The History Standards Controversy and Social History

By Nash, Gary B. | Journal of Social History, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

The History Standards Controversy and Social History


Nash, Gary B., Journal of Social History


The swirling controversy over the National History Standards that erupted in late October 1994 is linked to the wide-ranging attacks on social history in recent years. One way of understanding why Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan, John Leo, Charles Krauthammer, George Will, Lynne Cheney, G. Gordon Liddy, and Newt Gingrich have heaped abuse on the U.S. and World History Standards is to revisit the long-forgotten Rugg controversy that occurred more than fifty years ago.

Harold Rugg emerged in the 1920s as a progressive educational theorist, teacher, and textbook writer. A ninth-generation New Englander who worked as a weaver in a textile mill in order to understand industrial work and acquire an understanding of life at the bottom of the American social hierarchy, Rugg acquired a college education and a graduate degree in civil engineering.(1) By 1910, he had discovered his true calling - in education, sociology, and psychology. After completing a Ph.D. in psychology and sociology at the University of Illinois in 1915, he taught at the University of Chicago, became part of the now legendary psychological division of the U.S. Army in World War I, and then in 1920 accepted an appointment as associate professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University and as educational psychologist at Columbia's experimental Lincoln School.(2)

Rugg drank deeply from the wells of progressive thinkers as he reached for ideas and pedagogical strategies to unleash the innate creative ability in young learners. Rummaging widely across many disciplines, he drew inspiration from Van Wyck Brooks, Thorstein Veblen, John Dewey, Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles Beard, John Maynard Keynes, R. H. Tawney, John R. Commons, Charles E. Merriam, and others - in effect, the leading historians, political scientists, economists, educators, and cultural critics of the early twentieth century.(3) Soon firmly committed to the progressive movement in education, Rugg figured prominently in Teachers College's John Dewey Society and in its journal The Social Frontier which became "the leading voice of educational reform."(4) Though Rugg was lesser known than many members of the Teacher College movers and shakers, it was this small, mild-mannered, and highly moral man who became the leading social studies textbook author of the group.

Rugg, one of the founders of the National Council for the Social Studies, became perhaps the principal challenger to David Muzzey, whose junior and senior high school history textbooks dominated history education from the 1920s until the 1950s.(5) In an outpouring of books for the elementary and secondary schools - some twenty books in a series entitled Man and His Changing Society - Rugg brought a grain of the leaven of social and economic history to the loaf of what had been a politically dominated curriculum. His A History of American Civilization, Economic and Social (1930) became something of a bestseller.

Also notable was Rugg's stress, in all of his books, on the need for students to develop critical judgment, reflective thinking, and creative self-expression.

In his Teacher's Guide and Key, he insisted that "pupils must learn to think critically about modern problems." Carl Wittke, a reviewer of his books and the emerging pillar of immigration history, wrote that Rugg "emphasizes the need for tolerance, which he defines as 'open-mindedness' and 'critical mindedness."' In his Teacher's Guide, Rugg advised teachers, in pursuing the goal of "tolerant understanding," to make constant use of phrases such as 'Why do you think so?' 'Are you open-minded about the matter?' 'What is your authority?' 'Have you considered all sides of the case ?'"(6)

As would soon become apparent, Rugg was not shy about directing students - in the middle of the Great Depression - to examine how wealth was divided in the United States and to what degree the rising standard of living extended to all ranks.(7) His biographer describes his presentation of history as "gravita[ting] toward the moderate left and merg[ing] with [the] sort of piecemeal reformism characteristic of New Dealers. …

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