Publication Date

October 1, 1989

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning

Editorial Note: Once again, welcome back to “Network News Exchange,” a history teaching column sponsored by the Society for History Education. This time NNE presents reports of teaching sessions at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians held in St. Louis, April 6-9, 1989. All but one of the OAH Focus on Teaching Day sessions are reported. Somewhat surprisingly, a reporter could not be found to cover “Teaching the History of Sexuality: Intellectual and Pedagogical Concerns.” We apologize for the omission.


Teaching about Nuclear Issues

Allan Winkler (Miami University) opened this workshop with the observation that nuclear history includes some fundamental issues of modern American life, issues that cut across fields and affect all areas of our life and culture. The focus of this session was a survey of 190 colleges and universities across the nation to find out what, if anything, they teach about nuclear issues. Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the survey established the first quantitative data on what is being taught on this subject in American higher education. The control and management of nuclear energy has been a major national and international issue for forty years, so it seems time for it to be included in history curricula.

Sheila Convis (U. S. Department of Energy) presented the statistical results of the survey in a packet of charts and graphics. In general, Convis concluded that there is a lot being taught about nuclear issues, in many institutions, and there is much material being developed. But while there is a strong current of interest within the teaching community, there is not yet a unified organization or network.

Jack Holl (Kansas State University), former chief historian of the DOE, presented the “sweeping generalizations” from the survey. He noted that there are some special handicaps to doing nuclear issues work. One is that much of the documentary evidence, especially from the period 1943 to 1975, was “born classified.” Another is that there is as yet no clear definition of the field, which is probably one reason why only one-third of the non-survey nuclear issues courses offered are taught in history departments.

From the survey results, Holl organized four topical clusters of course offerings (from 217 non-survey courses). The first and most common is the history of weapons and war, within which he found three sub-groups. Courses that focus on “The Bomb” are traditional in structure and format and tend not to cover contemporary issues in depth, such as arms control or nuclear power. A second sub-group includes courses on nuclear weapons and the arms race; while generally historical in content, they are not narrative in structure. The final sub-group consists of courses incorporating nuclear issues within the history of war and peace studies.

The second topic Holl identified was nuclear diplomacy, taught primarily in history and political science departments and focusing on such issues as the Cold War and arms control, but surprisingly, not very often including nuclear proliferation. The third theme area was science and technology, which might or might not include weapons and diplomacy. Often such courses compare the impact of nuclear technology with the impact of other new technologies. The final category was nuclear history within a social and cultural context, found most often in American studies programs. These courses are the most innovative in structure and format, with titles such as “Dr. Strangelove’s America.”

For both Holl and Convis, the model course is Allan Winkler’s “The United States and the Problems of the Nuclear Age,” which emphasizes the military atom but includes material on issues related to peaceful uses. Few of the courses in the survey results do so, and none include such current developments as nuclear medicine. An interesting conclusion from the survey was that history courses try to be more analytical and less ideological than others, with historians apparently standing apart from the debate that non-historians seem eager to enter.

Tom Keay (Roosevelt High School, Missouri) gave a secondary teacher’s perspective on this subject. While some students may have gained some exposure to the topic through the news media or movies, many have not, and in any case misinformation abounds. He has found enough materials—newspapers, magazines, films, novels, and simulations—to include a unit in his contemporary issues course. He also pointed out the ease of finding speakers on this subject; the local public utility, for instance, can usually provide a slick presentation. Winkler concluded the presentations, observing that the interest and resources are out there and we must make use of them. It is surely time for history surveys to move beyond World War I. The small audience then engaged in a discussion of teaching materials and resources. Given the importance of the topic, it is unfortunate that only fifteen people attended.

Thomas R. English, The George School

Teaching the History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement

Peter Levy (Rutgers University, Newark) opened this workshop with the observation that 1989 was the 35th anniversary of the Brown decision and the 25th of the Civil Rights Act. An entire generation of students has grown up since these events. The way we teach this subject, Levy continued, reveals much about our profession: can we integrate race, class, and gender issues into our curriculum? Do we update our material? Can we teach without relying on the presidential synthesis? Students demand relevant history and this moment offers an appealing chance. It allows students to see people similar to themselves doing things that mattered, a vision that generates student engagement with the material.

Cheryl Greenberg (Trinity College, Connecticut) shared her impressions as a white professor teaching black history and the civil rights movement to majority/white classes of able but not especially motivated students. Greenberg challenges students’ assumptions. Racism is not personal, irrational, or based on ignorance; rather, it sustains an unequal distribution of goods, privileges, and power. The ethnic melting-pot, assimilationist model does not apply, because race is different from ethnicity. Thus Greenberg’s students come to understand the goals of pluralism and equal access to power and relate those goals to the unique history of Afro-Americans.

Martha Norman (Wayne State University) brought the perspective of a black woman activist to this workshop. Her classes tend to be predominantly black and even include people who were in the movement. Such students want in-depth study and understanding, however vague and general their historical knowledge may be. Norman urged that we escape the “leadership oriented” courses that make the movement seem neat and well-mannered. Students should see the dynamism, courage, and organizing skills of the black community in action. Leaving out women, students, and community activities and presenting only the leaders—in the tradition of black exceptionalism—takes the mass out of the mass movement.

David Garrow (City University of New York) noted some of the practical problems of teaching undergraduates. In a chronological survey, we lack a good text for this topic. While film and music are readily available supplements, these media must be assessed in the larger contexts of the movement and its times.

Garrow emphasized the importance of such topics as community activism, the roles of women and young people, the ambivalence of the federal government, and the effect of media coverage. He also recommended approaches such as the nature of activism or the civil rights movement’s links to more recent activist movements.

In the discussions that followed, several speakers pointed out that programs based on the contemporary coverage in the liberal, white media leave out the true radicalism of the movement. Thus Eyes on the Prize did not include Malcolm X in its first series, in spite of his influence even in the rural South. The program ran very long because of the animated discussion; the size of the audience was another indication that this workshop should have been a regular session.

Thomas R. English, The George School

Using Local History to Teach American History

A valid justification for this session (and for the teaching of local history) is that “national history has local roots, and local history has national implications.” Although all three presenters made obvious the local roots, listeners had to develop for themselves local history’s national implications.

The first presenter, Mary E. Seematter (History Museum of St. Louis) effectively described her participation in the American History School Project. She and her associates recognized that there was no place in their schools’ curriculum for local history and set about developing one. Their goals were to use local history as an explanation of national history, to develop their students’ awareness of local history, and to encourage their students to think critically. Using documents from the collections of the Missouri Historical Society, they prepared a text book with headings, narratives, primary sources, and illustrations, as well as lesson plans to guide teachers in its use.

Maria Morantz (Joplin Public Schools, Missouri) followed with an enthusiastic and informative description of her students’ participation in the National History Day program. She attributed the students’ enthusiastic involvement to the fact that there is little else for young people to do in Joplin and, perhaps more accurately, to the encouragement and support that they received. Slides of student projects revealed topic choices ranging from local nineteenth century history, such as slavery and the Civil War; to local people, including a businessman, a suffragette, and a publisher; as well as to local issues, for example, the farm crisis and pollution of the environment. Rewards for the students included not only what they learned through research and presentation but also awards, culminating at the National History Day competition.

The final speaker, T. Harri Baker (University of Arkansas at Little Rock), described a fifth-grade level newspaper that he and others prepared to convey Arkansas history. Baker explained that his basic motive was to help elementary school faculty teach a required unit on the state’s history. He and his associates, most of whom are on the staff of the Old State House Museum in Little Rock, prepared regularly during the school year an eight-page newspaper containing approximately thirty stories and twenty pictures. Each issue emphasized a specific historic period or topic and was accompanied by a teacher’s guide. Demonstrating the project’s success was its press run of 55,000 copies: 38,000 to fifth-grade students, 7,000 to paid subscribers, and the rest distributed at the Old State House Museum. Further evidence of the project’s effectiveness included student “letters to the editor” concerning the material presented and teachers’ expressions of gratitude for the paper and guide. Baker humbly noted that the teachers have so little material to work with that they would be grateful for anything.

The audience of approximately twenty-five, plus another ten or so who dropped in briefly, was extraordinarily attentive. Most seemed to be teachers who were hearing practical suggestions that they could implement with their students. After the formalities ended, people continued to talk with the presenters in the meeting room and in the adjacent hall, which suggests that the session aroused intense interest.

John B. Frantz, Penn State University, University Park

The Future of History in the Curriculum

History has a secure—and possibly even expanding—place in the pre-college curriculum of the future—if boards of education and other curriculum decision makers follow the recommendations of three groups who favor history. One of the most well-attended of the “Focus on Teaching” sessions held at the April 1989 OAH meeting in St. Louis was that on the proper place for history in future curriculum. The recommendations from the Bradley Commission on History in Schools, the National Commission on Social Studies, and the UCLA-NEH National Center for History in the Schools was that more history should be included. The three groups were represented by Kenneth T. Jackson, Fay Metcalf, and Charlotte Crabtree, respectively.

Kenneth Jackson, chair of the Bradley Commission, was the first to speak. Established to look at the presumed crisis of history in our schools, the commission represents no other organization, just the eighteen distinguished historians and classroom teachers who serve on it. The Bradley Commission’s findings and recommendations, however, have been endorsed by both the AHA and the OAH. From the start, commission members were certain that students should have more history and that the commission should help make that happen by producing a document that would persuade curriculum decision makers of the importance of history. The commission faced two especially lively questions. First of all, which should be included in the curriculum—Western civilization or world history? The commission provided a resounding “yes, please, we want both” reply. Throughout, Jackson pointed out the Bradley Commission’s admiration for teachers and stressed that it does not blame teachers for the present state of history in the curriculum. He closed by expressing the hope that states will increase the number of history requirements for students and that the full report of the commission will receive extensive positive media attention in the fall of 1989.

Next, Fay Metcalf spoke on the work of the National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools, of which she is executive director. The commission consists of forty-five members, including scholars and teachers of history, chief state school officers, and noted representatives from business and government<197>not only teachers but also people who make decisions about what is taught. The commission’s work will result in three products: a book on social studies, a survey of the characteristics and experiences of teachers, and a report by the commission’s curriculum task force entitled “Charting a Course: Social Studies Curriculum for the 21st Century.” The report will include statements of goals for students and a delineation of preferred and recommended social studies curriculum sequence. History has a central and significant place in this curriculum; indeed, if the recommendations are implemented, most schools will have to increase the amount of time committed to history. For example, this group recommends that high school students be required to take a three-year sequence in world and American history and geography, followed by a twelfth grade year that includes a semester of American government and public policy issues and a semester to be chosen from social science electives.

The third speaker, Charlotte Crabtree, is director of the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA and spoke about the work taking place at that center and about the California framework for the social studies. She placed the efforts of all three curriculum revision efforts into historical perspective by pointing out that the present reform effort to increase attention to history has greater promise than the various reform efforts of the 1960s because we have gone through the cycle of changes, 60s experimentation, subsequent hyper-rationalizations, and then the increased attention to accountability and attention to “basics” which drove out creative reform. In her view, the big focus on minimum competencies was a disaster but has enabled leaders to recognize that higher order thinking is very important, so that now there is considerable media attention to and national interest in history curriculum reform.

The California initiatives also emphasize history. They are similar to that of the National Commission of the Social Studies in the Schools in that they specify three years of history and an elective in high school, but California places the required sequence at grades 10-11-12 and the elective at the 9th grade level, to meet individual needs of local schools and students.

Douglas Greenberg of the American Council of Learned Societies responded to the three presentations, discussing both the justification for undertaking the reforms proposed by the three preceding speakers and the specific content of the suggested curricula. He stressed that in planning a history curriculum for the future it’s critical to look carefully at demographic trends and to design programs that will help students to live in the world in the year 2025. By then, our student population in this country will be at least half minority; by then, only 9 percent of the world’s population will live in the United States and the European economic community. Greenberg challenged curriculum planners to take demographic changes into consideration, to recognize that we operate from a narrow conception of citizenry and citizenship, and to bear in mind that people are quite often alienated by the “usual” history which they experience in schools. His recommendation that our goals should be to liberate young minds, not to develop loyalty, was hospitably received by the audience.

Bonny M. Cochran, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School

What Should We Teach About Civil Rights?

Few events in recent American history require the instructor to exhibit greater sensitivity than the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Panelists Waldo E. Martin, Jr. (University of Virginia) and Earl P. Bell (University of Chicago Laboratory School) offered insightful suggestions on how to approach the subject.

Martin and Bell both emphasized that students need to understand that the civil rights movement is a continuous shaping experience. Like any communication activity, the movement is an ongoing process, not simply a moment in time. As such, it affects contemporary attitudes and ideology.

Effectively addressing such historically significant concepts as equal opportunity and race relations requires going beyond the public protests and demonstrations to focus on the peripheral events and issues that affected individuals. To reach this goal, instructors can direct student attention to such topics as black urbanization and white suburbanization, the role of the media, the impact of events on ordinary people, the roles of individuals and groups, and the international dimension. In general, educators must enable students to understand the idea of two symbiotic relationships: people and the government, and blacks interacting with whites.

The presenters offered some cautions, too. For example, although the recently acclaimed PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize contains excellent subject matter and can be extremely valuable as a classroom resource, instructors should not use the series indiscriminately. In contrast with the more historical Roots, Eyes on the Prize focuses on a more recent and frequently violent period. Consequently, this production will have a greater tendency to provoke an angry response that could take one of two forms: students may either internalize their feelings or strike out. Instructors must be prepared to deal with this. One teaching strategy is to confront the students with a question, thereby creating a mystery which they must solve by examining evidence that is intentionally contradictory. The forum for discussion could be a class newspaper. For example, just as American reporters cover international affairs, students might role play as journalists from other countries during the 1960s reporting on the civil rights movement, the goal being to write the most credible story.

John C. McWilliams, Penn State DuBois Campus

Teaching the American History Survey: Advanced Placement and College Courses

The current status and future prospects of the U.S. history survey were at the heart of this session. While some panelists proposed new techniques to enhance student participation, others were more divided and tentative on larger questions concerning the content and purpose of the survey.

The session revealed deep interest in teaching designed to foster student interest. Marjorie Bingham (St. Louis Park High School, Minnesota) urged “silent teacher” activities. Students, according to this concept, should lead discussions and mediate debates between fellow students based on materials provided by the teacher. William McCracken, (Pine View School, Florida) also encouraged role-playing, stressing the use of student-led discussions as a catalyst for participation.

Such activities might seem a luxury to those instructors who have classes of 100 students or more, but the “silent teacher” concept can be applied even there. Constance Schulz (University of South Carolina) argued that such sections can be divided periodically into small groups, debating controversial issues among themselves, and then reporting to the class. Schulz also noted that the distance between the students and the past is reduced by self-guided field trips.

Questions concerning the Advanced Placement exam and the goals of the survey proved far more controversial. The AP exam troubled a number of participants, who felt increased popular pressure for more standardization in teaching. Frederick Pfister (Cranbrook Kingswood School, Michigan), raised the concern that high school teachers were adopting a “freight-train” approach that stressed memorization and tests at the expense of understanding. Michael Woodward (McCallie School, Tennessee) noted that focused preparation for the AP exam often results in only superficial coverage of the colonial period, since eighty percent of the questions of the AP test concern the period in American history after 1789.

Clair Keller (Iowa State University), Richard T. Farrell (University of Maryland), and Elaine Breslaw (Morgan State University) were less concerned with standardization. Farrell even rejected the idea of the AP exam as pretentious and biased against minorities. But all three of these participants saw a need for greater clarity and focus in the teaching of the American survey. Farrell noted that most survey narratives “sail” through a series of public events that have little coherence as a whole. Breslaw also argued against this tendency, and noted that the ideal survey should have not only a theme, but a day-by-day syllabus that justifies each session by its place in the larger design. Other panelist agreed that a theme is necessary, but failed to propose examples. The sense was that such suggestions might affront some and appear gratuitous to others. As for the goals of the survey, some justified the course as a means to enhance critical thinking and obtain a grasp of cultural heritage; others disavowed such goals.

Andrew P. Yox, Southwest Texas State University