I have been giving this topic much thought since this summer. Being a “so-called” leader in history education, I am often asked to participate in various projects, forums, meetings, and conferences related to the process by which historians gather data, and how that data is disseminated within the classroom. I have noticed a troubling trend of late. Often when asked to speak to high school history teachers, or conduct a seminar related to the processes of historical thinking, I have found way too many teachers far too focused on the process of history instruction without fully grasping the essential ideas of the conceptual process by which they are to instruct.
Usually after talking to teachers about a critical historical concept and the essential sources that support that concept, I am inundated with questions or emails from people asking me to hand them a lesson plan. Now, do not get me wrong here, I love sharing; it is what I do. Better yet, it is the great joy of working with colleagues. It is why we attend workshops and conferences. I am most troubled by those that want to disseminate historical information, but yet in doing so, lack a full grasp for the information they are presenting to their students. In one specific case, I was asked to speak to a high school history department on the theme of “historical change agents.” During this meeting, I discussed the importance of teaching political revolutions by focusing on social periodizations. In hopes of some discourse on the content…seeing that the topic is not simple, many wanted to focus on the lesson planning of the subject. How can one plan to teach what one does not understand? In essence, they wanted the material I gave them in order to pass it off to their students. Though I was frustrated, I did not show it. I forced my participants to do the exercise themselves. And as I expected, they found it to be very difficult. And though it was difficult, the questions teachers asked still centered around making the exercise easier. Hence, eliminating the parts that were most crucial so that it might easily be passed off to students as a mere classroom activity, and not a lesson on historical reasoning and thinking.
The Fordham study has also been very critical on this matter. Better yet, it agrees with my assessment. More than half of high school history teachers did not major or even minor in history in college. Instead, most studied education or psychology or sociology. These are highly specialized areas. But, much like political science, do require the important skills to teach historical reasoning. As a result, teachers charged with imparting essential information to young Americans about the history of their country and world must rely heavily on the textbooks available to them—often textbooks that teachers themselves had little to do with selecting. Because these texts end up serving as students’ primary sources of information, it’s vitally important that they be accurate and interesting, and that they establish a narrative of events with a strong sense of context. They must tell “the main story” without neglecting lesser stories that form part of an accurate picture of the past. What they must not be is sprawling, drab assemblages of disjointed information in which everything matters equally and nothing is truly important.
Thus the problem with the notion of the “Social Studies” teacher. When asked if I teach social studies, I politely ask what does social studies mean? I have assumed that it is a process taught by elementary school teachers who teach every subject. This exact concept holds true for those that home school too. One cannot have the depth nor the understanding of the historical processes when they have not been asked to do the work needed for this. How can a person teach a history course when they have not read the most recent journal article offering new insights into a particular topic? I suspect the same old information published in a textbook is taught. Thus, too many teachers become overly dependent on a book, and less on the most recent scholarship.
So, when asked by teachers attending one of my seminars how I prepare for class, I respond by saying I read. And not just out of a textbook. I seek various references and articles that might shed a different point of view. I would hope that teachers who teach U.S. history might have their students explore the significance of Marxist Historiography on the process of sharecropping. Or, in World and European History, the shift from synthetic history to Annales history; I do not think it is always important to assign titles to such classroom studies, but having students understand historical periodizations is most crucial.