Redrawing Professional Boundaries to Revitalize History Education

Leon Fink and Lloyd Kramer, May 1994

Although critics regularly complain about the irrelevance of academic research or the isolating jargon of humanists and social scientists, university-based historians are, in fact, taking a greater interest in the historical education that American students receive in the public schools. New cooperative programs have been established across the country to strengthen the connections among people who teach history, and historians have been debating how to make these programs an effective, enduring aspect of educational reform.

As faculty codirectors of the Project for Historical Education (PHE) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, we have been attempting to extend the traditional model of such programs (experts dispensing information) toward a new kind of dialogue between professional peers. Having pursued this strategy for more than two years, we strongly believe that such dialogues can be highly useful for research historians and public school teachers alike, but we have also learned that these exchanges can become difficult as they challenge the professional roles of everyone who participates. Our purpose here is to describe some of the successes and frustrations of our efforts.

The Basis for Dialogue among Teachers of History

For any dialogue to succeed, the participants must have good reasons for wanting to join the discussion. Why then should university historians and public school teachers share the desire for more conversations? In the case of university faculty, the motivations begin with concern about the so-called "crisis of public education," which carries over into their own classrooms when they encounter students who are unprepared to do college-level work. Too many first-year students arrive on campus with little historical knowledge and with remarkably successful inoculations against the potential excitement of historical study.

University historians are also motivated to join the dialogue with public school teachers because they want to overcome the isolation or esotericism of research projects that seem to separate them from a wider public. Most historians are uncomfortable with the currently popular attacks on "research," yet they recognize (like the critics) that their work has mostly lost its connection to the public culture of American society. Public schools offer an important point of mediation between themselves and a public they may want to reach.

But what does the dialogue offer to the people who teach history in middle schools or high schools? Despite the criticisms of those many groups and commentators who now attack the public schools, we have found that most teachers have a strong desire to teach their students the best materials they can find. They want to learn about new historical research, to identify new sources for their students to read or view, and to join a good conversation about the best strategies for acquiring or sharing historical knowledge. Like the university faculty, public school teachers have good reasons for discussing historical pedagogy because they face the problem every day in their classrooms.

At the same time, however, the teachers also face their own problems of isolation—problems that differ from the isolation of the university faculty but pose equal or even greater frustrations. They complain often about the demoralization that comes from bureaucratic regulations, state-mandated tests, supervisory personnel, and indifferent students, all of which leaves teachers feeling alone and cut off from any kind of intellectual exchange with people who share their own interests in history or ideas. This, of course, adds insult to the injury of low salaries, which also undermine professional self-respect. In short, teachers feel excluded from a public culture that mocks or ignores the high school instructor as regularly as it mocks or ignores the research historian.

A combination of social, intellectual, and practical concerns can therefore provide the rationale for bringing together two groups whom modern professional boundaries have generally kept apart. Yet the recognition of shared interests is not in itself enough to make the conversation work, as we discovered in our own emerging program. In April 1991 we attempted to launch a discussion between university faculty and high school teachers by sponsoring a public conference entitled "How We Learn History." Academic historians, journalists, high school teachers, and a prominent novelist presented thoughtful, challenging papers and entered into a lively debate about the nature of historical knowledge. (The University of Minnesota Press recently published papers from the conference in a collection called Learning History in America: Schools, Cultures, and Politics.)

The conference was a great success for the university faculty and graduate students, but we quickly learned that most of the public school teachers who attended were disappointed or even alienated by the event. Although they were glad to find a conference that addressed problems other than how to deal with unruly students or how to comply with state regulations, they were also disturbed by the gap between the intellectual reflections of our speakers and the problems of teaching the students in their schools. The criticism hurt, but it helped us to start over with our project.

We had in fact stumbled upon a common pitfall of many well-intentioned programs for teacher-oriented history education: the assumption that experts need simply to bring their expertise to the uninitiated in order for enlightenment to spread throughout the schools. We assumed (and the assumption is not entirely wrong) that teachers wanted or needed to know about the latest work in women's history, social history, and cultural history, so that they could go home to their students with a new appreciation for cutting-edge research.

Bridging the Deeper Social and Psychic Distances

Yet the exposure to academic historians alone did not remedy a deeper problem, namely the social and psychic distance between the university professor and the public school teacher. On the contrary, the presence of so many experts seemed actually to exacerbate the differences and thereby increase the sense of isolation. However stimulating the intellectual debate of academic historians may be, it places too many teachers on the sidelines and too many ideas in a realm of abstraction that has little immediate value in the classroom.

The typical university do-goodism does not address a basic problem in the professional lives of most university faculty and public school teachers: the fact that professors and teachers are not incorporated into professional communities that connect people across the social and intellectual boundaries of our society. With teacher training generally located in schools of education, most teachers do not develop much identification with or knowledge of academic disciplines and intellectual traditions. Similarly, immersion in the problems of university culture has left professors all too ignorant of the wider educational environment, including common pedagogical constraints such as state-mandated curricula, testing procedures, and school textbooks.

So we realized that our ideal conversation would require more knowledge of the "other" on both sides of the great divide, and it would require cooperation among equals (who possess different forms of knowledge) rather than the speeches of university experts. With these caveats in mind, we have developed a regular series of workshops, funded by the North Carolina Humanities Council and organized by a steering committee of teachers, UNC faculty, and graduate students. Each workshop emphasizes document-based discussion and focuses on a specific topic that teachers in North Carolina have to cover in their courses, though we look for ways to link those topics to the most recent themes in historical research.

More significantly, however, each workshop is led by a university expert and a high school expert. The research historian discusses current publications in the field and describes recent scholarly controversies in straightforward summaries; the high school teacher then points the discussion more specifically toward what this research might mean for a teacher who needs a lesson plan for Monday morning. The leaders distribute materials that can be used in a classroom or bibliographies that can lead to other resources.

Cultivating a Conversation about Common Interests

The most valuable aspect of each workshop develops in the conversation between university faculty and high school teachers. Sometimes the conversation becomes tense as we discuss how to teach about Christopher Columbus, the African role in the slave trade, or the values represented by "dead white males" such as Theodore Roosevelt. At other times we debate the relative merits of videos or books or music as sources of historical understanding. But the essential point in all of these discussions is to maintain and expand a dialogue between professional peers. In contrast to the brief encounters of many such exchanges (which may inadvertently reinforce the distance between universities and secondary schools), our project has sought to cultivate an ongoing conversation about common interests.

The advantages of such conversations extend from the intellectual to the practical sphere because they can be organized with relatively little cost. This year, for example, we are conducting four faculty-teacher workshops on campus and two others at the annual conference of social science teachers in North Carolina. Topics include the history of American women in the Progressive Era, the challenges of teaching world history, the problems of teaching Russian history in the post-Soviet era, and the new approaches to the study of women in contemporary Africa. This series of events is funded with a grant of less than $4,000 from the North Carolina Humanities Council (to pay for publicity, copying of classroom materials, stipends for leaders, and other outreach expenses) and with support from our university dean to pay the salary of a graduate student coordinator. All participants are treated to a much-appreciated free lunch, and the teachers are eligible for recertification credits from the state department of public instruction.

Academic historians and school teachers often share a sense of separation from America's public culture; unfortunately, the institutional and disciplinary structures of education have tended to increase this feeling of isolation by sustaining hierarchies (e.g., experts dispensing knowledge) and impeding exchanges between persons whose common interests should lead to more conversations. We can't control the vast political and financial processes that constantly intervene in our lives as educators, but we can at least begin to use more of the tools that we have—including the ability to talk intelligently across professional boundaries with those who share a common desire to improve the critical skills and historical knowledge of American students.

—Leon Fink and Lloyd Kramer are professors of history and codirectors of the Project for Historical Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.