AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXVII, No. 1, Spring 1995


Role of the History of Science and Technology
in the Proposed National Standards for Schools

A major national effort to set standards for teaching history to young people has come under attack as part of the general debate over traditional vs. multi-cultural approaches. The treatment of the history of science and technology has been particularly discussed, since until recently these fields were dominated by white males. Regardless of how widely the proposed standards are officially adopted, they are worth scrutiny because they represent a consensus that is already widespread. Writing of the standards, initiated and funded by the federal government, was overseen by a coalition that comprised the chief American teaching and historical organizations. What do these leading teachers, historians, and state and local government officials believe should be taught about the history of science and technology?

The proposed "National Standards for World History" contains about 100 main standards, each with several subheadings. Science or technology are referred to within nearly a quarter of the standards, but usually only in passing. For example, the whole of ancient science is represented in one of the thirteen standards for the period by one of five subheads: students should show understanding by "Evaluating major achievements of Hellenistic art, philosophy, science, and political thought." Technology in this period is represented by similarly brief references to agricultural and metals technology. For the medieval period there are cursory mentions of the Olmec and Maya calendars, Gupta mathematics, and Abassid and Chinese science, but not European developments. These arrive with the Renaissance in mentions of maritime, printing, and gunpowder technologies (their Chinese origins are not stressed).

Next comes an entire standard, the only one primarily relating to science, on "the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment." This does not ask for study of how the revolutions came about and proceeded. Rather, students are to show understanding by "analyzing the cultural, religious, and scientific impact" of the work from Copernicus to Newton and the "importance of discoveries... on 17th- and 18th- century European society."

This attitude persists through the rest of the standards. Science is implicitly viewed as something which has descended from elsewhere mainly around Newton's time. Technology too is treated as an external body which "impacts" upon society. Thus when the subjects reappear in the nineteenth century, students are asked to analyze not the origins but the consequences of the agricultural revolution, "new inventions such as the railroad, telegraph... and photography," and medical and weapons technologies, as well as "the social significance of the work of 19th-century scientists such as Maxwell, Darwin, Pasteur, and Curie."

For the twentieth century there are a couple of general references to the need for students to understand "major scientific, medical, and technological advances" and especially their consequences notably "the impact of space exploration, biotechnology, the new physics, and medical advances on human society and ecology." There are three more specific requirements, viz.: a call for "Assessing the impact of the work of Einstein, Freud, and other scientists on traditional views of nature and the universe;" "Evaluating ways in which popular faith in science, technology, and material progress affected attitudes toward the possibility of war among European states" (part of the standard on the causes of World War I); and "Assessing why scientific, technological, and medical advances have improved living standards for many but have failed to eradicate hunger, poverty, and epidemic disease."

The "National Standards for United States History," issued at the same time, contain even less about science and technology. Presumably the teachers expect these have been covered sufficiently in the world history courses. There are several perfunctory references to the effects of "technological developments" on early exploration and nineteenth-century economic transformations, but the only technologies specifically mentioned are the cotton gin, "military technology" in the Civil War, and "extractive mining techniques." An entire standard devoted to "the `second industrial revolution'" is concerned solely with how it "changed the nature and conditions of work," for example in the employment of children.

For the twentieth century, students are likewise to show understanding by "Explaining how inventions, technological innovations, and principles of scientific management transformed production and work." In the postwar period science itself makes its sole appearance, in a requirement for "Evaluating the importance of scientific and technological change on the workplace and productivity." The single hint of influence in the reverse direction is a subheading calling for study of the impact of the Second World War "on United States culture and technology." The final standard addresses American culture by asking students to analyze how it has been affected by social change, the media, ethnic diversity, and the commercialization of professional sports and popular culture.

The proposed standards represent the current thought of a cross-section of leaders in American primary and secondary education and academic history. Evidently if students are to learn what society has done in the past to nurture science, how science has affected the development of technology, and where scientific thought has stood within American culture, in the future as in the past they should not look to the typical high school history course.

National Standards for World History and National Standards for United States History may be ordered from the National Center for History in the Schools, University of California, Los Angeles, 10880 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 761, Los Angeles, CA 90024-4108; Fax (310) 825-4723.

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Phone: 301-209-3165
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