Teaching New York History: Three Frameworks

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The revision of the New York State social studies curriculum should involve, or call on the expertise of, many individuals and historical groups, or they should consider proactively advancing their suggestions. Peter Feinman’s recent post included the resolutions of the annual meeting in March of the New York State Social Studies Council, articulating the concerns of social studies teachers and reaffirming the importance of social studies.

Perspectives and recommendations from the state’s historical community would be invaluable, e.g., the New York State Historical Association (the state’s premier historical organization), the Association of Public Historians of New York State (deep expertise in local and community history), the Museum Association of New York (historical societies and history museums), the New-York Historical Society (integrating New York City, state, and national history), and the New York State Bar Association (whose president, Vincent Doyle, is promoting citizenship education).

There are many possible starting points for framing a new social studies curriculum that would expand coverage of New York State history. Three of the most helpful are: Milton M. Klein, ed., The Empire State: A History of New York (2001), Peter Eisenstadt, ed., The Encyclopedia of New York State (2005), and Kenneth T. Jackson, ed., The Encyclopedia of New York City (2010).

Here are three possible frameworks — chronological, thematic, and historical thinking — that might be considered as a starting point.(A separate proposal is needed for advancing local and community history in the curriculum).

The chronological breakdown of New York State history differs from that of U.S. history. Here is one possible outline, based on the Klein book cited above, with a final section added to cover the period since its publication.

1. Before the English (1609-1664)
2. The English Province (1664-1776)
3. From Revolution to Statehood (1776-1825)
4. Antebellum Society and Politics (1825-1860)
5. The Gilded Age (1860-1914)
6. The Triumph of Liberalism (1914-1945)
7. The Empire State in a Changing World (1945-2000)
8. New York: Challenges, Change, and Progress, (2000+)

The book has a number of chapters in each of these sections, mirroring the richness and diversity of New York history. For instance, section 4 covers: New York Modernizes: Economic Growth and Transformation; Society, Religion, and Reform; New York at the Crossroads of Culture; and developments in politics and government.

Because New York history is so long, rich, and diverse, there are many options for the themes that might be emphasized within the chronological breakdown. Each of these has a New York flavor and perspective, but many are also close-to-home examples of larger national themes. They also bear directly on issues related to civics and citizenship. Just a few possibilities:

• What it means to be a New Yorker and an American
• Role of states in U.S. history and the U.S. governmental system
• New York’s place in U.S. history
• Continuity/evolution and discontinuity/change/turning points in history
• Diversity and uniformity, values in conflict (or constantly being reconciled)
• The quest for social justice, equality, and fairness
• Rights and responsibilities of majorities and minorities
• Conflict and compromise
• Role of government in providing opportunities, enforcing requirements, reconciling differences, and fostering the progress of the state; limits on state power
• Role of political parties and politics in defining issues, representing groups and factions, embodying positions and values, confronting and compromising
• Development and influence of cultural institutions, literature, arts, performance, etc.
• Immigration experience
• Geography, natural resources, and the sustaining importance of farming and agriculture
• Development of manufacturing, commerce, finance, and industry
• Role and influence of technology

Social studies should teach students how to analyze cause and effect, apply critical analysis, see things in perspective, and reach their own judgments based on their evaluation of the evidence. These skills are critical in the world young people will face, where there is an overwhelming amount of information, choices to be made every day, and institutions we need to understand, influence, or manage because they are critical to our lives and the well-being of society.

One of the very best and newest models happens to be a Canadian one, developed by a consortium in that country, entitled Historical Thinking Benchmarks. This model has six concepts which could easily be interpreted and applied to New York State history because there are so many examples that could be used. (It could also be used with other history as well.)

• Establish historical significance. The idea here is to give young people the basis for evaluating events in history and, by extension, in their own times. “Significance depends upon one’s perspective and purpose. A historical person or event can acquire significance if we, the historians, can link it to larger trends and stories that reveal something for us today.” But the issue is complicated and requires critical thought and judgment. “Both ‘It is significant because it is in the history book’ and ‘It is significant because I am interested in it’ are inadequate explanations of historical significance.”

• Use primary source evidence. The intention here is to get young people accustomed to looking at information and evidentiary sources, analyzing, comparing, questioning, and discerning their real meaning and significance. One way to teach these skills is through the study of primary source material such as documents. “To use them well, we set them in their historical contexts and make inferences from them to help us understand more about what was going on when they were created.”

• Identify continuity and change. “Students sometimes misunderstand history as a list of events. Once they start to understand history as a complex mix of continuity and change, they reach a fundamentally different sense of the past.” This is a critical skill for young people, who need to understand how to manage change in their own lives and how to understand it in their families, communities, and other institutions.

• Analyze cause and consequence. This element is designed to teach students how to understand cause-and-effect relationships. What were the causes behind the development of our institutions? How have individuals and groups affected those causes? What factors predispose institutions to stay the same; what factors predispose them toward change?
“In examining both tragedies and accomplishments in the past, we are usually interested in the questions of how and why. These questions start the search for causes: what were the actions, beliefs, and circumstances that led to these consequences?” Students will also learn that judgment and interpretation are important factors. “Causes are multiple and layered, involving both long-term ideologies, institutions, and conditions and short-term motivations, actions and events. Causes that are offered for any particular event (and the priority of various causes) may differ, based on the scale of the history and the approaches of the historian.”

• Take historical perspectives. This is another skill that needs to be developed and strengthened as young people go through school. “Understanding the foreignness of the past is a huge challenge for students. But rising to the challenge illuminates the range of human behavior, belief, and social organization. It offers surprising alternatives to the taken-for-granted, conventional wisdom, and opens a wider perspective from which to evaluate our present preoccupations.” It also imparts skills of study, analysis, and understanding. “Taking historical perspective means understanding the social, cultural, intellectual, and emotional settings that shaped people’s lives and actions in the past.”

• Understand ethical dimensions of history. This theme focuses on the ability to make ethical evaluations of the actions of leaders and institutions. Like the others, it is critical to young people who need the guidance of historical perspective, and the practice of studying ethical dimensions of historical events, to make decisions every day. “We should expect to learn something from the past that helps us to face the critical issues of today.”

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Bruce Dearstyne

About Bruce Dearstyne

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne of Guilderland. Dearstyne is a former professor at the College of Information Studies, University of Maryland, where he is now an Adjunct Professor.

Before joining the Maryland faculty, he held positions at the New York State Archives and the Office of State History. He is the author of Railroads and Railroad Regulation in New York State, 1900-1913, and co-author of New York: Yesterday and Today.

He served as guest editor of the journal Public Historian on “Strengthening the Management of State History: Issues, Perspectives, and Insights from New York” (August 2011).

4 thoughts on “Teaching New York History: Three Frameworks

  1. Andrew Alberti

    I find it interesting that the Chronology is so anglo-centric. There is no mention of Dutch, French or Native cultures, only “Before the English.” New York’s history as a culturally diverse gateway to the New World should be a significant theme, as should the New York frontier and the continental divide.

  2. Louise Bernikow

    Can anyone explain the procedure- if it exists–for making suggestions on this subject where they might have impact? My thoughts on what’s been said include:if our state has always been a leader in women’s rights (it has- far beyond Seneca Falls)how do we make sure students know that? The chron. is indeed anglo-centric and male-centric too.

  3. Tom Hughes

    I’m loathe to criticize a constructive contribution, but I must say that Andrew Alberti is correct. And to list the next era as “2. The English Province (1664-1776)” is to overlook the fact that most of what became northern New York State was, during most of that time period, “Nouvelle France” and not yet a British colony. Also, the next time period “3. From Revolution to Statehood (1776-1825),” overlooks the fact that, in the Lake Champlain region of NY State, the American Revolution arrived during the second week of May 1775.

  4. Bruce Dearstyne

    Thank you for these comments.

    All the post meant to suggest was that there needs to be consideration about how New York State history is taught in the public schools and that this book might be one to consider in discussing how things should break chronologically.

    I referenced it because it is the best known single-volume coverage of New York State history. To keep the post brief, I only listed the headings for the seven parts of the book. Actually, the book has 36 chapters within these headings, and one would need to consult the book to ascertain how it covers various topics.

    But this exchange is just the sort of discussion that we need.

    It points out another fact –this book is 11 years old, in need of an update, or better yet, another book, or several, on New York State history as a whole.

    Bruce Dearstyne


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