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Can History Stand Alone? Drawbacks and Blind Spots of a “Disciplinary” Curriculum


by Stephen J. Thornton & Keith C. Barton — 2010

Background/Context: Over the past quarter-century, many historians, politicians, and educators have argued for an increase in the amount of history taught in schools, for a clear separation of history and social studies, and for an emphasis on disciplinary structures and norms as the proper focus for the subject. Unfortunately, discussions of history education too often rest on the problematic belief that the academic discipline can provide direction for the nature of the subject in general education.

Description of Prior Research: Throughout much of the 20th century, U.S. history educators made common cause with other social educators to promote principled and critical understandings of society. Both groups stood in opposition to calls for more nationalist views of history education. In the mid-1980s, however, this situation began to change, as a coalition of historians, educational researchers, and political pressure groups promoted history as a subject distinct from and independent of the larger realm of the social studies. This new coalition has been unable to avoid conflicts over the selection of content, however, and approaches favored by nationalists often clash with the more critical and inclusive perspectives of historians.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: In this article, we trace the relationship between historians and other social educators during the 20th century and explore how the forces favoring a realignment of history and social studies coalesced in the mid-1980s. We argue that this coalition has led to an unproductive emphasis on history as a “separate subject” and a resulting lack of attention to the goals of history in general education.

Research Design: This analytic essay draws on curriculum theory, historical sources, and contemporary cognitive research to outline the changing relationships between historians and other social educators and to examine the limitations of a purportedly disciplinary curriculum.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The academic discipline of history cannot, by itself, provide guidance for content selection because educators face restrictions of time and coverage that are not relevant in the context of academic historical research. In addition, educators must concern themselves with developing students’ conceptual understanding, and this necessarily requires drawing on other social science disciplines. If students are to develop the insights that historians have most often promoted for the subject, historians must return to their place within the conversation of social studies education.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 112 Number 9, 2010, p. 2471-2495
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16009, Date Accessed: 9/2/2014 5:07:38 AM

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About the Author
  • Stephen Thornton
    University of South Florida
    STEPHEN J. THORNTON is professor and chair of the Department of Secondary Education at the University of South Florida. His research interests include the study of history and geography in school curriculum. His recent publications include “Geography in American History Courses,” Phi Delta Kappan (March 2007), and “Continuity and Change in Social Studies Curriculum” in the Handbook of Research on Social Studies Education (Routledge, 2008).
  • Keith Barton
    Indiana University
    E-mail Author
    KEITH C. BARTON is professor of curriculum and instruction at Indiana University. His research focuses on the teaching and learning of history and social studies in the United States and internationally. He is coauthor, with Linda S. Levstik, of Teaching History for the Common Good (Routledge), and Researching History Education: Theory, Method, and Context (Routledge).
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