Publication Date

December 1, 1992

Perspectives Section


In recent years, the Division of Education Programs of the National Endowment for the Humanities has supported several major projects to enhance the preparation of future schoolteachers in undergraduate programs. For example, the Consortium for Excellence in Teacher Education, representing sixteen liberal arts colleges in the Northeast, received support for a conference and follow-up activities on “Undergraduate Teacher Education and the Liberal Arts,” and the Association of American Colleges brought together in a mentoring relationship institutions that have developed strong programs for teacher education in the humanities with institutions seeking to improve or revise their programs. In related efforts to improve the teaching of history, the Endowment has supported the efforts of the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA to survey the teaching of history, to develop criteria and materials for strengthening curriculum in the schools, and to articulate standards for student achievement.

Relatively few institutions, however, have sought support for projects on their own campuses to strengthen pre-service teacher education programs in the humanities. A project bringing together humanities faculty and teacher educators at Millersville University of Pennsylvania illustrates what can be done with NEH support. Joined by outstanding teachers from area schools, these faculty met for extended seminars on significant topics in the humanities that are also important for undergraduate education and relevant to the elementary school curriculum. Topics included “The Classical Age of Ancient Greece,” “The Age of Encounter in North America, 1492–1700,” and “The New Era in America, 1876–1919.” Visiting scholars contributed to their study of these topics. Participants visited classes at schools as part of their project.

Drawing on these experiences, the humanities and education faculty at Millersville will prepare new general education courses open to all juniors and seniors at the college, with a focus on topics especially relevant to the curricular responsibilities of prospective elementary teachers. Related pedagogy courses, highlighting the approaches of the college instructors as well as preparing students to teach the humanities materials to a younger audience, will be team-taught by education and humanities faculty.

Undoubtedly, many other institutions could be well served by similar efforts. Projects that address the needs of undergraduates who are preparing to become teachers are likely to benefit other undergraduates as well. At the same time, college faculty in history and other liberal arts disciplines stand to gain from any activities that will break down the walls separating them from faculty in the schools of education. Where general education is at issue, it is safe to say that what is good for the future teacher is probably good for everyone. Only the most comprehensive and inspired general education program can prepare a teacher intellectually to guide grade school children on the path to self-sufficiency as life-long learners. An institution that is about to apply for a grant in support of strengthening a core curriculum would thus do well to consider how that task can be coordinated with the task of improving the common intellectual foundations of its teacher education program.

To state a yet more obvious point, historians at the college level can make an enormous contribution to the quality of schooling at the pre-collegiate level through the history offerings that enroll future teachers. The challenge of teaching world history is a case in point. It is a subject almost universally required in the schools, but often not taught in colleges. To the extent that historians at the college level (often trained in traditional European or American specialties) can chart for their time-travelling students the terra incognita of world history, offering a coherent narrative that is well-informed by scholarship and training them to be astute observers and questioners, they will provide sorely needed models for schoolteachers otherwise reduced to lifting more or less verbatim from teacher’s guides furnished by textbook publishers.

If historians serve the ends of general education through their teaching of world history, they do likewise when they join with their colleagues to model the enterprise of synthesis, whether in their own disciplines or in cross-disciplinary efforts. Courses that prepare teachers for the challenges of interdisciplinary work and initiate them imaginatively in the labors of research and synthesis will benefit the general undergraduate as well as the would-be teacher.

Historians also have much to contribute to teacher preparation through their standard history offerings at the intermediate and advanced level. Of course, this contribution goes without saying in the case of social studies teachers. But the case still needs to be made that an elementary or secondary teacher needs to master skills and command knowledge that will not necessarily be taught in the same form in the schools. It is not just the master teacher of AP classes who needs to be able to interpret scholarly debates over the nature of Progressive reform in American history, for example. The ability to interpret history for students at any level calls for some consciousness of historiography, approaches to the study of culture, and the evolution of historical method. The teacher in the classroom needs to have learned from experience that behind a few lines in a textbook lie whole libraries of documents, sermons, archives, monographs, empirical evidence of all sorts, and scholarly disputations civil and uproarious.

Finally, historians have a great deal to contribute—and to learn—about the subject of education itself in collaboration with their colleagues in schools of education. A nineteenth-century historian can contribute to a discussion of Horace Mann or the evolution of the land-grant university, while a historian of twentieth-century urban America can offer valuable perspectives on the would-be teacher’s study of school and society. A European historian could certainly enrich a discussion of the educational ideas of Montaigne, Rousseau, Pestalozzi, or Piaget. How much these historians might then learn about the turns of history when they see these topics interpreted in the context of professional educational practice!

While encouraging historians to consider projects to enhance the humanities education of future teachers, the Division of Education also invites applications in all its program categories. Historians who are interested in developing collaboration with the schools should particularly consider organizing summer institutes and other projects that will provide in-service opportunities for experienced teachers. College faculty who have participated in these projects, which are intended to revitalize humanities teaching in the schools, usually report that they as well as the schoolteachers find the experience richly rewarding. They generally learn a great deal about the enterprise of teaching from this work with their colleagues in the schools.

Projects for schoolteachers funded by the Elementary and Secondary Programs of the Division of Education include summer institutes on such topics as interpretations of the Enlightenment at California State University at Long Beach, American foreign policy since World War II at George Washington University, and the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights at Jackson State University. Institutes usually involve four weeks of summer study followed by activities held during the academic year. Many summer institutes draw on teachers from a particular state or region, others from across the entire country. Collaborative projects, by contrast, usually involve teachers from a particular city or school district. Historians and other humanities scholars from Boston University, for example, have joined with elementary and secondary teachers from the Brookline and Boston public schools in a collaborative project on African history. Collaborative projects combine intensive summer study with extensive follow-up activities during the school year. Most grants in this category are made for a longer period—up to three years—during which a pattern of collaboration is established among the participating institutions.

Finally, masterwork study grants make it possible for historians to work with a smaller group of eight to fifteen teachers from a particular school, school district, or community. Masterwork study projects typically involve ten or fifteen seminar sessions held during the school year that focus on particular topics or texts in the humanities. Some examples of recent masterwork study projects include ones on ancient and modern China for teachers in San Diego; on Islam and the Middle East for teachers in Englewood, New Jersey; and on modern Czechoslovakia for teachers in Atlanta. As with summer institutes and collaboratives, masterwork study projects seek above all to provide teachers with opportunities for intellectual stimulation and renewal and thereby to revitalize humanities instruction in the schools.

For further information about programs and deadlines in the Division of Education, phone us at (202) 606-8380 (Higher Education—Tom Adams) or 606-8377 (Elementary and Secondary—Ralph Canevali). Allow ample time before the formal deadline for preliminary informal review of your project with program staff. We are happy to respond to questions or comments on outlines and drafts at any stage of preparation. If you prefer to write, our address is: NEH Division of Education Programs, 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20506.

Thomas M. Adams and Ralph Canevali are program officers in the NEH Division of Education Programs.