sufficient evidence that he takes American history. Even at this level, however, the evidence, while scattered and incomplete, leads to only one possible conclusion, namely that nearly all senior high school students study American history in Grade XI or XII.

B. The Status of American History in the Colleges

Evidence about the status of American history in the colleges is less complete and less conclusive than for the schools. The two major questions deal with offerings and enrollments. Information about these factors is difficult to obtain and equivocal when found. The apparently definitive nature of the list of history courses in a college catalogue should not keep one from recognizing that many of these courses are never given. Sometimes the professor changes his plans and sometimes the enrollment does not justify the continuance of the course.

It is even more difficult to obtain accurate statistics on college enrollments in American history. While an institution can easily ascertain the total enrollment in American history courses, it cannot readily find the number of different students in such courses, for a particular student may be enrolled in two or more. If the exact number were available, one would still not know how many college students study American history, for the college course extends over four years. Presumably one might multiply the number, if it were obtained, by four, but in view of the fact that thousands of students drop out of college, other thousands complete the course in three years, and still others pass into professional schools after two or three years, the result of multiplying by four would be an overestimate of the number of students who take American history in college. Thus the questions of college offerings of and enrollments in American history courses are difficult to answer with exactitude. Even an approximation is hard to arrive at.

A study, made in July, 1943, of the most recent catalogues of 62 colleges and universities and 31 teachers colleges shows that every one of them offers courses in American history, ranging in number from 6 to 93. The number of history courses listed by the colleges and universities and the percentage of them devoted to American history are shown in the following table.

A view of the type of courses also contributes to the picture of college offerings in American history. Every institution gives a general course in American history; 45 list courses in Latin American history, 32 in the westward movement, 28 in the diplomatic history of the United States, and 26 in American economic or social history or the two in combination. A smaller number of the colleges list courses in constitutional history, in special periods, and in the biographies of men and women who have played a leading part in the development of our country.

The offerings in American history by the 31 teachers colleges, grouped according to size, are as follows:

The number of courses in American history in teachers colleges ranges from 4 to 45. The types of special courses offered are similar to those in the colleges and universities.

Another study, made in the summer of 1943, was based not on college catalogues but on replies from departments of history. Only 8 of the 62 institutions mentioned above were included in this second study. Usable replies were received from 56 colleges and universities. The following table presents the results.

A summary of the evidence from the three groups of institutions shows that 150 offer an average of nearly 10 courses in American history and that 35.8 percent of their history offerings are devoted to this field. Thus it seems clear that history departments are not neglecting to offer courses in American history. Do the students take them?

Some evidence on this question is furnished by the examination of college requirements with respect to American history. In a survey made in 1942, Benjamin Fine of The New York Times found that about 18 percent of 690 colleges and universities required a course in American history for graduation. Among teachers colleges the percentage was 48, a significantly higher figure. In addition, many colleges required American history for those who majored in related subjects, such as economics, sociology, and political science. At least one state, California, requires by law that college graduates shall have had a course in “American institutions.” A course in American history has been accepted as meeting this requirement. Since few colleges require that their students take American history, a complete picture of enrollments in the subject cannot be secured from this source.

Fine, in the study mentioned above, reports that 9.3 percent of the undergraduate students in 690 colleges were enrolled in courses in United States history. The percentage of students taking American history was significantly higher (17.3%) in teachers colleges than in liberal arts colleges (8.1%). The percentage of the enrollment in American history courses of the total enrollment in history varied somewhat with the type of institution. In teachers colleges 43 percent were enrolled in such courses, in colleges and universities 31 percent.

The returns from the history departments of 56 colleges and universities show that 14.4 percent of the total student body was enrolled in American history courses. Over 39 percent of the students enrolled in history courses were in American history. These percentages, which are higher than those of the Fine survey, may be explained by the fact that more of the returns came from larger institutions.

This survey of the evidence of the teaching of American history in the schools and colleges points to four obvious conclusions. (1) The number of courses in American history in the schools and colleges is sufficient. If the results are unsatisfactory the remedy is not the multiplication of courses. The Committee, however, sees no cause for discouragement over either the enrollment or the results. (2) Enrollment in American history courses in elementary and junior high school approaches 100 percent of the students in attendance. (3) Enrollment in American history courses in senior high school is so high that the Committee sees no need to urge any change in programs at this level. (4) The percentage of college students who study American history is small. The Committee believes that it should be raised, and proposes (Chapter VII) a plan which it believes is designed to effect this result.

Major Studies Consulted

Baldwin, J. W., A Survey of the Present Status and Current Trends in the Social Studies Curriculum in Texas Schools. University of Texas Publications, No. 4132. Austin: University of Texas, 1941.

Bennett, Raymond D. An Unpublished Study on the Amount of Credit in the Subject of American History Presented by Students of the College of Education for Entrance to Ohio State University.

“Charted Results of Survey on College Study of United States History.” Survey of United States History in Colleges and Schools. Senate Document No. 26, 78th Congress, 1st Session, 1943.

Dawson, Edgar, The< History Inquiry: Report of the Director. (Re-printed from The Historical Outlook, XV: No. 6, June, 1924) Philadelphia: McKinley, 1924.

Davis, Calvin O., The Accredited Secondary Schools of the North Central Association. United States Bureau of Education, Bulletin, 1919, No. 45. Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1919.

Flanders, Jesse Knowlton, Legislative Control of the Elementary Curriculum. Contributions to Education, No. 195, Teachers College, Columbia University. New York: Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1925.

National Education Association, Department of Superintendence. Fourteenth Yearbook. The Social Studies Curriculum. Washington: National Education Association, 1936.

The Study of History in Schools: Report to the American Historical Association by the Committee of Seven. New York: Macmillan, 1899.

The Study of History in Elementary Schools: Report to the American Historical Association by the Committee of Eight. New York: Scribner’s, 1909.

Tryon, Rolla M., The Social Sciences as School Subjects. New York: Scribner's, 1935.

United States Office of Education. Offerings and Registrations in High-School Subjects, 1933-34. Bulletin, 1938, No. 6. Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1938.

Wesley, Edgar B., Teaching the Social Studies. New York: Heath, 2nd. <ed., 1942.

3. The principal ones used for this study are cited at the close of this chapter.