“Facts are stubborn things,” John Adams wrote over 250 years ago. He was right in more ways than one—for our field of history and probably for yours too.
Despite all the manufactured uproar over the teaching of “divisive concepts” like critical race theory (Waxman 2021), history classes at the high school level in the United States still tend to be dominated not so much by the development of higher-order thinking skills but by mastery of basic factual material. And that emphasis on content persists at the college level too.
Proof of that content emphasis comes from learners themselves, as revealed in an NEH-funded national survey (N = 1,816 adults) that Burkholder codirected with the American Historical Association in the fall of 2020 (Matro served on the project’s advisory board). When asked to select a best definition for history, two-thirds of the respondents opted for “names, dates, and other facts” about the past (Figure 1).
This contrasts with the views of professional historians, roughly 40 of whom Burkholder polled at a session of the American Historical Association annual conference in 2021. Literally none of those professionals chose the factual definition. Instead, the practitioners overwhelmingly saw history as an explanation of past events—a viewed shared by only 17 percent of the national survey cohort. This gulf between how professionals and laypersons understand history echoes a similar poll conducted by Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen in the mid-1990s.
As history instructors who’ve spent many years researching general and history-specific pedagogy, we know the importance of establishing factual knowledge in students. But that knowledge comes at a cost if it crowds out more ambitious and more authentic learning that are the purported goals of education. And we doubt that history is the only field where this pertains.
Raw facts or analysis?
If the general public is inclined to see history as little more than collections of details—specific dates of wars as opposed to why they took place; rote facts about early societies instead of how we know what we know about them—the education system surely bears some of the responsibility.
Seventy-six percent of our survey respondents said that high school history classes emphasized basic facts over questioning the past. That majority held across genders, races and ethnicities, political affiliations, and regions of the country. Even an open-ended question asking for recollections about high school history class experiences yielded a plurality of responses stating raw facts.
Those surveyed indicated that college history classes were a bit better at moving learners toward examining the past (56 percent) rather than just knowing it (44 percent). But like the high school responses, basic factual statements made up a plurality of the open-ended reflections here too.
These results also parallel Rosenzweig and Thelen’s findings. In their 1998 study, high school history was, in the words of one respondent who typified broader views, “a giant data dump” (112). College classes at least offered multiple perspectives since professors “see things from every point of view” (102), as another respondent put it.
Our own survey showed other hints of improvement. One telltale example: the younger the age cohort, the more likely the respondents were to associate history with explanations of the past as opposed to raw facts. For instance, whereas 69 percent of those in the 65+ age group saw history primarily as facts, only 59 percent in the 18–29 cohort felt likewise (Figure 2). But this did not translate to how they saw their own high school history classes, where strong majorities in all age bands reported experiencing similar emphases on facts over explanations.
Despite the dominance of basic content in the classroom, poll respondents reported favoring an investigatory approach to learning history over a fact-based one. Nearly two-thirds said they preferred examining materials from the past as opposed to simply receiving information from an expert. And by a ratio of greater than seven to one, respondents said that inquiry-based learning—such as reading documents or examining artifacts from the past—encouraged them to learn more about history than did a facts-centric process (Figure 3). Only direct measures of people’s reported learning preferences could verify whether those sentiments are rooted in practice, but the lopsided results here are intriguing nonetheless.
Our survey findings suggest that both high school and college history instructors remain focused on “covering” what happened in the past to greater or lesser extents. Furthermore, academic movements toward “uncoverage,” in which students learn about where knowledge of the past comes from (Calder 2006), don’t appear to have taken hold. This concerns us. We would question the utility of a chemistry course that aimed merely to instill memorization of the periodic table of elements or a math class where the goal was for students to know more numbers. Yet the public mostly accepts the premise that mastering facts equates with substantive learning.
Why facts are favored
Given that Americans say they want a more investigatory approach to learning about the past, it may seem odd that history classrooms in the US are still so facts driven. But there are logical, if sometimes unfortunate, reasons for it, and we suspect they apply to many fields.
First, novices are prone to understanding subjects in terms of individual pieces of information (Ambrose et al. 2010). This means that a content approach to history, like other fields, is familiar and nonthreatening to learners. Meanwhile, acquiring the skills to interpret cryptic sources from the past and to wrestle with conflicting explanations—what Stanford University’s Sam Wineburg (2001) calls “historical thinking”—is difficult and foreign. In fact, Wineburg goes so far as to call these cognitive abilities “unnatural acts.” Teaching such skills is vital, but it can result in resistance from learners who have been conditioned to expect simpler understandings of the past.
The classroom often reifies this dynamic. Instilling historical thinking skills is predicated to some extent on students knowing the basic building blocks of the narrative they are asked to examine. One does not work without the other (Bain 2005). But with students reading fewer materials and doing so less well (Sparks 2021), teachers cannot rely on their learners having the basic historical vocabulary to “do” history. Thus, inevitably, time in class is spent on laying the foundation necessary for understanding the content and nuance of primary and secondary sources, leaving less time for students to wrestle with historical questions on their own. Unfortunately, this may perpetuate the notion that simple content matters most.
Another reason relates to how history instructors at all levels are often incentivized to favor factual recall over explanation and nuance. High-stakes public school testing tends to measure what is most easily measured—and questions about the who, what, or when of a field of inquiry are simpler and quicker to assess than the how or why. As a result, basic content looms large (Grant 2010).
College professors enjoy more academic freedom to teach as they choose, but as Jacques Berlinerblau (2017) illustrates, it is hard to know what actually goes on in their classrooms. Moreover, faculty have learned (Worthen 2021) or been led to believe (Townsend 2012) that the safest path to promotions and tenure is through research. Time saved by teaching and assessing only rudimentary knowledge can be plowed into the more career-rewarding activities of research and publishing. The field of history is certainly not unique in this respect.
There are, of course, exceptions to the above (Matro 2021), as well as ways for teachers to incorporate basic content and critical thinking so they are mutually reinforcing (Burkholder 2014). But as long as the emphasis is on what instructors teach as opposed to how and why it is taught, people’s understandings of subject matter will remain simplistic and incomplete. In that regard, the results of our national survey have implications for fields well beyond that of history.
Ambrose, Susan A., Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norman. 2010. How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Bain, Robert. 2005. “‘They Thought the World Was Flat?’: HPL Principles in Teaching High School History.” In How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom, edited by John Bransford and Suzanne Donovan, 179–214. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Berlinerblau, Jacques. 2017. Campus Confidential: How College Works, or Doesn’t, for Professors, Parents, and Students. Brooklyn: Melville House.
Pete Burkholder, PhD, is professor of history at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he served as founding chair of the faculty teaching development program from 2009 to 2017. He is on the editorial board of TheTeaching Professor, is a consulting editor for College Teaching, and serves on the national advisory board of the Society for History Education.
Katharina Matro, PhD, teaches history at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland. She is a councilor for the Teaching Division of the American Historical Association.