Publication Date

December 1, 1994

Perspectives Section


In the spring of 1989, a student shocked me by claiming never to have read a book not assigned in a course. I assumed that he had entered the college while the admissions officer was on a coffee break. But when I checked with other students, I found that his background was not unique. A new generation with an experience of literacy different from mine was infiltrating campus. That discovery elevated a nagging doubt to the status of a full-fledged anxiety.

In terms of markers like promotion and tenure, student evaluations, and special awards, I can document a record of success as a teacher. But after 25 years in the classroom I am increasingly insecure in the practice of my trade. Experience has helped me hone my skills, but my skills may no longer be the best ones for the job that now needs to be done. Fewer students rise to the challenge of my examinations, and more are willing to dismiss my assignments as unreasonable.

We teachers are expected to ensure the literacy of future generations, but our explanations of how we do this are not clear. A few concerns have been identified and debated for a long time, but without much progress, and some relevant issues have attracted scant attention. Faced with mounting calls for accountability and widely publicized studies that question our effectiveness, the time has come for a more determined, systematic discussion of our teaching strategies than we have thus far conducted. In this essay, I review discussions of history teaching that have been reported in the newsletter of the American Historical Association, draw some conclusions, and propose some topics for future consideration.

The AHA Newsletter and History Teaching

Like most American professors, I learned to teach by being taught, and my brushes with formal instruction in pedagogy have not been encouraging. A lack of confidence in the nation's secondary schools feeds my distrust of colleges of education, and the pamphlets sent me from university instructional development offices rarely surmount the silly to achieve the obvious. For help, therefore, in the struggle to improve my teaching, I have turned to those best situated to understand my problem, my colleagues in history. There are journals devoted to history teaching, but, according to Henry S. Bausum, "the most widely and regularly read column on the teaching of history being printed in this country" (Perspectives, October 1982, p. 12) can be found in the AHA newsletter.

This was not always the case. The AHA was established to promote scholarship, and it long regarded teaching with benign neglect. The AHA entertained some resolutions on teaching in the 1950s, but the interest of its members in discussing teaching was limited until the employment crises of the 1970s. By 1970, the bottom was dropping out of the market for academic humanists, and no one knew how deep the slide might go. Since history departments began to lose funding for positions to disciplines that could demonstrate greater student demand for their services, the recruiting of undergraduate majors and the filling of seats in elective general education courses became a matter of survival. The future of academic history appeared to depend on the popularity of its teachers.

The decade of the 1970s opened with a call for the AHA to pay more attention to teaching. In September 1970 the AHA Newsletter (as Perspectives was called before 1982) carried a petition to add two elementary or secondary school teachers to the AHA Council to “reflect the real diversity and pluralism of the historical enterprise.” Avery Andrews of George Washington University cautioned, however, that the selection of the best candidates for the proposed posts would be difficult “because nobody knows what teaching really is, which is why when teachers become eminent it is always for something other than teaching” (Newsletter, November 1970, p. 19).

Letters that had already appeared in the Newsletter confirmed Andrews’s warning that discussions of teaching might founder on the difficulty of identifying good pedagogy. John B. Halsted described a revised introductory course at Amherst in the September 1970 issue of the Newsletter (pp. 15–20). Reaction to his article revealed how little consensus there was about the objectives of history courses. In the January 1971 issue (pp. 18–19), Marvin E. Levison of Brooklyn College took Amherst to task for exclusive concentration on “verbal documents,” and he argued for the importance of “multi-media literacy.” Halsted (p. 20) countered that the Amherst historians employed visual materials where appropriate, but he warned that the challenge to future teachers would be “the preservation or resuscitation of the nearly lost art of reading.” The letters defined the poles of debates that continue: the passivity of words versus the activity of experiences, and the changing nature of literacy in a world awash in the sounds and images of various media.

As a scholarly organization, the AHA had few traditions to guide it in developing resources for teachers. In March 1972, an open letter to the membership of the Association from the AHA Review Board was appended to the Newsletter. It asked, “What should the AHA do to promote and improve undergraduate teaching of history in the U.S.?” Lawrence Stone of Princeton proposed clearing the air by making a distinction between historian researchers and historian teachers. He argued that since 70 percent of Ph.D. holders teach but do not publish, it made sense to train them as teachers, not researchers—to reserve the Ph.D. for a research track and to create D.A. or M.Phil. programs for teachers. Stone’s proposal highlighted another perennial issue in the classroom wars: the debate about the relationship between research and teaching.

The readership of the Newsletter was apparently in a mood to discuss the challenge of the classroom. Letters volunteering advice for the revision of courses and programs poured in, and in November 1972, the AHA’s Committee on Teaching was established. About the same time, a Newsletter article on revisions proposed for the AHA’s constitution recommended the establishment of a teaching division alongside divisions for research and professional concerns (November 1972, p. 14). The November 1973 Newsletter carried the final report of the constitutional review board. It admitted that the central concern of the AHA traditionally had been research and that the Association “has devoted comparatively little effort directly to improving the state of historical studies in the classroom” (p. 24). But it noted that “no area of our preliminary report received such highly favorable response as the proposal for the creation of a Teaching Division” (p. 25). The AHA membership voted to approve the establishment of the Teaching Division in spring 1974.

The "Crisis of History Teaching"

In the May 1973 issue (pp. 18–21), the AHA Committee on Teaching published a report that warned of pitfalls in some schemes for the evaluation of teaching. It said that teachers who were forced to teach for success on tests mandated by evaluating agencies tended to fragment and render trivial their subject matter. It identified five mental skills that it thought should be the focuses of history courses. This raised another issue that continues to be debated: the importance of learning information versus mastering methods of inquiry.

In January 1974 (p. 1), the report on the annual meeting noted that a survey soliciting suggestions for the revision of the Newsletter substantiated the need “for more news on teaching methods.” In March 1974 (pp. 11–12), Douglas D. Alder compiled a list of “Teaching Experiments in Undergraduate History.” Most of the contributors recommended alternatives to lectures, many advocated greatly increased use of films, and all emphasized the acquisition of intellectual skills more than the memorization of data.

In September 1974 (p. 1), a report describing declining enrollments in courses and majors was followed by the announcement of a new feature of the Newsletter (p. 3): a regular column entitled “Innovation in Undergraduate History” (soon renamed “Teaching History Today” and, later, “Teaching Innovations”). Its editors, Henry Bausum and Myron Marty, invited descriptions of “efforts to respond effectively to history’s changing status in academe.”

Between November 1974 and March 1975, more than 25 institutions reported on their programs. Although it is difficult to summarize their advice briefly, the majority recommended courses that students perceived as relevant (because the courses were about students or issues students were predisposed to find interesting), courses that included alternatives to reading and writing (such as the viewing or production of films, the acting out of simulations, etc.), and courses that provided students with more opportunities for small group or tutorial experiences (including computer-guided study). A survey of history teaching in high schools, community colleges, and state universities in the April 1975 issue (pp. 5-6) indicated that some of these suggestions were easier to implement than others. It reported the "extensive use of nonprint media" in community colleges, but noted increasing class sizes at state universities driven by demand for "cost effectiveness."

In May/June 1975 (pp. 4–5), Michael Lodwick and Thomas Fiehrer objected to the direction the discussion of teaching was taking. In an article entitled "Undoing History; or, Clio Clobbered" they asked, "How can the avowed purposes of the educator be reconciled with the pandering—the groping, often silly efforts at making history attractive to the uninterested—that goes on in the Newsletter?” In the September 1975 issue (pp. 4–5), the editors of “Teaching History Today” defended contributors to their column and warned against the formation of hostile camps: the “harlequin-huckster” (who turns the bitter pill of history into candy) and the “clio-recluse” (who demands that students slowly chew the dry remnants of ancient feasts). There were apparently many who wished to join the debate, for the same issue announced the establishment of a new journal, Teaching History: A Journal of Methods.

In November 1975 (pp. 5–6), Stephen R. Graubard, editor of Daedalus, suggested that one of the crises of history teaching was history teachers’ loss of confidence in the common cultural heritage whose transmission had once been their job. This foreshadowed debates about Eurocentrism and underrepresented groups that were soon to move to center stage. But in December (pp. 5–7), Norman A. Graebner speculated that there was little that institutions could do to create teachers. Teaching styles are so intimately tied to personality traits, he claimed, that “good teaching can be encouraged but, except at the most elementary levels, it cannot be taught.” Graebner saw little to be gained by throwing money at the problem. That had been done to foster research—with little evidence of success. And Graebner believed that the talents of researchers were in better supply than those of teachers.

Graebner's article signaled a shift in the nature of the Newsletter‘s articles on teaching. Submissions from institutions describing universal programs for the improvement of teaching yielded to pieces in which individual instructors explained strategies for particular courses. From January 1976 to the present, most articles have been of this nature. The variety and particularity of interests that motivate them make it difficult to assemble the trees into a forest. But they prove that historians have overcome the reluctance they felt in 1970 to using their most prestigious national organization to air concerns about teaching. Although the newsletter originally promised to devote only one column to teaching, a History Teacher Forum was created, a series of articles on advanced placement teaching was published, the results of teaching conferences have been summarized, and issues related to the classroom have cropped up in the Viewpoints and Letters columns.

What Has the Profession Learned about Teaching?

What does the swelling debate add up to? Are trends identifiable? Is a consensus emerging about the strategy for teaching history? Are we discovering what works with our changing clientele?

Descriptions of objectives and methods for most of the courses described in the Association's newsletter reveal areas of widespread agreement. Even though most history teachers probably still use the lecture, it has few forthright defenders. Most reformers recommend some kind of "active learning" that requires students to take the initiative in formulating ideas. Consequently, the most frequent advice offered is to assign primary sources, to use games and simulations, and to rely on visual media to awaken interest in researching historical issues. The stated objective for courses described in the newsletter is seldom the memorization of data and almost always the development of intellectual skills and writing ability. Some also emphasize the preparation of students for citizenship in a rapidly evolving world by surmounting Eurocentrism and attending to the histories of previously underrepresented groups.

Historians are trained to be skeptical, inclined to protect tradition, and tempted to cynicism by the long view they take of things. It is not surprising, therefore, that every suggestion for the improvement of teaching has been met with at least one objection. And contempt for pedagogical discourse is fed by the difficulty of describing a plan for teaching that does not degenerate into vague exhortation to virtue—or exhortation to vague virtue. The annoying thing about an art like teaching, unlike a science, is that its results are not always replicable when its experiments are repeated by all qualified practitioners.

Thinking on many issues (such as active learning, diversity, resource allocation, and research and teaching) has evolved little since these subjects were first addressed by contributors to the newsletter. Most of us agree that students should be treated more like apprentices in our workshops than like products of our industry, but we are not always certain how to do this. We should continue to describe personal experiments to each other, for there is always the chance that something will transfer from one context to another. But the time may have come for the discussion of teaching to move to different topics.

What Does the Future Hold?

The changing nature of the literacy of students entering colleges and universities is making the teaching of history, which has always relied heavily on written documents, more difficult. The consensus about the best approach to the challenge seems to be that students must be given more individual attention, more small group experiences, and more opportunities to write and discuss. Although there are wizards who find ways to do these things with large classes, for most of us they require a reduction of class size. The national tendency, for a variety of practical reasons, is in the opposite direction. Some institutions have tried to keep down costs by increasing faculty loads. Others have achieved a specious reduction in faculty loads for research purposes by increasing the size of fewer sections taught by their faculty.

Changes in literacy also demand that we consider the future of the textbook. There is a stupefying sameness to many texts owing more, I suspect, to timidity of publishers than to lack of imagination in authors. When the best-selling book in a field becomes the model to which all other books are forced to conform, there is effectively only one book in the field. Textbook publishers may have the same grasp of the market that Detroit had when it "knew" that Americans did not want subcompact cars. If students of the future will be "differently" literate, what form should texts take? If the emphasis is to be on the acquisitions of skills more than information, is the traditional text obsolete? Teachers of history must be clear about the kinds of books they want, or they will be forced to cobble antique tools into rough approximations of the subtle instruments they need for innovative instruction. (Cobbling is already so common that personalized texts composed of selections made by an instructor from a publisher's database are being marketed.) Teachers need a more efficient means of communicating with publishing houses than conversations with the "reps" who drop by their offices or the response cards that come with unsolicited books. A formal discussion of the future of textbooks conducted by the AHA would give astute publishers a sense of where the history classroom is headed.

Time to Set Standards for the History Classroom

In addition, the AHA ought again to debate the formulation of a set of professional standards for the classroom. Although this sort of thing has been tried before to little effect, a statement of standards need not be an impotent wish list. It could be negotiated with the professional organizations of other academic disciplines and included in the work of the agencies that accredit institutions of higher learning. In an age that demands truth in labeling for most marketed products, it should be expected that schools document the claims their recruiting brochures make about teaching environments.

If teaching is to be rewarded and to achieve the dignity it deserves, teachers must be able to demonstrate their effectiveness. Conspicuous by its absence from the discussion that has taken place in the newsletter over the past two decades is the issue of evaluation. On most campuses people know who the good teachers are, but they do not know what it is they know about those teachers. Good teachers, like Plato's artists, are often poor at articulating the reasons for their success. Many schemes for evaluating the fragile flower of teaching threaten to crush it, and most faculties have preferred to evade their responsibilities in this area. One hallmark of a profession is its ability to police its ranks. When it fails to do so (as the American Medical Association is discovering), outsiders threaten to step in and submit its members to procedures that may be both undignified and distorting. Some schools pay mere lip service to the significance of teaching. Others allow administrative personnel to judge the performance of teachers. Still others have abdicated responsibility for peer evaluation of teaching and turned the job over to students. Numerical averages derived from classroom surveys of student opinion drive decisions on promotion, tenure, and annual salary adjustments. It is unlikely that teaching will achieve the status it covets or win the resources it needs unless it can demonstrate what it is. Faculty would be fools to allow the process of their evaluation to be dictated by boards of trustees, state legislators, academic administrators, or student councils.

There are aspects of the educational process about which teachers of history will probably always have to agree to disagree. The relative merits of lectures, discussions, simulations, print and visual media, and various examination procedures can be endlessly debated to no firm conclusion. Arguments about the objectives of education, cultural imperialism, empowerment, the development of skills versus the acquisition of content, and the marketing of history programs quickly become repetitive. Discussions of this kind should not end, but they ought not to distract us from other issues that need attention. Chief among these is the challenge of maintaining literacy for future generations. That task involves, among many other things, exploration of the changes taking place in the student body, development of new means to help students learn, and implementation of procedures for discovering the extent to which we are succeeding as educators.

— is a professor of European history at the Behrend College of Penn State University.

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