Everything Old Is New Again: Social History, the National History Standards and the Crisis in the Teaching of High School American History

By Bienstock, Barry W. | Journal of Social History, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Everything Old Is New Again: Social History, the National History Standards and the Crisis in the Teaching of High School American History


Bienstock, Barry W., Journal of Social History


The teaching of history seems to be in crisis. At the secondary level the debate has been engaged over what America's youth should be learning about our nation's past; as the controversy over the National Standards for United States History is played out on the editorial page, television talk shows and in the Senate chamber, the role of the teacher, the student, and course content is very much up for grabs. But one thing is certain: everyone has an opinion even if few of the participants in the debate have actually read the Standards or are teaching in America's high schools. My comments are based upon teaching at an elite private school for the last thirteen years, after having taught at a state university for the previous five.

This debate commenced last fall with the publication of National Standards for United States History and World History, but storm warnings echoed years earlier with the report of the Bradley Commission and other joint-sponsored reports on Social Studies in the Schools. Issues related to pedagogy have been even more pressing as secondary school teachers are flooded with material about the student-centered classroom and new delivery systems preparing students for the twenty-first century, as if the very mission of the profession of teaching is as committed to reformatting as the new versions of computer software that appear every month. Workshop leaders talk about the teacher becoming the guide on the side rather than the pilot flying the plane, as though academic teachers were engaged in an athletic activity that relegated the teacher to the status of a coach sitting on the bench while the team moved the ball up the field. We learn that students learn best facing one another, so that it is important to replace antiquated desks with seminar tables or to move those armchair desks into "the circle." We are told that everyone has a different learning style: some students are passive learners and some are active learners - and, of course, there is a gender dimension to learning that must be taken into consideration as well.

We are asked to provide more inclusive, more relevant, more self-referential material to enhance students' self-esteem and to educate students for the coming century. Some teachers say that "the box" is already so filled that the only way we can do that is by lengthening the school year as well as the school day. And we must not forget that the two-parent working family requires a longer school day and year to provide the child the care that the homemaker used to offer. All of which leads to the school's becoming a surrogate parent as teachers are exhorted more and more to provide the ethical guidance that doomsayers tell us is no longer coming from the home.

We are told that we should teach students how to think and not what to think, and so it really does not matter if a teacher lacks the expertise to teach a subject because enthusiasm and pedagogy are more important than content. Or, as my former Head of School once said, when hiring someone who had no training in the subject she was supposed to teach, "We're more interested in the spirit of teaching around here."

Finally, teachers are being urged to have their students do "projects" rather than end of the year final exams or term papers. And as projects replace year-end final exams in the student-centered classroom, students shape the curriculum and design projects that provide "hands-on" activity. Everyone is a historian. Adopt a project, create a documentary, write a novel, put a historical figure on trial, hold a constitutional convention, host your very own Congress of Vienna.

The central issue that has been lost in much of this debate, and one directly addressed by the National Standards, is that too much emphasis has been focused upon pedagogy and not enough on content. What the Standards offer are a solid grounding in American history as well as pedagogical suggestions that offer the best promise yet of a balanced curriculum.

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