Bradley Commission Report: NCHE's Foundational Document

Building a History Curriculum:

Guidelines for Teaching History in Schools

The Bradley Commission on History in Schools


THE BRADLEY COMMISSION on History in Schools was created in 1987 in response to widespread concern over the inadequacy, both in quantity and in quality, of the history taught in American elementary and secondary classrooms. While other social science disciplines and many new fields, such as sex and health education, driver education, and computer education, have expanded their roles in the curriculum, the number of required courses in history has declined. Currently, 15 percent of our students do not take any American historyin high school, and at least 50 percent do not study either World history or Western civilization.

Since 1982, a score of major books and studies, commissioned by such diverse organizations
as the Council on Basic Education, the National Commission for Excellence in Education, the Carnegie Foundation, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, have called for a more substantial academic core for all students and for more varied and imaginative approaches to teaching that common learning. Documenting the serious declines in achievement in reading, writing, mathematics, and science, they have endorsed the need for more rigorous classroom study with more innovative pedagogical methods.

History is obviously not the only subject which has suffered. The Bradley Commission, however, is the first national group to devote its attention exclusively to history in the schools. Indeed, the case for the importance of history has not been cogently and powerfully made since 1892, when the National Education Association appointed a distinguished Committee of Ten to examine the entire high school experience. The 1892 subcommittee on History, Civil Government, and Political Economy, chaired by President Charles Kendall Adams of the University of Wisconsin, was to have a major influence on the shape of American education. It recommended that all students, whether or not they were college-bound, should take four years of history on the secondary level.  History, it declared, broadened and cultivated the mind, counteracted a narrow and provincialspirit, prepared students for enlightenment and intellectual enjoyment in after years, and assisted them to exercise a salutary influence upon the affairs of their country. Unhappily, this common, democratic curriculum did not survive the educational changes made during and after World War I. Now the Bradley Commission declares once more that history should occupy a large and vital place in the education of the private citizen. Unlike many other peoples, Americans are not bound together by a common religion or a common ethnicity. Instead, our binding heritage is a democratic vision of liberty, equality, and justice.

If Americans are to preserve that vision and bring it to daily practice, it is imperative that all citizens understand how it was shaped in the past, what events and forces either helped or obstructed it, and how it has evolved down to the circumstances and political discourse of our time. 

From its inception, the Bradley Commission set itself two goals: 

  • to explore the conditions that contribute to, or impede, the effective teaching ofhistory in American schools, Kindergarten through Grade 12. 
  • to make recommendations on the curricular role of history, and on how all of those concerned — teachers, students, parents, school administrators, university professors, publishers, and boards of education — may improve the teaching of history as the core of social studies in the schools.

To accomplish this task, I asked sixteen outstanding scholars and teachers to join me on the Commission. Together they determined the scope of the Commission’s work and how it would be done. They represented different political philosophies, geographic regions, academic specialties, and levels of instruction. They shared only a passion for the study of history and a deep concern about its place in the curriculum. 

The Organization of History Teachers, the American Historical Association, and the Organization of American Historians have all endorsed the efforts of the Bradley Commission. But in the end, the authority of this report rests upon the reputations of the commissioners themselves. As an examination of the list of members indicates, many of the most honored and respected members of the profession have given their time and energy to this report. Our roster includes former presidents of all the major professional associations in history and winners of the most prestigious prizes for writing and scholarship.  

hat was remarkable about the Bradley Commission, however, was its inclusion of classroom teachers as full voting and deliberative members of the policy-making group.  These instructors were chosen because they had earnedon the front lines of American educationreputations as master teachers. Their contributions have been essential at every meeting and on every point, and they have helped us bridge the gap between the school and the university.  

The Bradley Commission recognizes that the most important ingredient in any instructional situation is the individual teacher. It is easy to make pronouncements about what should happen in the classroom. But in truth what does happen in the classroom is determined by the person who daily has to contend with often under-motivated youngsters and an overly crowded curriculum. With too little time and too many students, many teachers still manage to convey the excitement, the complexity, and the relevance of the past.  

Such teachers deserve more than our respect and admiration. They deserve our support. For too long, educational reform has been mandated from the top down. This lack of teacher involvement has demoralized many instructors and has meant that many changes have been more cosmetic than real. The Bradley Commission believes that teachers must be partners in educational renewal and that the quality of history instruction can be no higher than the quality of history instructors.

Precisely because so many history teachers have been inspiring and effective, the Bradley Commission recognizes the importance of careful training and selection. We deplore the practice, unfortunately quite common, of assigning unqualified teachers to teach social studies in our schools. State certification is not a guarantee of competence, if only because insome states it is possible to be certified to teach social studies without ever taking a single college course in history.

Because our resources and time were too limited to become heavily involved in pedagogical 
techniques or improved teacher training, the Bradley Commission concentrated on curriculum. We were dismayed to learn that the eleventh grade course in American history is no longer universal, and that many school districts now allow optional classes, sometimes called “area studies” and with little history content, to substitute for the eighth grade course. Instead, the Bradley Commission asserts that history ought to be an important part of the educational experience of every American. All students need to understand the complexities of the Constitution and of the Civil War, of immigration and of Manifest Destiny, and of the struggle against slavery and for civil rights. The need for more curricular time is obvious.  Unfortunately, history courses are now commonly so rushed that they rema in superficial and/or never reach the twentieth century.  

American history is only part of the problem. Our students also need to confront the diverse cultural heritages of the world's many peoples, and they need to know the origins and evolution of the political, religious, and social ideas that have shaped our institutions and those of others. Without studying the history of the West and the history of the world, students remain out of touch with these realities. They will not understand the origins and major tenets of the world's religions, they will not be familiar with the ancient and worldwide struggles for freedom and justice, and they will not know the many roads that nations have taken to conquest or survival. 

No commission, whatever its size, membership or resources, could possibly restructure the entire history curriculum. Nor would such a result be desirable, given the diversity of a continental nation. The Bradley Commission has, however, endorsed nine important resolutions which we think deser ve the careful consideration of professional educators. In particular, we depart from current practice in our recommendation that history be a substantial part of the elementary school experience. In addition, and once more, we believe that all children in a democracy — not just the gifted or the college-bound — deserve the knowledge and under standing that history imparts.

We do not presume to have said the final word on history in the schools, but we trust that these Guidelines will stimulate and encourage those who believe that the study of the past is essential to informed judgment and to democratic citizenship.

Kenneth T. Jackson, Chair


History belongs in the school programs of all students, regardless of their academic standing 
and preparation, of their curricular track, or of their plans for the future. It is vital for all citizens in a democracy, because it provides the only avenue we have to reach an understanding of ourselves and of our society, in relation to the human condition over time, and of how some things change and others continue.

We can be sure that students will experience enormous changes over their lifetimes. History is the discipline that can best help them to understand and deal with change, and at the same time to identify the deep continuities that link past and present. 

Without such understanding, the two foremost aims of American education will not be achieve— the preparation of all our people for private lives of personal integrity and fulfillment, and their preparation for public life as democratic citizens.

For the first aim, personal growth, history is the central humanistic discipline. It can satisfy young people’s longing for a sense of identity and of their time and place in the human story.  Well-taught, history and biography are naturally engaging to students by speaking to their individuality, to their possibilities for choice, and to their desire to control their lives.

Moreover, history provides both framework and illumination for the other humanities. The arts, literature, philosophy, and religion are best studied as they develop over time and in the context of societal evolution. In turn, they greatly enliven and reinforce our historical grasp of place and moment. 

For the second aim of education, active and intelligent citizenship, history furnishes a wide range of models and alternatives for political choice in a complicated world. It can convey sense of civic responsibility by graphic portrayals of virtue, courage, and wisdom — and their opposites. It can reveal the human effects of technological, economic, and cultural change, and hence the choices before us. Most obviously, an historical grasp of our common political vision is essential to liberty, equality, and justice in our multicultural society.

As in the case of the humanities, history and geography provide the context of time and place for ideas and methods drawn from the social sciences — anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, and sociology. In turn, the formulations of the social sciences offer lively questions to explore in the historical narrative, and numberless insights to enrich it. 

Beyond its centrality to educating the private person and the citizen, history is generally helpful to the third aim of education, preparation for work. It is needed for such professions as law, journalism, diplomacy, politics, and teaching. More broadly, historical study develops analytical skills, comparative perspectives, and modes of critical judgment that promote thoughtful work in any field or career.


In recognition of the critical value of historical study to the education of Americans, the Bradley Commission has adopted the following resolutions, addressed to all citizens who bear responsibility for designing and implementing courses of study in our schools:

1. That the knowledge and habits of mind to be gained from the study of history are indispensable to the education of citizens in a democracy. The study of history should, therefore, be required of all students.

2. That such study must reach well beyond the acquisition of useful information. To develop judgment and perspective, historical study must often focus upon broad, significant themes and questions, rather than short-lived memorization of facts without context. In doing so, historical study should provide context for facts and training in critical judgment based upon evidence, including original sources, and should cultivate the perspective arising from a chronological view of the past down to the present day. Therefore it follows...

3. That the curricular time essential to develop the genuine understanding and engagement necessary to exercising judgment must be considerably greater than that presently common in American school programs in history.

4. That the kindergarten through grade six social studies curriculum be history-centered.

5. That this Commission recommends to the states and to local school districts the implementation of a social studies curriculum requiring no fewer than four years of history among the six years spanning grades seven through twelve.

The Commission regards such time as indispensable to convey the three kinds of historical reality all citizens need to confront: American history to tell us who we are and who we are becoming; the history of Western civilization to reveal our democratic political heritage and its vicissitudes; world history to acquaint us with the nations and people with whom we shall share a common global destiny. It follows...

6. That every student should have an understanding of the world that encompasses the historical experiences of peoples of Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe.

7. That history can best be understood when the roles of all constituent parts of society are included; therefore the history of women, racial and ethnic minorities, and men and women of all classes and conditions should be integrated into historical instruction.

That the completion of a substantial program in history (preferably a major, minimally a minor) at the college or university level be required for the certification of teachers of social studies in the middle and high schools.

The Commission is concerned by the minimal, frequently insubstantial, state requirements for historical studies in the education of social studies teachers. The kind of historical instruction we believe to be indispensable requires p rior study of the subject in depth.

9. That college and university departments of history review the structure and content of major programs for their suitability to the needs of prospective teachers, with special attention to the quality and liveliness of those survey courses whose counterparts are most often taught in the schools: world history, Western civilization, and American history. 

The Commission is concerned that the structures and requirements of the undergraduate history major are too frequently inchoate, and that insufficient attention is paid to courses demonstrating useful approaches to synthesis, selection, and understanding of organizing themes.


The perspectives and modes of thoughtful judgment derived from 
the study of history are many, and they ought to be its principal aim. Courses in history, geography, and government should be designed to take students well beyond formal skills of critical thinking, to help them through their own active learning to:

understand the significance of the past to their own lives, both private and public, andto their society.
distinguish between the important and the inconsequential, to develop the “discriminating memory” needed for a discerning judgment in public and personal life.
perceive past events and issues as they were experienced by people at the time, to develop historical empathy as opposed to present-mindedness.
acquire at one and the same time a comprehension of diverse cultures and of shared humanity.
understand how things happen and how things change, how human intentions matter, but also how their consequences are shaped by the means of carrying them out, in a tangle of purpose and process.
comprehend the interplay of change and continuity, and avoidassuming that either issomehow more natural, or more to be expected, than the other.
prepare to live with uncertainties and exasperating, evenperilous, unfinished business, realizing that not all problems have solutions.
grasp the complexity of historical causation, respect particularity, and avoid excessively abstract generalizations.
appreciate the often tentative nature of judgments about the past, and thereby avoid the temptation to seize upon particular “lessons” of history as cures for present ills
recognize the importance of individuals who have made a difference in history, and the significance of personal character for both good and ill.
appreciate the force of the non-rational, the irrational,the accidental, in history andhuman affairs.
understand the relationship between geography and history as a matrix of time and place, and as context for events
read widely and critically in order to recognize the difference between fact and conjecture, between evidence and assertion, and thereby to frame useful questions.

To nurture such habits of thought, narrative history must illuminate vital themes and significant questions, including but reaching beyond the acquisition of useful facts. Students should not be left in doubt about the reasons for remembering certain things, for getting facts straight, for gathering and assessing evidence. “What of it?” is a worthy question and itrequires an answer.

In the search for historical understanding of ourselves and others, certain themes emerge as vital, whether the subject be world history, the history of Western civilization, or the history of the United States. 

To comprehend the forces for change and continuity that have shaped--and will continue to shape— human life, teachers and students of history must have the opportunity to pursue many or most of the following matters:

Civilization, cultural diffusion, and innovation
. The evolution of human skills and the means of exerting power over nature and people. The rise, interaction, and decline of successive centers of such skills and power. The cultural flowering of major civilizations in the arts, literature, and thought. The role of social, religious, and political patronage of the arts and learning. The importance of the city in different eras and places.

Human interaction with the environment
. The relationships among geography, technology, and culture, and their effects on economic, social, and political developments. The choices made possible by climate, resources, and location, and the effect of culture and human values on such choices. The gains and losses of technological change. The central role of agriculture. The effect of disease, and disease-fighting, on plants, animals, and human beings.  

Values, beliefs, political ideas, and institutions. The origins and spread of influential religions and ideologies. The evolution of political and social institutions, at various stages of industrial and commercial development. The interplay among ideas, material conditions, moral values, and leadership, especially in the evolution of democratic societies. The tensions between the aspirations for freedom and security, for liberty and equality, for distinction and commonality, in human affairs. 

Conflict and cooperation. The many and various causes of war, and of approaches to peacemaking and war prevention. Relations between domestic affairs and ways of dealing with the outside world. Contrasts between international conflict and cooperation, between isolation and interdependence. The consequences of war and peace for societies and their cultures.

Comparative history of major developments. The characteristics of revolutionary, reactionary, and reform periods across time and place. Imperialism, ancient and modem. Comparative instances of slavery and emancipation, feudalism and centralization, human successes and failures, of wisdom and folly. Comparative elites and aristocracies; the role of family, wealth, and merit.

Patterns of social and political interaction. The changing patterns of class, ethnic, racial, and gender structures and relations. Immigration, migration, and social mobility. The effects of schooling. The new prominence of women, minorities, and the common people in the study of history, and their relation to political power and influential elites. The characteristics of multicultural societies; forces for unity and disunity.


1. History is a great, suspenseful story whose turning points and consequences are best revealed in a narrative that is analytical and comparative. Chronological development is essential, but within it, major topics and questions must make clear the significance of the unfolding story. The following are central to the history of the United States:

2. The evolution of American political democracy, its ideas, institutions, and practices from colonial days to the present; the Revolution, the Constitution, slavery, the Civil War, emancipation, and civil rights. 

3. The development of the American economy; geographic and other forces at work; the role of the frontier and agriculture; the impact of technological change and urbanization on land and resources, on society, politics, and culture. The role and emancipation of American labor.

4. The gathering of people and cultures from many countries, and the several religious traditions, that have contributed to the American heritage and to contemporary American society.

5.The changing role of the United States in the outside world; relations between domestic affairs and foreign policy; American interactions with other nations and regions, historically and in recent times. The United States as a colonial power and in two world wars. The Cold War and global economic relations.

6.Family and local history, and theirrelation to the larger setting of Americandevelopment.

7.The changing character of American society and culture, of arts and letters, ofeducation and thought, of religion and values.

8.The distinctively American tensions between liberty and equality, liberty and order, region and nation, individualism and the common welfare, and between cultural diversity and civic unity.

9.The major successes and failures of the United States, in crises at home and abroad.  What has “worked” and what has not, and why.



As in the case of United States history, the facts and narrative of ancient, medieval, and modem European history must be grouped and taught in relation to significant topics. And particular emphasis should be placed on two aspects of the history of the Western world.  First, upon those developments that have so much shaped the experience of the entire globe over the last 500 years. Second, upon those ideas, institutions, and cultural legacies that have directly influenced American thought, culture, and politics since colonial times. Each of the following meets these criteria:

1.The political, philosophical, and cultural legacies of ancient Greece and Rome.

2.Origins, ideas, moral codes, and institutions of Judaism and of Christianity in all its forms.

3.Medieval society and institutions; relations with Islam; feudalism and the evolution of representative government.

4.The culture and ideas of the Renaissance and Reformation, European exploration, the origins of capitalism and colonization.

5.The English Revolution, its ideas, and the practices of parliamentary government, at home and in the colonies.

6.The culture and ideas of the Enlightenment, comprising the scientific revolution of the seventeen th century and the intellectual revolution of the eighteenth.

7.The American and French Revolutions, their sources, results, and world influence.

8.The Industrial Revolution and its social consequences, its impact on politics and culture.

9. The European ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and their global influence: liberalism, republicanism, social democracy, Marxism, nationalism, Communism, Fascism, Nazism.

10.The new nineteenth century imperialism, ultimate decolonization, and the consequences of both for colonizers and colonized.

11.The two world wars, their origins and effects, and their global aftermath and significance.

12.The making of the European community of nations; new approaches to cooperation and interdependence.


Given the enormous scope of world history and the difficulty of teaching it effectively, even in the expanded curricular time the Commission recommends, it is all the more necessary to make imaginative use of the larger “vital themes” listed above. Facts and narrative must be selected and taught to illuminate the most significant questions and developments. The world history course should incorporate many of the following topics:

1. The evolution and distinctive characteristics of major Asian, African, and American pre-Columbian societies and cultures.

2. The connections among civilizations from earliest times, and the gradual growth of global interaction among the world’s peoples, speeded and altered by changing means of transport and communication.

3. Major landmarks in the human use of the environment from Paleolithic hunters to the latest technologies. The agricultural transformation at the beginning and the industrial transformation in recent centuries.

4. The origins, central ideas, and influence of major religious and philosophical traditions, such as Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Christianity; and of major ideologies and revolutions such as the American, French, Russian, and Chinese.

5. Close study of one or two selected non-European societies, to achieve the interest andpower of the good story that narrative provides.

About NCHE

The National Council for History Education provides professional and intellectual leadership to foster an engaged community committed to the teaching, learning, and appreciation of diverse histories.