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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.

The study of history occupies a conflicted place in the school curriculum, not only in the United States but internationally. On the one hand, in many countries it is among the most well-established subjects, and few students could hope to graduate without studying history multiple times during both primary and secondary education. On the other hand, the content of school history is an attractive target for politicians, pundits, and pressure groups, who repeatedly argue for curricular revisions that may bolster support for contemporary political projects. Such appeals come from a variety of political positions, as calls are made for more national history or more global history, higher academic standards or enhanced contemporary relevance, greater attention to multiculturalism or less. Regardless of the ideology behind these demands, their advocates share a belief that school history should respond to forces outside the academy. Understandably, many history educators recoil at such a belief, and they often argue that the study of history should stand alone, uncorrupted either by social and political concerns or by forced connections with other subjects.

Appealing as this stance may be, the assertion of a privileged and independent status for history is ultimately self-defeating, for it leaves history and social studies educators without a clear basis for organizing the curriculum or communicating its importance to the public.  Educational issues must always be decided on the basis of criteria that originate, at least in part, outside individual academic disciplines; this is necessary both to justify the inclusion of particular content in the curriculum and to determine how that content will be represented to young learners. Ironically, historians have long recognized the necessity of such a broad view, and the belief that history education should remain aloof from societal concerns and separate from other school subjects is a relatively recent phenomenon.

In the United States, for example, discussions of historys status have often been tied to its connection to the broader field of social studies, and in the following section, we discuss the evolution of this relationship. Although the specific details of this narrative are limited to the U.S. context, our account may also have relevance to historys place in settings where social studies has a different configuration or does not exist as a school subject. We then review current scholarship and public policy that relates to historys purportedly unique status, and we conclude by arguing that the subject invariably must be tied to broader social purposes. The question for educators, ultimately, is not whether history can stand alone, but with whom it should make its standwith those who tie history to patriotic nationalism, or those who argue for its role in preparing reflective citizens?


A great deal of political and educational discourse in the United States portrays history and social studies as though they were locked in a perennial struggle for dominance of the elementary and secondary curriculum. Historians these days often accept this portrayal, and as a result, they may view social studies as their natural enemy (e.g., Martel, 1999; Olwell, 2006). Social studies educators tend to be less critical of their purported opponents in this curricular war, but sometimes they too fall prey to an adversarial perspective and castigate history advocates as backward-looking interlopers into school affairs (e.g., St. Jarre, 2008). What is striking about this dichotomy between history and social studies is just how ahistorical it is. For most of the past century, historians and social studies educatorsfar from being enemieshave been allies in developing students critical understanding of the social world.

The two groups traditionally have faced off not against each other (despite their occasional friction), but against a common opponentnationalists who advocate a narrower, less reflective curriculum. These nationalists have long attempted to influence historians (and have employed an antisocial studies rhetoric in doing so), but until the 1980s, most historians resisted the temptation to align themselves with such narrow goals. The past two decades, however, have seen a significant and unfortunate realignment of interests, with historians increasingly seduced by those who hold out the promise of increased attention to their disciplinea promise backed up not only by government policy (and funding) but also by current fashion among some educational researchers. The assertion that history should be taught as a separate subject and that it should be at the center of the social education curriculum seems to have become settled law among many historians, politicians, and educators. This position is by no means self-evident, however, nor does it amount simply to the restoration of a previous status quo, interrupted by the long night of social studies ascendance. Rather, school history has been subject to conflicting ideas about its purpose throughout the nations past, and its relationship to other areas of social education has varied over time. So how did the dogma of historys purportedly adversarial relationship with social studies arise?

From the earliest days of the American republic, educators and politicians saw social education as a vital part of nation-building (Marsden, 2001). History, however, has factored into this effort in different ways at different times, and not always as a clearly demarcated separate subject. Thus, for much of the 19th century, school geographies (i.e., textbooks) contained a hefty portion of what we would now consider history. For example, these books included racial, social, and religious subjects in an international context that historians would soon appropriate as a separate discipline (Schulten, 2001, p. 94). Spelling and reading texts, as well, included a great deal of historical content, typically combined with a heavy dose of nationalism and moralizing (Elson, 1964).

By the start of the 20th century, historians and history educators had seized a dominant role in specifying what social education should be. Those days have often been portrayed as a golden age when history had a separate and superior existence from other social subjects. But this view is exaggerated. The national pattern then set frequently blended history with other subjects such as government or civics. The American Historical Associations influential report, The Study of History in Schools (1899), for example, stressed that much time will be saved and better results obtained if history and civil government be studied in large measure together, as one subject rather than as two distinct subjects (p. 81). Similarly, contemporaries such as Dewey (1966) underscored the complementary nature of history and geography (pp. 210211).

Thus, as social studies, replacing history and allied subjects, became set as the national curriculum pattern for social education in the 1920s, it did not mark the end of history as an autonomous subject, but merely a reworking of its relationship to other social subjects (Thornton, 2005, 2008). Nevertheless, social studies did straddle two main camps, which had their differences. One camp basically continued history and allied subjects but with a more modern outlook on subjects such as civics and government, as well as greater attention to societal problems (Thornton, 1996). Progressive historians, interested in the roots of contemporary problems and confident in applying scientific objectivity to study of the past, could fit happily enough within this camp (Levstik, 1996). The second camp, however, grew more from the interests of social welfare advocates and social scientists. They, like the first camp, were interested in contemporary problems and civic responsibility (Saxe, 1991). But they did not necessarily consider history as useful as more contemporary studies in this regard. The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), founded in 1921, balanced, not always comfortably, between these two camps (Thornton, 1996). For example, NCSS supported the teaching of history as well as the teaching of the innovative Problems of Democracy course (Singleton, 1980).

Given this tension built into the social studies movement, perhaps it should not be surprising that history proponents sometimes saw it as a curricular rival rather than an ally in social education. Ever since the beginnings of the modern American curriculum, historians and history educators justified a major role for their subjectas others did for their subjectsby reference to its special educational benefits. For example, they argued that history instruction developed powers of judgment relevant to everyday life in ways that subjects such as science and mathematics seldom did (American Historical Association, 1899). Such claims may have sounded defensive, but they do not appear to be necessarily hostile to other social subjects.

As social studies became the curricular norm in the 1920s, most historians tried to accommodate this new curricular entity (Hertzberg, 1981). But even historians favorably disposed to social studies tended to insist that history should be taught as a separate subjectas the crown of the social studies (Beard, 1938). Some historians and history educators went further and were openly hostile to the rise of social studies. These history advocates were at pains to specify that historys educational significance is unique (e.g., Johnson, 1940); integrated social studies, even if it contains a good deal of history, compromises this state of affairs. Versions of this argument have continued down to today and survive in constructs such as historys habits of mind and historical thinking.

But throughout this period, the place of history in the curriculum was also defended on ideological groundsa position that descended from the 19th-century expectation that historical content would aid in nation-building. Nationalists, especially those conservatively inclined, both inside and outside education, insisted that a unifying historical narrative is the cornerstone of American civic education (see Pierce, 1926). They were upset, for example, by the wildly popular Rugg social studies textbook series of the 1930s, particularly Ruggs emphasis on American problems rather than a celebratory narrative. The progressive social implications of this method so alarmed conservatives that they successfully campaigned to ban the Rugg materials (Thornton, 2001). At the same time, advocates of historys unique standing as an academic subject disliked that Ruggs books frequently blended history with geography and civicseven though the series actually increased the net amount of historical content. Thus, in the battle over history as a separate subject, of which the Rugg materials were a striking but by no means unique case, the boundaries between the history habits of mind argument and conservative social purposes blurred, and the two groups began to make common cause. For example, as the Rugg materials were still being removed from the schools, a new campaign was launched in the New York Times charging that social studies had supplanted American history. At the head of the posse was the prominent historian Allan Nevins (1942), who contended that social studies was social stew, deficient in substance, method, and national purpose.

But ultimately historians sided with social studies educators. Both groups wished to assert professional control rather than leave the issues to be played out in the press and state legislatures. Moreover, many historians disliked the reactionary tone of the nationalism espoused by the Nevins crowd (Novick, 1988). Thus, the two major history professional groupsthe American Historical Association and the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, later the Organization of American Historiansjoined forces with NCSS in 1943 and commissioned a national study of American history in schools and colleges. They found that American history had not been replaced by social studiesa point made emphaticallyalthough sometimes it was blended with other social subjects (and sometimes it was not). Their report paid homage to the historical thinking argument and, to an extent, to the unifying narrative theme, although insisting this latter point must be accomplished through critical thinking and not inculcation of national myths. Not for the last time, then, academic historians distaste for a patriotic past rose to the surface. Perhaps most significant for our purposes here, the report concluded that American history should definitely be taught as a separate subject but would also appear elsewhere in social studies. Subjects such as geography were shown to be, far from a hindrance, allies in social education, and furthermore, history speaking to current events was extolled (Wesley, 1944).

The report ratified what was in many respects the status quo in American history: a distinct subject embedded in a larger entityhistory as a part of social studies. When push came to shove, typically historians had sided with historical study that developed reflection rather than uncritical cultural continuity. Although postwar historians sought to overcome the idea that scholarship had to illuminate present-day conditions (Watras, 2004, p. 202), thus distancing themselves from social studies aims, wholesale challenges to the social studies status quo were unusual. This is especially so because, amid changing times and curricular-instructional recommendations, history, especially American history, retained pride of place in the social studies curriculum, as it had throughout the 20th century (Goodlad, 1984; Gross, 1977).

In an important sense, this middle-ground position was where things stood from the 1940s until the 1970s. There were significant reforms during those 30 years, to be sure. For example, the 1960s began to see more curriculum space for African Americans and fresh ways, based on new scholarship and reflective of social change, of approaching that topic. About the same time, much-heralded but ultimately unsuccessful attempts were made to shift instructional norms toward discovery rather than teacher-centered discussion and lecture (FitzGerald, 1979). Historians largely supported such changes, for they reflected their own academic interests, in both attention to research methods and increased emphasis on ethnic diversity (Jenness, 1990).

As this 30-year period wore on, historians took a less active role in school history than they once had. Most postwar historians simply took no great interest in school history (Thornton, 2001). But they were never driven away from school history, and history continued to be the chief social study in school curricula (Jenness, 1990). Although historians sometimes lamented the shortcomings of attention to or teaching of history in schools, to the extent that they paid attention to schools, they mostly accepted the legitimacy of historys placement in social studies curricula. Historians still had more in common with social studies educators than they did with nationalists and social conservatives. But change was in the wind, and this peaceful coexistence between historians and social studies began to shift in the late 1970s.


At least two factors seem to account for a changing relationship among historians and social studies educators in the final decades of the 20th century. First, historians were concerned that enrollment in college history courses dropped in the wake of the social and educational upheavals of the 1960s and early 1970s, and there were some rumblings by the mid-1970s about narrative history courses allegedly losing ground to, for example, a patchwork of history and other mini-courses aimed at relevance. Second, the same upheavals convinced many Americans inside and outside of educational institutions that the quest for relevancy and cultural relativism in the school curriculum, including history, had undermined teaching of educational basics.

The first factor was an incentive for historians to once again devote significant energy to their subject in the schools, but the key turning point in American education seems to have been reached with the contemporaneous back-to-basics movement (Hertzberg, 1980). In the 1980s, the notion of American education in declineparticularly that the curriculum was weak and students consequently were not learning what they had allegedly once learnedmade one of its periodic reappearances in popular and policy-making circles, and it has lasted into the 21st century. Although the first wave of this movement in the 1980s said relatively little about history in particular, or social studies in general (Newmann, 1985), in the circumstances generated by bold assertions of educational decline, it was an easy step for cultural conservatives and historians alike to claim that American history was not being given its due. Nevertheless, as the basics movement picked up speed with the Reagan administrations blunt appeal for educational efficiency, A Nation at Risk (1983), history and the other social studies were cast in a secondary, rather than basic, role to the 3 Rs.

Meanwhile, critics were charging that that social studies emphasized socialization to familiar and trite daily events in which young people were already immersed, while challenging and imaginative material beyond their experience about the past went untaught (Egan, 1983; Ravitch, 1987). The decline-of-history argument was again advanced, and sometimes two further charges were added: the hackneyed claim that a unifying narrative history, especially of the United States, was endangered or absent, and a claim (then still relatively novel) that there was excessive attention to cultural diversity. Even well-known liberal historians took up the latter complaint (Schlesinger, 1993). These voices appeared to have greater influence on curriculum policy makers than educators who decried the back-to-basics era emphasis on blind patriotism, myths, and mastery of facts in American history (Banks, 1982, p. x).

By the mid-1980s, as critics of social studies as socialization had become increasingly vocal, a second group of scholars and politicians also took up the charge that once history occupied more of the curriculum (and its axiom that social studies had replaced it)a situation they set out to reverse (e.g., Cheney, 1987; Gagnon and the Bradley Commission on History in the Schools, 1989; Gifford, 1988; Ravitch & Finn, 1987). A basic premise of this movement was that history should be taught as a separate subject rather than be subsumed within the broader field of social studies. Some authors suggested that social studies and history were in direct competition, or even that the goals of social studies subverted those of history; these authors argued that history should largely replace the then-dominant (or so it was assumed) field of social studies, which they considered nonacademic, uninspiring, and insufficiently rigorous. Others were less strident in their denunciation of social studies; they argued not so much against social studies as for the unique benefits of historybenefits they thought were unlikely to accrue unless history were taught as a separate and distinct discipline. Of course, some backers of the first argument also supported the second positionarguing that the curriculum had become both misguided in purpose and deficient in historical content (e.g., Ravitch).

These scholars and politicians capitalized on the widely believed charge, leveled by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., (1987) and others, that school programs neglected content. Rather than learning the facts every American needs to know, Hirsch accused schools of stressing disembodied skills. Ravitch and Finn (1987), for instance, embraced Hirschs thesis that content wasnt being taught, lamenting that only one third of American 17-year-olds could locate the Civil War within the correct half century. Similarly, Lynne Cheney (1987) worried that American memory was not being passed along in the schools. All these writers, however, appeared to ignore a considerable body of research suggesting that teaching and testing of facts remained the mainstay of history classrooms (e.g., Goodlad, 1984).

At about the same time, trends in educational research worked to differentiate history from other parts of social education. Specifically, in the 1980s, a growing number of researchers, inspired by theories of domain-specific cognition that were replacing older, more global accounts of conceptual development, embarked on research examining elements of learning that were taken to be specifically historical in nature. Although attempting to delineate a cognitive domain is an inherently problematic endeavor (Alexander & Judy, 1988), researchers often equated such domains of thought with currently existing university disciplines, such as physics, biology, and history. Integrated aspects of social studies (such as citizenship or current events) remained outside this evolving cognitive emphasis, and even other disciplinary elements of the subject (such as geography, sociology, or politics) received much less attention than history.

Much of this research applied an expert-novice model from cognitive psychology, which entails, in this case, exploration of how an expert historian approaches some task versus a beginning learner. Other studies looked at the development of what were taken to be uniquely historical elements of thinking, such as taking the perspective of people in the past, or constructing accounts from historical evidence. Notably, many of these investigations were based on earlier traditions of research in Britain, where there is no subject of social studies and where, before the latter decades of the 20th century, there was no explicit attention to developing citizenship in schools (see, for example, Arthur, Davies, Wrenn, Haydn, & Kerr, 2001; Billington, 1966). Thus, researchers personal preferences, institutionally situated disciplinary boundaries, and cross-Atlantic diffusion of school norms all served to reify the belief that historical thinking could, and should, be considered a separate cognitive domain. Combined with historians perennial quest to increase the amount of time given to their subject in school, and a growing conservative movement in American politics, this set the stage for the emergence of a new coalition that attempted to redefine the place of history in schools.

The 1980s, then, saw a significant realignment of the interest groups that had long taken an interest in school history: proponents of history as (1) an instrument of nationalism and cultural continuity, (2) a simplification of the discipline for pedagogical purposes, and (3) a source of subject matter for the development of reflective citizens. The first group was most associated with social conservatives, the second with historians, and the third with social studies educators. All three groups claimed to be serving purposes of citizenship education. Previously sporadic spats between historians and social educators had been short lived; this now gave way to an alliance of historians, or at least a significant number of them, and social conservatives branding social studies as historys inferior rival (e.g., Bradley Commission on History in Schools, 1988). The realignment among these groups began to play out visibly around the creation of national standards.

By the early 1990s, historians and social conservatives agreed on the need for national history standards. The federal government obligingly funded panels to identify what history all young Americans ought to imbibe. Prominent historians took the lead in writing the standards. Although historians and social conservatives were able to agree on the need for national standards, it soon became apparent that they had different criteria in mind for determining the aims and content of standards.

The historians approached standards-making as an exercise in distillation of current scholarship, which, since the 1960s, had become increasingly focused on the experience of ordinary and disadvantaged social groupsthe new social and cultural history. This was just the sort of relevance and cultural relativism that had spawned the interest of social conservatives in school history in the first place. Social conservatives wanted just the opposite: standards to supplant this new history with a history dominated by political elites and individual heroes, which they regarded as the basis of American greatness. As Cheney might have put it, there was too much Harriet Tubman and too little George Washington in the new history. The attack on the American history standards soon resulted in a revision process aimed at making the standards palatable to Cheney and her allies. Historians expressed shock that cultural transmission could trump scholarship (Nash, Crabtree, & Dunn, 1997; Symcox, 2002). This public drubbing does not appear, however, to have brightened their view of social studies (e.g., Wilentz, 1997), which had, of course, long been subject to similar attacks.

In this way, historians, the second main group that had traditionally influenced curriculum policy makers in significant numbers, abandoned their customary, albeit occasional, collaboration with (or, more typically, indifference toward) social studies educators. Rather than an ally in promoting reflective thinking for citizenship, social studies was portrayed as a hindrance to meaningful historical study. In effect, and based on no compelling new evidence that would justify such a switch, historians accepted that social studies was supplanting history. Within the realm of educational research, the historians found, too, a new ally in this attack on social studies. Sidestepping questions of educational purpose, many domain-specific researchers of history bound themselves tightly to disciplinary canons. Sometimes by design and sometimes merely by implication, this growing body of research was used to discredit social studies as an inferior field.

Meanwhile, without allies, social studies educators were left to defend themselves as best they could. Denied the federal funding lavished on the history standards, NCSS still managed, for example, to mount a modest standards-making effort (Symcox, 2002). Whereas the history standards appeared scarcely more than simplified versions of the contemporary interests of historians (or at least those historians writing the standards), social studies standards went further toward specifying educational objectives. Ironically enough, however, given the trouble taken to write separate social studies standards, they turned out to be mainly organized around history and the other disciplines, which seemed to cast some doubt on the historians proposition that social studies is hostile to disciplinary study.

The worth of the social studies standards was also thrown into question in another way: The history standards had the advantage of simplicity insofar as they were designed to identify content for existing school courses such as American history and world history. The NCSS standards, on the other hand, appeared in something of a vacuum because clear links were not made to existing courses, and NCSS took no position on what history or other social studies courses ought to be offered. Nonetheless, because on the face of things, only 1 of the 10 standards was explicitly historical, historians made the charge that might have been expected by now: The social studies standards shortchanged history (Martel, 1999).


By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, however, the status of history has become secure. Between 2001 and 2006, the federal government awarded over half a billion dollars to hundreds of school districts around the country as part of its Teaching American History Grant Program, whose purpose is to teach history as a separate academic subject (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.). In 2004, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the American History and Civics Act, which creates summer academies for outstanding teachers and students in history and civics (Office of Senator Lamar Alexander, 2004), and the National Assessment of Educational Progress now measures students historical knowledge and skills approximately twice each decade (National Center for Education Statistics, 2006). Among educational researchers, meanwhile, investigations of the teaching and learning of history far outpace any other area of social education, with the exception of citizenship: Over 200 empirical studies have appeared in print in recent years (Barton, 2008), and such work is a prominent element of educational research conferences. At the classroom level, teachers in elementary, middle, and secondary schools can choose from a wealth of materials that purportedly focus on the unique knowledge and skills of history (such as document-based activities), and for support, they can look to the efforts of organizations such as the National Council for History Education, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and National History Day, Inc.

There are two key elements in current discussions of historys place in schools: the claim that history can, and must, be taught as a separate subject, and the related argument that history should form the core of the curriculum in social education. Of course, few educators would argue that history should replace all other areas of learning about the social world; even the strongest proponents of history recognize that other fields, such as civics, geography, and economics, are important components of students education, and some even accept that an integrated subject such as social studies will continue to be part of the curriculum. What many history advocates reject, however, is the idea that history can be subsumed within a larger grouping of subjects or that it should serve goals originating outside the discipline itself. The benefits of history, they argue, derive from the content and skills that are unique to it as a discipline, and thus it must retain its status as a separate subject; it cannot simply serve as a source of content for a social studies curriculum.

Not only is this emphasis on disciplinary boundaries attractive to scholars (e.g., Gardner, 1999; Wineburg, 2001), but it has also come to dominate federal and state curriculum policies. The legislation authorizing the original set of Teaching American History grants, for example, specifically excluded social studies projects from funding (Public Law No. 106-554, 2000), and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 further stipulated that such grants be used to promote history as a separate academic subject (and not as a component of social studies) (No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, 2002, [39_16009.htm_g/00002.jpg]2351). In addition, states that

have developed curriculum standards in social studies over the past two decades have typically divided objectives into separate disciplinary strandsalways including history as a separate subjectrather than identifying broader or more interdisciplinary goals.1

Even when the existence of other disciplines or more integrated approaches is acknowledged, history advocates invariably place history at the center of the curriculum in social education. The History-Social Science Framework for California Public Schools is often credited with being the first document in recent years to make historys preeminent position clear; it notes that This framework places history at the center of the social sciences and humanities, where it belongs (California Board of Education, 1988; p. viii). Since that time, historys centrality has been reaffirmed repeatedly. The Bradley Commission on History in Schools (2000), for example, argued that history should be the core of social studies in the schools (p. 2), that the curriculum from kindergarten should be history-centered (p. 7), and that history should provide a bridge to the social sciences and humanities (p. 25). Similarly, the Albert Shanker Institute (2003) argued that the study of history should begin in the primary grades and replace typical social studies topics; at the middle and high school levels, history would serve as the integrative core of social studies, and all the social science topics would be taught together around the chronological narrative (p. 15).

Where has this left us? The result of two decades of promoting history and attacking social studies, following A Nation at Risk, has bolstered history as either the core of social studies or as an alternative to it in both policy-making and research. Yet the relationship of purportedly historical thinking to general education has gone largely unexplored. In other words, seeing history as a core, or as a substitute, has occluded aims talk. What history is, or what should be taught under the aegis of core, was considered too obvious to warrant discussionbeyond the topics that currently interested historians, that isas were issues of the selection, balance, or proportion of various historical topics.

Thus, few answers were to be found by historians and their allies to who should decide which history to teach for what purposes. The central curriculum questionwhat knowledge is of most worthas well as the pedagogical relationship between history and other elements of social education were simply ignored.

As time wears on, this short-run boost for history may backfire, particularly for academic proponents of school history (as opposed to conservative nationalists). By ignoring broader educational concerns, advocates of academic history may ultimately undercut the foundation for their own interests and find themselves the servants of an agenda they can no longer support, just as occurred with the U.S. history standards in the 1990s. In addition, the benefits of this renewed attention to history are far from clear. After 20 years of attention from a coalition supporting history as a separate subject in schools, are we any closer to producing graduates with deep and meaningful understanding of historical content? There seems precious little evidence that we are. Historians, politicians, and educators still lament the woeful inadequacies of students historical understanding, and NAEP U.S. history examinations provide evidence of only minor improvements in students historical understanding since 1994 (Lapp, Grigg, & Tay-Lim, 2002; Lee & Weiss, 2007). This is hardly surprising, for an emphasis on history as a separate subject cannot lead to improved educational outcomes. This is so for two separate reasons, one related to the cognitive or pedagogical aspects of education, the other to its philosophical foundation. Neither can be addressed without taking account of some larger perspective for making decisions about teaching, a perspective that transcends disciplinary boundaries.

Perhaps ironically, students can only develop a meaningful understanding of history if they study something other than history, for all historical content depends on concepts that are not themselves specifically historical. As Rogers (1995) argued, studying a topic such as British politics in the 1920swhen a return to the gold standard led to deflation and mass unemployment, culminating in a financial and political crisis in 1931depends on a considerable degree of economic understanding. Such understanding is not optional, Rogers pointed out: Without it, the period becomes almost unintelligible. The richness of historical study, and its contribution to economic awareness, derives from the way in which it provides concrete instantiations of general and abstract economic concepts, but without those concepts, historical examples will make little sense. Economic and historical understandings are, in an important sense, inseparable.

This is true for any historical topic, because all history depends on understanding human society and behavior. Both the topics of historical study (e.g., class, gender, race) and the nature of historical explanations (e.g., psychological, economic, geographic) depend on concepts that transcend particular examples. In an important sense, there is no conceptual content unique to history; the study of history consists entirely of concrete instances of concepts drawn from economics, sociology, geography, and so on, and if students are not given the opportunity to learn those concepts, much of the history they encounter will be unintelligible.

Yet students have difficulty understanding many aspects of social life, particularly those involving the structural context of peoples liveseconomic systems, political structures, and other societal institutions. As a result, students frequently misinterpret historical events by focusing on individual actions and intentions rather than larger structural factors (Barton, 2008). When students do not understand economic expansion and political competition, for example, they assume that exploration of the New World came about because of the personal quest of curious explorers; when they do not understand taxation and representation, they think of the American Revolution as scarcely more than a struggle between stern parents (England) and misbehaving children (the colonies); when they do not understand legal structures, collective action, and political and economic pressures, they misinterpret the U.S. civil rights movement as primarily an attempt by Martin Luther King, Jr., to give speeches that changed the attitudes of White people. Its not that students do not remember specific facts; rather, lacking concepts related to social structure and the societal context of behavior, they fail to understand such historical topics in any significant way in the first place, even when their teachers (or textbooks) emphasize these aspects of the topic. Without the necessary underlying concepts, students assimilate this historical information into their preexisting mental schemas, which revolve around human intentions rather than societal structures.

Even analyzing individual behavior in history depends on concepts that are not exclusively historical. The much-vaunted skill of perspective recognition (also known as perspective-taking or empathy), for example, depends on familiarity with both culture and psychology. Any historian would agree that making sense of the actions of people who lived in colonial New England, Meiji Japan, or ancient Mesopotamia depends on understanding the values, attitudes, and beliefs that were prevalent in those societies, at least to the extent that these can be reconstructed. Yet in order to develop such understanding, students must first recognize that people have values, attitudes, and beliefs that vary across contexts. This is not always obvious because studentsand many adultsassume that the mentalities of people in all times and places simply reflect, however imperfectly, those of 21st-first century Westerners. A consistent finding of research on historical understanding is that students often think that people in other times and places behaved differently than people today because they didnt know any betternot because they were part of social systems based on differing values and beliefs (Barton, 2008). In order to understand history, then, students need to understand how social and cultural systems promote certain patterns of thoughtthe content of sociology and anthropology. Students could also better understand the actions of people in the past if they had a clearer sense of how peoples thinking develops and how they translate their ideas into practicethe content of the field of psychology. (Indeed, Gay, 1985, argued that historians themselves largely employ naïve psychological constructs and would benefit from a more principled understanding of human motivation.)


Where do students learn about the economic, political, societal, cultural, and psychological concepts necessary to understand history? In social studiesthe one subject devoted to giving students a comprehensive understanding of human society (Brophy & Alleman, 2006). It is in social studies that students learn what taxes are, how governments work, the nature of customs and rituals, and so on. National standards in social studies, for example, include content related to government, economics, culture, society, psychology, and so onall the concepts necessary to understand history (National Council for the Social Studies, 1994). Rather than thinking of history and social studies as somehow opposed, advocates of improved history education (and we consider ourselves to be such advocates) should regard social studies as historys best friend, for it provides students with the conceptual apparatus they need to understand the past meaningfullyrather than to misapprehend, or memorize and forget, the historical content they encounter.

It should be noted, however, that this is not an argument for integrating, consolidating, or amalgamating any particular set of topics. We are not arguing that students should take courses titled Social Studies I, Social Studies II, and so on, instead of U.S. History, World History, Psychology, and so on. Nor do we necessarily think that courses should always address social content thematically, as in a study of discrimination that draws from both historical and contemporary information. There are valid arguments for and against such integration, and in practical terms, it seems likely that in the foreseeable future, the subject divisions of the curriculum will retain the forms that have endured for most of the past century. Combined content referred to as social studies will probably remain prominent in the early grades and will gradually give way to courses in history, economics, civics, and so on, by senior high school. And theres little doubt that students could learn about society by studying primarily, or even exclusively, historical examplesalthough whether thats the most efficient way of doing so seems questionable. (For a compelling defense of an integrated or pandisciplinary curriculum in the early grades, see Brophy and Alleman, 2006.)

Our argument, rather, is that regardless of the format of the curriculum, someone other than single-subject specialists have to be minding the store. Someone has to have a perspective on students learning that transcends particular historical content in order to ensure that they learn the concepts they need. It wont do any good to include the American Revolution in the curriculum if no one is making sure theres a place to explicitly teach the meaning of taxation and representation. Historians take such concepts for granted, but social studies educators place them at the fore as they consider how to help students understand society in a complete and comprehensive way. Historical content can be prominent in the curriculum, but from an educational perspective, it cannot logically trump the broader perspective provided by the social studies.

Social studies, in addition to its cognitive or pedagogical priority, also provides the philosophical foundation for historys place in the curriculum. The most basic educational question, as Herbert Spencer (1910) noted, is, What knowledge is of most worth?or, put slightly differently, Out of all the things that could be taught, which ones should be? This is true for any subject, but especially for history, where available historical content far exceeds the time that could be devoted to it in schoolseven if that time was increased substantially. As we have noted, much of the historical content at the core of the U.S. school curriculum originated from a perceived need to promote national unity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and a narrative of freedom and progress still pervades school history. Similarly, the increased attention to women and minorities in the curriculum in recent decades has resulted from new perspectives on what content is valuable. Curriculum decisions are inevitably based on considerations of educational value.

The discipline of history, on the other hand, is not driven by the same considerations. Historians want to study all contentor at least they assume the freedom to study any content that individual members of the profession consider worthwhile. When historians begin to study new questions, they face little opposition from others (apart from curmudgeonly grumbling), for new approaches do not necessarily crowd out old ones. No historian is prevented from doing research on Robert E. Lee just because someone else has chosen to investigate Gypsy Rose Lee. The field is wide enough, and publishing opportunities numerous enough, to accommodate such pluralism, and as a result, the output of historical scholarship covers an incredible diversity of topics, time periods, geographic regions, and methodological approaches. But because the time available to teach history in school is finite, the curriculum cannot incorporate all possible content, and so choices must be made about which topics are important enough to include. In schools, unlike in the profession of history, each new topic must crowd out an old one. How, then, do we decide which knowledge is of most worth?

The discipline of history is silent on this issue. Disciplinary norms provide guidance for helping students understand how historical knowledge is constructedhow evidence can be used to develop accountsbut such norms have nothing to say about selection of content, because all content is fair game within the profession. This selection must necessarily arise from some conception of the aims of the educational endeavor, yet it is precisely this kind of aims talk that has been occluded by the coalition of forces that have argued for historys primacy in the curriculum. But however hard we try to avoid such discussionsin pursuit of more history teachingthey nonetheless rise to the surface when decisions are made about content. This is what happened with the furor over the national history standards: A seemingly united coalition fractured as soon as the content of the curriculum came into question, because that coalition could not paper over the fact that its constituents had vastly different ideas about what history should be taught. Historians could not invoke their authority to win acceptance of the standards, because the discipline provides no such authority.

Because the academic discipline of history does not restrict selection of content among its members, criteria for making educational decisions about the school curriculum must arise elsewhere, and there are two principal traditions that provide such criteria. As we have suggested, one of these is political conservatism, particularly in its nationalistic and patriotic forms, which has long been a part of debates over the purpose of history teaching. Much of the recent impetus for emphasizing history as a separate subjectas well as for denigrating the value of the social studieshas come from authors and organizations that are explicitly aligned with a conservative political agenda. Lynne Cheney, for example, has noted that children should know about U.S. history as we set out to defend America, assured of the rightness of our cause, in our Presidents words, and confident of victories to come (Cheney, 2001; see also Bennett, 2002; Finn, 2001; and Ravitch, 2001).

Political conservatives make it clear that the chief criteria for selecting historical content should be patriotism, unity, and national pride. Although they are not always averse to including examples of shortcomings in the U.S. past, they maintain that these must be set within an overall framework that assures students of the countrys historical destiny. This perspective aligns closely with the institutional conservatism of schools, where changes in educational practice (including the content of the curriculum) are implemented only with great difficultyif at all. Because the traditional curriculum reinforces a patriotic and nationalist vision, political conservatives are usually content to retain its primary featuresthey simply want more of it. (Sometimes, however, they argue for changes that would include rolling back attention to minorities in order to avoid disuniting the nation.)

The second set of criteria for making decisions about the curriculum lies in the tradition of preparing reflective citizens for a democratic societya tradition best represented by educators associated with the school subject known as social studies. This perspective has long provided an explicit alternative to patriotic visions of history teaching. Even before the term social studies originated in the early 20th century, attempts to specify content for the history curriculum had rested in broader conceptions of the subjects role in preparing active and thoughtful citizens, including the necessity of considering the position of history relative to allied subjects. Indeed, these effortsled by historiansexplicitly rejected patriotism and nationalism and extolled the role of history in preparing citizens.

Contrary to the claims of many history proponents, social studies educators are not, and never have been, a unified group. The field has long been characterized by debates over what constitutes good citizenship, over the most meaningful content for young people, over the best way of organizing that content, and over the proper balance between unity and diversity (Evans, 2004). Some social studies educators want to promote political activism, whereas others hope to nurture collaboration; some advocate more history in the curriculum, whereas others argue for less; some aim at content tied to the here and now, whereas others suggest expanding students understanding of the range of humanity; some emphasize pluralism, whereas others want to nurture consensus. What ties these viewpoints together is their adherence to the democratic norms for which they hope to prepare students: Social studies is the arena in which discussions about education for democratic citizenship take place. It stands in contrast not to history but to nationalism; one tradition prepares citizens, whereas the other prepares patriots. The question for advocates of history education, then, is: Which of these traditions better represents their own aspirations for the subject?


It is an enduring oddity of U.S. education that historians and affiliated history educators have so often feared for the subjects place in elementary and secondary schools. With the exception of the early elementary grades in recent decades, history has occupied a secure role in school programs since the opening of the 20th century (Downey, 1985; Jenness, 1990), although this history has not always been in a form that some vocal historians have said was needed. Meanwhile, amid cries for more historical content, more closely tied to the academic discipline, the real issues go unaddressed. It is no curricular answer to say that school history should simply reflect disciplinary content (i.e., the topics that professional historians are currently interested in) or the habits of mind of historians. Even granting that these are important elements of a school history curriculum, the question remains: Which topics should we teach, in what depth, and with what left out? Which aspects of historical thinking should be taught, and at what ages? How does historical thinking relate to selection of topics, or doesnt that matter? And how can we justify our answers to these questions? (cf. Brophy & Alleman, 2006).

Nearly a half-century ago, in the midst of an earlier attempt by historians to increase the prominence of their subject in schools, the historian Arthur Bolster (1962) observed,

It is this issue of the social utility of his discipline which is so difficult for the university scholar. It puts him in the uncomfortable and unusual position of trying to rationalize a branch of learning in terms of a higher goal. At the university the professors position may be justified by his increasing the amount of knowledge in his field. But if he is to write about the public school curriculum he must push a step further. He cannot argue any knowledge, any discipline for its sake alone. He must join his secondary school colleague in coming to grips with the gnawing question: why this knowledge and this discipline? (pp. 6364)

The social utility of historical studyas reflected in the debates and discussions of social studies scholarshipis not the enemy of school history. Rather, as Bolster (1962) suggested, abdication from meaningful answers to such questions is the enemy. Indeed, social studies, far from an enemy, is both prerequisite and ally of history. When historians behave as if the answer to What history should we teach? is not worth talking about or is self-evident, it opens up the chance that other groupssuch as uncritical nationalistswill assert the same thing: that what they say should be taught in history needs no defense. In the long run, this is the true threat to sound school history programs.

Although we do not mean to use this opportunity to advance our own vision of the proper content of history education, but rather to emphasize the necessity of attending to historys purpose within general education, we nonetheless think that there are certain substantive propositions that many historians and other social educators have long agreed on. These include, at a minimum, the following: That students should learn how the social world operates, in all its complexity and varietynow and then, near and far; that students should engage with multiple perspectives, both the variety of viewpoints that existed within a given historical period and the range of ways in which history is used and interpreted today; and that students should learn about the process of inquiryasking questions, evaluating evidence, and drawing conclusionsso that they understand how knowledge of the social world is constructed (cf. Barton & Levstik, 2004). Although not everyone would agree with each of these propositions, these have been among the most commonly voiced justifications for including history, and social studies generally, within the school curriculum, and they should constitute an effective starting point for further discussions among all those who are interested in social education. Such collaborative deliberations are likely to be more rewarding and productive than continued divisions based on purported disciplinary interests.


1. For a review of state standards, see Grant (2006) and Brown and Patrick (2006).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 112 Number 9, 2010, p. 2471-2495
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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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