HM - Dec. 2013 - Drake Brown

History Education

Historical Thinking: The Highest Form of Civic Action
Sarah Drake Brown
Director of Social Studies Education
Ball State University

Between 1929 and 1934, the Carnegie Corporation supported a comprehensive examination of the state of social studies education in the school curriculum. The American Historical Association’s Commission on the Social Studies issued sixteen volumes between 1932 and 1937 and featured contributions from historians Charles Beard and Merle Curti and “frontier thinkers” George Counts and Jesse Newlon. Charles Merriam and Bessie L. Pierce each wrote volumes addressing civic education; Henry Johnson provided a survey of history education in Europe and the United States since the sixteenth century; and Isaiah Bowman addressed geography. Other contributors wrote about methods of instruction, curriculum, and tests and measurement.
The 1934 Conclusions and Recommendations of the Commission were written in a context that resonates today. The “frame of reference” portion of the document noted:
the interrelationship of the life of America with the life of the world…a two-fold tendency toward the closer physical unification of the nation and the ever-closer integration and interdependence of all branches of economy, social activity, and culture…the application of technology to all brands of industry…the intensifying specialization of labor and the resulting dependence of all industries and of society as a whole on national and international markets…[and] privation in the midst of plenty….[1]
Civic education was deemed a logical means to address societal ills.

When penning the first of the Commission’s volumes, Charles Beard received a letter from fellow committee members George Counts, Jesse Newlon, and Ernest Horn. In their April 19, 1930 letter, the three scholars recognized the importance of clarifying the historic role of citizenship in America, and they admonished Beard, “It is scarcely helpful, for example, to say that the object of the teaching of the social studies is to prepare for citizenship. Unless some definite content is put into the term citizenship, the statement is meaningless.”[2]

Nearly 85 years later, we have witnessed the release of the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework. Let there be no doubt: the C3 Framework clearly places civic education at its center. What are the implications of a civics-heavy document for the teaching and learning of history? To what degree can teachers who strive to engage their students in historical thinking embrace the C3 Framework? To what extent is there discipline-based content in the articulated process of civic education as outlined in the C3 Framework?

In an understandable effort to unite the disciplines of history, geography, and economics and the field of civics (interestingly declared a discipline in the document), the C3 Framework calls for “a robust social studies program rooted in inquiry” and identifies inquiry, in Dimension 1, as the heart of its 4-Dimensional Arc. Rightfully recognizing questioning as “key to student learning,” the document calls for students to acknowledge, develop, and articulate “powerful questions.”

What constitutes a powerful question? To respond with substance, we must turn to the academic disciplines. Disciplines breathe life into inquiry, shape the thinking that underlies the investigative process, and make powerful questions possible. By wrestling with such disciplinary concepts as accounts, empathy, cause, and change, students learn to order their thoughts, give meaning to facts, pose and answer questions that avoid presentistic judgments and instead reflect the specificity of time, and make plausible arguments that are supported by historical evidence. Dimensions 2 and 3 of the C3 Framework provide the foundational disciplinary structure without which the concept of inquiry falls flat.

The 4th Dimension of the C3 Framework holds both promise and – if misused – peril for history education. The “action” element of Dimension 4 is a bit disconcerting on first look. What does action mean with respect to the study of history? Is action only under the purview of civic educators? We must respond with a resounding no. The leading civic educators acknowledge that action is not restricted to voting or picking up trash. Service learning is most certainly a worthwhile endeavor, but it is not the only form of civic action in a school context. And the study of history is certainly not relegated to an examination of documents in order to set up “action” in the form of role plays, mock trials, or moot court. An active citizen is a thinking citizen, and action – in the context of civic life – means being able to think historically. Citizens can be inspired to take action because of events “here and now,” but individuals are also inspired to take action because they have a deep understanding of how their present actions are part of the larger web of human experience. They can ask historical questions.

Recent studies, measuring citizens’ knowledge about and propensity to participate in civic life, indicate that civic action among America’s youth has changed little since the 1970s.[3] Issuing platitudes reminding students that “every vote counts” has been about as effective as doctors reminding us to eat healthy foods, get plenty of rest, and exercise. Are we aware of these ideas? Yes. Are we moved to act on them? Not necessarily. The National Council for History Education – as the bold and leading voice for history teachers nationwide – must spearhead the development of materials for teachers that demonstrate how historical thinking sets the basis for and lies at the core of civic action. The possibilities through the realm of public history, through historical writing, and through fostering an understanding of our role in the larger human story – to simply name a few – are endless. But “action” cannot remain an abstract concept toward which we strive. The members of NCHE must ensure that the idea becomes substantive and resonates with disciplinary thinking.

All teachers endeavor to help students become civically literate citizens. In order for civic education to have substance, discipline-based thinking must guide the field known as social studies. The C3 Framework makes such a pursuit possible. If a central purpose of civic education is to prepare students for responsible democratic life, history’s disciplinary concepts and methodological practices lend readily to this prescribed role. But make no mistake: history is not a tool of civic education. Rather, history’s habits of mind and intellectual processes resonate at the heart of engaged civic life.

[1] American Historical Association, Report of the Commission on the Social Studies: Conclusions and Recommendations of the Commission (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934).
[2] Letter to Beard from Counts, Horn, and Newlon, April 19, 1930, on file in the Counts archives at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. As quoted in R. Freeman Butts, The Civic Mission in Educational Reform: Perspectives for the Public and the Profession (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1989), 189. Italics in original.
[3] “All Together Now: Collaboration and Innovation for Youth Engagement. The Report of the Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge,” CIRCLE, accessed December 10, 2013,