Publication Date

November 1, 1991

Perspectives Section


Post Type

History Education

Earlier this fall, I received a letter from an Association member bemoaning the inability of the history profession to get its act together and address the need for history education reform. The writer noted various worthwhile efforts—the History Teaching Alliance, the National Council for History Education, National History Day—but maintained that the multiplicity of projects and organizations is not in history’s best interests. While other disciplines have successfully focused reform efforts on one or two core initiatives, history has been fragmented, hindered by an inability to mount a concerted, collaborative campaign, despite general agreement that such is needed. I could not deny the accuracy of his observations, but I could point to a solution: the National History Education Network (NHEN). The Network is a new alliance of organizations and projects committed to action. It brings together history’s advocates across the professional and political spectrums, from learned societies to organizations for teachers and public historians, from the advocates of a history-centered curriculum to the champions of the interdisciplinary approach of social studies. Some have special interests such as the use of material culture in the classroom or the adoption of a world history curriculum, but all share a basic determination to promote and enhance history teaching and learning.

Credit for founding NHEN goes to Louis Harlan, professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park. In 1989, as president of both the AHA and the OAH, he called for a “summit conference” on history education reform. The need for a concerted effort to improve the teaching of history in elementary and secondary schools had been well documented by that point, the Bradley Commission on History in the Schools had published its recommendations for reform, and the National Commission on the Social Studies was to issue its model curriculum later in the year. But what was unclear was how to bring about the proposed reforms, and Professor Harlan set that as the agenda when he invited representatives of eight organizations and projects to meet with AHA and OAH officers and staff in Washington in March 1989.

Among the various proposals discussed at that meeting was the possibility of developing a state-level network to influence policymaking related to history education. This was envisioned as a collaborative effort, pooling the resources of interested organizations and projects to establish a central office to coordinate advocacy efforts—much like the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, but focused on the state level rather than the federal.

By the time of the group’s third meeting, in April 1990, the proposed network was the sole agenda item, and the number of participating organizations and projects had doubled to sixteen. Participants discussed frankly the obstacles to coalition-building but resolved to move forward with plans. When the group reconvened the following September, the number of organizations and projects represented had grown to twenty-three, with another eight indicating interest. At that meeting, participants approved a statement on mission and goals, agreed on an organizational structure, discussed financial commitments from participating organizations, and set as the top priority finding an institution that would provide a home base for the newly named National History Education Network. An agreement with the American Association for State and Local History regarding the headquarters was negotiated and finalized earlier this fall, and the position of NHEN director was advertised in September and October. If all goes according to plan, we expect to hire staff and open the Network office in early 1992.

NHEN will serve as both a clearinghouse for information and an advocacy center. Its activities will include the dissemination of information on state and school district policies related to history education and efforts to influence policymaking regarding high school graduation requirements, teacher certification requirements, textbook adoption policies, course and curriculum content requirements and guidelines, and history teaching and learning in community and cultural institutions. The Network will also promote professional development of history teachers. More specifically, according to its proposed bylaws, it will serve as a clearinghouse and advocate for collaborative efforts involving primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, and museums and other cultural and educational institutions; encourage colleges, universities, and professional associations to recognize faculty contributions to the promotion of history education; publicize and promote professional and educational opportunities for precollegiate history teachers; work to increase services offered to precollege history teachers; identify and support strong preservice and graduate level teacher certification programs; and identify and promote resources which foster deeper understanding of the histories of diverse groups.

Membership will be open to any group or individual who shares the Network’s commitment to strengthening history education in the schools. The twenty-seven organizations and projects officially signed up include, in addition to the AHA and the OAH, the American Association for State and Local History, the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Studies Association, the Committee on History in the Classroom, the National Council for History Education, the National Council for Social Studies, the National Council on Public History, National History Day, the Organization of History Teachers, and the Society for History Education. Membership categories will be based on minimum levels of annual support—$2,500 for full membership; $250 for associate membership. In addition, an individual or group may become a correspondent by paying a minimum $25 annually. Correspondents will receive all NHEN mailings and may participate in Network activities, but will not take part in decision-making. A policy board made up of full and associate members will determine Network priorities and oversee the work of the headquarters office.

The establishment of NHEN will not end the disagreements between the advocates of history and those of social studies, but this effort at coalition building has provided a valuable context for discussion and debate and demonstrated that we can work together, despite our differences, for a common goal: excellence in history teaching and learning. Although specific policy issues and strategies have not yet been agreed upon, we feel confident that NHEN will prove a successful vehicle for collaborative action in support of history education reform for many years to come.

Editor’s Note: The above is based on an article that will appear in the fall 1991 issue of the Organization of American Historians’ Magazine of History. The latter is a special issue edited by Douglas Greenberg, Vice-President of ACLS, on history education reform. For additional information, contact the OAH, 112 North Bryan Street, Bloomington, Indiana 47408-4199, (812) 855-7311.