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History Departments Alone Are Not Enough

It seems axiomatic that history teachers would rely on historians to prepare them. Of course they should. However, as is true of all academic disciplines, there is a difference between it and the school subject that bears its name. The goals for high school science, for instance, are different from those of research scientists. According to the National Research Council’s Science Education Standards, we should be educating K–12 students who are able to:

  • Experience the richness and excitement of knowing about and understanding the natural world;
  • Use appropriate scientific processes and principles in making personal decisions;
  • Engage intelligently in public discourse and debate about matters of scientific and technological concern; and
  • Increase their economic productivity through the use of the knowledge, understanding, and skills of the scientifically literate person in their careers.

None of these goals include the production of knowledge, the advancement of research, or promotion of the field—typical responsibilities of professionals in an academic discipline. No, school science is not the same thing as science. So it is with history.

Historians provide prospective history teachers with foundational knowledge and an understanding of historiography for making sense of the discipline and understanding the tools that shape it. However, historians have no obligation (and probably no background) for understanding how early adolescents learn. This understanding of learning, coupled with principles of pedagogy, is generally acquired in education departments, schools, or colleges.

Historians help prospective teachers understand the salience of time and chronology in the discipline. When asked what history is, middle and high school students have a typical response: “a bunch of names and dates.” While that may hold some truth, it does not accurately represent the way historians construct understandings of the past. Historians can help prospective teachers understand the “big ideas” that shape historical narratives. Rather than see a history class as 40 weeks in which to read, outline, and answer the questions posed in 30 chapters, then, historians should help prospective teachers grapple with the nature of the discipline—one that is socially constructed and understood, encompasses multiple perspectives, is built on competing pieces of empirical evidence, and is amenable to interpretation and reinterpretation. Further, historians can point prospective teachers to important sources and new developments and controversies in the field like the role and salience of memory, subaltern voices, and disputed documents.

But history departments cannot be the sole source of preparation for high school teachers. The degree of specialization within the history department stands in stark contrast to the teaching of general classes like US History, World History, European History, and the handful of electives typically offered at a public high school. On my campus this semester there are currently 80 history courses listed. Less than 1/8th of those courses are breadth-oriented or survey-type courses. The work of the historian is to be a historian of some specialty—the Civil War, Ancient Rome, Pre-Columbian Latin America, etc.—while the work of a secondary school history teacher is to familiarize students with the scope of the field and its distinctive features. Thus, the only conclusion I can make about the role of history departments in the preparation of teachers is that they are necessary but not sufficient components of the education of secondary teachers.