Back to the Source: Teacher-Professor Collaborations, Primary Source Instruction, and the Amherst Project, 1960–1972
William Weber, December 2014
Collaboration between historians in schools and colleges has increased steadily over the last five decades, suggesting that it is a good time for us to look back at the history of this activity. Projects have sprung up in many regions of the United States and have come together as a movement to raise the intellectual level of history education. One of the main goals is to teach historical thinking through use of primary sources and analytical methods. Another goal has been to develop training sessions to help teachers and professors apply such methods successfully. Activity on the local, state, and national levels has given a firm basis to the movement, making clear that collaborative projects show no sign of waning, even as funding declines.
The American Historical Association participated in national efforts to reform school curricula with, in 1892, the Committee of Ten and, in 1898, the Committee of Seven, whose reports delineated a mission for the Association to further history education. Though a flurry of interest in primary sources arose, the reports had limited impact on how history was actually taught.1 A contributor to History Teacher’s Magazine, published under the auspices of the Association in the 1910s, said that such “collateral readings” were given at only a few schools with advanced students.2 In any event, deeper reshaping of history teaching had to come from the grassroots of America’s schools and colleges.
In the 1960s, the Amherst Project started such an effort. Instructors from Amherst High School and Amherst College worked together to publish 70 teaching units of primary sources, most around 50 pages long, and held training sessions for such teaching around the country. The instructors who launched the Amherst Project had been socializing at the Lord Jeffrey Amherst Inn, debating why students disliked history so much. They held a public meeting in 1960 at which a high school teacher insisted that vivid primary sources could get students actively engaged with historical topics. Finding that teachers needed further training to use such methods, the group asked the US Department of Education to support summer workshops where teachers learned to use primary sources through inquiry, a term that presaged critical thinking.
The leaders who guided the project in the next dozen years included a teacher from Amherst High School, two administrators of the college, and three faculty members (see sidebar). Most of the units were designed by teachers interested in experimenting with new methods. But the key leader, in both practical and intellectual terms, was Richard H. Brown, an assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Brown moved to Chicago in 1963, where he developed a second home for the project at the Newberry Library; he remained on staff there after the project ended.
The main theoretical influence on the Amherst Project came from Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner, who claimed that any child possesses the intellectual intuition to be taught on a high academic plane. In The Process of Education (1960), he declared, “Good teaching that emphasizes the structure of a subject is probably even more valuable for the less able student than for the gifted one.” Richard Brown followed such thinking in his call for the project to make students “active inquirers by asking questions and pursuing their answers rather than . . . [having them] . . . master the answers of others.”3 One of Bruner’s students, Rose Olver—the first woman granted tenure at Amherst College—took a central role in the national workshops.
What was extraordinary about the project’s leadership historically was that the units came about through collaboration of teachers and professors. Private foundation money and then government funds brought about summer sessions in which the college instructors worked with teachers in putting together booklets containing source materials from the library for units on particular topics. The subjects responded to contemporary issues but avoided controversial points of view; two examples were Korea and the Limits of Limited War and Liberty & Law: The Nature of Individual Rights. Some of the booklets were chosen for courses influenced by the New Social Studies, a movement that involved similar teaching methods.
The Civil Rights movement influenced the project’s booklets extensively. Richard Brown worked closely with several schools attended principally by African American students. At Benjamin Cardozo High School in Washington, DC, for example, the units were used by Larry Cuban, now a leading historian of education based at Stanford University. Funds from the project paid two interns to help him produce a unit called Social Relations, Pre–Civil War (1965). A wide range of topics confronted race relations, including The Negro in American Life (1962) and Black Freedom (1969).
The training sessions, called workshops for discovery learning, were held in some 18 cities from Boston to Tulsa to Berkeley. The participants would observe a staff member leading a class of students discussing a set of sources, and then the teachers would themselves participate in a class discussion. At the end of the day everyone would analyze what had worked and what had not. Brown recounted to a contemporary that participants would find themselves “thinking we knew what styles of teaching would work and what wouldn’t, only to find that it was more complicated than that.”
A member of the staff would then visit a participant’s classes for discussion of the methods used. The Amherst Project Papers, held at Teachers College, Columbia, includes reports by staff members and teachers that illustrate the challenging process of learning to use primary sources in class. Robin McKeown, a staff member studying education at the University of California, Berkeley, reported to Brown in 1968 that a teacher in Oakland was “learning the philosophy of ‘throwing the ball to the kids’ and allowing them to grapple with it.” On another occasion he reported that it was nice to see a teacher new to primary sources doing a good job with a class. McKeown’s comments illustrate the realism with which leaders of the Amherst Project approached their work. He suggested that units should involve short documents that demand a basic reading level and are of particular interest to students. By this means, he stated, “there should be an opportunity to discuss the materials immediately after reading [since] discovery approaches or inquiry methods are considered as equally important with slow learners as with average.”
National funding for education as a whole all but collapsed in the early 1970s, and disillusionment with new teaching methods became widespread. Yet the movement for reform of history education nonetheless survived those dark days.4 A cohort of activists continued to work within the AHA while developing collaborative programs between schools and colleges. Eugene L. Asher, for whom an AHA Teaching Prize is named, served as the leading spokesperson for history education.
A new generation of leaders, adhering to similar principles, emerged in the late 1980s and argued that reform of history teaching had to come from local collaboration between teachers and professors. The Document-Based Question of the Advanced Placement program, begun in 1973, gave national prominence to the new wave of history teaching. Primary sources became established as a major component of history curricula, manipulated through critical thinking, role-playing, or group work. A new set of programs were developed beginning in the late 1980s: the National Council for History Education, the National Standards for History in the Schools, the California History-Social Science Project, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and partnerships funded by the Teaching American History Program.
These programs all followed the principle established by the Amherst Project that teachers need a particular kind of training to apply challenging methods successfully. The shift of the Amherst Project from producing lessons to giving teaching workshops proved to be a crucial turning point in the history of history education.
William Weber, professor of history emeritus at California State University, Long Beach, was the AHA’s vice president, Teaching Division (2001–04), and has written books on musical life in 18th- and 19th-century Europe.
1. Robert Orrill and Linn Shapiro, “From Bold Beginnings to an Uncertain Future: The Discipline of History and History Education,” American Historical Review 110 (June 2005): 727–51; Robert Townsend, History’s Babel: Scholarship and the Historical Enterprise in the United States, 1880–1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
2. H. Morse Stephens, “Courses in History in the Colleges,” History Teacher’s Magazine 3 (1913): 152.
3. “Proposal to the U.S. Office of Education for an Educational Personnel Development Grant,” 1964, Papers of the American Historical Association, Library of Congress.
4. William Weber, “The Evolution of The History Teacher and the Reform of History Education,” The History Teacher 45 (2012): 329–57.
Founding Leaders of the Amherst Project
- Edmund Traverso (Amherst High School)
- Richard H. Brown (University of Massachusetts History Department; Newberry Library)
- Van R. Halsey (Amherst College Admissions Office)
- Peter Schrag (Amherst College Public Relations Office)
- George Rogers Taylor (Amherst College American Studies Department)
- Allen Guttmann (Amherst College History Department)
- Rose Olver (Amherst College Psychology Department)
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