Published Date

January 1, 1898

From The Study of History in Schools (1898)

By Lucy M. Salmon1

The question of instruction in history in the grades below the high school is one that concerns the present condition of such instruction and also one of an ideal condition toward which it may be possible to work. An inquiry in regard to history in the public schools of the different states leads to the conclusion that the instruction at present given in this subject leaves much to be desired.2

A superficial examination of the replies received shows that only one-half of the states have a uniform course in history and that even in those states having such a course adherence to it is sometimes optional with the schools.3 It is not possible to discuss here the advantages of uniform curricula within limited areas, but it may be noted that progress in education has invariably followed the adoption of such a uniform course, and that those nations that have uniformity to-day have, as a rule, the best systems of education. With two exceptions, the ten states of the Union that have no uniform course of instruction are among the most backward in America in all matters of public education.

The second noteworthy fact is the absence in nearly all of the states of a clear and definite understanding of the place of history in the curriculum. History is generally taught “because every one ought to know something of the history of his own country,” yet no explanation is given for this assertion, and there is often no appreciation of the educational value of historical study. Any course of instruction leaves something to be desired if it does not show obvious reasons for its existence.

The corresponding noteworthy fact is that, if a definite reason for the study of history is presented, it is the factitious one of patriotism.4 The idea that the chief object in teaching history is to teach patriotism is so thoroughly ingrained, not only in America but in other countries,5 that it is extremely difficult to combat it. Yet it must be evident that the patriotism thus advocated is more or less a spurious one, a patriotism that would seek to present distorted ideas of the past with the idea of glorifying one country at the possible expense of truth. If the facts of the Franco-Prussian war should be used both in France and in Germany to inculcate this kind of patriotism, diametrically opposite results would be reached; if the American Revolution is to teach this patriotism both in England and in America, one nation or the other must be illogical; if the Northern and the Southern states of America should use the facts of the civil war to promote either a national or a sectional patriotism of this character, those facts would have to be perverted. That the ultimate object of history, as of all sciences, is the search for truth, and that that search entails the responsibility of abiding by the results when found, is yet to be learned by many of our teachers of history.

The present condition of instruction in history in the schools is open to criticism for another reason. The curriculum has in many cases not been the result of educational experience or a product of educational theory. This fact explains in large measure the prevailing desire to use history as a vehicle for teaching patriotism. It probably does not admit of question that the curriculum of the public schools must and should be enacted by the State legislatures, but it is equally true that behind these legislatures should be organized bodies of competent advisers, to whose decisions on educational matters the State legislatures should give the weight of their authority rather than themselves assume the initiative.

Another result of the condition just mentioned is the tendency to attempt only the teaching of United States history. The makers of our programmes have encouraged the public to believe that the history of the United States is the only history worth studying, in that it is as a rule the only history prescribed; it is studied in the seventh grade from 1492 to 1789, and in the eighth grade from 1789 to the present. In at least eleven of the States the history of the State is also prescribed; and in only five does the curriculum contain any suggestion as to teaching the history of other countries. Their argument (in which much truth lies) is the double one of sentiment and of utility; of sentiment because we should keep an unbroken connection with our past; of utility because citizenship should be based on an intelligent understanding of past as well as of present political conditions. Yet there are grave objections to this exclusive study of the history of the United States. Such study must be, first of all, insufficient. It gives but a warped, narrow, circumscribed view of history; it is history detached from its natural foundation-European history; it is history suspended in mid-air; it is history that has no natural beginning apart from its connection with European history.

It is indeed difficult to decide where the history of America should begin-if with the period of discovery and exploration, then it is in reality European history; if with the period of colonization, then it is rather English history; if with the adoption of the Constitution, then it is the history of a youth after he has attained his majority but whose past is in oblivion. If it is true that the history of England is the only history studied in the elementary and the higher grade board schools of England, it is also true that the history of England is so intimately connected with that of the Continent that some knowledge of general European history must of necessity be acquired through this study of a limited field. Yet it is also true that the teaching of history in England is far inferior to that in Germany and in France, and no small element in this inferiority is the limitation of the course to the history of England. If the instruction in history in France and in Germany is confessedly superior to that given in other countries, it is in no small part due to the breadth of view gained through the careful study of the history of other nations. The social unit, the political unit, the ecclesiastical unit, is constantly enlarging, and the educational curriculum must widen its boundaries if it is to keep pace with the evolution in other directions.

But difficult as it is to find substantial reasons for the exclusive study of United States history as a whole, it is still more difficult to find them for the study of the history of the individual States. This history, prescribed by at least eleven of the State legislatures, is an evidence of misdirected patriotism and also probably a result of the pedagogical cry that swept the country a few years ago, “from the known to the unknown.” But the demand for State history rests on no substantial basis either historical or pedagogical. Every State in the Union has artificial boundary lines determined by provincial grants or by legislative acts according to parallels of latitude and longitude, and to attempt to endow these artificially created States with the attributes of organic States is to distort historical truth. It is equally true that the demand that a study should proceed “from the known to the unknown,” may involve a fallacy, that what lies nearest may sometimes be most obscure, and what is remote in time or place be most easily understood.

It must be understood that this criticism is not one of the study of American history, but of its exclusive study and of the reasons so often assigned for this study. Any study of American history must be worse than barren that demands the memorizing of a text-book, but that leaves a boy in ignorance as to what are the fundamental facts in American history; that insists upon detailed information in regard to the campaigns of the Revolutionary war, but that has implanted no notion of personal responsibility to the Government established through that war. In many States, where the foreign element is large, there is absolute ignorance of the nature of republican institutions. In others, where the native-born element predominates, there is often no appreciation either of the duties or of the privileges or of the opportunities of citizenship. History as taught in either of these classes of States is open to the same criticism as is historical instruction in the European schools, where the history of the past is taught without reference to the conditions of the present. These grave faults must be avoided in American schools by the insistence at all times upon the fact that “good citizenship must be the religion of the common schools.”6

Other defects in the study of history in the grades are apparent. The history of the United States is studied during the last two years of the grammar grade, when the boy or girl is from twelve to fourteen years old. This means that valuable time has been lost, that long before this age the interest of the child should have been awakened and held by the pictures of the past. Again there is little evidence to show that history is united either with geography or literature. In several of the states history is not begun until geography is finished, and in others history is absolutely divorced from the instruction in English. Text-books are used without collateral reading, and sometimes the subject is divided by administrations, sometimes by pages.7 In one State the work in history is given during the first three years in the form of stories, and the instructions published for the ensuing four years are to repeat the previous stories. In another State civics alternates with physiology. In apparently but four of the States has there been any consultation whatever with competent advisers in historical instruction regarding the course in history to be prescribed for the grades.

Examination, therefore, seems to show that the present condition of instruction in history in the grades below the high school is defective in that uniformity is so seldom found; that there is no definite, well-defined object in teaching history; that when an object is presented, it is generally the factitious one of patriotism; that as a rule the course is not prescribed by experts either in history or in education; that only United States history and State history are taught; that history is not studied in connection with other subjects in the curriculum; that a slavish use is too often made of the text-book that a mechanical division of the subject matter by pages or by administrations is often adopted, and that all instruction in this subject is deferred until so late in the course.8

No criticism of existing institutions is justified unless it carries with it a recommendation of changes that will possibly bring improvement. In addition to the study that has been made of what is actually done in some of the best American schools, a careful study has been made of the programmes of the work in history in the schools of England, France, and Germany, and many of these schools have been personally visited. It is believed that the following scheme of work in history can not only be justified by appeal to educational theory, but that it can also be defended as practical inasmuch as it is already carried out either wholly or in part in many schools.

Grade III.—Stories from the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Æneid, the Sagas, the Nibelungen Lied, the stories of King Arthur, Roland, Hiawatha.

Grade IV.—Biographies of characters prominent in history: Greece-Lycurgus, Solon, Darius, Miltiades, Leonidas, Pericles, Socrates, Alexander, Demosthenes, Plutarch; Rome-Romulus, Virginia, Horatius, Cincinnatus, Regulus, Hannibal, Cato, Pompey, Caesar, Agricola; Germany-Arminius, Alaric, Charlemagne, Henry IV, Frederick Barbarossa, Gutenberg, Charles V, Luther, Frederick the Great, Bismarck; France-Clovis, Charlemagne, Louis IX, Joan of Arc, Bayard, Palissy, Francis I, Henry IV, Richelieu, Napoleon; England-Alfred, William I, Richard I, Warwick, Elizabeth, Sidney, Raleigh, Cromwell, Pitt, Clive, Nelson, Stephenson, Gladstone; Southern Europe-Mohammed, Francis of Assisi, Loyola, Prince Henry, Isabella, Columbus, Lorenzo de’Medici, Michel Angelo, Galileo, Garibaldi; Northern Europe-Robert Bruce, William of Orange, Henry Hudson, Gustavus Adolphus, Rembrandt, Peter the Great, Kossuth; America-John Smith, Miles Standish, William Penn, La Salle, Patrick Henry, Franklin, Washington, Daniel Boone, Lincoln, Lee.

These names are suggested, not as a final selection to be rigorously adopted, but as indicating one way of arousing interest and of conveying historical information at the age when ideas of time and place relations are only imperfectly developed, but when interest in individuals is keen and active. The list may be changed in toto, but the principle still be retained.

The plan for these two years (Grade III and Grade IV) implies that the object is to arouse interest; that the method used is to be wholly the oral one; that the stories are to be united with lessons given in language and in geography; that the selection of myths and stories should aim to give universal rather than particular notions; and that the teacher should have a sufficient acquaintance with history and literature to be able to decide wisely concerning the selection to be made.

Grade V.—Greek and Roman history to 800 A. D. circa.
Grade VI.—Mediæval and modern European history, from the close of the first period to the present time.
Grade VII.—English history.
Grade VIII.—American history.

The reasons for recommending the order of subjects to be taken up from Grade V through Grade VIII are the same as those given by the committee in the main body of the report and need not be repeated here.

The reasons for recommending the preliminary survey of European history before taking up the same period in the high school are that the underlying principle is similar to one that is in successful operation in Germany-educational principles discovered by one group of instructors and successfully put into practice by them can be adapted to meet the needs of other groups of instructors without the necessity of rediscovery; that it gives a good basis for high-school work, since it follows the law “that one obtains knowledge by adding to the ideas which one already has-new ideas organically related to the old;” that the substitution of a brief course in European history for a portion of the American history now taught will conduce to a better appreciation of the important facts in American history, and that as a result the pupil will have a better understanding of the history of America after one year of special study given to it than he now has after two years’ study without this preliminary acquaintance with European history; that it gives an outlook into the world of history and of literature to those who cannot complete a high-school course, and thus gives them resources within themselves that must be of value in their future lives; that it would do something to make fruitful what is now too often a barren waste-the curriculum of the primary and the grammar grades; that its adoption would do something to raise the educational and professional qualifications of teachers, since the knowledge required to carry it out would be more extensive than that demanded by the present curriculum; that through it something would be done to unify the subjects in the curriculum, which is now too often vague and formless; that since many schools in America now have a course similar to the one here advocated, it is a practical one.

The plan of work in history here presented is suggested, not as being absolutely ideal in itself, but as one that more nearly approximates that ideal than the one often found in the public schools; it is suggested with full realization of the fact that it probably can not be at once adopted in extenso by a single school; it is recommended because of the belief that it is better to have an ideal toward which to work than to remain content with unsatisfactory conditions.9

Next section: Appendix III

  1. This report has been prepared by the writer while in Paris, and it has not received the benefit of criticism from the other members of the committee. The writer therefore desires to assume the personal responsibility of the recommendations included in it. []
  2. The inquiry was addressed to the superintendents of public instruction, and the result was as follows:
    States having a uniform course in history: 22
    States having such a course in preparation: 4
    States having no uniform course: 10
    Indefinite replies: 4
    No reply: 5
    Total: 45 []
  3. “No school in the commonwealth (Massachusetts) is required to pursue this course of study. I do not know of any school that adheres to it in all its details.”—F. A. Hill, Secretary of the State board of education. []
  4. “Kindle the fires of patriotism and feed them constantly.”—Nevada.
    “Develop patriotism.”—Colorado.
    The object “is to make our boys and girls true patriots.”—North Carolina. []
  5. In France the question was asked of the candidates for the modern baccalaureate, July, 1897, “What purpose does the teaching of history serve?” and eighty per cent answered, “to promote patriotism.”—Langlois and Seignobos, Introduction aux Etudes Historiques, 288, 289. The theories of the emperor of Germany are well known, and it is perhaps inevitable, in view of the long struggle of Germany for nationality, that the teaching of history in Germany should be more or less colored by a desire to emphasize the progress the empire has made in this direction. []
  6. Much of this work of inculcating right ideas of personal responsibility may be done incidentally in connection with other parts of the programme. Washington’s Birthday, Lincoln’s Birthday, Decoration Day, election day, general exercises, debating clubs, work in English, and a score of other occasions, present constant opportunity for giving incidental and yet serious information in regard to American affairs and for awakening an interest in them. []
  7. In one State the text-book used during the eighth year is divided into ten parts of about thirty pages each, and one part is assigned for each month. []
  8. In 1893, eighty-two schools in New Haven County, Conn., were asked: “Is the memoriter method used?” Thirty-seven schools answered “Yes,” thirty-nine “No,” and six, “In part.” One teacher in another county was “not particular about the words of the text if the pupils gave words as good.” []
  9. Lack of space prevents the elaboration of the principles suggested in this report. A more detailed presentation of them may be found in “History in Elementary Schools,” Educational Review, April, 1891; “Unity in College Entrance History,” Educational Review, September, 1896; and “History in the German Gymnasia,” Appendix III, below. []