Chapter 7: American History in Schools and Colleges

Since the overwhelming majority of young Americans do not go to college, it is obvious that American history must be taught with sufficient completeness in the public schools to satisfy the minimum requirements for good citizenship. The Committee believes that it has outlined a program which will meet this need, but it wishes also to call attention to the very important role that the colleges and universities play in the teaching of our national history. From our institutions of higher education must come the teachers upon whose success or failure the work of the public schools depends. From the colleges and universities must come also a large proportion of the men and women who are to be leaders in the making of public opinion. To these leaders the public schools look for support and criticism. From them the communities, states, and nation seek guidance in the multifold activities of democratic life. For such individuals a mere minimum knowledge of American history is far from adequate. The more intimately they become aware of their nation’s past, of its position and responsibility among the nations of the world, the better their judgment will be.

In our colleges the introductory courses in social science are usually not concerned with American history. Most entering students have recently completed a course in American history and find it more interesting and profitable to study some other area. The basic course in history is normally a freshman or sophomore course in the history of Europe or of Western Civilization. Furthermore, students who wish to take advanced work in economics, political science, and sociology must learn the vocabulary, techniques, and methods of these disciplines as soon as possible. Introductory courses in these subjects, therefore, have a wide appeal and are frequently elected in preference to a basic course in history. The Committee recognizes that these introductory courses in European history and in the various social sciences are important, and it has no desire to see a course in United States history substituted for all or any of them. Indeed, students who must carry a highly specialized or strictly limited program may, and frequently do, find it difficult to elect any course in the history of the United States during their college careers.

The first course in American history offered in college is normally a survey of the whole subject, open to sophomores without prerequisite but frequently not open to freshmen. One reason for excluding freshmen is that the high-school graduate has already had a course in American history in either Grade XI or XII. At the outset of his college work he would be unable to handle a course materially more advanced than the one he had in high school. College students have to make many adjustments in their freshman year; but as sophomores they can justly be expected to deal with much more advanced materials. The Committee believes that the survey courses now given in many colleges do not make sufficient allowance for the increased maturity, ability, and knowledge of the students.

The chief defect of the traditional college survey course in United States history is that it fails, altogether too frequently, to live up to its pretensions and its opportunities. To the student who has looked forward to something new and different, it turns out in reality to be only another exposure to the same old thing. Frequently the senior course in high school, with its five meetings per week, covers the subject far more adequately than the sophomore course in college, which ordinarily meets only three times a week. One college professor who explained to a protesting student that there was a great difference between a college survey of United States history and a high-school survey got an unexpected retort: “Yes, I know that; the high-school course is better.” Such candor is rare, but the circumstances that brought it forth unfortunately are not.

If the survey course in American history at the college level is to be maintained, it must somehow outdistance its high-school predecessor. When college instructors choose to make it so, it can be of great value even for graduates of good high schools. It must avoid tiresome repetition, but it can add richness of detail that might have confused the younger student. It need not shun the complexities that in earlier exposures were necessarily oversimplified. It can proceed confidently along chronological lines, stressing the interrelationships of the topics with which it deals no less than the topics themselves. It can emphasize new interpretations, correct wrong impressions, and embody ideas not always found in high-school textbooks nor often introduced by high-school teachers. Above all, it can fuse together into one integrated whole the various segments and aspects of our national experience. The successful college survey of United States history should leave in the student’s mind a definite pattern of historical development and a clear understanding of the nature and values of American civilization. It should give him a lasting foundation upon which he can build, not only as he takes more courses in history but also as the events of his lifetime unfold.

But if these results are to be achieved, the teacher of the survey course must realize that his students already know something. He should not insist on the stale repetition of well-known facts. He must make his reading assignments as rich and varied as possible and not content himself with a textbook which merely adds more detail to the one studied in high school. Above all, he must stress interpretation, integration, and comparison rather than narrative outline.

As the recommendations of the Committee win general acceptance in public-school curriculums, the way will be opened for a considerable change in the college program of United States history. If the high-school course in American history is as well organized and as well taught as the Committee hopes, it may be necessary to abandon college surveys of the old type. It will certainly be necessary to modify college survey courses in order to allow for the greater understanding of American history that may be expected from high-school graduates. The degree to which these courses must be changed cannot be predicted with any assurance, for only experience can demonstrate the effectiveness of the recommendations of the Committee.

In the meantime college teachers will do well to introduce into the survey course, as rapidly as the preparation of their students will permit, an increased emphasis upon certain generally understressed aspects of American development. The history of ideas in America, cultural trends in relation to regional differences, the role of religion in later as well as earlier American life, the rise of humanitarianism and philanthropy, the conflict and fusion of cultural groups, the distinguishing characteristics of American education, literature, music, and art—these and a host of other items like them may well supplant much of the more conventional material. Subject matter of this sort is not ignored in the recommendations for the schools, but only as the student matures can he hope to grapple successfully with the more difficult problems involved in these topics.

The conscientious college teacher will wish also to go much further than is possible in high school with the development of historical skills. The student must learn to read more, and in more advanced books. He must learn to judge discriminatingly the value of what he reads. He must achieve increased perception in drawing inferences and weighing evidence, and gain additional skill in the analysis and synthesis of historical materials. In the realm of historical method, there need be no serious overlapping with high school, for the content studied can always be varied. Not different but deeper knowledge is the desired goal.

Whatever may be the ultimate fate of the survey course, the Committee believes that for the present, at least, it should be retained. The significant fact that this course in most colleges and universities is strictly an elective should not be overlooked. Students who reveal no need for such a course should not be advised to take it. In a great many colleges and universities the survey course in United States history is not a prerequisite for more advanced courses, and so juniors and seniors may take such specialized courses in American history if they choose. Conscientious advisers should make sure, no less for history than for the foreign languages, that their advisees are not obliged to repeat work that they have already covered adequately in high school.

Though the general survey course in American history can be taught with great success, it is too often regarded by the students as a dreary assignment. Efforts to make it more useful and attractive have been made in some colleges. These revised courses fall generally into two categories: (1) those which emphasize the history of “civilization” in the United States, particularly with respect to culture, institutions, ideas, and ideals; and (2) those which seek to place the development of the United States and its institutions in the wider setting of hemispheric or world history. Each of these approaches to our national development has been useful in offering new interpretations and new syntheses. Either approach tends to avoid duplicating the high-school work. Experiments with the inclusion of not only one but of both of these major reorientations of the traditional survey of American history might well be undertaken. Such a course emphasizing the cultural heritage of the United States and the place of the American people in the history of western civilization might possibly supplant the traditional survey course as the basic college offering.

Should experience demonstrate that such a course is too advanced for the early college years, it might be offered at the senior level as a kind of climax to the liberal education of the undergraduate years. The course should then utilize information, methodology, and points of view acquired by the students during their preceding years. Such an advanced course would appeal to mature students by enabling them to read more extensively in the great documents of our cultural heritage and to organize in a more coherent unit the mass of information acquired in other courses. Thus enriched by the maturity of the students and a wisely selected program of reading, this course in American history could be the crowning intellectual experience of the undergraduate years. It could also be the major contribution of the colleges to the inculcation in their students of a deeper appreciation and a truer understanding of the culture, the heritage, and the responsibilities of the American people.

While the Committee has emphasized the general course in the history of the United States, enriched or reorganized, it does not minimize the importance of the more specialized courses in American history which are offered in colleges. For many students such specialized courses have great value. They are often taught by instructors who have studied these particular fields intensively and have acquired deserved reputations for scholarship. Whether taught by such experts or not, specialized courses offer the student the opportunity to analyze carefully and in detail some period or segment of history. The sense of historical method and the clearer perception of the interaction of historical forces which such intensive study involves are profitable not alone for the prospective historian but also for any well-informed citizen. The colleges and universities should continue to offer them as an integral part of the history curriculum.

While it should be unnecessary, it might be advisable to remind teachers of American history in our colleges and universities that they are no less obligated than those in the public schools to be as good teachers as they know how to be. Unfortunately the idea is current, particularly in some university circles, that teaching is of secondary importance to research, and that good teaching smacks faintly of exhibitionism. The Committee cannot condemn too harshly these harmful assumptions. It believes in research, and would in no way seek to discourage it, but it believes also that the ordinary professor must never forget that he is first and foremost a teacher. Research professorships are entirely justifiable, but men who have no interest in or aptitude for teaching should not be allowed to blunt the interest and waste the time of college students.

The conscientious college teacher will not forget that the methods he uses are being subjected to the closest scrutiny by the future teachers in his classes. Whether he is aware of the fact or not, the example he sets will be interpreted by many of his students as a guide, or at least a justification, for their own actions later on. If the college teacher’s lectures and classroom discussions reveal little careful preparation for the immediate task in hand, some of his students will be sure to assume that chronic extemporization by teachers is permissible. If he merely recites dully or hears dull recitations of facts set forth in the textbook, some of his students will follow the same inexcusable practices. College teachers have an obligation not only to their students but also to the students of their students. The damage they can do by carelessness or indifference is difficult to assess. It ill becomes them to ascribe to the teachers colleges and schools of education full responsibility for evils they themselves have helped to produce.

Particularly in the beginning courses, for sophomores no less than for freshmen, the Committee notes with interest that complete reliance upon the lecture system is not universal, even when classes are extremely large. Discussion sections involving material not presented in lectures are often provided at regular intervals. When the services of full-time instructors are not available for such discussions, teaching fellows or graduate assistants furnish the leadership. The Committee believes that the use of graduate students for such work is an acceptable practice provided they are selected with care. But all such individuals must be made to realize that their standing with their department depends upon their effectiveness as teachers as well as upon their research ability. They need to be told in frequent conferences what they are to do. They need to have their work criticized. In one large state university, a permanent member of the history department is assigned the task of visiting sections regularly in order to give help and advice to section leaders. Sections of the survey course in United States history are sometimes differentiated on the basis of the nature of the content. Such aspects as the history of education, art, or science receive particular emphasis, depending upon the interests of the students concerned.

Assignments for reference reading sometimes receive similar differentiation. In one large state university members of the teaching staff in the sophomore survey of United States history hold individual conferences with their students. At these conferences the students select books to be read and subsequently make individual oral reports on their readings. Assignments are made as far as possible in accordance with the interests and aptitudes of each student. The results are deemed to be excellent. In another university the same practice is followed, except that the reading reports, instead of being made by the student individually, are group affairs, in which a small number of students, all of whom have read the same book or books, participate.

It is not the purpose of the Committee to recommend any specified method or methods of teaching, but it does wish to go on record as insisting that college courses in American history, particularly the survey course when such is given, be enlivened with new material, and be taught as if its teaching were a matter of the greatest consequence. The ablest teachers, not the dullest and most poorly paid, should be in charge of all beginning courses, and experimentation as to method and content should be continuous. Students in these significant courses benefit immeasurably from contact with scholars who are seeking to advance knowledge in their field and who can communicate their open-mindedness and skill in discovering historical truth to others. But students should be protected as completely as possible from contact with the type of faculty member who regards teaching as an intrusion on his research.

Attention is called in another section to the importance of cooperation between teachers of education and of history in the training of public school teachers. One of the best ways in which this can be accomplished is by the selection in each teacher-training institution of an individual whose primary field is the teaching of history. Such an individual should be acceptable alike to the department of history and of education. He should know well both the subject matter with which he must deal and the methods by which it can be presented most effectively. He should himself teach demonstration classes, and be able to show by example how good teaching is done. A competent and experienced adviser can save the beginner many pitfalls, and he may even make the good teacher better. The crying need in American history is not for more requirements but for better teaching.