Teaching history without a history degree

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Obviously, the best case scenario for every teacher is that they have a degree in the subject or field that they are teaching.  But, for a variety of reasons, that simply is not always possible.  (I am clearly speaking about primary and secondary education, here.)  This post is addressed to those earnest educators working at museums, schools, home schools, historical reconstruction sites, memorials, and similar placements who seek to teach history better, despite a lack of training in the field.

First note, that this post is filed under the category of “Experiencing History” and that I have no “History Education” category on my blog despite frequently writing about it.  Simply put, I believe that “Experiencing History” should be synonymous with “History Education.”  By this, I mean that history education should comprise of history research, writing, and presentation on the one hand, complemented by experiences in historical reconstruction on the other whether it is through food, sport, drama, music, travel, presentations, or recreated experiences.  Naturally, this is revised according to level of learning, but experiential learning in history is far more rewarding and lasting than simply being told what happened when, and, oh by the way, kindly memorize that and regurgitate it for me later.  (I’m not castigating tests here, but I do firmly believe that some tests are far superior to others.)  Being a historian is also “experiencing history” because real historians stopped using textbooks the moment they entered real academic training; instead, they read scholarly works infused with passion about the subject (usually passionate, anyway), researched primary sources, and wrote presentations of arguments about their findings.

So, in order for the above to be possible, the teacher has to have certain knowledge and resources.  One thing I want to do in this post is recommend some resources and suggest the best methods for achieving the desired knowledge.  I also recommend you read the following two posts, if you are new to the field: “A metaphor to explain what historians do” and “Primary sources and getting some context” (these may also give you some ideas for exercises–many other “Experiencing History” posts will also recommend exercises).


If the books you read about your subject frequent the fancy display cases at Barnes and Noble–unless it is a university bookstore–you should be wary.  Popular history is written for entertainment and revenues, but seldom for peer review!  This is really important!  Peer review means that other experts in the field have reviewed it, as opposed to newspaper or magazine reviewers who are not historians.  One of the values in getting journals (or getting access to journals) is that they include the peer review, such as the American Historical Association’s The American Historical Review, which has the benefit of covering the vast range of historical sub-studies and eras.  Going to university library and accessing a database such as JSTOR allows you to search for reviews specifically on topics.  This effectively gives you a list of quality history books on your subject (along with their strengths and weaknesses).  It will also give you an introduction into historiography which is the history of what historians have argued regarding your topic and an important insight into how history works and how our understanding evolves.

Another avenue is to skip Barnes and Noble and go to peruse the catalogs, online or print, of publishers who specialize in academic books.  These include university presses, of course, and also academic publishing arms such as Bedford’s, Palgrave, Blackwell, Modern Library (their “College Editions”), and Penguin (though, they publish a lot of popular stuff, too, so be discerning or look for their academic publications–they also have many useful translations of primary sources).  I would still avail yourself of reviews, especially if you are new to the field, but these should be safe for their information.  Once you’ve got good books, start paying attention to their footnotes/endnotes and their sources, both primary and secondary–this is literally your paper trail, and while you probably cannot replicate or follow every lead practically, you can cross-reference and learn about the subject’s evolution in our understanding.

Some of you may ask why you can’t you rely on the history textbook?  At least two reasons: 1) textbooks aren’t very good (for a full explanation of this read the following: “Why you are allowed to be suspicious of history textbooks”), and, 2) your students already have the textbook, so you aren’t providing anything that they can’t already teach themselves if they simply read the textbook–admittedly there opportunities for refining reading skills, but that is not enough of an excuse as you can do that with any reading assignment.  Some of you may be faced with required texts that you are assigned and that’s fine, but don’t be a slave to them.  Once you have educated yourself, the inherent limitations of the textbooks become mind-expanding teaching tools themselves.

But, before you really get into your subject learn more about the field itself.  Some of the books I am about to suggest, are aimed at students.  If you do not have extensive formal training in history, then it is worth considering yourself a student, too.  (Actually, the best teachers never stop thinking of themselves as students, no matter how many years of experience they may have.)  I should clarify why it is important to learn about the field itself: have you ever heard of teaching science without also teaching the Scientific Method or performing experiments to learn chemistry or physics?  Of course not!  Science counts on transparency of method so that each experiment and its findings can be reproduced.  Academic history functions, more or less, the same way–except that history involves a lot more grey area and interpretation of findings–but for some reason history is limited in the early years of education to the very dry transferal of “historical facts” (which, as we see, are often not fact at all–read the link about textbooks above!).

So, this is why your job requires getting good information about your subject and demonstrating transparency of method for your students.  Once they learn the methodology, you will find it makes them more critical readers who grow into citizens requiring a trail of evidence not just random assertions by someone claiming to know something.  (In other words, you are teaching them the skills that will remove them from the gullible e-mail chain population and make them critical of political spoutings and commentary.)  The books below will help get you initiated into the field, but it will take your own leg work to discover the books you need for the history subject you are teaching–by the way, your reading requirement doesn’t end as long as you are teaching: historiography!  What we know is constantly evolving!

Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Critical Perspectives On The Past), Sam Wineburg–*Anyone teaching history, should read this book, even with historical training!

From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods, Martha Howell & Waltern Prevenier

A Student’s Guide to History, Jules R. Benjamin

A Pocket Guide to Writing in History, Mary Lynn Rampolla

Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write, and Think about History, Jim Cullen

Writing History: A Guide for Students, William Kelleher Storey

Reading History: A Practical Guide to Improving Literacy, Janet Allen and Christine Landaker *Use this book with an eye to any reading assignment–not textbooks.

Thinking History, Peter N. Stearns *This was published by the American Historical Association along with countless other useful booklets on historical thinking, comparative history, historiography and teaching history.

There are other good books, of course, but this a good list to get you started!


The web provides far less reliable secondary source material about most subjects than it advertises.  (This should not be a surprise!)  If you are trying to find accurate historical information written by competent historians online, your best bet is to pursue academic sites, National Park Service sites (although the quality is variable and lacks an academic standard to be universally applied, these websites are still the product of folks with an intimate knowledge of their Park and often who have some historical training in their background), preservation sites, and those of professional historical associations.  The most difficult area, at least for American history, will be the Civil War, which is awash with amateur historians, often infused with regional prejudices; this would be followed by our colonial history which has become overwhelmed by modern day, political commentary, and is, thus, propagated by amateurs with a modern political agenda.  (Note: I am abstaining from commenting on modern politics and merely discussing the quality of the history.)

Search engines also complicate things.  When you type a query into your search engine, you get the most popular sites–not the best sites–at the top.  Most search engines will let you refine the url type you are searching.  In other words, you can search for your subject but only among .gov or .edu websites, for example.  Some of the sites below include useful secondary information, while others specialize in primary source information.

Of course, there are also documentaries online (and TV), but here especially be critical!  Documentaries often include valuable information and interviews with historians, but they also are usually directed and produced by non-historians in the entertainment industry.  The film genre, more than any other(!), is for entertainment–even National Geographic will emphasize treasure over good history because people will be more interested in gold!  The minute someone sets about making a film, the first goal is always entertainment.  This is the nature of supply and demand for film: busy people, inexperienced people, or lazy people who still have an interest in history are targeted, because they want to know about the subject via great footage and in the space of an hour. Furthermore, they tend to portray a unified interpretation of a subject, which is fairly impossible in history.  Scholars come to well-reasoned, but different conclusions, so the films tend to perpetuate the myth of cold-hard historical fact.  I’m not saying they are useless, but documentaries have inherent flaws because of their goals that you should understand in advance.

The websites below will build on the reading I recommended above and augment individual subject studies.  They will do slightly different things for you which I attempt to clarify.  There are other websites out there, but these are a good start.

A Student’s Online Guide to History Reference Sources – This is an online source that goes with the Jules R. Benjamin book above.

Resources for Teachers at All Levels – American Historical Association, teaching resources–they really serve teaching and pedagogy, so take advantage!

The AHA and K-16 Teaching – American Historical Association, teaching resources.

teachinghistory.org – National History Education Clearinghouse: includes exercises, primary sources, and historian interviews.

Internet History Sourcebooks Project by Paul Halsall of Fordham University – Primary sources, with some secondary source reference material and maps.

And some useful blogs:

History Tech – Teaching resources blog with an eye to technology.

The History Channel This is Not… – Great posts on pedagogy from a trained historian who is teaching.

Brush off the Dust! History Now! – This blog.



Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

2 responses to “Teaching history without a history degree

  1. As a “student” of history, and person that values creative teachers (and teaching) this is a GREAT post. Some times subject matter experts have the best information but aren’t always the best people to teach it to others. Thank you for sharing this!
    PKC @ Today in Heritage History

    • Peter, it is a valid point that brilliant historians do not necessarily make brilliant teachers. What I hope this post will do is arm the creative teacher with better knowledge about how history works and give them the resources to find good information that they can use when they teach. I also hope it reinforces the importance of teaching the discipline and not just content–the two should complement each other. Thanks for your feedback!

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