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The History Classroom in an Era of Crisis: A Change of Course Is Needed

David Pace, May 2017

This is not a time for business as usual. In a “post-truth” age of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” historians must ask fundamental questions about our public roles. We might think of ourselves as above the fray, viewing developments with a certain detachment. But as soon as we enter the classroom, we become historical actors whose choices have broad consequences. We have a moral obligation to think seriously about how we, as a discipline, can help strengthen democratic institutions.

Over the last four decades, our research and writing have made great strides toward including gender, race, class, and the environment in the collective understanding of the past, thus helping to prepare society for the challenges of the 21st century. But if generating academic histories was sufficient, we would not be facing such apparent challenges to democracy. What is needed is not just access to new narratives about the past, but also a broader ability to weigh evidence, balance competing arguments, and consider emotionally charged topics. And the history classroom is an ideal location for providing students with such mental tools. Effective teaching can prepare and empower students for their role as citizens in ways that weaken the power of demagogic appeals.

AHA president Tyler Stovall (center) greets a student group from Humboldt State University at the 2017 AHA annual meeting in Denver. Students must be central to historians’ practice. Marc Monaghan

History teaching can also play a role in combating a second element contributing to the current weakening of democratic institutions—the growth of inequality. It is very appealing to imagine that the history classroom is a level playing field, where students’ willingness to work hard determines their level of success. But, as a recent special issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education (December 19, 2016) argues, colleges can be instruments of inequality. Students arrive in our classes with very different levels of preparation, and these often correlate with levels of economic and social advantage. If the race and social background of our students can predict their grades, and if a D, F, or W in an introductory history course is frequently a prelude to academic disaster—as Andrew Koch argues in the article accompanying this one—our courses can be a one-way ticket to a life of marginality and one more step in the creation of a society in which inequality undermines the foundations of democracy.

Ineffective teaching and evaluation strategies can reinforce these divisions, sending a message to privileged, “pre-educated” students that they are worthy and marginalizing the rest. Unless we can make the “rules” of the history “game” available to more students and reenergize those who have lost hope for academic success, the grades we give can be another part of the process of separating haves from have-nots.

These challenges clearly require new and creative responses. Giving more As, as some instructors feel pressure to do, does nothing to provide students with the intellectual skills needed to become effective citizens. And students’ vulnerability to demagoguery cannot be solved by replacing one narrative with another. It is important to stress that the task is not a matter of creating more future historians. Exposure to historical reasoning, not memorizing facts, will better serve even students who take only a single history course.

Thus, if we are to work against the de-­democratization of our society, we must devote significant time and energy to making our courses training grounds for critical thinking and pathways to success for those who have been deprived of educational opportunity. What is most needed now is a change not in what we teach, but rather in how we go about teaching it. If students do not learn to evaluate material critically, it does not matter which topics we cover.

Ineffective teaching and evaluation strategies can tell privileged, “pre-educated” students that they are worthy and marginalize the rest.

To offer more students the education that they deserve and that society needs them to obtain, we need to rethink some of the most basic strategies that underlie our teaching. It is no longer adequate to perpetuate a practice simply because that was the way we were taught. Since the ways we share the past shape the future, we have a responsibility to put as much thought into imparting historical thinking as we do into creating content.

This work would be overwhelming if individual history instructors had to undertake it alone. Fortunately, the age of the hermetically sealed classroom is over. The Tuning movement focuses our energy on student learning and demonstrates the value of that learning to the public. And the interdisciplinary scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) demonstrates that the reasoning processes that drive traditional historical research can be put to work to better understand the challenges of teaching history.

There is already a great deal of material that can help instructors develop forms of teaching that more effectively draw students into historical thinking. Every year, the annual meetings of the AHA and the Organization of American Historians include more sessions on teaching and learning, and the website and newsletter of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in History makes publications and meetings in the field available. The rich literature on history in K–12 classes by educational researchers like Sam Wineburg, Linda Levstik, and Keith Barton; new perspectives on the history survey by historians like Lendol Calder; the decoding of historical thinking by the History Learning Project; and the Historians on Teaching website of Alan and Jeanne Booth only hint at the treasury of ideas now available. The tools that we need to respond to our challenge are at hand, and more will come.

But we must find new ways to bridge theory and practice. One prototype could be the preconference SoTL workshop at the 2017 AHA annual meeting; the workshop could be replicated at all major historical conferences. The International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in History (ISSOTL) is exploring new ways to make its website a space for sharing ideas. (Any historian interested in being a part of this effort can contact me at dpace@indiana.edu.) But in the long run, the most effective way to make such efforts an integral part of our profession is to ensure that new instructors begin their careers not only with a solid grasp of the literature in their field, but also with a grounding in knowledge about student learning and a full toolbox of strategies for helping their future students assimilate historical thinking. Models for graduate courses in historical pedagogy are available on the ISSOTL in History website, but to implement them, PhD programs must have the political will to reconceptualize graduate education. (The second phase of the AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians initiative will tackle teacher training in doctoral education.)

Political will is also needed to bring this activity more squarely into the realm of institutional rewards and recognition. The process of rethinking our courses simply will not occur on a large enough scale if it is treated as a purely individual responsibility, separate from the collective responsibilities of our discipline. We must be willing to rethink institutional norms of hiring, promotion, tenure, and salary to better reflect those activities that contribute to the common good. The scholarship of teaching and learning and model course portfolios can help us assess excellence in teaching-related projects and foster mechanisms for outside review of teaching. But this requires new thinking and a willingness to break with the past.

As a discipline, we can, of course, decide to view the apparent decline of political reasoning as a problem for high school civics teachers and ignore the role that ineffective teaching can play in reinforcing patterns of inequality. But if we accept that we have a collective responsibility to work against the forces delegitimizing democratic institutions, the path to action almost certainly passes through the history classroom. The origins of de-democratization and inequality may lie elsewhere, but we face a moral choice as to whether our courses will be part of that process.

David Pace is professor emeritus in the Department of History at Indiana University Bloomington, a winner of the AHA’s Eugene Asher Award, and president of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in History.


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