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Training Historians and History Teachers

For decades, the seriousness with which historians have taken their responsibility to help train history teachers has not been matched by the imagination they bring to the effort. The typical history department limits the range of historical skills addressed by its curriculum to those that mimic the working life of the college history professor; students labor over texts, lectures, and papers, even in the Age of Facebook and the middle of a recession. It’s therefore hardly surprising that public school history teachers across the country make their students labor over texts, lectures, and papers, or that students are fleeing the history major in search of a concentration that has some marketable future.

The training of history teachers should be part of a department’s larger mission to train students to be historians, which entails a form of public history—to attune one’s teaching and learning activities to what will be a nonacademic audience. Developing learning activities that help budding journalists, lawyers, psychologists, business managers, or engineers enrich and deepen their chosen professions with historical skills and historical literacy will broaden the historian’s audience and demonstrate that history is a metadiscipline that prepares people for a career by preparing them for life. But in order to do that, the history department must take a collaborative approach, seeking connections with the professions, and even adapting the methods and content of other disciplines—including education—to their own needs.

Perhaps the greatest criticism that history teachers have of their undergraduate experiences concerns the gulf between their courses in history and in education. This complaint challenges history departments to bridge that divide by building relationships between departments and even by beginning to integrate teacher training practices into history instruction. That might mean working with experts on assessment to develop class assignments that are more diverse than the expository essay; or it might mean sharing content and pedagogy across the two fields through team-teaching and informal curriculum committees; or, it could mean reviewing with history professors the state’s curriculum in history and social studies to ensure that history classes address what teachers are required to teach. Whatever forms it takes, history departments should make a concerted effort to stem the retreat of history from school curricula and to invigorate teaching standards with new scholarship from our discipline.