June 14, 2007
By Andrew Britt
Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein presented opening remarks at yesterday’s National History Center conference “Reforming History Education: New Research on Teaching and Learning.” Weinstein spoke on the necessity of effective historical education, proposing it as a means for “higher advocacy of coherent citizenship.” Weinstein emphasized the link between history education and the vitality of society—a link that experts echoed throughout the day as they debated the problems with history education policy and the future of the field.
Panelists discussed how best to revitalize historical education through successful structures and methods of historical education and evaluation. Robert Orrill (National Education for the Disciplines) scrutinized the standard method of collegiate historical education, calling for college educators to rethink how they design classes and curriculum. Suzanne Wilson (Michigan State University) focused on the roadblocks to teacher certification and program accreditation, summoning university-level historians to higher, active involvement in K-12 teacher education and evaluation.
Robert Bain (University of Michigan) spoke on problems of university-level historical education, emphasizing the divide between content and method. Bain suggested that this gap goes against the very essence of historical scholarship, which is as much about what happened as about how people have interpreted what happened. Bain argued that this divorce has caused a decline in the historical mindedness of students—a decline that mandates classroom teaching and discussion linking content, pedagogy, and practice. Bain presented a compelling argument for administrators and professors to make teaching and scholarship more equal roles for academic historians. Bain’s innovative suggestions were followed by Peter Stearns (George Mason University) and Maris Vinovskis (University of Michigan), who stressed the importance of extensive and methodical research that explores the teacher education system and the cognitive processes of student learning—research which has been generally absent in the field.
The Teaching American History Grant program was a prominent topic of the conference. The nearly $1 billion program is a monumental effort by the government to increase the knowledge and effectiveness of American history teachers. The program, however, has caused a great deal of debate within the field. While there is a consensus that the monetary commitment is the most significant thing done for American history teaching in some time, many question the success of the program. Participants at the conference questioned how to reform and strengthen a field that struggles to effectively educate teachers, students, and society as a whole—a society which for the most part does not understand or care about history. Panelists resolved that there must be a more comprehensive and analytic collaboration between educators, professionals, researchers, and policy makers to strengthen the impact and prominence of historical study. The panelists presented both paths for historians to reform the field and unresolved questions about its future. Like the Teaching American History Grant progam, it seems debate will continue in the search for methods of historical education to produce thoughtful, effective, and passionate teachers who educate energetic and critical students.