Published Date

January 1, 1898

From The Study of History in Schools (1898)

In the early part of this report, attention is called to the fact that there seems to be some agreement among teachers of history concerning the methods of teaching; and we have attributed this agreement in some measure to the recommendation of the Madison Conference, whose report has been widely read and used throughout the country. Doubtless there are many other reasons for the improvement of the last ten years, chief among which is the increased supply of well-trained teachers. There has been also a new recognition of the purpose of history teaching, a growing realization on the part of teachers of why they teach the subject and of what they hope to accomplish. If one has distinctly in his mind the end that he seeks to gain, he will be likely to discover suitable means and methods of teaching. More important, therefore, than method, is object; means are valueless to one who has no end to be attained. The teacher who is seeking means and methods should first inquire whether he is sure that he knows what he wishes to accomplish.

It is unnecessary for us to go into this subject at very great length. If teachers have been stimulated by the report of the Madison conference, and have learned to obtain from it what is adapted to their wants, and to disregard what seems to them to be unsuited to their needs, they can continue to follow it. In spite of the six years of experience that have elapsed since that report was published, this committee will perhaps be no wiser in its recommendations and suggestions; and if there is now a manifest drift toward what we may be suffered to call “advanced” methods, the best plan may be to leave well enough alone, with the firm assurance that the best methods will be widely used only when there is a full realization of the purposes and the nature of the study.

While discussing the value of historical work, we have necessarily considered the aims and objects of instruction. The chief purpose is not to fill the boy’s head with a mass of material, which he may perchance put forth again when a college examiner demands its production. Without underestimating the value of historical knowledge, and deprecating nothing more than a readiness to argue and contend about the meaning of facts that have not been established, we contend that the accumulation of facts is not the sole, or perhaps not the leading, purpose of studying history.8

No other subject in the high-school curriculum is stigmatized as an information study simply, rather than an educational study. Not even arithmetic-beyond decimals and percentage-is looked upon as valuable for the stubble that it stores away in the head, where the brain has not been called into activity or taught to use the material which it is asked to retain. But for some unaccountable reason, it has been held that boys and girls must not think about historical material, or be taught to reason or be led to approach events with the historical spirit. The scientific spirit can be awakened and methods of scientific thinking cultivated; power in handling language and an ability for grasping grammatical distinctions can be developed; even the literary sense can be fostered and promoted; but the historical sense, the beginnings of historical thinking, it is sometimes gravely said, cannot be expected; all that one can do is to give information, in the hope that in some distant day pleasant and helpful reactions will take place within the brain. Fortunately, the number of persons who argue in this way has decreased and is decreasing, and we may well leave those that remain to the intelligent teachers of history throughout the land, who are awake to the possibilities of their subject, and who see the boys and girls growing in power and efficiency under their hands.9

Pupils who can study physics and geometry, or read Cicero’s orations, must be presumed to have powers of logic and capacity to follow argument. Teachers of English put into their pupils’ hands such masterpieces as Burke’s “Speech on Conciliation with America” and Webster’s “Reply to Hayne.” It is certainly unwise to use such material for English work if it is impossible for boys and girls of sixteen to understand what these statesmen were talking about, or to see the force of their arguments; for, if language is conceded to be a vehicle of ideas, it cannot be studied as a thing apart, without reference to its content. And if Burke and Cicero and Patrick Henry and Daniel Webster can be understood in language work, it seems reasonable to hold that they can be understood in history work, and hence that pupils may fairly be asked to think of what they see and read.

It is not our purpose to give minute and particular directions concerning methods of historical instruction. A short list of books from which teachers may obtain helpful suggestions for classroom work will be found in Appendix VII to this report. In drafting the recommendations which follow here, we have had in mind only certain general methods which we think specially useful for bringing out the educational value of the study.

  1. We believe that in most cases the teacher should use a text-book. If the book is prepared by a practical teacher and a scholar, it is probably the product of much toil, which has been devoted to a consideration of proportion and order as well as to accuracy, and it is therefore likely to unfold the subject more systematically than a teacher can possibly do unless he has wide training, long experience, and, in addition, daily opportunity carefully to examine the field and to search out the nature of the problems that he is called upon to discuss. Without the use of a text it is difficult to hold the pupils to a definite line of work; there is danger of incoherence and confusion. While, therefore, we strongly advise the use of material outside of the text, we feel that the use of the topical method alone will in the great majority of instances result in the pupils’ having unconnected information. They will lose sight of the main current; and it is the current and not the eddies which they should watch. In some classes, especially in the more advanced grades, it may be possible to use more than one textbook. “By preparing in different books, or, by using more than one book on a lesson, pupils will acquire the habit of comparison, and the no less important habit of doubting whether any one book covers the ground.”10 In an attempt to discover the truth they may be led to study more widely for themselves, and will surely find that there are sources of information outside of the printed page. The use of more than one text will, however, often present many practical difficulties to the teacher; and this will surely be the case unless he has the time and opportunity to master all the texts himself and to examine outside material with care. In most schools there is a decided advantage in having one line along which the class may move. Often it may prove helpful to use supplementary texts, in order to amplify and modify the regular class-book; this may be done by the teacher when comparison by the class might prove distracting.11
  2. Material outside of the textbook should be used in all branches of historical study and in every year of the secondary course. Life and interest may in this way be given to the work; pupils may be introduced to good literature and be taught to handle books. This collateral material may be used in various ways, and of course much more should be expected of the later classes than of the earlier; indeed, there should be a consistent purpose to develop gradually and systematically this power of using books. Often, especially in the earlier years, the teacher will read to the class passages from entertaining histories. Younger pupils without previous training should not be expected to find the books that treat of certain topics, or to know how to find the portions desired. Let the pupil learn how to understand and use pages before he uses books; and let him learn how to use one or two books before he is set to rummaging in a library. For example, a class in the first year of the secondary school may be asked to tell what is said of Marathon in Botsford’s History of Greece, page 121. A twelfth-grade class, properly trained, may be asked to compare Lecky’s account of the Stamp Act with Bancroft’s, or to find out what they can in the books of the library concerning the defects of the Articles of Confederation.
  3. Something in the way of written work should be done in every year of the secondary school. It is unnecessary to caution teachers against requiring the sort of work in the early years that may reasonably be expected in the later part of the course. Younger pupils, who have had little or no training in doing written work of this character, might be required simply to condense and put into their own language a few pages of Grote or Mommsen, or to write out in simple form some abstract of Thucydides’s account of the fate of the Sicilian expedition, or of Herodotus’s description of the battle of Thermopylæ, or to do similar tasks. In the later years more difficult tasks may be assigned, demanding the use of several books and the weaving together of various narratives or opinions. It may be said by some persons that such work as this is for the English teacher, not for the history teacher; but it can hardly be asserted that skill in the use of historical books, practice in acquiring historical information, and the ability to put forth in one’s own language what has been read, are not objects of historical training.
  4. It may at times prove helpful to have written recitations or tests. Teachers have often found that this method secures accuracy and definiteness of statement. Some pupils who have difficulty in organizing and arranging the information which they possess, and who consequently are not so successful as others in oral recitations, often succeed admirably in written exercises, and by their success are stimulated and encouraged to do thoughtful and systematic work.
  5. Many teachers have been aided in their work by requiring the class to keep notebooks, and the committee favors the adoption of this system, which has proved so serviceable in the study of the sciences. These books may contain analyses of the text, notes on outside matter presented in class, a list of books with which the pupil has himself become acquainted, and perhaps also some condensations of his reading. An analytical arrangement of the more important topics that are discussed in the course of the study may also be placed in the notebook. This plan will help the student to see the different lines of development and change. For example, under the head of “Slavery,” short statements may be inserted of the facts that have been learned from the text. By so doing the pupil will have at the end of his work a condensed narrative of the introduction, growth, and effect of slavery, and will be led to see the continuity of the slavery question as he would probably be unable to see it by any other means.
  6. Fortunately it is unnecessary in these latter days to call the teacher’s attention to the use of maps, and to the idea that geography and history are inextricably interwoven. Most text-books now have a number of maps, all of which, however, are by no means faultless. Good wall-maps may be obtained at reasonable prices; and every school should have at least one good historical atlas. The class should use physical maps, as well as those showing political and national divisions, for often the simplest and most evident facts with which the pupil is well acquainted need to be forced sharply upon his attention in connection with history. The Nile, the Euphrates, the Tiber, the Rhine, the Thames, the Mississippi, the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Alleghanies-their very names call up to the mind of the historical scholar troops of facts and forces affecting the progress of the race and molding the destinies of nations. The pupils should not lose sight of the physical causes that have acted in history any more than they should ignore the human causes; and they must remember that, although history deals with the succession of events, there is always a place relation as well as a time relation. As new meaning is given to geography when physical conditions are seen in relation with human life, so reality is added to historical occurrences and new interest is awakened in historical facts by the study of the theatre within which men acted and notable events took place. “Groupings of historical figures and scenes around geographical centers make these centers instinct with life and motion, while the centers themselves, binding the figures and scenes together, give them a new permanence and solidity.”12 The careful study of physical geography and of historical geography is of value, therefore, not only in bringing out the nature or the true import of facts, but in helping the pupils to retain information because they see natural causes and relations, and because events are thus made to appear definite and actual.

If these methods are to be followed-as they must be if history is to be a study of high educational value-books for reference and reading are as necessary as is apparatus for efficient work in physics or chemistry. Not many years ago all subjects except “natural philosophy” were taught without the help of any material save a text-book for each pupil, and perhaps a few dusty cyclopaedias often deftly concealed in a closet behind the teacher’s desk. Great changes have been made; nearly all schools now have some books, but even at the present time it is easier to get five thousand dollars for physical and chemical laboratories than five hundred dollars for reference books; and even when libraries have been provided, their material is sometimes not wisely chosen, and they are often allowed to fall behind by a failure to purchase new and useful literature as it comes out.

The library should be the center and soul of all study in history and literature; no vital work can be carried on without books to which pupils may have ready and constant access. Without these opportunities historical work is likely to be arid, if not unprofitable; there cannot be collateral reading, or written work of the most valuable sort, or study of the sources, or knowledge of illustrative material. Even a small expenditure of money may change the dull routine of historical study into a voyage of pleasurable discovery, awakening the interest, the enthusiasm, and the whole mental power of the pupils. No school is so poor that something cannot be done in the way of collecting material.

The first necessity of a school library is that it be accessible. It should be in the school building, open during the whole of school hours and as much longer as possible. It should be furnished with working tables and provided with good light, and so arranged that it serves, not as something helpful outside the school, but as the source and centre of inspiration, to which the class-room work is contributory. The books should be freely used; for a library is no longer considered a place for the preservation and concealment of books, but a center from which they may be put into circulation and where the best facilities are offered for acquiring information. The question as to whether the books should be left in open shelves or handed out by an attendant must be decided, of course, by the school authorities, in light of all the circumstances; but it must be remembered that the opportunity to touch and handle the volumes, to glance at their pages, to discover the subjects of which they treat—to look, as it were, into their faces—is of great value, and that more can be learned by a few minutes of familiar intercourse with a book in the hand than by many inquiries of an attendant or by anxious searchings in a catalogue. The fewer the barriers and obstacles in the way the better will be the results, and the more will the pupil be tempted to refer to the authorities or to read the great masters in history and literature-an acquaintance with whose words, thoughts, and sentiments constitutes in itself no small part of education.

In employing the library for historical purposes, care should be taken to teach the pupils how to use intelligently tables of contents and indexes, and also how to turn to their account the library catalogues and the indexes to general and periodical literature. The teacher will remember that the habit of referring to authorities to settle doubtful points or to discover additional evidence is a most important part, not only of historical training but of the outfit of an educated person, and that wide reading should bring breadth of view and also a broadening and deepening of the judgment.

The well-equipped library should contain:

  • good historical atlases and atlases of modern geography;
  • one or two historical handbooks, or dictionaries of dates;
  • an ample supply of secondary histories, such as those of Holm, Mommsen, Lecky, Parkman; with these may be classed, as especially useful, good, interesting biographies, such as Dodge’s Alexander the Great, Stanhope’s Pitt;
  • some collections of sources, many of which are now accessible; and some of the recent leaflets and collections of extracts of primary and secondary material will be found of service;
  • a good encyclopedia and one or two annual compendiums, such as the various political almanacs.

Next section: Use of Sources

  1. History, unlike some other subjects in the curriculum, is a subject to be studied for its own sake and not merely for disciplinary purposes. The information obtained by the study is a continuous source of pleasure and profit. Moreover, no subject can have the best pedagogical results if its acknowledged purpose is not to acquire knowledge but to get training. The mind naturally seizes and uses information which is at once interesting and useful; above all, it grasps that which is interesting because it is useful. By what is said in the text, we wish to emphasize the disciplinary value of the study, but not to belittle its value for information and culture. []
  2. We may justly contend that an effort to store facts in pupils’ heads often defeats its own ends. College professors who have looked over entrance examination papers for many years, as most members of this committee have done, are struck by the marvelous accumulation of misinformation which has been acquired and held with calm belief and placid assurance. We may seriously inquire whether instruction in method of looking at facts and training in thinking about them would not leave a greater residuum of actual information. []
  3. Report of the Committee [of Ten] (Washington, 1893), 189. []
  4. After this portion of the report dealing with methods was read at the meeting of the American Historical Association, in 1898, one teacher expressed the opinion that the report did not sufficiently emphasize the oral recitations; another, that we did not sufficiently emphasize written work; another, that we did not sufficiently emphasize the value of more than one text-book. We do not wish to underestimate any means which any teacher finds suited to his needs and productive of good results. Teachers must of course use their own discretion as to how far various methods may be followed; but we think that all of the ideas and plans here suggested will prove helpful. []
  5. Hinsdale, How to Study and Teach History, 99. []