Published Date

January 1, 1944

From American History in Schools and Colleges (1944)

The teaching of history and the other social studies is invested with a public interest. It is therefore natural and reasonable that legislatures, pressure groups, and organizations of various kinds should be concerned about the teaching of these subjects.

This public interest deserves commendation. Organized groups of citizens have a right to pass resolutions concerning the teaching of history or any other subject; they have a right to appoint committees; they have a right to advocate their viewpoints and to carry on agitation for the acceptance of their proposals. In a democracy no group should be stopped from upholding its principles and proclaiming its views.

The teacher whose work is the center of this public concern deserves freedom to teach his subject within the spirit and framework of the democratic tradition. This freedom should be accorded him not merely because it is his right but because he can perform his professional duty effectively under no other conditions. The right of the pupil to learn and the freedom of the teacher to teach cannot be separated. The schools are maintained for the pupils, but they are maintained in vain unless the teacher is allowed to carry on his work within an atmosphere of professional freedom. The public can admonish, the legislature can pass laws, and the administrator can lay down regulations, but only the teacher can make the educational program effective.

The teacher must achieve freedom; it cannot be conferred upon him. Freedom to teach is not a commodity which the principal or board of education can pass on to the teacher. Freedom is a privilege or condition which must be won by study, judgment, poise, good intentions, and all-round professional competence. The teacher must deserve freedom by demonstrating his competence to perform a professional service in a professional manner. In the long run not even the legislature or the courts can guarantee freedom to an unworthy teacher.

The teacher cannot develop competence, however, when he is beset by hampering restrictions and subjected to petty interferences. The immaturity, even the incompetence, of a teacher, and the acknowledged right of groups to influence the schools do not justify the extremes to which interference with the work of teachers has sometimes been carried. Pressure groups which dictate the choice of textbooks, censor library lists, and discriminate against teachers because of their race, religion, politics, or economic status cannot justify their interference by proclaiming their affection for the cause of public education. Such intrusions interfere not only with the freedom of the teacher to teach but also with the opportunities of the pupils to learn.

Pressures upon teachers are often indirect. A prominent individual may ruin the standing of a teacher or the reputation of a course by a careless remark to a superintendent or principal. Textbooks, courses, and procedures are sometimes changed because of rumors and anonymous complaints. Teachers are thus tried and judged without being heard. Influential groups sometimes pass resolutions and call upon school administrators to alter a program or censure a teacher without taking the trouble to secure relevant information. Teachers of the social studies, because of the nature of their field, are particularly endangered by hostile and uninformed criticisms and complaints.

Teachers are not and should not be beyond the reach of criticism, but the administrator who seriously intends to stand by his teachers will sift rumors and complaints with great care. In fact, he might wisely require that all complaints calling for a change of policy or affecting the standing of a teacher be made in writing. Such precautions are designed primarily to protect the teacher by providing a sense of dignity and security, but the ultimate purpose of such safeguards is to improve the learning situation for boys and girls.

Teachers and administrators need a more vigorous and systematic method for defending themselves and their profession against unwarranted attacks. National organizations now try to insure a fair hearing for the college professor who is accused of unorthodox or unprofessional conduct. Similar means of help should be available to the superintendent and the teacher at all grade levels. Committees of the National Council for the Social Studies and of the National Education Association have done effective work, but many teachers will fail to call for help unless it promises to be vigorous and effective.

Boards of education and administrators have sometimes issued regulations as to political conduct, affiliations with labor unions, dress, living quarters, social conduct, amusements, and various other aspects of the public and private life of the teacher. Most of these restrictions have had the general effect of creating apprehension, fear, and timidity. Thus the evil consequences of such regulations cannot be easily measured. Comparatively few teachers may openly violate them and so get into difficulties, but the majority who conform feel a deep sense of frustration and discouragement. They create an atmosphere in which teachers can not render the highest type of professional service.

In determining the teacher’s status and functions, no agency has been more important than the state legislature. It serves as the focal point through which public opinion operates upon the schools, and it provides the legal framework through which money is raised, school districts are created, teachers are certified, and state departments of education are established. The legislature also states the purposes of education and sometimes prescribes, or at least indicates, the subjects to be studied.

In carrying out the educational policy of the legislature, the state department of education and the teachers have usually been vested with a large measure of discretion. Theoretically at least, the legislature should state educational purposes and the state department of education should be charged with the duty of selecting the content through which the purposes can best be attained. In practice local systems and faculties have been given considerable freedom in choice of materials.

Legislatures have sometimes recognized the distinction between stating a purpose and prescribing a course; in many in-stances in which a subject is prescribed, its content and organization are left to the teachers. Some laws state broad purposes and then very properly provide that the selection and allocation of materials shall be made by the superintendent of public instruction. For example, an Illinois statute reads: “It shall be the duty of every teacher of a public school in this State to teach to all the pupils thereof honesty, kindness, justice, and moral courage. …” While this law prescribes goals which would be accepted even without legislation, it does possess the merit of stopping short of specifying the content and method through which these virtues are to be achieved.

On the other hand, it is not difficult to cite instances of the wholesale violation of this principle. School laws are replete with the most specific regulations concerning content. Only a few out of the hundreds available need to be cited. The most frequent type of curricular legislation is that which specifies subjects and topics. By law forty-one states require the teaching of the Constitution of the United States; 23 require the teaching of the state constitution; 28 require the teaching of civics; and 34 require the teaching of American history.

Many of the required topics are compounds of purposes and content. The most frequent topics relate to safety, fire drills, holidays, patriotism, reading or not reading from the Bible, democracy, coöperatives, temperance, tolerance, flag ceremonies, and Americanism. Most of these can be interpreted as constituting objectives, but their curricular aspects are clearly demonstrated by the fact that some states specify the method, the exercises, the exact amount of time to be spent upon a given topic, and the grade levels at which it shall be treated.

In spite of these numerous and specific laws, the fact remains that most of the subjects in the social studies program of the high schools were not introduced because of legislation. The study of the Constitution, of civics and government, and of American history long antedates the wave of legislative prescriptions. Nearly all the laws followed rather than caused the introduction of such subjects. Such subjects as economics, sociology, problems of democracy, human and commercial geography, world history, state history, and current events do not depend upon legislation for their existence or popularity.

The principle that the selection of content and its allocation to various grade levels are educational rather than legislative functions deserves great stress. The extent to which legislators have recognized this line of demarcation is the measure of freedom, and, in the long run, the measure of success in education. Unfortunately, legislatures have frequently passed the bounds of legitimate legislation and have wandered into the fields of educational theory and practice. The line of demarcation is clear, at least in theory. While legislatures have the legal right to prescribe content and methods, educational prudence should prevent them from going beyond the declaration of purpose. Thus a legislature may properly require instruction in citizenship, but it should not define the content and the method through which this objective shall be achieved.

One serious objection to curricular laws is that they bring about an irreconcilable conflict between aims and means, between objectives and the curriculum. When the Constitution becomes the means and the end, the teacher cannot possibly know when he has achieved the desired result. In fact, he is forced to judge results by the degree to which students learn factual items. For example, he might argue that he had met the full requirements of the law if his class could state the nature and content of each of the seven articles of the original Constitution.

When a state legislature requires a teacher to teach American history, it is giving him no objective, but merely a limitless and undefined assignment. This arbitrary choice of curricular materials may or may not result in the achievement of the objectives which the legislature had in mind. The teacher who succeeds in teaching his class the names of the Presidents, the dates of our wars, twenty acts of Congress, and the westward movement might argue and prove that he had taught American history.

This analysis demonstrates the educational folly of specifying curricular content by law; this analysis does not prove and is not intended to prove that the Constitution, American history, and civics are not suitable curricular materials. Such subjects should be freely chosen by teachers on the basis of their educational efficacy, however; they should not be prescribed by legislators.

The fallacy of confusing purpose and means is not the only objection to laws which specify the content of the social studies curriculum. Such laws inevitably lead to circumlocutions, subterfuges, evasions, and neglect. If the law can be enforced and carries a penalty for its violation, it is likely to produce formal acquiescence or canting conformity. The requirement that every high school devote a whole year to civics may bring about substitutions or mere shifts in terminology. In case the law is trivial, the majority of teachers may never discover its existence. These reactions do not arise from any natural obstinacy on the part of administrators and teachers but from the sheer vacuity and futility of the laws themselves.

A few instances of such laws will demonstrate the correctness of this analysis. The arbitrary requirement that every teacher shall devote one half hour a week to the teaching of kindness to birds and animals1 is an example of the kind of legislation which would, were it observed, reduce an educational program to nonsensical patchwork. This law further provides that the teacher must assert in his monthly reports that he has observed its provisions. In case he fails to do so, he is to lose five per cent of his monthly salary.

Another apt illustration of the way in which such laws run counter to sound pedagogical principles is afforded by an Idaho statute which requires that the teacher read from the Bible every morning during the opening exercises. He shall read from twelve to twenty verses and shall make no comment thereon. In case a pupil asks a question, the teacher is required to evade it and refer the pupil to his parent or guardian. Should a teacher read eleven or twenty-one verses, he has violated the law. If he should explain the meaning of a word in one of the verses, he has violated the law. It would be difficult to devise a more effective method for destroying the dignity and integrity of the teacher or reverence for the Bible.

In Oregon a law forbids the use of a textbook which “belittles or undervalues” the work of the men who founded and preserved the republic. These words have no precise meaning and thus a teacher in this state is constantly open to the charge of violating the law, for any irate patron could claim that the textbook in use “undervalued” the Constitutional fathers or the Union veterans of the Civil War.

In addition to confusing objectives with the curriculum and inducing disobedience or neglect, such laws disrupt the orderly development of the curriculum. When laws single out particular topics, subjects, and celebrations for compulsory attention, they inevitably imply a neglect or a minimizing of others which may be of equal importance. Thus educators are hampered in their attempts to build a coordinated and systematic program of studies. Legislators are untrained and ill prepared to write programs for the schools, and their piecemeal and sporadic efforts can never result in an orderly and effective curriculum. Legislation at best is an unwieldly and tortuous method of selecting curricular content and can never succeed so well as informed and systematic experimentation.

Still another objection to curriculum-making by legislatures is the significant fact that such laws are really passed at the behest of pressure groups. Pressure groups are not necessarily inimical to good laws, but when groups change from session to session the kinds and types of laws also change. The resulting patchwork of inconsistent commands should not be substituted for an educational program.

The history teacher performs a public service in view of the public. Laws and pressures exert their unremitting effects. Public interest should not be lessened; it should be more informed, more understanding, more tolerant. The history teacher can teach more effectively when the public is interested in his work, but that interest should stop short of interference. The public as well as the teacher has a stake in seeing that teaching reaches a higher professional level, one in which policy and appraisal of results are in the hands of the public, but in which the means and the techniques are in the hands of the teacher. The future of education depends upon the freedom and wisdom of the teachers.

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  1. Such a law is on the statute books of Illinois. The School Law of Illinois, 241 (Springfield, 1935). []