Published Date

January 1, 1898

From The Study of History in Schools (1898)


In the early winter of 1896 the committee making the following report was appointed by the American Historical Association to consider the subject of history in the secondary schools and to draw up a scheme of college entrance requirements in history. Since that time we have held five meetings, each lasting several days; at each of these meetings all the members of the committee have been present, except that Professor Salmon was absent in Europe during the last two. Every question involving doubt has been carefully, thoroughly, and systematically discussed, and in the conclusions here presented. all the members concur.

Of the seven persons composing the committee only one is a teacher in a secondary school; three others, however, have been secondary-school teachers, while others have been actively interested for years in the general problems under consideration. Although we felt that we had at the beginning some knowledge of the situation, and knew of the difficulties and limitations as well as of the accomplishments of the schools, it seemed necessary to make a careful study of the whole question and to gather information concerning the conditions and the tendencies of historical instruction. We have endeavored, in the light of the actual facts, to prepare a report that may be useful and suggestive to teachers of history and that may furnish to superintendents and principals some assistance in the task of framing programmes and in determining methods of work. We have sought to be helpful rather than merely critical or depreciatory, and have tried to consider the whole field in a broad and general way, remembering that we were making suggestions and recommendations, not for the schools of one section or of one kind, but for the schools of the nation.

Preliminary Work of the Committee

History as a secondary study now demands serious attention. The report of the National Commissioner of Education for 1896-97 shows that there were at that time 186,581 pupils in the secondary schools studying history (other than United States history). No statistics have been collected to show the number studying the history and government of the United States; but there is good ground for saying that, if such students were taken into account, the number of history pupils would be found to exceed two hundred thousand, and would perhaps equal if not exceed in number those engaged in the study of any other subject save algebra. According to the statistics of the Bureau of Education, the number of pupils studying history (other than United States history) has increased one hundred and fifty-two per cent in the last ten years, a rate of increase below that of only one subject in the curriculum. These simple facts seem to make it plain that college entrance requirements, that are properly based upon the work and tendencies of the secondary schools, should include a liberal amount of history among the prescribed and optional studies.

An investigation of the subject of history, as it is studied and taught in the secondary schools, presents many difficulties. Even before the committee began seriously to consider what work was to be done, it became apparent that only a thorough study would be profitable, that general conclusions or recommendations, even on such a question as that of college entrance requirements, could not be made without an examination of the whole field and a consideration of many fundamental principles, or without ascertaining what was now doing in the high schools and academies of the country.

Before this work was undertaken, there had not been any systematic attempt of this kind; nor had there been any prolonged effort by any national association to present the claims of history, or to set before the schoolmen a statement of what might be considered the value of historical study and the place which it should occupy in the school programme. We do not leave out of consideration the work of the Committee of Ten, nor do we underestimate the value or the effect of the able and highly interesting report of the Madison Conference on History, Civil Government, and Economics;1 and we do not lose sight of the fact that historical instruction in the secondary schools had often been discussed in pedagogical conferences and teachers’ associations. Before we began our work, it was plain that there was an awakening interest in this whole subject, and the time seemed to be at hand when a systematic effort would meet with response and produce results. But in spite of all that had been done, and in spite of this awakened interest, there was no recognized consensus of opinion in the country at large, not one generally accepted judgment, not even one well-known point of agreement, which would serve as a beginning for a consideration of the place of history in the high-school curriculum. Such a statement cannot be made concerning any other subject commonly taught in the secondary schools. The task of the committee was, therefore, to discover the actual situation, to see what was doing and what was the prevailing sentiment, to localize and establish a modicum of practices and principles, however small and limited it might be; and, having apprehended what was best and most helpful in spirit and tendency among teachers of the country, to seek to give that spirit expression in a report that would be helpful and suggestive, and that would be of service in widening the field of agreement and in laying the foundations for a common understanding.

In all of our work we have endeavored not only to discover any agreement or common understanding that may exist among American teachers, but to keep in mind the fact that local conditions and environments vary exceedingly; that what may be expected of a large and well-equipped school need not be expected of a small one, and that large preparatory schools and academies, some of them intentionally fitting boys for one or two universities, are in a situation quite unlike that in which the great majority of high schools are compelled to work. We have sought chiefly to discuss, in an argumentative way, the general subject submitted for consideration, to offer suggestions as to methods of historical teaching and as to the place of history on the school programme, being fully aware that, when all is said and done, only so much will be adopted as appeals to the sense and judgment of the secondary teachers and superintendents, and that any rigid list of requirements, or any body of peremptory demands, however judiciously framed, not only would, but should, be disregarded in schools whose local conditions make it unwise to accept them.

The committee determined that every reasonable means should be used to ascertain the present condition of historical study. Several hundred circulars asking for information were sent out to schools in all parts of the United States, selected not because they were supposed to be exceptionally good or exceptionally bad, or unusually strong in historical work, but because they were recommended to the committee by competent authority as typical schools. Circulars were sent to different kinds of schools, to those in small towns as well as to those in large cities, and to private academies as well as to public high schools. About two hundred and fifty replies have been received, and the information thus gathered is presented and discussed in Appendix I to this report.

But to seek information through printed interrogatories is always somewhat unsatisfactory; and the committee therefore used other means also. Steps were taken to secure full discussions in the different educational associations of the country, in order that many teachers might become interested in the work of the committee and give needful information, and in order that there might be a free interchange of opinion on some of the more important problems that called for solution. Discussions on some portions of our report have been held by the New England History Teachers’ Association, the Association of Colleges and Preparatory Schools of the Middle States and Maryland, the Michigan Schoolmasters’ Club, the Round Table in History of the National Educational Association, and by other educational bodies, as well as at two meetings of the American Historical Association. Moreover, at various times in the course of the past two years, different members of the committee have personally consulted teachers and talked the subject over with them. These efforts seem to demonstrate that we have not reached conclusions hastily, and that our report is not merely the expression of the theoretical aspirations of college professors who are unacquainted with the conditions of the secondary schools. It is in a very proper sense the result of careful examination and systematic inquiry concerning the secondary conditions of the country.

It is not necessary to review here in detail the conclusions reached from a study of the circulars received from the schools. It will be seen by an examination of these conclusions, as presented in the Appendix, that in regard to many matters on which we sought information there is little or no agreement. Concerning the amount of history offered, the fields of history studied, the order in which the different fields are taken up, and the years in which the subject is taught, there is much diversity of practice; but, on the other hand, we find marked approach to uniformity in one particular, namely, that good schools in all parts of the United States have adopted substantially similar methods of instruction. It is perfectly plain that the old rote system is going by the board. Practically every school now reports the use of material outside the textbook, and recognizes that a library is necessary for efficient work; and nearly all teachers assign topics for investigation by the pupil, or give written recitations, or adopt like means of arousing the pupil’s interest and of leading him to think and work in some measure independently, in order that he may acquire power as well as information.2 Of course these methods are more extensively developed in some schools than in others; but the facts point to a common understanding, or at least to the approach toward a common understanding, of what history teaching should be, and to a growing appreciation of what historical study can do. We venture to say that if a school has well-trained teachers, who know why they teach and how to teach, the order of historical studies, or the exact method of handling a field of historical inquiry, is comparatively unimportant; and it is this evidence of a realization that history has a value as a pedagogical subject, indicating as it does a new interest on the part of teachers and directors of schools, and bringing surely in its train a demand for skilful teachers, which should give courage and hope to those who are interested in the successful use of history as a means of discipline and culture.

In matters of detail, the conclusions that could be drawn from the replies to the circulars were somewhat meager, but they were helpful in enabling the committee to judge of tendencies and to form a general opinion as to existing conditions. But, as we have already said, we have not contented ourselves with this method of ascertaining the situation. By the more personal means adopted we have gained information which cannot readily be tabulated, but which enables us to have some assurance concerning the tendencies of the time, and to feel that in many respects present conditions are not satisfactory to the active, progressive teachers of the country. It is often more valuable to find out how one highly successful teacher attains his end than how twenty unsuccessful teachers do not; and to discover what practical, experienced teachers, who have given thought to the subject, think can be done and should be done, than to know the static condition of twenty others who are content with the semi-success or the failure of the present.

In the summer of 1897 three members of the committee were studying educational problems in Europe. Miss Salmon spent the summer in Germany and German Switzerland, studying the methods of historical instruction in the secondary schools. The results of her investigations were given in a paper read before the American Historical Association in December, 1897. Mr. Haskins has at different times studied the educational system of France; after a further examination of secondary conditions in 1897, he prepared a report on the subject of history teaching in that country. Mr. Fox has a thorough acquaintance with the English public schools, and has prepared a report on the teaching of history in the secondary schools of England. These articles on the conditions of historical instruction in European countries are given as Appendices to this report. They are not offered as furnishing us models to which we ought to conform, but as investigations in the study of comparative education; they may, however, give to teachers of this country suggestions on the subject of general pedagogical values, methods of historical instruction, and the arrangement of studies. The committee has not supposed that it is possible to import a foreign-made régime to which the American schools can be asked to adapt themselves.

It will be seen that of foreign countries Germany is the one that offers to America the most lessons, of which probably the most important is that suggested by the great advantage resulting from having the subject of history, as well as other subjects, in the hands of thoroughly equipped teachers, who have received instruction in method, and are versed in the art of imparting information with due regard to the pupil’s age and degree of mental advancement. In the German gymnasia the course of history, from Homeric times to the present day, is covered with great thoroughness and system. To this part of the report on the German schools we wish to call special attention, for while we do not think that it is profitable for us, even in this particular, to follow the German curriculum exactly, we believe that there should be an effort on the part of those who are organizing programmes to reach toward this ideal, by extending the course of history over a number of years, and by developing it in accordance with the psychological principles which have been adhered to in the preparation of the German course of study. It should be noticed too that in German schools, history is correlated with other subjects. The teacher of history, where opportunity offers, makes use of the foreign language which the pupils are studying, and the language teacher refers to historical facts. One subject in the curriculum thus helps to re-enforce another. The methods of the German teacher also deserve careful consideration. Interest is aroused by skilful oral teaching, in which the teacher adapts his story to the minds and capacities of his hearers, and so holds their attention that concentration of mind and ability to grasp the subject are developed. It must be confessed that Miss Salmon’s description of how a teacher in Bale, in the middle of a hot summer day, held the breathless attention of a class of boys for fifty minutes, while he told the story of the dramatic struggle between Henry IV and Gregory VII, suggests not only phenomenal methods, but unusual boys; but withal we must attribute the teacher’s success to his skill, and to the previous training which the boys had received in the lower grades, where inattention or heedlessness was not tolerated.

Doubtless teachers of history in this country can not follow the example of German teachers in all respects. The German believes that, until the boy reaches the university, he has no judgment to be appealed to, and no great reasoning faculty to be developed; that it is his business, until eighteen or nineteen years of age, to absorb, not to argue or discuss. He is not expected to ask questions; he is expected to do what he is told. Such, however, is not the system for making American citizens, and such is not the atmosphere in which the American boy or girl should live. Nor can it be said that under our present conditions the teacher of history should attempt to give instruction to secondary pupils without the help of a text.

The system and methods of instruction in the schools of France are interesting, but somewhat less suggestive than those of the German schools. There, as in Germany, history is in the hands of trained teachers, who have a capacity for holding the pupil’s attention, arousing interest, and developing a love for historical study, as well as for giving a vast amount of historical information. The course of study is long, thorough, and systematically organized. The conditions of German Switzerland are essentially similar to those of Germany itself.

The situation in England does not offer many valuable lessons to American teachers. The most noticeable features are a lack of historical instruction, a common failure to recognize the value of history, and a certain incoherence and general confusion. We cannot here discuss the reasons for these conditions. It is enough to say that the laissez faire idea has been carried farther and is more marked in England than in America; for, on the whole, we have an educational system, and each passing year shows an increase in the common stock of principles. And yet one who examines the condition of historical instruction in this country, and compares it with that of France and Germany, feels that Englishmen and Americans are of one blood; the individualistic spirit of the race has found unusual expression in educational practices, and has made against cooperation and harmony, while instinctive aversion to theoretical arrangement has hindered the development of general principles. A comparison of English conditions with those of the continent will be likely to show the value of system and order, and the advantage resulting from the sway of good pedagogical doctrines. We must endeavor in America to reach a system of our own, and to recognize the force of sound principles, without losing sight of the fact that our local conditions are many, and that we must rely on individual initiative and enthusiasm, if not on impulse. Nevertheless, in spite of local diversity, and in spite of the fact that a rigid régime seems on the whole impossible if not undesirable, in this country, there are sound general principles that may be termed absolute rather than relative; there is a proper method of unfolding the subject, and there are improper methods; or, to speak more justly, method and system, which recognize the true character of the study and the principles by which it may be adapted to pupils of different ages, are certainly wiser and better than any haphazard method and lack of system can be.

While it is impossible to transplant any foreign course of study to our schools, and unwise to imitate blindly European methods of instruction, there are at least two lessons that may be learned from foreign schools; namely, the wisdom of demanding thoroughly trained teachers of history, and that of giving a large place to historical instruction in all courses. In both France and Germany, history is taught by special teachers, whose historical training has been carried to a point well beyond our American bachelor’s degree, and whose pedagogical ability has been specially tested. In France an hour and a half each week is given to history throughout the ten years of the elementary school and lycée; in Germany, history is pursued two or three hours weekly in every year of the nine years of the gymnasium; and even in Russia the time given to history is much longer than in the average American school. Not merely on these grounds, however, do we ask larger recognition for history; we hope to present, in the course of this report, substantial reasons for such recognition, drawn from the nature of the subject and from its relations to the development of the American boys and girls; but we call attention to what is now done in other countries as evidence that our recommendations are not fanciful or revolutionary.

Next section: Value of Historical Study

  1. This conference was held in December, 1892; its conclusions form a part of the report of the Committee of Ten, published by the Bureau of Education in 1893, and reprinted by the American Book Company, New York, 1894. []
  2. Undoubtedly the report of the Madison Conference had a very beneficial influence in this direction, by calling the attention of the teachers of the country to what ideals of historical instruction are. []