HM - Dec. 2013 - Fischer

History Education

“NCHE, C3 and the Importance of History in the Schools”
Fritz Fischer
Professor of History, Director of History Education
University of Northern Colorado
Past Chair, NCHE Board of Trustees

NCHE members have recently taken notice of the newly published “C3 Framework: The College, Career and Civic Life Framework for Social Studies State Standards.”  This document was crafted by a wide variety of individuals from all over the country, including classroom teachers, district and state curriculum coordinators and representatives of a wide variety of organizations representing different ideas in social studies, including my participation representing NCHE. A consensus document, the final product brings together ideas of history teaching with ideas in teaching geography, economics, and civics.  For those like myself passionate about the centrality of history in the schools in general and in social studies classrooms in particular, there is much that is puzzling and even problematic in the 128 page document.  Yet there is also much to applaud, and, importantly, I believe the document deserves our attention and support, because unless those that support education in history, geography, economics and civics speak with a unified voice, there is no chance whatsoever of our subjects remaining centrally important in the twenty-first century classroom.

First, let me debunk misunderstandings about the C3 framework. C3 is not a standards document…the word “framework” is purposeful and meaningful.  The idea is for states, districts and schools to take the ideas of the framework to help frame their own standards and curriculum requirements. Those of us who worked on the document were very conscious to avoid dictating standards and requirements, standards and requirements that we knew full well might be acceptable in some places and not others. Second, the C3 framework is not part of the Common Core, although this is not for lack of trying.  The bottom line is that anything connected to history and social studies standards is the third rail of the standards movement, and in the end the Common Core folks wanted nothing to do with our subject area.  As I will discuss later, this is indeed the real problem—educational reform leaders want to turn their back on history and social studies, and this is a problem we need to overcome. Further, this document was not written by a cadre of social studies devotees in the backrooms of NCSS.  Instead, it was crafted by a large committee of writers, including prominent historians and history educators recommended by NCHE and our fellow history educators from National History Day, The American Historical Association and the World History Association. Finally, the C3 framework is not part of any assessment regime.  Because it is only a framework, the ideas within it cannot be tested.

As for the content of the framework, it is first critical to note that this document does not promote teaching a general and vague social studies curriculum. Instead, it explicitly focuses on teaching disciplinary thinking in four delineated content areas: history, geography, economics and civics. Some NCHE members have commented that they feel the document is too “civics heavy,” and I will confess that I share many of these concerns. Even the title seems to trumpet civics as the heart of the document.  Yet the title is meant to delineate purpose of studying the social studies disciplines from the rest of schooling.  The “Common Core” focuses on preparing students for “College and Career.” I think NCHE members would strongly agree that history and social studies classrooms do more than this, and the term our large and unwieldy committee landed on to describe this “something extra” was “civic life,” although I believe that term to be too narrow.

To me, some criticism of the document is mere quibbling, and misses the positive and revolutionary heart of the enterprise.  For at its core, this document looks like few standards-related documents that have preceded it. It does not list of names, dates and facts that students should memorize, as some standards documents in the past have done. Nor does it suggest that history and social studies classrooms become a mere appendage to Language Arts classrooms, teaching pre-packaged reading and writing strategies.

Rather, the C3 framework begins by insisting that history and classrooms begin with inquiry, with questioning. This idea is at the heart of NCHE, as we see in one of History’s Habits of Mind: “Interrogate texts and artifacts, posing questions about the past that foster informed discussion, reasoned debate and evidence-based interpretation.”  As a matter of fact, much of the history section in the C3 document looks very much like History’s Habits of Mind.  To provide just one example, here is the C3 discussion of historical context: “Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts”, which connects to this History Habit of Mind: “Perceive past events and issues as they might have been experienced by the people of the time, with historical empathy rather than present-mindedness.” In some ways, NCHE should be celebrating the release of the C3 document, because the ideas that shaped our organization from the beginning have now become centrally accepted by all within the social studies community as important aspects of the social studies classroom.

Does this mean the document is perfect? Of course not.  As one example, some of my fellow NCHE Board members took special exception to one of the sections within Dimension 4 of the document, a section that recommends “taking informed action” as an important aspect of a social studies classroom.  I and others at the C3 meetings agreed with this concern, and this section has been toned down from its original conception, yet in the end we all accepted compromise, because a significant number of the C3 writers and participants believed this idea to be critical in social studies education. I remain concerned that a vague and overambitious focus on “taking action” will overwhelm the ideas of disciplinary thinking in the framework, and I hope everyone that reads this essay also reads the essay in this edition of History Matters! by Sarah Drake Brown about how NCHE members can keep the focus of their classrooms on the Habits of Mind.

I’d like to conclude by focusing on this very act of compromise and its connection to “civic life.” As we have recently seen so clearly and unfortunately, the idea of compromise seems to have disappeared from public discourse.  Reaching the greater good demands both principled belief and willingness to compromise. This is especially true in democratic societies ruled by majority will, where small minorities should not insist on forcing their will upon the majority.  In the case of the C3 document, there were times when I conceded to the will of the majority in order to compromise for the greater good.

The greater good in the case of the C3 framework is fighting for the centrality of history and social studies education in the k-12 classrooms across America.  We all know that most educational “reform efforts” of the past two decades ignore history and social studies, be they Republican or Democrat, whether “No Child Left Behind” or “Race to the Top.” Those of us who care deeply about the erosion of teaching time for history and social studies must stay together and fight together, because in the world of educational policy, we are weak to begin with. If that means those of us who believe in the centrality of history must occasionally compromise with those who believe in the centrality of civics, so be it. In the end, most members of NCHE teach history and geography and economics and civics-- we don’t pick and choose. We are all working toward the same goals, goals that we must continue to fight for as the educational world of the twenty-first century takes shape.