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“Don’t Know Much About History”: The New York Times 1943 Survey of U.S. History and the Controversy It Generated

by Anne-Lise Halvorsen - 2012

Background/Context: Educators, parents, politicians, and the media often complain that young people know little history and compare them unfavorably to better-educated, earlier generations. However, the charge is exaggerated. Young people have performed poorly on history tests for decades. Students’ poor scores on one test in particular, the focus of this study, caught the nation’s attention: the New York Times 1943 survey of college freshmen’s history knowledge.

Focus of Study: This study examines the debate between supporters of history education and supporters of social studies education about the New York Times 1943 survey of college freshmen’s history knowledge. In a report on the survey results, the newspaper claimed that these students knew little of their country’s history, and not much more about its geography. The study places the survey in the broader context of history and social studies education in the early to mid-twentieth century. The study traces the origins of the survey and the debate between two key players, Allan Nevins and Erling Hunt, and describes reactions to the survey from educators, politicians, the media, and the public. In addition, the study describes how the American Historical Association, the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, and the National Council for the Social Studies counteracted the survey’s findings to defend the teaching of history and social studies in the U.S.

Research Design: This study is a historical examination of the survey and the controversy it generated. The study uses archival resources, primary documents, contemporary newspaper and journal articles, and key players’ private letters, to explain how the survey was developed, reported on, and responded to.

Conclusions: Although the survey was not the first of its kind, and certainly not the last, and did not result in major changes in history and social studies instruction, it gave defenders of history education and social studies education a national battleground for their war of words. In examining the increased interest in the pedagogical debate on fact-based learning versus historical thinking skills that the survey provoked, this study brings perspective to a long-standing controversy, highlights the tension between advocates of history education and advocates of social studies education, and shows how the public reacted with deep alarm to the survey’s results. This study highlights the divisive effects of using a single test to draw conclusions about the state of education. In the conclusion, the study calls for a negotiation by all sides in what are known today as “the history wars.”

On April 4, 1943, the New York Times (hereafter, the Times) published the results of its survey of college freshmen’s knowledge of U.S. history in an article with the attention-grabbing headline, “Ignorance of U.S. History Shown by College Freshmen.”1 The survey was based on a thirty-minute test given to seven thousand students in thirty-six higher education institutions nationwide in the spring of 1943. According to Benjamin Fine, the article’s author, the survey revealed students’ alarming ignorance of their country’s history (and geography). Fine reported that 25 percent of the students did not know Abraham Lincoln was president during the Civil War, 30 percent did not know Woodrow Wilson was president during World War I, and only 6 percent could name the original thirteen states. As for students’ knowledge of geography, Fine wrote: “Most of our students do not have the faintest notion of what this country looks like.”2

According to Fine, the students’ misinformation was even more alarming than their ignorance. For example, many students from the South thought Jefferson Davis was the U.S. president during the Civil War, and many students included West Coast states among the original thirteen states. One student wrote that Theodore Roosevelt had been a forest ranger; another student offered that Roosevelt “walked on a big stick with a soft voice.”3 Fine was especially concerned that the students did not understand the significance of important people, places, and events in U.S. history. Specifically, he worried that students could not identify the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights or the powers granted to Congress by the U.S. Constitution.

The Times article ignited a heated controversy about students’ preparation for college and inflamed the debate on history versus social studies education. Politicians, teachers, educators, parents, students, and members of the public—even Eleanor Roosevelt—commented on the results of the survey. However, the newspaper’s survey was not the first of its kind, nor would it be the last. For example, in a 1917 study of Texas high school students, two psychologists, J. Carleton Bell and David McCollum, concluded these students knew little history.4 More recently, a 1987 report charged seventeen-year-olds with little knowledge of history, adding that their knowledge of civics was no better.5 In today’s popular media, Jay Leno’s “Jay Walking” television sketches routinely make fun of U.S. citizens’ ignorance of history and current affairs.

This study focuses on the 1943 Times survey to provide new insights on the continuing debate between the defenders of history education and the defenders of social studies programs. The context of the survey is critical to an understanding of the study’s importance in this national debate—World War II, when Americans’ patriotic sentiments were elevated and when politicians and educators were greatly concerned about young people’s poor history knowledge.6

After tracing the origins of the Times survey, this study describes the responses by politicians, education associations—such as the American Historical Association (AHA) and the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), concerned educators, and members of the public, and the follow up-test of U.S. history sponsored by the AHA, the NCSS, and the Mississippi Valley Historical Association. The study addresses the following questions: How did individuals and groups respond to the Times survey? Who was blamed for the poor student performance? Why was the status quo of U.S. history, civics, and social studies classes supported and criticized? How did the survey illuminate pedagogical differences between fact-based learning and historical thinking skills? What curriculum recommendations were made? What effect did the survey have on the debate between defenders of history education and defenders of social studies education?

The essay extends and brings new perspectives to the research by Ronald Evans, whose comprehensive history of social studies education describes the Times survey’s findings and influence on history education, as well as the issues the survey raised about the nature and direction of social studies education.7 Similar to Evans’s book, this study uses the controversy resulting from the Times survey to highlight the bitter debates between history defenders and social studies defenders, and concludes that the survey marked a “major turning point” in the social studies–history wars.8 However, as summarized next, this interpretation of the controversy offers several new insights.

The controversy over the survey was a pivotal point in the history versus social studies debate because, for the first time, the argument left the academic arena and became a newsworthy and popular discussion topic. As newspaper headlines dramatized the survey’s results, the public’s concern about what should be taught in schools increased. The debate foreshadowed later conflicts such as those on “Man: A Course of Study in the 1970s” and “U. S. History Standards in the 1990s,” both of which also played out on the national stage. Similar to these later conflicts, the Times survey turned an education controversy into a highly divisive political issue.

This study places the Times survey and the ensuing controversy in the broad educational context of America’s long-standing complaint that the country’s young people do not know their country’s history. There is an education myth that such ignorance is a contemporary phenomenon. In fact, there never was a golden age when America’s youth had a comprehensive knowledge of their country’s history and government. The reality is that for decades students have performed poorly on history and civics tests. The story of the Times survey and its aftermath supports this conclusion in addition to raising the complex question of what knowledge is relevant for citizenship education. In an analysis of the 1943 survey and of the 1944 follow-up test (their content and students’ performance), this study reveals that American young people’s knowledge of history was under attack well before the charges made in the late twentieth century.

This study reveals that the survey’s developers had a purpose beyond demonstrating students’ poor knowledge of history and geography. The developers expected students to perform poorly and predicted (accurately) the sensation the reported results would cause. It seems not too strong to say there was indeed a hidden agenda behind the survey: an attack on history and social studies instruction in U.S. high schools.

The responses to the Times survey did provoke an intense pedagogical debate about the knowledge and skills students should be taught. Educators, academics, politicians, and the public joined the discussion about which was more important for citizenship: memorizing history’s significant events or interpreting those events by analyzing their causes and effects. This pedagogical question, which had emerged at the beginning of the Progressive Era, was then of greater interest to educators and teachers than to the public.9 In the debate that followed the Times survey, politicians and the public also began to think about the knowledge and skills that matter most—a debate that continues today.

Additionally, quoting from correspondence on the debate by key stakeholders of the time, the study takes a fresh look at the history versus social studies debate. These letters, which were usually intended only for their recipients, generally reflect private sentiments that were often far more impassioned than their authors’ more measured, public pronouncements. Both sides clearly knew what was at stake in the controversy. For example, the letters of Erling Hunt, department head of the Teaching of Social Science at Teachers College, Columbia University (TC), reflect his defensiveness in protecting social studies education and in challenging what he thought was the Times’ hidden agenda to replace social studies with history education. Columbia University Professor of History Allan Nevins’s letters reveal his equally strong determination to preserve the place of history in social studies education.


In this study on the far-reaching effect of a single newspaper survey, I re-examine these grave issues in American education that the survey elevated to a national discussion and that engaged academics as well as university presidents, college students, politicians, and ordinary citizens, many of whom were eager to join the blame game of why American students knew so little history. To tell this story, I begin with an overview of history and social studies education in the United States in the early to mid-twentieth century that provides relevant background.


Before the 1920s and the introduction of social studies in U.S. education, the few students who attended high school studied history in a four-block sequence: in ninth grade, ancient history; in tenth grade, medieval and modern history; in eleventh grade, English history; in twelfth grade, U.S. history. This course of study was based on the 1899 American History Association (AHA) Committee of Seven Report that systematized ideas from the 1893 National Education Association (NEA) Committee of Ten Report.10 The NEA Report, in its curriculum recommendations for high schools nationwide, suggested two tracks of history study that differed in scope although both focused on U.S. history (in grade eleven). The AHA Committee of Seven Report went further by prescribing content for each high school grade. The AHA Report recommended that students, in addition to studying events, approach the study of history more conceptually. According to the AHA Report, students needed an understanding of cause and effect, a sense of chronology, good judgment, and scientific habits of mind.11 (In the subsequent history/social studies debates, these were issues in the discussion of whether students should be taught historical thinking skills or the memorization of historical facts.) While scholars debate the influence of the AHA Committee of Seven Report in U.S. high school classrooms, they agree it helped formalize the study of history in secondary education.12

In 1916, the Report of the Social Studies Committee of the NEA Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education (CRSE) challenged this four-block course in the report The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education.13 This Commission, co-sponsored by the NEA and the U.S. Bureau of Education, had committees for major academic subject areas (history, geography, and political science were collapsed into the subject area of social studies). The Report of the Committee on Social Studies stated that the central goal of social studies was to teach good citizenship while the central goal of history education was to teach contemporary institutions, conditions, and problems. Thus, history education appeared to take a more sociological bent.14 The authors of the report argued that any instruction that did not help students learn about “human betterment” had no place in the curriculum; “old history” should be replaced by study of current issues with immediate relevance for children’s lives.15

Compared to the Committee of Ten Report, the CRSE’s Cardinal Principles presented a very different version of high school education.16 The CRSE’s recommendations had a profound influence on U.S. education, on traditional history instruction in particular. Erling Hunt, a severe critic of the Times survey, wrote that the CRSE’s Committee on Social Studies was “enormously influential for more than a third of a century” and “marked the end of domination of the high school program by college and university professors of history, the recognition of social studies courses that cut across subject lines, and the triumph of the philosophy of functional subject matter, oriented to practical and practicing citizenship, to recent and contemporary life, and to immediate social problems.”17

Noting these advances in social studies education, in 1921 several leading social scientists, with the support of the AHA, founded the NCSS for “the association and cooperation of teachers of the social studies (history, government, economics, sociology, etc.) and of school administrators, supervisors, teachers of education, and others interested in obtaining the maximum results in education for citizenship from social studies.”18 A guiding principle for the NCSS was that history education was insufficient preparation for citizenship.19 As a result, in the 1920s high school history education began to expand to include more geography, political science, economics, sociology, and other social sciences.

In the 1930s, influenced by the pedagogical trends of social meliorism, problem-centered social studies, and community civics courses, U.S. high schools continued their movement away from the traditional history courses of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At TC, George Counts and Harold Rugg, well-known Progressive educators, advocated a curriculum that was intended to show students how to improve society.20 In this approach, history’s place in the curriculum was justified by the subject’s usefulness in helping students understand contemporary issues. The study of the past was to prepare students for life in the present and the future. Thus, at least a decade before the Times survey, history and social studies educators were engaged in a debate on the purposes of schooling (e.g., preserving the status quo versus promoting change) and on the knowledge and skills students needed (e.g., foundational knowledge versus skills for citizenship).21

When the Times conducted its survey in 1943, this national movement toward social studies adoption in schools with its new approach to history instruction was already widespread. How did this new approach affect student learning? A test given in 1935 to seven thousand high school juniors and seniors nationwide in twenty-four high schools in twenty communities, including large cities and small towns, showed that high school students appeared to have very little knowledge of U.S. history and government.22 When the results of the 1935 test were released, some educators blamed the social studies movement for the students’ poor performance. However, although the test results, issued well before the 1943 Times survey, showed that American high schoolers apparently did not know their history, the 1935 test did not catch the nation’s attention or provoke controversy in the way the 1943 Times survey did. With the national publication of the survey’s results that made evident college freshmen’s “striking ignorance” of U.S. history, the Times survey undeniably escalated the conflict between the defenders of history and the defenders of social studies.23


Even before the 1943 survey, the Times was involved in the history/social studies debate with the newspaper’s publication of articles by Allan Nevins, a key player in the debate. Nevins began his career as a journalist in New York City, and, after nearly twenty years of newspaper work, joined the history department faculty at Columbia University in 1928. His research focused mainly on nineteenth-century American history, and in 1933, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Grover Cleveland. Nevins’s scholarship emphasized the practical significance of events and of individual accomplishments. He often raised his subjects, such as John D. Rockefeller, to heroic status.24

In 1942, in collaboration with others, Nevins, who thought Americans should know their own history, began a campaign for more and better history instruction, joining in the public dialogue about what children should learn in school. For example, in April of that year, Nevins criticized the mayor of Baltimore for his suggestion that schools should focus more on civics than history. Nevins wrote the mayor that, if teachers focus on history, “civics will take care of itself.”25 In May 1942, Nevins addressed a national audience when he condemned U.S. history instruction at all levels (elementary, secondary, and collegiate) in an article in the New York Times Magazine. Noting that World War II was a major reason for his concern, Nevins wrote that the war “has shaken us out of old complacencies.” He argued that young people’s knowledge of American history was a source of patriotic, moral, and spiritual strength for the country. He explained, “No nation can be patriotic in the best sense, so people can feel a proud comradeship without a knowledge of the past.”26

Nevins also expressed his concern that whereas the requirements for U.S. history instruction in public schools in twenty-six states were inconsistent and vague, twenty-two states had no such requirements at all. Criticizing educational requirements as “deplorably haphazard, chaotic and ineffective,” he proposed a set of K–12 and higher education requirements based on the model developed by the Chicago Public Schools. That model taught traditional U.S. history, including units on the Constitution, in the seventh and eighth grades; the high schools used an approach “divorced from social studies, cosmic history and like fetters.”27

Nevins received numerous letters of support—from young adults, teachers, administrators, and faculty members.28 One well-known supporter was Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger, the wife of the Times publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger. She wrote to Nevins, “I want to tell you how thrilled and delighted I was by your splendid article in yesterday’s Times Magazine. I think you struck exactly the right note and I am sure you have done much to awaken the American public to the neglect of the study of the history and traditions of our country in our schools and colleges.” She concluded that she was encouraged to crusade “alongside a person like yourself.”29 Two weeks later, historian Matthew Page Andrews endorsed Nevins’s article in a letter to the editor of the Times in which Andrews blamed the poor performance of students on “social studies” that “subordinates history” to current events, social problems, and even comparative religions. Andrews called social studies education a “racket” where an “overemphasis upon this fetish has opened the door to all kinds of crackpot ideas.”30 Nevins’s article inspired educators to invite him to be the keynote speaker at a conference in Williamsburg, Virginia, that was devoted to Nevins’s claims.31

In June 1942, the Times published the results of a survey of enrollment patterns in history education at U.S. liberal arts colleges.32 The newspaper sent the survey to 1,225 institutions, of which 690 (56 percent) responded. The survey showed that 82 percent of the responding institutions did not require a course in U.S. history for an undergraduate degree although 69 percent of the respondents thought such a course should be required. As justification for requiring U.S. history courses, respondents said the study of U.S. history was important for developing civic responsibility and an appreciation of the American heritage, in particular among young men and women entering the military.33

The response to the findings by the Times, inside and outside education circles, was mixed. For example, Stanford University sponsored a two-day conference on the issue for college and university teachers of U.S. history. Others were less alarmed, perhaps least of all TC Professor Erling Hunt. In a Times article, Hunt charged that the claim that college students were ignorant of U.S. history was “hysterical,” and “uninformed and irresponsible.”34 However, although he was satisfied with the amount of U.S. history in the college curriculum, Hunt was very dissatisfied with how the subject was taught. In his opinion, history instruction was often ineffective for a variety of reasons, including the “low ability” of some high school students, the repetition and tediousness of the courses, and the poor teacher preparation that led to classroom “drill that kills interest and leaves pupils with a distaste for what should be a favorite study.”35 Other educators, however, opposed U.S. history as a required course in higher education because such a compulsory course requirement was “undemocratic” and repeated high school studies.36

Hunt also used the editorial pages of the NCSS journal, Social Education, to denounce Nevins’s claims and to criticize Nevins’s Times article as “nationalistic and ill-informed.”37 Hunt thought the history courses and essential history facts that Nevins advocated were too specialized and no substitute for the process of learning: “History is no longer, as Professor Nevins and the New York Times imply, the only source of understanding and appreciation of American traditions, and institutions, or the only source of patriotism and national unity.”38

In private correspondence with Professor Guy Stanton Ford, Hunt used more impassioned language than he did in his public writings. Specifically, he confessed his annoyance with Nevins. Hunt wrote that he longed for “a holiday from what could be a full-time job in keeping up with Allan Nevins’s mistakes about history teaching.”39 In the same correspondence, Hunt raised the issue of political motivation in his speculation on why Nevins (and others) promoted more U.S. history study in the schools: “I now think this whole enterprise may be plain dangerous, may be picked up by isolationists who do not want European history or the history of countries and peoples other than the United States taught in the schools.”40 While Hunt did not make the charge of a conspiracy against social studies instruction publicly, his letter reveals his grave concern.

Hostilities ratcheted up when Nevins asked Hunt for space in Social Education to respond to Hunt’s editorial. As Evans recounts, the exchange between the two was heated, with Nevins asserting that he was “loaded for bear” and Hunt sarcastically retorting that once Nevins “moved from the realm of impressions and prejudices into the realm of facts and realities” he might be able to better judge how wrong Nevins had been.41 Yet Hunt allowed Nevins to respond in Social Education. In the December 1942 issue, Nevins charged that Hunt had unfairly singled the historian out as a critic of history education and denied that compulsory courses in American history were “undemocratic.” In support of his position, Nevins quoted Leland Stanford, the founder and president of Stanford University, who had declared: “We require students to go to school and that’s not undemocratic; we require them to read and write and that’s not undemocratic. If it is just as important for them to appreciate our history, and if we believe in it educationally, we ought to require it.”42

In his response, Nevins sympathized with students who described social studies as “social slush” and agreed with critics who faulted schools of education for promoting social studies. The specific objects of Nevins’s scorn were “fusion courses.” These were courses, emanating from Progressive educational ideology, that combined U.S. history with world history and the social sciences. Nevins stated: “With sane progressivism in teaching I have no quarrel. I heartily believe that the relationships between American history and other social studies should be consistently demonstrated. But I am convinced, as are many careful and experienced observers, that a considerable number of teachers are using fusion courses or social studies to slight, evade, or mangle the study of American history.”43

In private correspondence with Hunt, Nevins explained the problem as one of intentions not matching reality: “Fusion courses seem to me, from all I have heard of them, excellent when given to unusually bright students by unusually able teachers.” However, in the hands of “eccentric and wrongheaded teachers,” the subject could lose all sense of integrity.44 In another letter to Hunt, Nevins posed the presumably rhetorical question about the teaching of American history: “Is it being made hopelessly eccentric by the introduction of ultra-progressive ideas?”45

The exchange continued publicly with Hunt’s response to Nevins’s article, published in the same issue of Social Education.46 Hunt argued that, following the widespread adoption of social studies courses at all education levels, students learned more, not less, U.S. history. He cited the AHA Report on the Commission on Social Studies that showed the classroom time devoted to U.S. history had doubled in the 1930s. He also defended some “fusion” courses that focused almost entirely on social and political problems in the United States. Hunt also rejected Nevins’s solution of compulsory U.S. history courses since there were no guarantees such courses would be well taught. While agreeing that history education was essential, Hunt insisted that the teaching methods, not the amount of instruction, were the major concerns.47

The war of words between Nevins and Hunt did not end with this debate in Social Education. In fact, their debate, in renewing the focus on the differing opinions of history education, continued following the 1943 Times survey. Nevins was unwilling to let Hunt have the last word in this important debate, but Nevins needed empirical evidence.

He soon acquired such evidence. As the public debate between Nevins and Hunt continued, Hugh Russell Fraser, a journalist and employee of the U.S. Office of Education, asked Nevins to collaborate with him, historian Matthew Page Andrews, Times journalist Benjamin Fine, and others in developing a survey that would demonstrate the deleterious effects on education resulting from the neglect of history instruction in America’s schools. Fraser also obtained assistance in planning the survey from the Committee on American History (CAH), an informal group he chaired of forty-five members devoted to the preservation of American history in schools. Fraser then began discussions about financing the survey and enlisted the support of the Times editorial staff and Mrs. Sulzberger.48 In September 1942, Fraser told Nevins he had spent about $440 of his own money on the survey but needed roughly $10,000 in each of the subsequent years (Fraser did not indicate how long the project would last). Fraser then asked Nevins if he would seek other sources of financing for the survey.49 The survey developers correctly predicted (in part by designing a test with many questions that were deliberately obscure) that the students would do poorly on their test. It appears they planned to use these results to launch an attack on social studies education.

In October 1942, Fraser gleefully informed Nevins of Fine’s support for the survey. Fraser wrote that Fine thought the survey should “be put to Columbia students and to students of nearby colleges [so that] the results might be heralded on the front page of the TIMES!” The clear expectation in the suggestion is that the students would do poorly. Fraser indicated that Fine would raise the idea with Mrs. Sulzberger and seemed “to think we will have no difficulty getting funds to finance our activities.”50 By December 1942, the CAH (strongly supported by Fraser and Samuel McKee Jr., Columbia University professor of history) had developed a draft of the survey that Fine sent to Nevins for review.

In November 1942, Nevins had written to Hunt expressing regret that “we do not see eye to eye [regarding history and social studies education].” He had described the support for his cause: “But Carman and McKee and Mrs. Sulzberger and scores of other people feel, as I do...[that it is important to answer the questions] “Do we teach enough American history?” and “Is our teaching sound and stimulating, or is it being made hopelessly eccentric by the introduction of ultra-progressive ideas?” Nevins, concluding it was important to involve those outside education circles in the debate, had sharply commented: “It will be a most unhealthy state of affairs if nobody outside the Teachers’ Colleges is allowed to criticize or question our public education system!”51

By January of the next year, Fraser had begun distributing the survey to colleges and universities.52 In the following months, thirty-six colleges and universities had administered the survey to seven thousand college freshmen. The results of the survey (which, evidently to their delight, were possibly even worse than Fraser and others had imagined) splashed across the front page of the Times on April 4, 1943, in an article written by a supporter of the survey, Benjamin Fine.53


With the chief goal of assessing students’ knowledge of U.S. history, the survey had questions on historic events, inventors, and industry developments as well as on social and cultural leaders. The focus was wars, major national legislation, and political, industrial, and financial leaders. Some survey content was common knowledge among Americans, but certainly not all of it. In format, survey questions were multiple-choice/matching or open-ended, brief response. In short, they were fact-based questions, requiring memorization of places, people, and events. Two copies of the survey are now available—one published by the Times and the other published by the U.S. Senate.54

As the headline in the Times—“Ignorance of U.S. History Shown by College Freshmen”—bluntly proclaimed, the students appeared to know little of their country’s history.55 For example, only 4 percent of the students knew when the Homestead Act was passed, only 12 percent could identify two major contributions by Andrew Jackson, and only 6 percent could describe the Nullification Act. In general, there were only a handful of questions that more than 50 percent of students answered correctly.

However, this alleged poor performance is subject to interpretation. First, given the question structure and the evaluation of “correct” responses, some answers marked wrong may have been partially correct. For example, to receive credit for the first question, naming the thirteen original states, students had to list all thirteen. Correctly naming twelve states was just as wrong as naming none.

Second, a more fine-grained analysis of the survey results suggests that students did not do as badly as the Times claimed. They scored poorly on factual questions dealing with relatively obscure events, but these questions were, as one professor described them, radio program “quiz kid” questions.56 However, the students did better on questions asking them to identify politicians, inventors, and other famous people. Generally, students scored close to 50 percent or better on the questions linking people to position or to achievement. For example, 68 percent of the students knew who Eli Whitney was, 60 percent Alexander Graham Bell, and 59 percent Walt Whitman. The students did even better with contemporary leaders: 71 percent identified John D. Rockefeller, 64 percent Henry L. Stimson, and 50 percent George C. Marshall. More than half could identify the presidents during the Civil War and World War I: Lincoln (75 percent) and Wilson (70 percent).57

Thus, there are important patterns in the survey results. Students knew more about contemporary individuals and major events than minor historical figures and obscure events. Only 2 percent of the students could answer the following questions: “Which was the first United States census in which railway mileage could have been reported?” and “Before the passage of the Homestead Act, what was the minimum price-per-acre of Federal public lands sold at auction?” By contrast, 69 percent knew Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated. Put simply, the students knew the event that history would long remember. Nevertheless, students scored poorly on much of the survey—and that is what the media, educators, politicians, and the public noticed and reacted to.

Not surprisingly, social studies defenders at the time strongly contested the negative interpretations of the survey results. Once again, Hunt took up his “full-time job” of challenging Nevins.58 Hunt criticized the irrelevancy of the survey since the majority of the questions related to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with just a handful of questions on the twentieth century. He also criticized the obscurity of some questions that dealt with facts of very minor significance.59

Standing by their interpretations of the survey results, Nevins and Fraser began to lay blame. In a Times article, Nevins concluded that the students’ poor performance was a result of the following factors: 1) the crowded school curriculum; 2) incompetent, ill-trained, and overworked teachers; 3) mentally immature high school students; and 4) the students’ lack of educational training at home. In particular, Nevins claimed the “chief root” of the poor performance was the confusion about the place of U.S. history in the K–12 curriculum. Tracing the origin of this confusion to the 1910s, he blamed Progressive educators for arriving at “a far more radical point” where “traditional history got no mercy from them.”60 Similarly, Fraser blamed the “social study extremists” for the students’ poor performance. He wrote that the day social studies were introduced in schools should be “a day of mourning.”61 Fraser, in his support of Nevins, argued students needed solid historical facts before students could interpret them.

As Nevins and others had hoped, and even predicted, the controversy played out in broad contexts and involved key players outside education. With the 1943 Times article, followed by others, Benjamin Fine became a troublesome thorn in the sides of many AHA and NCSS members. Indeed, since he collaborated with Fraser, Nevins, and others in developing the survey, Fine’s opinion on the importance of the survey is not surprising. Historians and educators alike objected to what they considered his sensational, journalistic slant in his criticism of students’ “ignorance” of history, geography, civics, and economics. They thought Fine went beyond factual reporting of correct and incorrect answers and seemed to relish quoting embarrassing answers. Subtitles in his article had a condescending tone: “Walt Whitman, A Missionary” and “Roger Williams, Movie Star.” Probably intending to shock and amuse readers, Fine wrote that one student thought Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney was a gangster and another student thought he was a Boy Scout leader. Fine claimed that students were not only ignorant but also xenophobic. For example, asked to identify the traditional U.S. policy toward China (right answer: “Open Door”), a student wrote: “Bringing the light of modern ways to this darkened land.”62 Although the public was alarmed most by the students’ ignorance of U.S. history, and their ignorance is what made news, such responses were also disturbing.


Then, as now, the media were ready to jump on a story revealing students’ ignorance and suggesting education failure. Other newspapers besides the Times covered the controversy that no doubt became dinnertime conversation in many American homes. For example, PM, the New York, left-wing newspaper, editorialized: “The story . . . is a journalistic scoop for which any newspaper editor will congratulate the Times. People are always shocked by someone else’s ignorance.”63 The Times even congratulated itself: “The survey stirred the world of education, had repercussions in Congress, and the questions became a favorite home topic quiz.”64

Following the publication of the Times survey, there was a popular outcry from the public. When the results were published, the United States had been at war for more than a year, with no end in sight. Given the population’s heightened anxiety in wartime, the timing of the survey likely increased its dramatic effect. For a country where the wartime slogan was “Remember Pearl Harbor,” learning that students of draft age remembered little of their nation’s history was demoralizing.

One of the most heated voices in the history/social studies debate was Max Lerner, editor of PM, who sided with the Progressives and defenders of social studies education. Lerner wrote: “The movement back to history as sheer chronology, which the Times seems to be sponsoring, is a movement back to the cave . . . Anyone who remembers his own school days will remember how jumbled and farcical the teaching of history can be when it is torn out of the context of American life as a whole.”65 Placing the debate in a political context, Lerner continued: “If we howl for more teaching of American history, and end up only with tribal pride and tribal taboos, we shall only be playing into the hands of the isolationists, the militarists, the reactionaries. The study of history can and should be used to nourish our sense of the past, to illumine our understanding of the present, to fortify us as we face the future. But history also can be taught and studied narrowly, as a meaningless jumble of names and dates, of wars and political campaigns.”66

Government officials and various politicians also noticed the survey and reacted quickly to its results. Many in government had an opinion on the matter. A day after the initial article appeared in the Times, the War Department announced its support for raising the status of history education in the “Victory” courses for high school students.67 Congress quickly began discussing federal aid for history instruction. Senator Homer Bone (D-WA) said of the Times survey: “It is an indictment of our system of teaching. We are fighting a terrible war to preserve a system which rests on magnificent traditions.”68 Senator Elbert Thomas (D-UT) enlarged the discussion when he announced that the Army had rejected some 800,000 young men because of their illiteracy.69 Senator Joseph Guffey (D-PA) proposed that the Senate Education Committee examine the state of U.S. history education. Fiorello LaGuardia, mayor of New York City, called for “old-fashioned classroom work,” which presumably meant traditional history lessons.70 Even Eleanor Roosevelt took an interest, although she had a different perspective. She downplayed the survey’s results, claiming that knowing the facts was not as important as having the means to look them up.71

On April 14, 1943, Senator Henrik Shipstead (R-MN) entered the survey results and Fine’s front-page story into the U.S. Senate Records.72 Shipstead wrote:

America has a right to expect that the sudents [sic] of its schools shall be prepared to return dividends in intelligent citizenship and leadership for the billions invested in our schools and colleges. Without a knowledge of our country’s history and the history of its system of government, they are not prepared for leadership as makers of future history for America, much less of foreign countries of whose history we know even less.73

Many of the nation’s educators were also dismayed by the survey results. Nicholas Butler, Columbia University president, declared it was “perfectly outrageous that such a situation should exist.”74 Ruhl J. Bartlett, history department head at Tufts University, praised the survey as “a real service to the country.”75 Asa Martin, department head of history at Pennsylvania State College, said the survey “would stimulate public opinion toward renewed interest in the study of history.”76 J. Martin Klotsche, professor of history at State Teachers College at Milwaukee, said U.S. history was now a required course at his institution.77

However, educators differed as to the cause of the college freshmen’s poor performance. Howard A. Dawson, the NEA legislative secretary, said severe teacher shortages meant there were fewer qualified classroom teachers, thus contributing to the problem.78 Some educators blamed the poor history instruction in high schools.79 For example, Constance Warren, president of Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, remarked on the debate on fact-based knowledge versus critical thinking skills: “The survey indicates to my mind how very mechanically American history has been taught, that so little of it remains with the students by the time they enter college.”80 Still others blamed broader cultural trends related to educating children. As Peter Sammartino, president of Farleigh Dickinson College, stated: “It is a lifetime process and the church, the radio, the theatre, the movies and the various social organizations all must provide recurring reference to American history.”81

Perhaps the most creative explanation for the survey results was the claim that students had not taken the survey seriously and had made up joke answers. A student paper, The Harvard Crimson, editorialized that students thought the survey was a “farce,” and the only conclusion to be drawn from it was that “the country’s class of 1946 has a mass sense of humor that the state of the world has been able to keep within reasonable bounds but has not been able to kill.”82

Some educators offered support for the current state of history and social studies education. John E. Wide, New York City Schools superintendent, vigorously defended the city’s K–12 curriculum that included U.S. history in several grades.83 Indeed, New York City school officials claimed that 96 percent of their students in fifty-four high schools had passed state examinations in U.S. history.84 However, generally there was more criticism than defense of the survey results. Possibly some would-be defenders considered it hopeless to defend what the public deemed indefensible.


In all the discussion generated by the Times survey, the most robust debate was between the defenders of traditional history instruction and the defenders of social studies education. Nevins summarized the philosophical chasm between the two camps—the historians thought it was essential to study leaders, chronology, and causality, while the social studies educators asked: “Do such items constitute the essentials of American history?”85

As a supporter of teaching traditional history, Fraser charged that the alarming state of U.S. history instruction in K–12 was the fault of the “social studies extremists” who, beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, had succeeded in substituting courses in social problems and contemporary issues for history courses.86 Fraser added: “[The defenders of social studies] seem to believe that history should be a course of indoctrination, rather than the actual story and philosophies of the men who have made America.”87 He also stated:

This is not to say that the ‘fusion’ treatment of American history, civics, sociology, economics and what-have-you does not have its place in American education. It has. But it is of no value until and unless an orderly, chronological picture of American history is . . . presented in either the elementary or high school . . . Obviously the time-sequence panorama of American history is the first essential in an intelligent presentation of it . . . And it is precisely this that the present development of the Social Studies trend is eliminating.88

David Rankin Barbee, historian and secretary of the CAH, seconded Fraser and argued that the survey had been falsely presented as concerned only with names, dates, and places. In essence, he charged, the survey tested memorization rather than thinking skills.89 In addition, Charles R. Wilson, Colgate University history department chair, blamed the “so-called social science program” that had “elbow[ed] history out of the curriculum.”90 Arthur N. Cook, Temple University history department chair, said the survey results were no surprise since “history has been pretty much shoved out of favor of social studies which, in my opinion, are apt to be superficial – pretty sloppy stuff.”91

Yet there were defenders of the social studies curriculum, particularly its roots in Progressive ideas about education. William Kilpatrick, a leading Progressive educator, minimized the significance of the survey results, arguing that factual knowledge was useless unless it had direct relevance to daily life. “Nobody remembers anything unless it fits in with his life,” Kilpatrick declared. “People forget what they don’t need or what seems unimportant to them. That’s why we wish to teach everything in a living connection.”92 Edwin W. Adams, director of the Philadelphia Public Schools, agreed: “I do not defend some of the results shown in the survey, but I contend that modern methods of teaching history are better than the old learning by rote of dates and names without any understanding of their social implications.”93 In the Bergen-Passaic counties in New Jersey, history teachers and students called for a second survey based on interpretative questions.94 Esek Ray Mosher, dean of the School of Education, City College of New York, asked about the typical U.S. soldier: “What difference does it make to any young man who was President during the Spanish-American War?”95 Irving Lorge of TC emphasized that relationships between events and developments were more important than memorizing facts.96 Other educators said there should be more focus on contemporary problems when testing students’ historical knowledge.97 Nearly seven decades later, contemporary educators’ debate on the merits and dangers of history and social studies instruction echo these same criticisms and defenses. Opinions today are as firmly held as they were in the 1940s, and the sides are divided along the same lines.


Four days after the publication of the survey results, in another Times article Nevins proposed two sweeping recommendations for U.S. education.98 First, he declared that improvements were needed in the quality, quantity, and nature of teaching. Teachers should have better professional status and better pay. U.S. history should be taught in the early high school years since many students left school at age sixteen. He directed his second recommendation at the history curriculum. While admitting that instruction in contemporary problems, current affairs, and sociology was important, and that inter-disciplinary social studies courses were “illuminating and stimulating,” Nevins said they should not replace U.S. history courses. He argued that “a basic structure of historical fact, taught with due attention to chronology, to great personalities, and to political forces and events, must be kept intact.”99

Several weeks later, Hunt responded by again dismissing the Times survey as “sensational journalism.”100 According to Hunt, the survey was “defective,” “ridiculous, amateurish and unreliable,” “carelessly phrased,” and ultimately “irresponsibly handled.” In summation, he declared the survey was “an incredibly casual instrument of measurement.”101 As far as the survey organization, Hunt claimed the authors were inexperienced in test writing and test administration; such tasks were better left to experts. He described the survey authors as “a graduate-school professor of history, inexperienced in such testing, and a journalist with no educational experience other than some recent publicity work for the U.S. Office of Education.”102 In an ad hominem argument revealing his exasperation, Hunt wrote privately to a colleague that Fraser “lacks competence in respect to history teaching and to education in general, and certainly lacks balance.”103 Fraser clearly recognized the danger of the opposition, writing to Nevins that “there will be powerful forces that will try to divide us. We must stay together.”104

In more specific complaints about content of the Times survey, Hunt said it had little connection with the “living present.”105 In general, he criticized the survey’s “extraordinary lack of balance” with its focus on early U.S. history, and raised questions about the purpose of schooling, history and social studies education in particular. Citing the survey questions about the home states of Thomas Hart Benton and Mark Hanna, Hunt asked: “Are [these facts] more important than study of the history and present status of agriculture, industry, labor, the role of government in modern life, programs of social security, and our changing relations to the rest of the world?”106

Hunt also complained that students at elite institutions (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Stanford, and California) were not tested. Like The Harvard Crimson, he even questioned whether the students took the survey seriously. He also asked whether the test time was too short and whether the required “clerical grading” of multiple-choice questions was a factor in the survey construction.108

Hunt acknowledged that trifling details were often taught in history and social studies classes, teachers were poorly educated in their subjects, and many students were of low academic ability. However, he laid the chief blame for the poor survey results on the repetitiveness of history courses and on the unimaginative textbook teaching of facts and dates. Yet, in Hunt’s opinion, these were charges more applicable to history than to social studies instruction.107

Hunt gave five explanations for the poor survey results, some of which echoed Nevins’s claims. There was too much history minutiae taught; there was too much content repetition in successive grades; teachers had an insufficient grasp of their subjects; students disliked history because of the drill, textbook recitation, and testing of memorized facts; and the shifting demographics (i.e., the school population that Hunt described as “many pupils of low academic ability”) meant that students were less prepared and harder to teach.109 Hunt called for a careful review of history teaching, improved instructional materials, and, as Nevins had also demanded, increased compensation for teachers.110 Hunt also called upon the “sympathy and support of the public – including the press” in helping students develop into informed and devoted citizens.111

In private correspondence with Ford, Hunt wrote that he believed there was a hidden agenda behind the Times survey. He told Ford that he had learned from another AHA member that “the Hearst papers and isolationists” were behind the movement to promote U.S. history instruction.112 Hunt also suspected that the Sulzbergers supported this agenda, noting Mrs. Sulzberger’s interest in the debate. He had expressed this same suspicion a year earlier when he wrote: “Both Mr. and Mrs. Sulzberger have been much interested in the promotion of the American history requirements. I have been informed, and I think today’s Times confirms, that Sulzberger believes this war is a social revolution, but he is very much afraid of it, and that he does not want the revolution advanced or supported by discussion.”113 Hunt claimed Mrs. Sulzberger “seems to have a kind of D.A.R. interest in patriotic history, together with an extreme aversion to progressive education, resulting from a very unhappy experience of one of her children in a progressive school.”114 As mentioned earlier, Nevins had informed Hunt of Mrs. Sulzberger’s support of American history in the schools and her grave concern about “ultra-progressive ideas” taking over the teaching of history.115 As Hunt’s comments indicate, similar to many advocates of social studies education, he seemed to be on the defensive as a result of the negative reactions to the survey. Yet he also correctly surmised that the survey developers had a more extensive agenda than simply exposing young Americans’ ignorance.

As the debate between the two men continued, Nevins tried to convince Hunt of his point of view. Taking a conciliatory tone, Nevins wrote Hunt: “What we need here is cooperation, not quarreling. You do your own cause harm, I think, by not recognizing that some people teach social science and fusion courses in a way that injures History, and that creates alarm among many parents.”116 At this point, Nevins seemed to think their disagreement was largely over the way the fusion and social studies courses were taught, not over their content. Although Hunt was also dissatisfied with the teaching of social studies and history, he remained unconvinced that social studies should be replaced by history in the curriculum.

Educators, especially the advocates of social studies, despite their many criticisms of the Times survey, could not ignore it. An official response, backed by an investigation of some sort, seemed called for. The result was another test of history knowledge (described next) given to a broader sampling of the population that placed more emphasis on contemporary political and social events.


Some two months after the original 1943 Times article, the AHA, the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, and the NCSS founded the Committee on American History in Schools and Colleges (hereafter, the Committee) in order to make a comprehensive examination of history instruction. The study was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and was led by Edgar B. Wesley, professor of the Teaching of History at the University of Minnesota, who had written extensively on history education and its relationship to social studies education. The Committee released its report, which included the results of its own test of American history, in November of 1943, just six months after the Times survey. The Committee published its recommendations in 1944 in the report American History in Schools and Colleges.117

The Committee undertook several tasks. First, it studied the current state of history education, in particular the requirements for American history in schools. Second, the Committee prepared and administered a nationwide American history test for educators and ordinary citizens as well as students. In a less-than-subtle rebuke to the authors of the Times survey, the Committee announced that its test would “not include trick or picayunish questions.”118 Third, the Committee made recommendations for training history teachers, teaching American history, and American history course content.119 Regarding this content, the Committee’s goal was to provide a “common denominator for the whole nation” that each school could enrich with local heroes and events.120

The Committee stated that the sociopolitical context of World War II had influenced the goals of its study: “This is an appropriate time for the appearance of a report on the teaching and study of American History. National crises naturally lead to national self-examination. The war has caused a reexamination of the purposes, extent, and quality of instruction in American History.”121 Clearly, however, another reason for the study was the 1943 Times survey. The Committee members resolved (unanimously) that they would “study the current controversy concerning the teaching of American history.”122

The Committee acknowledged the difficulty of generalizing about American history instruction at the K–12 level in a country without a national system of education and where curricular decisions were made locally. Yet the Committee drew some general conclusions on history education in secondary schools based on an examination of state laws, regulations by state departments of education, city courses of study, and case studies of curriculum in selected areas. Refuting the claims Nevins had made, the Committee concluded that the “evidence is overwhelming that American history is taught in the vast majority of schools in three cycles,” and stated that the teaching of American history was prescribed by law or by regulation in forty-six states.123 The Committee also argued “the number of courses in American history in the schools and colleges is sufficient.”124 At the college level, the Committee examined the findings of two 1943 surveys: course catalogs from sixty-two colleges/universities and thirty-one teachers colleges, and the replies from fifty-six departments of history. Although Wesley and his colleagues agreed with Fine that few college students studied American history, the Committee found the percentage of students enrolled in American history was higher than Fine had claimed.125

To answer the question “Do Americans Know Their Own History?,” the Committee tested the history knowledge of a broad sample of American society. In addition to college students, test takers included high school students (1,332 seniors in 22 schools in various states), military students (529 men in the armed services selected for collegiate training), 200 social studies teachers, 107 people from Who’s Who in America, and 929 adults from business clubs, labor unions, colleges, a library-reading group, and a religious group.126 The Committee defended its strategy of group testing with the claim that it would be useful to compare the groups’ performances.

The test was sixty-five multiple-choice questions on American history with an emphasis on contemporary events and people (in contrast to the Times survey). While acknowledging the test, with its multiple-choice questions, was “no perfect instrument,” the Committee claimed the test nevertheless assessed test takers’ knowledge of generalizations and relationships more than their knowledge of memorized facts. For example, one question, which required respondents to think in relative terms, asked: “Organized labor in America has made much less use of which of these than organized labor in Europe? 1. Labor political parties. 2. The strike. 3. Industrial unions. 4. Craft unions.”127

The results of the test were categorized according to the various groups of test takers. The highest scores were achieved by social studies teachers, with a median score of forty-five correct answers (69 percent), and Who’s Who members, with a median score of forty-four (68 percent). Other groups scored much lower. Military training students and various adult groups each correctly answered only twenty-nine (45 percent). High school students scored the lowest, with a median score of twenty-two (34 percent). There was no separate score reported for college students who were folded into the adult groups.

In denying that the test confirmed the population’s ignorance of American history, the Committee’s report concluded:

The fact is that many well-informed, useful, successful, and even distinguished persons cannot answer 75 per cent of the items. This showing does not prove either that the test is invalid or that the persons who took it are ignorant. It simply proves that a reasonable and acceptable score on this test is far below the perfect score.128

Given the unimpressive tests results, especially for high school students, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Committee reacted somewhat defensively. In its analysis, the Committee admitted that while the test takers generally did not recognize names, dates, places, and events, such historical knowledge was not really important since it was elicited by a “drill-and-kill” instructional approach: “If . . . teachers regard history as a collection of facts to be memorized like the multiplication table, a nursery rhyme, or a poem, the emphasis will be placed upon drill and repetition.”129

To understand, and perhaps to justify, the low scores, the Committee examined the results more closely and found that scores were much better on questions that required more than a simple recall of facts. Test takers scored favorably on questions involving the “drawing of comparisons, the employment of time relationships, the making of interpretations, and the analysis of causes and results.”130 Thus, the Committee claimed that the test takers acquired “the understanding of trends and movements, the appreciation of past events and persons, and the ability to see a connection between the experience of the country and the experience of the individual” and were able to “read maps or interpret pictorial materials.”131 Besides taking a position in the debate on facts memorization versus historical thinking education, the Committee had enlarged the debate to the relevancy of knowledge for citizenship education.

Despite these justifications of the test results, it was clear that many Americans did not know much of their nation’s history. However, the Committee expressed no particular alarm and ultimately blamed the poor results on the multiple-choice question format that required test takers to recall memorized factual information rather than to exhibit knowledge. The implication seemed to be that if the test had been better designed, the test takers would have done better.

The Committee seemed generally satisfied with current history education, concluding that “social studies including history appear to be receiving adequate attention in the schools.”132 To this analysis, the Committee added two general recommendations:

(1) that United States history continue to be offered in the middle grades, in the junior high school, in the senior high school, and in college, and (2) that the use of history as an approach be emphasized in all social studies courses. This study of national history should not be isolationist in tone or outlook, since our students will be affected by world events as well as by those which take place within our own borders.133

The Committee also made recommendations for subject content and pedagogy in history courses. To reduce the redundancy in history instruction, the Committee recommended the following courses: “How People Lived” in the middle grades, “The Building of the Nation” in junior high school, “A Democratic Nation in a World Setting” in senior high school, and “American Civilization” in the sophomore year of college.134 The Committee even provided specific details for recommended content for each level, including the study of “representative dates” and “representative persons,” somewhat similar to the lists of cultural literacy devised by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., some years later.135 The Committee also encouraged teachers to take a broader approach to teaching history. Students should be encouraged to distinguish between fact and opinion and between primary and secondary sources, to conduct research, and to discuss ideas and events.136

In sum, the Committee announced: “The crying need in American history is not for more requirements but for better teaching.”137 In a fence-straddling position that advocated teaching American history using more Progressive teaching methods, the Committee seemed disinclined to further contribute to the debate. The Committee’s report supported many of Hunt’s claims, but it also acknowledged some of Nevins’s criticisms. On the one hand, the Committee called for improved history teaching as Nevins had, but on the other hand, as Hunt had argued, the Committee indicated that the dire charges against history education in the U.S. were exaggerated. Thus, as a response to the Times survey, the Committee’s report did little to resolve the history/social studies debate.138


The Times survey, with its ensuing controversy, was the first public, national debate between defenders of traditional history education and defenders of social studies education. Previously, the debate between the two groups had been fought mainly in the academic arena, but following the Times survey, the battle escalated and widened as more and more people were drawn into it. By 1942, defenders and detractors of social studies education sparred openly on the pages of Social Education and, of course, in the Times where the controversy began. PM also devoted space to the issue. As the two sides more clearly defined themselves, they created quotable, and often inflammatory, talking points to hurl at each other. As Fraser trumpeted to Nevins in 1944, “the fight” continued.139 There seemed to be very little middle ground for discussion.

Moreover, the debate highlighted a long-standing theme in education about which knowledge is more valuable—fact-based learning versus historical thinking skills. Although this study focuses on the subject areas of history and social studies, the debate addressed broader pedagogical themes relevant to other subject areas. Educators, parents, the public, and politicians continue to disagree about the value of factual information versus abstract and complex thinking skills in mathematics, literacy, and science education. Factual knowledge is certainly easier to measure than abstract thinking. However, the latter reflects the kind of relevant, authentic work (e.g., critical reading, synthesizing information, analyzing data, and evaluating) that is meaningful to students. However, there was no resolution to this controversy as it was provoked by the Times survey. Nor is there today.

In addition to the historic interest of the Times survey, including the provocative commentary by very opinionated personalities, the controversy the survey generated raises the question of how much weight a single test, particularly a regional or national test, should carry in the decisions on education policy. When education test results are poor, as they were in the Times survey, the negative reaction is likely to be immediate, censorious, and loud. There may be too little analysis of test content and method or the intentions of the test developers. Then, as opposing sides take their positions, cooler heads often do not prevail. When the rhetoric heats up, challengers to and defenders of the educational status quo are likely to find themselves engaged in fruitless argument rather than productive discussion.

Despite the controversy and ill feeling the Times survey generated, it had a somewhat positive effect in that the survey drew considerable attention to an area of educational interest. This was not surprising since many Americans, who argued that the schools should be actively involved in the nation’s war effort, saw a link between history knowledge and patriotism.140 A deficiency in one meant a deficiency in the other. Additionally, the survey led to more Americans’ involvement in the discussion about what, when, and how history (as well as geography and civics) should be taught. This interest went well beyond an appetite for sensational news; politicians, educators, and laypeople took action, resolved to “do something about the situation.”141 There was a call for better teacher preparation, more standards for teachers, increased pay for teachers, and improved methods of instruction. And while social studies retained its firm place in the curriculum, to some extent at least there was a revival of interest in history, which had been folded into social studies at some education levels, as a subject worthy of separate focus and study. Moreover, as members of the public took an increased interest in the content and skills schools should teach, it was probably inevitable that they, especially parents, would look more closely at the pedagogical approaches used to teach that content and those skills.

Nevertheless, despite this increased interest in history and social studies education, the controversy after the Times survey did not resolve the tension between history and social studies. Although some education historians have downplayed the contentious nature of this debate, the reactions to the survey reveal how seriously, even angrily, the two sides argued their positions. Tensions around this issue have continued with related charges by some that the academic rigor of high school education, as well as the reputation of the teaching profession, as a consequence, has followed a downward path. For example, ten years after the Times survey, Arthur Bestor, a historian at the University of Illinois, published Educational Wastelands, a widely read attack on Progressive education in which he ridiculed social studies education as “social stew.”142 In 1987, in the book What Do Our 17-Year Olds Know?, Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn, Jr., echoed the concerns that the Times article had raised four decades previously.143 This book set off another round of charges and countercharges about traditional history study versus social studies education.

This sparring over what content belongs in history education, now often referred to as “the history wars,” is again part of the national debate on education. In 1995, for example, the U.S. Senate voted 99–1 against the national history standards developed under the guidance of historian Gary Nash of the University of California at Los Angeles.144 Senators objected to what they considered the de-emphasis of “traditional history” in the new standards.145 The Teaching American History Grants, which have provided more than $1.5 billion to school districts across the country, were designed to teach “traditional history” and specifically not to improve social studies instruction.146 The latest skirmish in these wars is the Texas Board of Education’s recent approval of a social studies curriculum (labeled “the Texas schoolbook massacre” by opponents) that promotes a politically conservative reinterpretation of U.S. history.147 The most unfortunate aspect of these six decades of controversy is that each new battle seems to leave both sides in much the same place as they were in 1943.


1. Benjamin Fine, “Ignorance of U.S. History Shown by College Freshmen,” New York Times, April 4, 1943.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), viii.

5. Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn, Jr., What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? A Report on the First National Assessment of History and Literature (New York: Harper & Row, 1987).

6. As historian Charles Dorn has shown, this concern rarely changed educational practice. Despite some Americans’ accusation that schools are “weapons in the nation’s arsenal of democracy,” educators have held steadfastly to their long-standing mission of preparing students for democratic citizenship. See Charles Dorn, American Education, Democracy, and the Second World War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

7. Ronald Evans, The Social Studies Wars (New York: Teachers College Press, 2004), 84–93.

8. Ibid., 85.

9. Ibid., 72–73.

10. Committee of Seven, The Study of History in Schools (New York: Macmillan, 1899); National Education Association, The Report of the Committee of Ten on Secondary School Studies (New York: American Book, 1894).

11. Committee of Seven, The Study of History.

12. Thomas Fallace, “Did the Social Studies Really Replace History in American Secondary Schools?” Teachers College Record 110, no. 10 (2008): 2245–70; Herbert M. Kliebard, The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 18931958 (New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 1986/2004), 8–14; David Warren Saxe, Social Studies in Schools: A History of the Early Years (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991), 48.

13. United States Bureau of Education, The Social Studies in Secondary Education (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1916). Also see Evans, The Social Studies Wars, 21–29; Saxe, Social Studies in Schools, 148–69; Michael Lybarger, “Origins of the Modern Social Studies: 1900–1916,” History of Education Quarterly 23, no. 4 (Winter 1983): 455–68.

14. United States Bureau of Education, The Social Studies; Evans, The Social Studies Wars, 23.

15. United States Bureau of Education, The Social Studies, 238.

16. Kliebard, The Struggle; Diane Ravitch, Left Back (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000); David L. Angus and Jeffrey E. Mirel, The Failed Promise of the American High School: 18901995 (New York: Teachers College Press, 1999).

17. Erling M. Hunt, “History in General Education,” Social Education 15 (February 1951): 64–68, 78–81.

18. “Temporary Constitution,” folder 8, box 7, subseries 4B, National Council for the Social Studies Papers, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin (hereafter NCSS Papers); also see Murry Nelson, “Directionless from Birth: The National Council for the Social Studies, 1921–1937,” ERIC Document, ED 391706 (November 1995).

19. Edgar B. Wesley, “History in the School Curriculum,” June 28, 1943, folder American History, Teaching Of, American Historical Association Papers, box 126, Library of Congress, Washington, DC (hereafter AHA Papers).

20. Rugg’s history textbooks used traditional historical narrative as a backdrop for understanding current social issues and problems. See Ronald W. Evans, This Happened in America: Harold Rugg and the Censure of Social Studies (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2007).

21. See Evans, The Social Studies Wars, for an in-depth discussion of these disagreements.

22. Julia Emery, “The Background of Current Affairs in September,” The School Review 44, no. 10 (December 1936): 764–68.

23. Fine, “Ignorance of U.S. History.”

24. Gerald L. Fetner, Immersed in Great Affairs: Allan Nevins and the Heroic Age of American History (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2004).

25. Allan Nevins to the Honorable Howard W. Jackson, 1 April 1942, folder 2, Correspondence of Allan Nevins, 1942 (2), Allan Nevins Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University, New York, NY (hereafter Allan Nevins Papers).

26. Allan Nevins, “American History for Americans,” New York Times Magazine, May 2, 1942.

27. Ibid.

28. See the contents of the folders, Correspondence of Allan Nevins, 1942, box 54, Allan Nevins Papers.

29. Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger to Allan Nevins, 4 May 1942, folder 2, Correspondence of Allan Nevins, box 53, Allan Nevins Papers.

30. Matthew Page Andrews, “Letter to the Editor,” New York Times Magazine, May 17, 1942.

31. Donald P. Bean to Allan Nevins, 13 June 1942, folder 2, Correspondence of Allan Nevins, box 55, Allan Nevins Papers.

32. “U.S. History Study Is Not Required in 82% of Colleges,” New York Times, June 21, 1942.

33. Ibid.

34. Erling M. Hunt, “History Charges Called Untrue,” New York Times, October 25, 1942.

35. Ibid.

36. “U.S. History Study.”

37. Erling M. Hunt, “More American History? A Rejoinder to Professor Nevins and the New York Times Survey,” Social Education 6 (October 1942): 252.

38. Ibid.

39. Erling M. Hunt to Guy Stanton Ford, 12 November 1942, folder Teaching of American History, box 126, AHA Papers.

40. Ibid.

41. Quoted in Evans, The Social Studies Wars, 87–88. Allan Nevins to Erling M. Hunt, 13 October 1942, folder American History Controversy Correspondence, 1941–1943, box 4, series D, NCSS Papers; Erling M. Hunt to Allan Nevins, 16 October 1942, folder American History, Controversy Correspondence, 1941–1943, box 4, series D, NCSS Papers.

42. Allan Nevins, “More American History? A Letter,” Social Education, 6, no. 8 (December 1942): 343.

43. Ibid.

44. Allan Nevins to Erling M. Hunt, 4 November 1942, folder American History Controversy Correspondence, 1941–1943, box 4, series D, NCSS Papers.

45. Allan Nevins to Erling M. Hunt, 27 November 1942, folder American History Controversy Correspondence, 1941–1943, box 4, series D, NCSS Papers.

46. Erling M. Hunt, “American History in Democratic Education,” Social Education 6, no. 8 (December 1942): 346–52.

47. Ibid.

48. Matthew Page Andrews to Allan Nevins, 16 October 1942, folder 3, Allan Nevins Correspondence, 1942, box 55, Allan Nevins Papers.

49. Hugh Russell Fraser to Allan Nevins, 28 September 1942, folder 1, Allan Nevins Correspondence, 1942, box 55, Allan Nevins Papers.

50. Hugh Russell Fraser to Allan Nevins, 9 October 1942, folder 4, Allan Nevins Correspondence, 1942, box 55, Allan Nevins Papers. (Emphasis in the original.) Mrs. Sulzberger’s financial role in supporting the survey is unclear.

51. Nevins to Erling M. Hunt, 27 November 1942.

52. Hugh Russell Fraser to Allan Nevins, 18 January 1943, folder 2, Allan Nevins Correspondence, 1943, box 57, Allan Nevins Papers.

53. Fine, “Ignorance of U.S. History.”

54. “American History Test”; U.S. Congress, Senate, Survey on United States History in Colleges and Schools. April 14, 1943, 78th Cong., 1st sess.

55. Fine, “Ignorance of U.S. History.”

56. “Pupils Here Well Grounded in History, Records Show,” New York Times, April 6, 1943.

57. “American History Test.”

58. Hunt to Guy Stanton Ford, 12 November 1942.

59. Erling M. Hunt, “The New York Times ‘Test’ on American History” Social Education 8, no. 5 (May 1943): 195–200, 240.

60. Allan Nevins, “Why We Should Know Our History,” New York Times, April 8, 1943.

61. Fraser is quoted in Max Lerner, “History Belongs to the People,” PM, April 6, 1943.

62. Fine, “Ignorance of U.S. History.”

63. Lerner, “History Belongs to the People.”

64. “Survey Speeds Reforms,” New York Times, May 2, 1944.

65. Lerner, “History Belongs to the People.”

66. Ibid.

67. “School Test Stirs Action in Senate,” New York Times, April 5, 1943.

68. Ibid.

69. “Senators Deplore Student Ignorance of Nation’s History,” New York Times, April 5, 1943.

70. “Pupils Here Well Grounded in History, Records Show,” New York Times, April 6, 1943.

71. “Topics of the Times,” New York Times, May 9, 1943.

72. U.S. Congress, Senate, Survey on United States History, xv.

73. Ibid.

74. “Senators Deplore Student Ignorance.”

75. “History Survey, Praised, Criticized,” New York Times, April 8, 1943.

76. Ibid.

77. “American History a ‘Must’ Subject,” New York Times, June 16, 1943.

78. “U.S. Pupils and History,” The Washington Post, April 7, 1943.

79. “Pupils Here Well Grounded.”

80. “Senators Deplore Student Ignorance.”

81. “Pupils Here Well Grounded.”

82. “History Survey, Praised, Criticized.”

83. “Pupils Here Well Grounded.”

84. Ibid.

85. Allan Nevins, “Why We Should Know Our History,” New York Times, April 8, 1943.

86. Lerner, “History Belongs to the People”; “Senators Deplore Student Ignorance.”

87. “History Teaching Controversy Called Persecution by Barbee,” Washington Post, April 8, 1943.

88. Hugh Russell Fraser, “Neglect of American History,” Education 67, no. 7(March 1943): 432–38.

89. “History Teaching Controversy.”

90. “Survey Supports Teachers’ Findings,” New York Times, April 5, 1943.

91. “Pupils Here Well Grounded.”

92. Willard Wiener, “Here’s the Inside on That History-Teaching Survey,” PM, April 7, 1943.

93. “Pupils Here Well Grounded.”

94. “Second Test Urged on History of U.S.,” New York Times, April 13, 1943.

95. “Pupils Here Well Grounded.”

96. “History Survey, Praised, Criticized.”

97. “Educators Praise U.S. History Test,” New York Times, April 7, 1943.

98. Allan Nevins, “Why We Should Know Our History,” New York Times, April 8, 1943.

99. Ibid.

100. Hunt, “The New York Times ‘Test,’ on American History,” Social Education 7, no. 5 (May 1943): 195.

101. Ibid.

102. Ibid.

103. Erling M. Hunt to Guy Stanton Ford, 13 April 1943, folder Teaching of American History, box 126, AHA Papers.

104. Hugh Russell Fraser to Allan Nevins, 9 April 1943, folder 2, Allan Nevins Correspondence, 1943, box 57, Allan Nevins Papers.

105. Hunt, “The New York Times ‘Test.’”

106. Ibid.

107. Ibid.

108. Ibid.

109. Ibid.

110. “Dr. Hunt Attacks History Findings,” The New York Times, April 18, 1943.

111. Hunt, “The New York Times ‘Test.’”

112. Hunt to Guy Stanton Ford, 13 April 1943.

113. Erling M. Hunt to Guy Stanton Ford, 21 April 1942, folder 7, AHA Social Education Correspondence, 1942–44, box 10, series 4C, NCSS Papers.

114. Erling M. Hunt to Guy Stanton Ford, 21 April 1943, file Teaching of American History, box 126, AHA Papers. Scholars have also charged that the Times (as well as other publications) failed to adequately cover the Holocaust during World War II. According to journalist Laurel Leff, Sulzberger did not want the Times to be known for focusing on Jewish concerns and therefore buried coverage of the Holocaust in the back pages. See Laurel Leff, Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

115. Nevins to Hunt, 27 November 1942.

116. Allan Nevins to Erling M. Hunt, 29 October 1943, folder American History Controversy Correspondence, 1941–1943, box 4, series D, NCSS Papers.

117. Committee on American History in Schools and Colleges, American History in Schools and Colleges: The Report of the Committee on American History in Schools and Colleges of the American Historical Association, The Mississippi Valley Historical Association, The National Council for the Social Studies (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1944).

118. “Teaching History Poses 3 Questions,” New York Times, July 8, 1943.

119. Ibid.

120. Benjamin Fine, “U.S. History Study Is Being Analyzed,” New York Times, June 23, 1943.

121. Committee on American History in Schools and Colleges, American History in Schools, v.

122. Ibid., vi.

123. Ibid., 39.

124. Ibid., 43.

125. Ibid., 39–43.

126. Ibid., 6–7.

127. “Those in Who’s Who Are Up on History,” New York Times, November 3, 1943.

128. Committee on American History in Schools and Colleges, American History in Schools, 3.

129. Ibid., 1.

130. Ibid., 4.

131. Ibid., 1, 4.

132. Edgar B. Wesley, “History in the School Curriculum,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 29, no. 4 (March 1943): 565–74, 572.

133. Committee on American History in Schools and Colleges, American History in Schools, 62–63.

134. Benjamin Fine, “Finding of the Special Committee on the Teaching of American History,” New York Times, December 26, 1943.

135. E.D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (New York: Vintage Books, 1988).

136. Benjamin Fine, “Reforms Prepared for History Study,” New York Times, December 13, 1943.

137. Committee on American History in Schools and Colleges, American History in Schools, 93.

138. Evans, The Social Studies Wars, 93.

139. Hugh Russell Fraser to Allan Nevins, 9 February 1944, folder 3, Correspondence of Allan Nevins, box 56, Allan Nevins Papers.

140. Dorn, American Education.

141. Wiener, “Here’s the Inside.”

142. Arthur Bestor, Educational Wastelands: The Retreat from Learning in Our Schools (Urbana, IL: The University of Illinois Press, 1953), 28.

143. Ravitch and Finn, Jr., What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?

144. Gary B. Nash, History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1997); Linda Symcox, Whose History: The Struggle for National Standards in American Classrooms (New York: Teachers College Press, 2002).

145. Gary B. Nash and Ross E. Dunn, “History Standards and Culture Wars,” Social Education 59, no. 6 (1995): 5–7.

146. United States Department of Education, “Teaching American History,” http://www.ed.gov/programs/
teachinghistory/index.html (accessed March 16, 2009).

147. “In Texas Curriculum Fight, Identity Politics Leans Right,” New York Times, March 19, 2010.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 114 Number 1, 2012, p. 1-32
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16214, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 5:36:08 PM

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About the Author
  • Anne-Lise Halvorsen
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    ANNE-LISE HALVORSEN is an assistant professor of teacher education at Michigan State University. Her specialty is social studies education with a focus on elementary social studies education, the history of education, and teacher preparation in the social studies. She is author and co-author of several journal articles and book chapters. Currently, she is writing a book on the history of elementary social studies from 1850 to the present.
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