Publication Date

October 1, 2002

With research assistance from Julie M. Keller, Kristina Marcy, and Sara McParland.

At long last, history education in the schools is receiving sustained public attention. While several reports over the past decade have highlighted both student ignorance and inadequate teacher training as particularly acute problems in social studies/history classrooms, the situation has clearly taken on greater urgency in policy-making circles. Worry about the assimilation of a vast new wave of immigrants combined with a post 9-11 sense of vulnerability to those who do not share our national values has given U.S. history-as-civics-lesson a new profile and a new political clout. In this context the May 2002 findings that 57 percent of high school seniors scored "below basic" on the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) test in U.S. history set off new alarm bells. Veteran educational critic Diane Ravitch pointed first of all to "out-of-field teachers"—a majority of social studies teachers have neither a major nor a minor in history—as the source of the problem and called for a "subject-matter test" for teachers "no less rigorous than the one that the students must take to graduate from high school." 1

Fortunately, such rising concerns have stimulated a policy response in the form of the Department of Education's Teaching American History (TAH) discretionary grant program, a direct product of the legislative efforts of Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). Already the first $50 million of TAH money has been invested in 60 projects around the nation; another $100 million was dispensed in September 2002 in partnerships between local school districts and history professionals in academic departments, museums, or other nonprofit organizations. As an unprecedented (and largely unanticipated) infusion of outside resources into professional development and teacher education in history "as a separate academic subject (not as a component of social studies)," the TAH program carries an awesome potential impact. For years, a small but brave band of history educators has pushed for greater and more self-conscious emphasis on the collaborative links within our professional community. Certainly, the TAH grants offer the best chance yet for the diffusion of a common spirit of inquiry among academic, secondary school, and public history practitioners.

The very circumstances of new opportunity, however, raise one immediate concern. Basically, all the weight of "crisis" in history education centers on middle school and high school students and their teachers. The "solution"—whether in the TAH grants or in new state-based standards and testing regimes—inevitably targets the teachers for some kind of uplift and/or regulation. "They," in short, are perceived to be the problem, "we" (as true history professionals) the solution. Yet, when it comes to history education as an enterprise of student learning,who are the experts? Does the academy supply a model that can usefully be passed to practitioners at the secondary-school level? Because PhDs (presumably) know more history, do they know more about history education?

A recent experience gives me pause. As part of a classroom assignment for MAT students in my "Colloquium on the Teaching of History," I asked the students to visit both a university and a high-school history class across the Chicago area and then report, briefly, on their experiences. Here is an illustrative excerpt of four reports from the field:


University: “A handful of students sat up front, and the rest fanned themselves out in the very back of the lecture hall at as great a physical remove from the instructor as it was possible to achieve. There were 26 of them, of whom one apparently slept through the entire lecture. The rest either took notes or stared blankly at the instructor, who did all the talking, with two exceptions. At one point the instructor asked if anyone could recall the details of Bacon’s Rebellion. When no one volunteered, he called on two students by name, neither of who could recall anything about the event in question. At another point he asked two students to read longer secessionist quotations. They obliged as well as they could. One was stymied by the word ’emoluments.’.The students all remained motionless when the instructor had finished speaking until he dismissed them by saying, “Okay, so that’s the argument I wanted to make today.”

School: “From the university I went directly to Cicero and joined the American Studies class I have been observing. The entire class was in the library doing research on the Internet for their current project. Each pair of students [was asked] to write and illustrate a children’s book at a third-grade reading level on a [self-selected] historical topic. The operative theory is that they will have to master the topic in order to explain it to a younger kid. The students, all 10th graders, were working in pairs, some diligently and others less so. The teachers circulated and made suggestions or, occasionally, responded to frantic pleas for help.


The professor's teaching method was straightforward lecture. . . . He did, however, write down important names on the board. Occasionally, he paused and asked, "Is that clear?" to reinforce an idea, or said, "Think about that for a second," to emphasize something. His lecture style was very enthusiastic; his tone was loud and clear, and he often gestured with his hands. While the first two-to-three rows were filled with students diligently taking notes, the rest of the rows were sparsely populated with students who seemed a bit more distracted. Next to me a student read job ads the whole time, taking no notes. Two female students behind me carried on a whispered conversation. One male student appeared to be finishing his lunch, another student left about 15 minutes early. At the end of class, [the professor] paused to take questions or comments, which resulted in one question from a student.


Upon entering the [high school] classroom, I was struck by its layout. Instead of desks there were seven tables with four chairs clustered around each table. . . . Small group discussions were held at the beginning of class during which time the students reviewed homework questions. The question was then posed to the entire class and, based on the earlier dialogues, students shared their views. There were no lectures. In fact, the school-approved textbook was used primarily for background material at the start of a new unit with only 15–20 pages per unit assigned for homework. The students mainly learned about U.S. history via primary sources and supplementary articles provided by the teacher, an individual whose passion for the subject matter showed throughout class. Movies, slides, and other visuals were often used to help students identify with a particular topic. Anyone who believes serious (or critical) thinking is not happening in schools today has not been to this classroom.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the [university] U.S. history class I visited. The class was held in a large lecture room with the teacher standing at a podium in the front. It was a pure lecture for 50 minutes. The only break came when a transparency containing simple facts—places, names, and dates—was searched for and placed on an overhead projector. There was virtually no interaction with the members of the audience save for a very brief dialogue between the teacher and his assistant. The lecture material was pulled directly from the textbook. Needless to say, students did one of the following during class: copied down the facts, slept, or simply paid no attention to the instructor. And who could blame them?


The most salient difference between the college and high school classes was the relationship between students and instructor. Mr. __, the high school teacher, seemed to take seriously his obligation to act in loco parentis, constantly attempting to motivate his students and guide them along the right path, exhorting and entreating them when they stray. He planned class activities that involve graphic expression.and he made sure that he varied the classwork from day to day and even within the same class period. The college lecture, on the other hand, seemed designed to tolerate or even encourage the students’ passivity. Here the instructor was merely a disinterested purveyor of information.

The point, it hardly needs to be said, is that the "failures" of history education are hardly confined to the secondary school nor are they monopolized by what is commonly identified as the lower end of the professional educational hierarchy. The challenge of connecting to our students (and indeed, the history-consuming public at large) with an appropriate message and a method is a universal one for history professionals. Schoolteachers themselves have much to bring to the table of any professional development enterprise. Recognizing this fact is the sine qua non of any effective collaboration for improving student learning in history, now and in the future.

— is professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and director of the PhD concentration on Work, Race, and Gender in the Urban World. He was vice president of the AHA's Teaching Division, 1998–2000. Julie M. Keller, Kristina Marcy, and Sara McParland are students completing their MAT or MA degrees in History/Social Studies pursuant to teaching careers in the Chicago-area school system.


1. Diane Ravitch, “Should We Be Alarmed by the Results of the Latest U.S. History Test? (Yes),” History News Network, May 27, 2002,

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