Over the past several decades, history instructors have faced what one scholar has called “a steady enlarging of what historians have included as history,” a phenomenon that has pushed our textbooks and courses to “the breaking point.” When Thomas Mendenhall made this observation—in 1944—the diversification of historical scholarship was just beginning, yet the most popular history textbook of the time already ran to over five hundred pages. Since the 1960s, the rise of many new subfields, from social history to women's history to world history, has generated a running debate over which history is most fitting for general education. One result has been what Gilbert Allardyce aptly characterized as “the fall of the Western Civilization course,” a class that has been replaced by world history as the default introductory course at many universities.1 While this debate has sometimes been profitable, it rests upon a questionable assumption: that the top priority of the introductory history course should be to “cover” a particular body of historical knowledge.
The dominant approach to teaching the history “survey” (as the introductory college history course is revealingly called) has long been a “coverage” model that emphasizes the transmission of knowledge from professor to student. In some cases, this knowledge is little more than a body of factual information presented in lectures and a textbook. More often, the knowledge covered includes a set of themes and concepts to be demonstrated in more analytically sophisticated exercises, such as papers and essay tests. In either case, the coverage model casts the professor (and his or her chosen texts) in the role of historical authority, with students assigned the task of absorbing and reproducing expert knowledge.
In recent years, a growing body of historians has begun to challenge the dominance of this coverage model. Articles with titles such as “Constructing the Syllabus: Devising a Framework for Helping Students Learn to Think like Historians” and “The Survey, Again” have appeared with increasing frequency in such publications as the OAH Magazine of History, the History Teacher, and the American Historical Association's Perspectives on History. In 2006 this challenge reached the heart of the professional community with the publication of Lendol Calder's “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey” in the Journal of American History. Citing the work of cognitive psychologists, Calder argues that the coverage model, with its “facts first” approach, is “wrongheaded” and a failure even on its own terms. As an alternative, Calder suggests in a 2002 article, an “uncoverage” model centered on “a deliberate attempt to lay bare for students the central assumptions, forms of inquiry, and cognitive habits that transform data into knowledge for practitioners of our discipline.” Sam Wineburg sums up the thrust of this pedagogical countermovement by arguing that it is historical thinking itself, rather than a particular body of historical knowledge, that should be the emphasis of history education. Students should learn to think like historians, and to accomplish this goal they must actively do history—not just “learn” it.2
Contemporary pedagogical reformers, however, are largely unaware of the degree to which their work echoes earlier critiques of the coverage model. Criticisms of coverage-oriented history teaching have abounded for over a century. An 1898 American Historical Association (AHA) document, for instance, stated that “the chief purpose [of historical education] is not to fill the boy's head with a mass of material which he may perchance put forth again when a college examiner demands its production.” In 1912 the Columbia University historian James Harvey Robinson critiqued the emphasis on chronology and the memorization of facts in the teaching of history. “A sensible carpenter or plumber does not constantly carry a saw in his hip pocket, or a coil of lead pipe over his shoulder, in order to be ready for a distant emergency,” wrote Robinson, comparing content knowledge to the materials and tools of a craftsman. Rather, Robinson noted, “He very properly goes to his shop and his tool chest for his tools and materials.” The most innovative general education history courses of the interwar and post–World War II periods, created at institutions such as Columbia, the University of Chicago, and Harvard University, prioritized the cultivation of critical engagement and analysis over comprehensive coverage. And in the late 1960s and early 1970s, several campuses implemented experimental introductory “history laboratory” courses.3
Given this history of dissent and experimentation, it would be tempting to view the current pedagogical countermovement as simply the latest in a long string of futile efforts to dislodge the coverage model from its hegemonic position within the historical profession. The current reform effort, however, has been strengthened by the development of a disciplinary infrastructure rooted in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), an academic movement in which faculty engage in the systematic study of student learning using methods and approaches that are appropriate to their respective disciplines. SoTL provides present-day reformers with a scholarly apparatus and a disciplinary peer group that earlier dissidents lacked. While the pedagogical reform efforts of the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, tended to be localized and, when shared publicly, appeared as soon-to-be forgotten descriptive pieces in professionally marginal journals, today's pedagogical reformers have constituted themselves as a group of scholarly peers who critique, evaluate, and build upon each other's work. In doing so, they have established a scholarly literature and discourse that has at its core a critique of the coverage model. This disciplinary infrastructure has allowed the challenge to coverage to reach the center of the discipline. As Calder hopefully noted in 2006, “Change is coming.”4
The coverage model is so deeply embedded within the culture of our profession that its ultimate objectives (those that transcend particular courses) are rarely discussed. From the beginning, the coverage model rested upon the assumption that students lacked the historical knowledge to engage in serious historical thought and that this deficiency had to be remedied before students could move on to more sophisticated forms of historical study. Over time, the profession came to see the introductory class as a vehicle to provide college students, most of whom would take only one history course, with the cultural knowledge deemed necessary for responsible citizenship. With the rise of the various “new” histories, the knowledge considered necessary for citizenship has changed and expanded dramatically. Nonetheless, the belief that there are certain things about the human past that an educated person simply must know persists, as does the assumption that the main purpose of an introductory history course is to remedy deficiencies of cultural knowledge. Reformers, although clear in their critique of coverage, have for the most part failed to articulate their own view of the ultimate goals of the introductory course. This failure has impeded efforts to develop a coherent alternative to the coverage model. To move beyond the debates of the past, the goals and purposes of the introductory course must be made explicit and placed at the center of the pedagogical discussion.
The time thus seems ripe not simply for a reconsideration of the coverage model but also for a serious disciplinary examination of alternatives to coverage. The perspective that we offer here is deeply influenced by SoTL and, in particular, by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe's concept of “backward design.” Backward design is an approach to curriculum development that begins by asking what we want students to “know, understand,” and, crucially, “be able to do.” Having first identified clear goals for a given course or curriculum, the instructor then designs a set of learning experiences that will systematically move students toward mastery of the requisite skills and knowledge.5 We argue that historians need to apply this backward design principle to the introductory history course to develop effective alternatives to the coverage model.
A Genealogy of the Coverage Model6
The origins of coverage as the default pedagogy for the introductory history course lie in the American historical profession's infancy, a time when relatively few colleges and universities employed full-time historians and history occupied a marginal place within the undergraduate curriculum. Neither deliberate curricular planning nor systematic investigation into teaching and learning played much role in the rise of the coverage-based course. Rather, the coverage model developed from a “facts-first” approach to student learning that maintained that basic factual and conceptual knowledge was a prerequisite for more sophisticated forms of historical study. The facts-first approach emerged as early as 1883—just one year after Yale University and Johns Hopkins University granted the first Ph.D.’s in history in the United States and one year before the establishment of the AHA—when a number of prominent historians contributed essays to a volume entitled Methods of Teaching History. The University of Michigan's Charles Kendall Adams (a future president of both Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin) wrote that the object of introductory history coursework was to remedy students’ lack of “possession of a sufficient number of important historical facts” and their lack of familiarity with the “methods and laws of historical development.” Though Harvard's Ephraim Emerton issued a blistering critique of the “dreary mass of facts, dates, and events” that characterized much history teaching and called for the introduction of German-style seminar instruction into the American history curriculum, he shared with Adams the assumption that basic factual knowledge was a precondition for advanced study and suggested that the seminar be limited to a few hand-picked students. A decade later Emerton explicitly declared that the “acquisition of facts” and the “proper understanding of facts” must precede the “discovery of new historical truths.”7
A discussion of the “source method” of instruction—the use of primary sources in undergraduate teaching—at the December 1897 meeting of the AHA was similarly tilted toward the coverage model and the facts-first assumption upon which it rested. The American Historical Review reported that the general view of the participants was that the proper use of sources was simply “as a vivifying adjunct to text-books, lectures and the reading of authoritative historians.” Professor J. A. Woodburn of Indiana University argued that the top priority of undergraduate history courses was “to obtain a broad general notion of [great historic] movements” and that “[a student] must content himself with accepting the direction and findings of the best authorities who have gone before him.” Woodburn denied that the typical undergraduate could “become an investigator,” because “He has not the time, nor the opportunity, nor the aptitude, nor (most emphatically) the scholarship, to make the attempt profitable.” The assumption that content mastery must precede historical investigation and analysis, though dominant, did not go unquestioned. The University of Nebraska's Fred M. Fling, for instance, offered a dissenting voice during the 1897 discussion of the source method. Citing the effective use of primary sources in Nebraska's secondary schools, Fling called for making source work “the staple of historical instruction.” The following year, in the AHA’s first comprehensive study of history instruction in secondary schools, the organization's Committee of Seven contended “that the accumulation of facts is not the sole, or perhaps not the leading, purpose of studying history.”8
By the turn of the century, the decline of the classical college curriculum and its replacement with academic majors, elective coursework, and general education programs had given birth to the modern history curriculum, including the large-enrollment first-year course aimed primarily at non–history majors. As the first-year history course grew in importance, so too did professional dissatisfaction with the coverage model, largely because the course could no longer be seen as merely preparatory for advanced study in the field. In 1905 the AHA sponsored a session at its annual meeting to discuss the first year of college work in history. In opening the session, Harvard's Charles H. Haskins declared the first-year course to be the “most difficult question which now confronts the college teacher of history.” The course, he explained, was expected to introduce students not merely to college work in history but also to college work in general, and it was expected to achieve both goals with, in some cases, as many as four hundred students. Haskins and representatives from six other prominent universities, public and private, proceeded to describe the goals and methods of their respective first-year courses.9
Strikingly, the participants in this 1905 AHA discussion emphasized the importance of introducing first-year students to historical methods and historical thinking. While some presenters did discuss coverage, they all gave equal or greater priority to the development of historical skills and habits of mind. Frank M. Anderson of the University of Minnesota, for instance, declared that the first history course should “lay an especially strong emphasis on training in proper methods of historical study.” Lucy M. Salmon of Vassar College could barely contain her disdain for the coverage model. “An intelligent understanding of the tools of historical study and a knowledge of how to use them,” she wrote, “would seem to be essential to the young student even if such knowledge is gained at a sacrifice of some of the details of the Hundred Years’ War, the War of the Roses, the struggles of Francis I and Charles V, or even the interminable struggles between the various Ottos and the contemporary Popes.” In his concluding remarks, Haskins noted that virtually all the speakers had emphasized issues of historical method over those of historical content.10
Although the 1905 presenters (like present-day critics of the coverage model) stressed the need to promote historical thinking among the broad mass of undergraduates, their understanding of historical thinking reflected the “scientific” presumptions of the early American historical profession. Rather than viewing history as a contested discourse, they defined the discipline by a set of technical methods through which truth could be objectively pursued. “While the topics studied by my first-year class do give detailed knowledge of an important period of European history,” explained Fred Fling, “that is only incidental; my chief aim is to teach them the process by which we attain historical truth—in other words, to teach historical method,” by which he meant the critical evaluation of documentary sources. Others stressed library research, including bibliographic methods and note-taking techniques. Salmon underscored the importance of accurate citation of authoritative sources, “an accuracy,” she declared, “that has in it something of the German spirit that ‘would cross an ocean to certify a comma.’”11
While the participants in the 1905 AHA session unanimously supported teaching the methods of scientific history to introductory students, within the broader historical profession no such consensus emerged. In 1916, for instance, a similar AHA session devolved into a debate between rival camps, with some advocating coverage and others emphasizing historical thinking. By that year, though, both sides had begun to move beyond the scientific assumptions of the earlier discussion. Vassar's James F. Baldwin, for example, described an approach to coverage that aimed to “inculcate” certain broad historical concepts and themes (such as “internationalism” and “a sense of time”), as opposed to simply transmitting a body of factual knowledge. Meanwhile, the critics of coverage had begun to broaden their definition of historical thinking. Henry R. Shipman of Princeton advocated a problem-based approach through which the student “develops a questioning attitude so that he will not be as prone to accept whatever he reads or hears without first examining its probability and without desiring to hear the other side.” The goal, Shipman explained, was to “develop thoughtful citizens.” Nevertheless, the lines between the advocates and opponents of coverage were clearly drawn. The coverage position rested, as it had from the beginning, on the assumption that novice students were not ready for more sophisticated forms of learning. Rejecting the view of those who stressed historical methods, Wilmer C. Harris (Ohio State) declared: “We may enjoy and derive benefit from a meal without knowing the arts of kitchen; so the freshman may derive intellectual nourishment from his history without knowing the technique of the historian.” For critics of coverage, by contrast, a broader historical- and critical-mindedness was precisely the intellectual nourishment they wished undergraduates to derive from the study of history. “Will the student catch ‘historical-mindedness’ from his instructor like the mumps?” wondered Lawrence H. Gipson of Wabash College.12
In the first two decades of the twentieth century, discussions of the introductory history course thus focused primarily on student capabilities (emphasized by advocates of teaching historical thinking) and limitations (emphasized by advocates of coverage). After World War I, however, the attention of history educators shifted to what later generations would term “cultural literacy.” The Great War helped trigger a wave of anxiety regarding the basic education necessary to sustain democracy in a world that had recently proven so menacing to peace and stability.13 This new focus on citizenship education, combined with concerns about overspecialization in the universities that had been mounting since the advent of the free elective system, gave rise to the general education movement. Within newly created general education programs, the coverage-oriented history survey came to be the dominant mode of introducing students to the study of history.
At many colleges and universities across the country, general education programs aimed at educating citizens emerged directly out of wartime efforts to train soldiers. About 540 colleges and universities voluntarily participated in the War Department's Student Army Training Corps, which was created in 1918 to train soldiers and identify officers for the army. The training included a War Issues course that addressed “the historical and economic causes of the war, the problems of government which have played so important a part in it, and the national ideals of the various countries engaged in the struggle.”14 Among many educators, the courses fostered awareness of a need to promote citizenship in order to protect the future of democracy. Columbia University's dean of political science, philosophy, and pure science, Frederick Woodbridge, for instance, explained the implications of the course as follows: “Born of the consciousness that democracy needs to know what it is fighting for, [the War Issues course] has awakened a consciousness of what we, as a people, need to know if our part of the world today is to be intelligent, sympathetic and liberal.”15 Columbia's Contemporary Civilization course, which evolved out of the War Issues course in 1919, became an important model for other universities around the country.16 The first year of the course focused on the historical and cultural roots of the modern world, while the second year, added as a requirement in 1929, explored contemporary social problems. The historical component of the course was explicitly presentist, emphasizing “those aspects of the events of recent history which have a bearing on the origin of the problems which the American citizen of today must face.” Herbert Hawkes, dean of the college at Columbia University at the time, explained that although the course was not meant to indoctrinate students, he hoped that it would “enable a man to meet the arguments of the opponents of decency and sound government,” thereby “making him a citizen who shall be safe for democracy.”17
The postwar interest in citizenship education seemed especially urgent because of a tremendous, unprecedented growth in college and university enrollments, with the number of undergraduates nearly doubling in the 1920s. By 1920, Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. of the State University of Iowa already perceived that “vast hordes of students” were entering the colleges. Writing in Historical Outlook, Schlesinger noted that history departments were beginning to focus on meeting “the needs of a maximum number of students with subject-matter that should serve to convert them into intelligent citizens of the republic and of the world.” The next year, J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton of the University of North Carolina argued that universities needed to educate students to address “ignorance of fundamental facts and principles upon which to base wholesome conduct and sound economic, social, political and intellectual attitudes,” a “lack of critical capacity,” and “the lack of social or civic consciousness.”18 Although both Schlesinger and Hamilton discussed the need to foster independent thinking, the introductory history courses that they described nonetheless focused on providing students with a body of “fundamental facts,” with the assumption that this knowledge would prepare students to be informed citizens.
The coverage-based surveys of U.S. and European history that had proliferated by the early 1940s generated criticism from those who believed that disciplinary methods held more importance than factual knowledge. In an insightful 1944 review essay of Walter T. Wallbank and Alastair M. Taylor's textbook Civilization—Past and Present (1942), Thomas Mendenhall of Yale University explained the rise of what he called “the basic survey course in history.” Mendenhall noted that “Textbooks … are necessary evils, born of the inexorable logic of the past twenty-five years, when the swiftly mounting college enrollments have combined with the new vogue for social sciences to force history departments to offer large lecture courses,” which seemed to make it incumbent upon historians to provide the “background” knowledge that college students had “missed” in their previous schooling. “The so-called survey course,” Mendenhall explained, responded to this problem: “Either in hasty discussions of a general text or by means of a lecture, students at the freshman or sophomore level have been taken on a Cook's Tour of ancient, medieval, modern, English, or American civilization.” Like earlier critics, Mendenhall believed that the most serious problem with the coverage model was that “the role of history as a method and a discipline” was largely “ignored.” Mendenhall urged that introductory students be required to practice the basic skills of doing history—including “weighing evidence” and formulating interpretations—through “an integrated historical laboratory as vital to the whole course as the chemistry laboratory is to the chemistry lecture.”19
Such criticisms of the coverage model, however, were soon overshadowed by a coverage-oriented call for content standards. Leading the charge was the historian Allan Nevins of Columbia, who chastised American schools and colleges for failing to instruct students adequately in the basic facts of American history. In a blistering New York Times piece in May 1942 revealingly titled “American History for Americans,” Nevins called for “a basic set of requirements” for the schools. The “grim times,” Nevins argued, necessitated “a thorough, accurate, and intelligent knowledge of our national past—in so many ways the brightest national record in all world history.” A follow-up survey conducted by the New York Times resulted in a front-page story that declared that “College freshmen throughout the nation reveal a striking ignorance of even the most elementary aspects of United States history.” The article accompanying the survey expressed surprise and dismay that students were “extremely misinformed” about “straight factual” matters. Although the survey was neither the first nor the last to demonstrate the historical ignorance of American youths, the brouhaha raised by Nevins and the New York Times nudged the AHA, the Mississippi Valley Historical Association (the predecessor of the Organization of American Historians), and the National Council for the Social Studies to create a committee to study the problem. The resulting report, American History in Schools and Colleges (1944), occupied a middle ground between Mendenhall and Nevins by calling for a balance between content coverage and instruction in “historical skills.”20
Post–World War II discussions of general education and the role of history within it reflected the new synthesis that called for the integration of content knowledge and historical thinking. Two landmark committee reports published in 1945 and 1947 helped set the stage for a decade of general education reform. The first, published just before the end of World War II, was commissioned by Harvard president James B. Conant in anticipation of the postwar enrollment boom and with an eye toward protecting the future of American democracy, as indicated by its title, General Education in a Free Society (also known as the Redbook). The second influential report, Higher Education for American Democracy, was commissioned by President Harry S. Truman in 1946 in response to swelling college enrollments and increased government support of higher education. While both reports identified an important role for history in general education, they downplayed the significance of coverage for its own sake. The Redbook noted, “The systematic survey of chronological completeness succeeds only in finishing the course as marked out in the syllabus, while dulling the student's interest in history and limiting his understanding to the narrow confines of a textbook.” Likewise, the Truman Commission report argued, “History can be a memory exercise unconcerned with human values, a mere roll call of names and events; or it can illumine the origin of the social institutions we prize and live by, and clarify the practice as well as the theory of democracy.” Yet even as they questioned the inherent value of coverage, both reports reflected the deeply held and persistent concern that deficiencies of cultural knowledge among students threatened American democracy. As the Redbook put it, “It is impossible to escape the realization that our society, like any society, rests on common beliefs and that a major task of education is to perpetuate them.” The Harvard report, in fact, helped bring into academic usage the phrase “cultural literacy” to describe this common education.21
Although the most innovative general education history courses that emerged after both world wars at leading institutions such as Columbia, Harvard, and the University of Chicago envisioned content coverage as secondary to the higher purpose of cultivating historical and critical thinking to promote democratic citizenship, these courses were unable to dislodge the dominant coverage model. At best, the postwar ferment perhaps encouraged the spread of what might be termed “coverage-plus”—an approach in which discrete analytical activities were integrated into survey courses that remained organized primarily around chronological coverage. One historian described the “traditional college-level survey course” that had become hegemonic by the 1960s: “A lecture-discussion format, an ample textbook with occasional paperbacks and library readings, a lock-step chronological approach, a factual compendium, and a superficial overview.”22 Booming postwar enrollments and the dominant textbook style encouraged this kind of coverage-based course, which was intellectually justified by an appeal to the inability of students to do history until they had mastered sufficient background information. Clearly, the post–World War II efforts to reform the introductory history course had fallen short.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a crisis within the historical profession sparked renewed interest in reforming the introductory course as a number of historians began to identify the shortcomings of the survey as a cause of declining history course enrollments and the discipline's lost standing within general education programs. In his 1974 presidential address for the Southern Historical Association, Gilbert C. Fite, president of Eastern Illinois University, observed, “We have descended into what some consider the dark age of declining enrollments, professional unemployment, and a growing rejection of history by many students who seem to agree with Henry Ford that history is ‘bunk.’” Fite placed part of the blame for this problem on history survey courses that were “the ugly ducklings of most departments.” He explicitly critiqued the coverage model: “If we are going to have any real impact on individuals or society, we must do something besides just cover the material.” Myron A. Marty of Florissant Valley Community College sardonically noted in 1976 that the dominant trend was nevertheless “to do what has been done”—“to teach as we have been taught, and then, in turn, to teach as we have taught: ragged notes, maybe with multicolor interlinear revisions, films on a fixed schedule, two book reviews or a term paper required, two exams and a final.”23
Motivated by this sense of crisis, several history departments in the late 1960s and 1970s made efforts to create alternatives to the coverage model of the introductory history course, the most radical of which was the history “laboratory course.” The history laboratory course arose from a collaborative effort supported by the U.S. Office of Education between 1965 and 1967 and piloted at Smith College and the University of Wisconsin. Proponents of the laboratory course recited the litany of problems with the standard survey course, in which “the student, in effect, is taken on a conducted tour of a succession of presidential administrations and quaintly named epochs” without learning that “history is, among other things, a way of thinking about society, a way of conceiving of social change,” rather than an inert “body of knowledge about a period or a geographical area that has to be ‘covered.’” According to William R. Taylor, who documented the project at Wisconsin, the course planners decided that they wanted students to learn about “the ‘doing’—of history.” Eschewing coverage altogether, the lab courses allowed students to explore primary sources on tightly focused topics, such as the Salem witch trials and a Wisconsin Fourierist community. The description of a 1973–1974 iteration of the course is revealing of its priorities: “This course … is based upon the premise that it is less important to transmit information to students than to lead them to draw their own conclusions from historical sources. It is, therefore, a course which stresses doing history rather than learning about history, and it aims at developing the students’ capacities for creative and critical thought.”24
As an introductory general education course, the history lab proved a fleeting experiment, and even its proponents quickly came to conclude that it had “a function distinct from that of the period-area surveys.” While some lab-style courses are still being offered or have been revived in recent times, they have tended to be repurposed for majors or have become one option on a list with more standard survey courses. One answer to Nancy Shoemaker's 2009 query in the AHA’s Perspectives, “Where is the history lab course?” is that a number of departments have tried lab courses but that they have not endured as substitutes for the introductory course. The experimental ferment of the 1970s no doubt enhanced the standard history survey course and encouraged the use of supplementary readings and more creative assignments. The dissidents of that period, however, were no more successful than their predecessors at replacing coverage as the dominant organizational principle for the introductory course.25
The Contemporary Critique and an Emerging Alternative
Despite over a century of critique, the assumption that knowledge of a large body of historical facts must precede historical thinking continues to shape how students encounter the discipline. Stephen D. Andrews has noted that the “traditional pyramidal structure” in which history students are expected to move from “broad acquisition of information toward mastery of a particular subject” remains the norm for college and university history curricula.26 Within this curricular structure, the coverage-oriented survey course typically serves to introduce potential majors to college-level work in history while also fulfilling a general education requirement for nonhistory majors. Most students, for whom the “survey” will likely be their only history course, will not have the opportunity to move from the acquisition of basic knowledge to more sophisticated forms of historical study. Their understanding of history as a discipline and a way of knowing will be shaped fundamentally by their experience in the introductory course and exposure to the coverage model.
Much of the professional discussion of the introductory course continues to focus on the question of what students should know rather than how students should think. A 2001 round table discussion of the survey course published in the annual Textbooks and Teaching section of the Journal of American History, for instance, centered largely on the issue of thematic and factual content. While many of the eleven participants made significant nods to the importance of teaching historical thinking, most were simply unable to let go of deeply rooted concerns over deficiencies in student knowledge. Lamenting his students’ lack of factual knowledge, Douglas Egerton of Le Moyne College declared, “I suppose my first priority is content, although I wish it didn’t have to be.” Douglas C. Sackman of the University of Puget Sound, after asserting that coverage was not his priority, nonetheless admitted his shock to discover that less than 30 percent of college seniors could correctly identify Reconstruction on a multiple-choice test. “I begin thinking that some way of drilling content, content, content into the students’ minds must be pursued,” he wrote. Underlying the content orientation of the discussion was a concern for issues of cultural literacy and citizenship education. Elisabeth Perry of Saint Louis University explained: “In selecting material, I ask myself: What do students ‘need’ to know about the past in order to function as informed citizens in today's world?” While the factual and thematic knowledge assumed to be necessary for effective citizenship has changed markedly since the 1920s, the assumption that the introductory course must remedy presumed deficiencies in cultural knowledge clearly persists.27
The current pedagogical countermovement echoes a century of dissent from the coverage model, the facts-first approach, and the emphasis on cultural literacy. The contemporary critique of coverage, however, goes much deeper than earlier reform efforts. Informed by SoTL and its attention to the learning process, contemporary reformers have challenged the fundamental assumptions upon which the coverage model rests. Earlier discussions of the introductory course centered largely on the appropriate balance between content knowledge and historical thinking, a discourse that certainly encouraged instructors to incorporate discrete analytical activities into their introductory courses but which left coverage as the central course design priority. Today's reformers, by contrast, reject the notion that significant content knowledge can develop in the absence of meaningful historical thought. Citing the work of cognitive psychologists, Calder and Wineburg take direct aim at what they term the “attic theory” of historical learning, in which students are assumed to gather knowledge in much the same way that a homeowner might collect furniture in an attic for later use. They point out that knowledge develops in the context of questions and problems. By emphasizing content knowledge as an end in itself, Calder maintains, the coverage model leaves students with neither an understanding of the discipline of history nor a base of historical knowledge. He thus concludes that “coverage-oriented surveys,” which are “built on wobbly, lay theories of human cognition,” “must share in the blame for Americans’ deplorable ignorance of history.” The coverage model, Wineburg argues, has never achieved its purported goal of encouraging cultural literacy because it simply cannot do so: “A sober look at a century of history testing provides no evidence for the ‘gradual disintegration of cultural memory’ or a ‘growing historical ignorance.’ The only thing growing seems to be our amnesia of past ignorance.” Wineburg concludes: “Students could master and retain the piles of information contained in 1917 or 1943 textbooks no better than they can retain what fills today's gargantuan tomes.”28
Put simply, present-day reformers insist that facts do not and cannot come first. The widespread embrace of the facts-first assumption within the discipline of history helps explain why, despite a century of drilling content into the minds of high school and college students, so many such students remain woefully ignorant of the knowledge that historians deem necessary for effective citizenship. With the facts-first assumption exposed as a fallacious lay theory of student learning, the entire edifice of the coverage model simply collapses, as does the cultural literacy justification for the introductory history course. The contemporary pedagogical countermovement thus challenges the discipline—in ways that earlier reform efforts did not—to reexamine the ultimate purposes of the introductory history course and to develop a pedagogy that flows from those goals.
Calder has called upon the historical profession to develop a new “signature pedagogy” to replace coverage as the default model for the introductory history course. Such a signature pedagogy would encourage students to think historically by asking them to do, at a novice level, what historians do. The challenge, of course, is to determine exactly which aspects of historical practice to stress, particularly when no agreed-upon definition of historical thinking, let alone how to promote it, exists. Some critics of the coverage model emphasize the discovery of new historical knowledge via independent research. Others stress various critical thinking skills and habits of mind. Calder, for instance, organizes his introductory course around six “cognitive habits: questioning, connecting, sourcing, making inferences, considering alternative perspectives, and recognizing limits to one's knowledge.” Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke propose the “five C's of historical thinking”: change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity. Alan Booth and Paul Hyland identify ten characteristics of high-level learning in history, a list so long and detailed as to defy concise summary. The absence of both a shared understanding of historical thinking and a pedagogical model that flows from it poses a fundamental challenge to those who hope for a new signature pedagogy for the introductory course.29
Backward design, with its emphasis on clearly articulated learning goals that drive course development, offers an escape from the morass of competing models of historical thinking. The principles of backward design require us to begin by asking why we wish introductory students to learn to think historically at all. Since the 1920s, historians have maintained that the discipline has an important contribution to make to the cultivation of engaged and informed citizens. Though the failings of the coverage model call into question the cultural literacy approach to citizenship education, the promotion of active and engaged citizenship remains the most persuasive argument in favor of history's central role in the general education curriculum.30
To fulfill the discipline's commitment to the cultivation of active and engaged citizens in a way that fosters historical thinking, we offer the argument-based model for the introductory course. At the heart of the discipline of history is a process of argument and debate in which scholars subject rival claims and perspectives to critical analysis to arrive at deeper understandings of important questions and issues—questions and issues that center on such matters as the consequences of human actions, the relationship between individuals and society, and the nature of human social relations. This process of debate and argument provides a model of an engaged civic community into which introductory history students can be invited at a novice level. An argument-based history course, particularly when housed within a broader curriculum that emphasizes engaged learning, may encourage students to incorporate historical modes of thinking into their daily lives. They may be more inclined to ask useful questions in the face of practical problems and challenges, whether personal, professional, or civic. And upon encountering a historical claim, such as those that frequently arise in political discussions, they will know how to start asking important questions about context and evidence.
To implement an argument-based model, we must do more than simply subtract some coverage to make room for some argument. Rather, argument must become the organizing principle of the course. While there is no single template for an argument-based course (just as there is no single template for a coverage-oriented course), examples of these courses do share a number of defining characteristics. Such courses are, above all, question driven. Argument-based courses are organized around significant historical questions—questions about which historians disagree. Students are systematically exposed to rival positions about which they must make informed judgments, and they are asked to develop their own positions for which they must argue on the basis of historical evidence.31 The shift from coverage to argument thus does not mean the elimination of content from introductory courses or relegating such pedagogical tools as textbooks and lectures to the dustbin. Nor does it require an abandonment of traditional geographic and chronological course designations (such as U.S. History, Modern Europe, or the World since 1945). It does, however, require us to dispense with the notion that content mastery is an end in itself and instead to view historical content as the subject matter about which our students will learn to argue in discipline-specific ways. Under the coverage model, the central challenge of course design was determining the particular content to be covered and the level of detail with which to cover it. In the question-driven, argumentative model, the challenge is to identify a coherent series of compelling historical debates for students to explore, as well as to design assessments that accurately gauge students’ depth of understanding and ability to participate in these debates. In the argumentative model, it should be noted, historical content hardly fades into the background: students must be required to apply historical content knowledge to the issues and questions under debate.
The question-driven, argumentative model poses a number of pedagogical challenges. Foremost among them is the fact that historical thinking is, as Sam Wineburg puts it, an “unnatural act.” Peter Lee has found that young people's first encounters with history are shaped by the assumption that the past is a given—a useful assumption in daily life, particularly in light of the strong moral distinction between “telling the truth” and “telling lies.” Lee thus concludes that historical thinking, with its emphasis on the constructed nature of historical knowledge, is “counter-intuitive,” not just for high school students but perhaps also for many adults. Wineburg reaches similar conclusions in a study that contrasts how high school students and professional historians approach historical documents. Lee and Wineburg's findings are consistent with long-established research on the cognitive development of college students. In his classic study of the subject, William Perry found that most students enter college assuming that truth is clear-cut and revealed by authority. Relatively early in their college careers, Perry determined, students come to accept that knowledge is often subject to rival truth claims, but they tend to view such disagreements as matters of mere opinion. Perry found his subjects quite resistant to abandoning this view and embracing the need for truth claims to be justified on the basis of disciplinary criteria of judgment. In fact, Perry found that most of his sample (of primarily male Harvard students) graduated from college comfortably viewing truth claims and expressions of opinion as essentially the same thing.32
The implications of Perry's work for argument-based historical study are profound. To see history as a contested discourse, students may require little more than to be exposed to rival historical perspectives. More challenging will be to persuade students that such disagreements are not a matter of mere opinion and that historical claims (including their own) must be judged on the basis of logic and evidence. As one study has found, it is not sufficient simply to tell students that they must cite evidence, nor is it enough to explain how to do it. Rather, instructors must foster a process of developmental change in which students come to understand the nature of historical argument and the role of evidence within it. The SoTL scholar Craig E. Nelson urges us not simply to make our disciplinary criteria of judgment explicit but also to require that students systematically apply these criteria when making judgments among rival positions.33
Reorganizing the introductory course along these lines also poses significant logistical challenges, particularly at institutions where introductory courses enroll large numbers of students. Outside of small liberal arts colleges, the economics of higher education virtually dictate large general education class sizes that can inhibit discussion and place practical limits on writing assignments, particularly where graduate teaching assistants are not available. The challenges of scale, however, can be overcome. Surveys show that numerous history instructors already forego multiple-choice exams in favor of written exams, but many of the preferred essay-exam formats nevertheless reward students for reproducing arguments heard in lecture rather than producing and arguing for their own interpretations. Those kinds of exercises reinforce the erroneous notion that doing history is primarily a matter of getting one's facts straight. Instead, we need more assignments and exams that allow us both to cultivate and to assess the ability of students to formulate and support a historical argument—and to do so in large-enrollment introductory courses, rather than only in upper-level courses. As John McClymer has noted, “Courses are what students do in them.” We need to create and share new methods of guiding students to learn to think like historians.34
As the genealogy above suggests, every decade or two historians wake up to the shortcomings of the coverage model, recognizing it as a failure even on its own terms. Ironically, historians have heretofore failed to carry forward the memory of their episodic discontent with the coverage model. The rise of the SoTL movement, however, provides a crucial opportunity for historians to develop a new kind of introductory history course—one designed from the ground up around significant historical questions to cultivate the skills of historical argumentation. Such courses will no doubt continue to rely upon many of the strategies and resources that history instructors have refined over the past century. But these familiar tools will be redeployed toward a new priority: initiating students into an argumentative discussion about the past. Meanwhile, history instructors must continue to make difficult decisions about what topics and readings to include in their courses, but these decisions will be secondary to the larger design goal of developing students’ ability to participate in an interpretative discourse. Breaking the bonds of the coverage model, historians will develop hundreds of different ways of achieving this newly clarified goal and will reinvigorate history as a liberal art.
The defenders of pedagogical tradition may protest that to abandon coverage is to forfeit our responsibility to cultivate cultural literacy. How, they may ask, can we expect our students to think like historians when they know so little? And yet, as long as there have been surveys to gauge the historical knowledge of Americans, there has been a perceived crisis of historical ignorance among the general public and college graduates alike. Proponents of the coverage model have good intentions, but over the past century their preferred pedagogy has come up short again and again. If we truly wish our students to engage in critical thinking and discussion about the past, it is not enough to ask them simply to consume our expert knowledge. Rather, we must invite them into our realm—the realm of historical argumentation—and encourage them to construct historical knowledge and join in historical debate. After all, the first step toward being able to participate in a disciplined discourse about the past is not to know all of the relevant facts but rather to recognize that, as Louis Menand puts it: “Facts never speak for themselves. We speak for them.”35 Facts are easy to come by in the information age. What students need are the tools to assess the validity of facts, to weigh their significance, and to deploy them in everyday discussion and argument about the meaning of the past.
The authors thank the University of Wisconsin System's Office of Professional and Instructional Development, along with Nancy Chick, Aeron Haynie, and Regan Gurung, for supporting their work in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. They also thank Ruth Homrighaus for adding polish.