The OAH Magazine of History

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A Perfect Storm and the U.S. History Survey

by Laura M. Westoff

Two decades ago three powerful intellectual, political, and technological fronts collided, creating a perfect storm that swirled around history education generally and the U.S. history survey in particular. The explosion of the Internet in the 1990s, the political controversy over the release of the U.S. History Standards in 1994, and the impact of research on historical thinking as a goal for history education, all left historians and teachers rethinking the purpose, content, and pedagogical possibilities of the U.S. history survey. What impact have these developments had on the introductory U.S. history course over the past twenty years? What is the state of the survey course now? What have we learned and what must we consider as we design our U.S. survey course today? These questions frame the articles in this issue.

Over the past twenty-five years, social history significantly revised traditional narratives of U.S. history and reshaped textbooks at the high school and collegiate level. Yet backlash in states such as Texas and Florida illustrates that the U.S. history course remains politically contested terrain. (1) The culture wars that hit the discipline in the controversy over the release of the U.S. History Standards was in part a struggle over the narratives the survey tells about the nation’s past. Lendol Calder has been gathering data since 2000 on the stories students tell about U.S. history, and his article in this issue reports some surprising results. When prompted to tell the story of U.S. history, students are unable to develop broad narratives–“a glory story” of ever progressive freedom, a “gory story” of the failures of the nation to turn its ideals into realities, or a story of “high ideals with mixed results.” Instead, students increasingly respond with what Calder calls “narrative chaos.” In his latest data from 2011, nearly 75 percent, up from only 27 percent eleven years earlier, identify events but cannot frame them in a coherently meaningful way. Calder posits some possible explanations that invite further inquiry but more significantly challenges us to consider the role of stories in our survey courses.

Rob Good offers his approach to such a challenge in “Using E Pluribus Unum as a Narrative Framework for the U.S. History Survey.” Using the nation’s motto has served as a way for Good to bring social and political history together and a way for his students to explore U.S. efforts to build and maintain the nation within the context of America’s rich diversity. In his article for this issue, Good also argues for the civic importance of the survey, illustrating how the course has “created space where students can engage with history, each other, and their teacher in ways that promoted a strenuous but civil discussion about the meaning of America’s past.”

During the same period that social history and political contests over curriculum pushed instructors to rethink the narrative structure and purpose of the U.S. survey, studies by cognitive psychologists, educational researchers, and historians engaged in the scholarship of teaching and learning history provided new goals for the survey. Historical thinking encompasses those cognitive skills specific to the discipline of history–how to read primary sources with attention to text, subtext, and context; habits of mind that pay attention to what historians Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke have identified as the 5 Cs of historical thinking: change and continuity, context, causality, complexity, contingency. (2) Teaching historical thinking and reading skills has become more prevalent within the U.S. survey course at both the precollegiate and collegiate levels. Several essays in this volume speak directly to this second front of the perfect storm.

Exponents of historical thinking emphasize that inquiry is at the heart of the discipline and questions are key to turning curriculum and courses toward inquiry. Surveys that try to cover extensive information on U.S. history all too frequently come across to students as disembodied information, and a century of poor standardized test scores indicate that such an approach to the survey is ineffective. (3) David J. Voelker and Anthony Armstrong discuss how framing the survey course around questions can foster historical thinking. They propose that the question-driven course can introduce students–from middle school through college–to authenticate historical inquiry. Voelker, a university professor, and Armstrong, a precollegiate teacher, each provide examples of how they have employed questions in different units of study–such as colonial America or the Civil War–to invite students into the skills of the discipline.

Flannery Burke has taken that effort a step further, with the goal of fostering democratic skills within the survey. Designing two syllabi, one emphasizing policy history (Has the U.S. nation’s government policy insured the equality of its citizens?) and one emphasizing social history (How have everyday Americans worked to improve their lives?), she presented students with the challenge of campaigning for one of the syllabi and voting for the approach that would direct their study for the semester. Putting the syllabus question front and center, giving students the opportunity to see how questions shape historical inquiry and the content of the U.S. survey, and asking them to construct arguments, deliberate, and determine what they study that semester has required “a courageous act of deletion” on her part, as Burke puts it, but encourages more coherent and meaningful inquiry for her students.

The College Board’s decision to include historical thinking objectives in the new Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. history curriculum and create tests that assess such skills points to their growing importance and prevalence in the survey. (4) New to the course is a set of historical habits of mind that include context, continuity and change over time, periodization, and historical causation. Those habits are assessed through primary source interpretation and short-answer questions designed to demonstrate students’ competency in historical thinking skills. In his piece, Lawrence Charap describes the redesign process that began in 2006 and resulted in a new exam that will be first administered in 2015. Along with the Stanford History Education Group’s Beyond the Bubble assessments, these changes mark an important rethinking of history assessment; no longer must we think of standardized history exams and historical knowledge as tests that abstract bits of information, dates, events, and people, disconnecting them from relationship, context, causality, and connections.

The third front that collided in the perfect storm–technology innovation–recast the survey for some of us in dramatic ways. With thousands of primary sources now available via the Web and the interactive teaching possibilities of sophisticated technology and digital resources and tools have not only facilitated the emphasis on historical thinking; they have fundamentally changed the way many students experience the course with increasing numbers of students now taking the course online. Given the growing popularity of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and online teaching generally, how do we harness the most promising and innovative possibilities of technology while maintaining the intellectual integrity and civic purposes of the U.S. survey? Kelly Schrum and Nate Sleeter consider these questions, encouraging us not to settle for the passive online learning environments that far too many MOOCs threaten to recreate but to consider digital tools and communities that help facilitate deep historical inquiry. The courses they designed at George Mason University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media provide instructors with ideas on how to incorporate material culture and primary sources into the online environment.

Keith Erekson’s article on the History Survey Project is a fitting place to conclude the issue. The Project brought instructors together from universities, community colleges, and high schools to explore the various ways the U.S. history survey is taught in these settings. Students in Texas are required to take six hours of college credit in U.S. history, more than in other states, but they may do so in their high schools, through AP courses, early college high schools, or in a variety of online, hybrid, or classroom settings. The History Survey Project endeavored to understand the nature and variations of these history courses and how to provide professional development and teacher preparation for U.S. history instructors. Erekson reports on the processes several participants used to rebuild the survey course with the scholarship of teaching and learning history and in ways that take advantage of new technology.

The three fronts of political, intellectual, and technological change that collided in the perfect storm together beg us to consider more deeply the ultimate purposes of U.S. history education. Does it matter whether our students study the national past through a lens of political or social history, or increasingly, transnational history? Whether they learn U.S. history face-to-face with other students or online in the privacy of their homes? Does the study of U.S. history and historical thinking teach skills required for democratic citizenship? How might the goals of historical thinking and storytelling work together? The articles in this issue invite us to consider anew our fundamental purposes and share our dynamic practices in teaching the U.S. history course. Please join the discussion of these articles and the issues they raise at


1 Erik W. Robelen, “Debate over Social Studies Shows Little Sign of Abating,” Education Week, June 9, 2010; James Grossman and Elaine Carey, “An Undisciplined Report on the Teaching of History,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 28, 2013,"; and Richard Pells, “The Obsession with Social History,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 28, 2013,

2 Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke, “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?,” Perspectives, Jan. 2007, Literature on historical thinking has grown but the classic texts are Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia, 2001); and Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg, eds., Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives (New York, 2000).

3 On the history of standardized tests scores, see Sam Wineburg, “Crazy for History,” Journal of American History, 90 (March 2004), 1401-14; and Joel M. Sipress and David J. Voelker, “The End of the History Survey Course: The Rise and Fall of the Coverage Model,” Journal of American History, 97 (March 2011), 1050—66.

4 Though some critics have charged that the AP has not encouraged students’ ability to reason historically, the AP remains a powerful influence on the U.S. history course in many schools and will likely drive further changes to the survey. See Kenneth Bernstein, “A Warning to College Profs from a High School Teacher,” Washington Post, Feb. 9, 2013,

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