Interview with Dr. John Haefner

Mary Hepburn
John Haefner was NCSS President over 40 years ago, in 1953-farther back in time than any other current NCSS member who has served as President. In this interview, he shares his reflections on social studies education then and now, and on the constant challenges facing NCSS. The interview was conducted for Social Education by Mary Hepburn in November 1994. A former student of Dr. Haefner, Dr. Hepburn is professor of social science education and head of the Citizen Education Division at the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia, Athens.
Mary Hepburn: John Haefner, I would like to obtain your perspective on social studies education over the years since you served as president of National Council for the Social Studies. In 1952 you were elected president of NCSS and served as the presiding officer throughout 1953. You wrote the preface to the 1953 yearbook, a book on the teaching of social studies skills, which you referred to as citizenship skills, such as gathering and evaluating information, communicating, and critical thinking. Please take us back to that mid-50s era. What kinds of times were those? What was the social-political context for social studies education then?

John Haefner: Well, I'll start with the annual meeting. In 1952 I served as the national meeting chairman. That job was given to the upcoming president. That year, the National Council was to meet in the South, in Dallas, Texas, and that caused real concern among the planners. NCSS was a racially integrated organization, and we had learned that people of color and whites had not previously been permitted to sit down together at the same tables in hotel dining rooms there. I had heard that this was the first time that a racially integrated conference had been held in the hotel where our meeting took place. So, the atmosphere before that particular meeting was very tense. I remember calling to urge key people to come, simply to make sure that educators would make an extra effort to go to Dallas. The worry was that we were going to have a small attendance, because some people were afraid. Well, it didn't turn out that way. The attendance was good, and there were no racial incidents of any kind. The meeting went very well.

MH: That was at Thanksgiving.

JH: Yes, it was 1952, Thanksgiving week. We always met around Thanksgiving-one of our perennial problems! Then, at the end of that year, my presidency of NCSS began. We were looking to define specific goals for social studies education. Our concern was that unless students could read, unless they could evaluate the sources of information they receive, it would be a problem for citizens to exercise their rights of self-government. We were especially aware that the lasting learning that we had to give students required thinking skills to deal with a changing world. And that involved us in analyzing just what kinds of skills and abilities were specifically important to the general field of social studies and more particularly to civic education and democratic citizenship.

On those topics we had some excellent people in the National Council. Many were women who had backgrounds in elementary education and realized the significance of thinking skills, not only for elementary education but as preparation for high school. Names that come to my mind are many of the writers in the 1953 yearbook. People like Helen McCracken Carpenter, Edith West from Minnesota, Prudence Bostwick, Ruth Robinson from Cleveland, and many others who saw that it was critical that NCSS promote skill development in social studies. That was what led to the 1953 yearbook.

It seems to me that a persistent problem of social studies education is our search for focus. We were looking specifically for what social studies education can do and do well that will make a real difference in the quality of the students who graduate from our schools. In my opinion, that problem is still with us in 1994. We aren't focused. We aren't clear on our purpose. And we have all kinds of problems dealing with that lack of clarity. The issue of content versus method; the problem of values education; and this issue of emphasis on skills, which dates back to the fifties.

At that time we were saying, "Let's take a look at what we can do to enable a high school graduate to make the most of the citizenship role." First of all, the concern was on how to deal with information materials, especially the news media-all kinds of media. The emphasis was also on the problem of judging and evaluating and being aware of the fact that communication requires a lot of very specific skills to deal with language meaningfully and fairly.

MH: The years you are talking about are those that we often refer to as "the McCarthy era." It was the period when Senator Joseph McCarthy and others made wild accusations of communist subversion throughout our public institutions. The accusations, carried in the news media, generated fear and created a rather oppressive atmosphere for educators. Did such conditions stimulate interest in NCSS in improving analytical thinking skills?

JH: I think so. This was the time when propaganda studies were coming into the curriculum. We were also facing inquiries about what materials we were using in schools. I was a teacher in the University of Iowa High School from 1936 until it was closed in 1972. I recall being questioned by a member of the American Legion. In my senior class, I was doing a unit on Communism. My students were using the Bolton Report, a government publication, to study the strategies and tactics of world communism. I also had the students reading parts of The Communist Manifesto and using a popular picture magazine published in the Soviet Union that was available in the U.S. Well, the American Legion sent a man to question me about that. Yes, the times were such that you gave a lot of thought to what you were teaching and how you were teaching it. Perhaps the skills focus was one way of avoiding the content of controversial issues. But the teachers who were creative and innovative were using skills specifically to examine what propaganda is, how it affects us, and how to confront it in our daily lives.

So, the year of my presidency was an interesting year, one that was memorable in many different ways. However, it has taken many more years for the ideas of the 1953 NCSS yearbook to have an impact on actual procedures in the classroom.

That leads to another observation about the present, which is that innovation is especially difficult in the classroom. I see that conditions for teaching today are much different than they were in the fifties. I don't know if I could cope with high school teaching in the same way that I did then. It leads me to think, Mary, that one of our biggest problems in social studies education is the fact that anything that we do to try to change the quality of education is affected in large measure by two terribly important cultural and societal changes that have occurred.

The first of these is that the values of our culture have undergone some significant changes. The emphasis is on "things." Success is measured in terms of dollars. The emphasis is on non-intellectual pursuits. This cultural context determines to a great extent what we can do with boys and girls in secondary school. I think that we need to be aware of the fact that in some areas progress will be slow, and there are goals we simply cannot accomplish because of changed cultural values. Many children bring from home values and attitudes that make it difficult to educate them. Students' motivations, their goals, I think, are vastly different from the goals of the boys and girls of the fifties and the sixties.

Another related factor is the change wrought by World War II and intensified in the last few decades. One of the most significant changes is the prevalence of women in the work force. We are now very aware of how that has changed the family and family organization. So, in these 42 years the forms of home life and home support for school education have changed.

MH: Have they declined considerably?

JH: Yes. For comparison, let me tell you about an experience. About the time I was retiring, I had the occasion to observe in depth a classroom in Des Moines, Iowa, that was composed mostly of eastern Asian children. Although there were other students, it was a classroom where English was a second language. Well these youngsters were enthusiastic about learning. You could pick them out by their attention in the classroom. You would notice the promptness and carefulness with which they did their assigned homework. Their attitudes were different. The answer was clearly that these East Asian children came from homes where the families were convinced that education was the way to succeed in America.

MH: So you're saying that, along with changes in the values of our culture, we have these changes in home life which have greatly influenced schools and affect the way we can teach social studies.

JH: That's right. Among other things, for example, is the fact that many children today are latchkey kids who come to an empty home. We don't know entirely what they do, but a lot of their time is spent watching television. They are watching immense amounts of television, which was not much of a factor 25, 30, or 40 years ago. (In the years since I was born, I've experienced so many drastic changes in American life that I can't help but look back and try to compare the culture I grew up in with the cultural changes and values of today.)

MH: Let's talk about the news media. As a graduate student here in the late 50s, I came over from the Political Science Department to take your seminar in social studies education. I was interested in teaching government and civics. I have to tell you I was greatly impressed by your attention to critical analysis of the news on public affairs. I still recall a class in which you discussed with us the ways to examine news resources and use them in the classroom. I remember the skills that you demonstrated at that time and encouraged us to teach teachers and then motivate teachers to teach students in schools. Would you urge social studies educators to continue these approaches today? Are they still timely?

JH: In my view they may be more timely today. I was working primarily in terms of print media. But now, many citizens get their information almost wholly from the news on TV. It's clear that if that's all of the news you get, you are not getting an adequate basis on which to make important decisions on legislative issues and public affairs generally.

Yes, I see the need for emphasis on skills to analyze printed materials and sound and visual materials as well. I don't know what the impact of computers is going to be in the years ahead, but the basic problems are the same: All of the media can be manipulated, and as a thinking citizen you've got to try to decide when you are being manipulated by one form of the media or another. So my answer to your question is "yes." I believe that this is terribly important, because, frankly, I don't know how much of the factual information that we learn can be recalled. What do remain, because we have to use them constantly, are the critical, evaluative skills it takes to "understand." To understand, you must have these skills.

MH: I recall that in your office you had a framed front page of a morning edition of a newspaper declaring that Thomas Dewey had won the 1948 election. That was a symbolic and humorous reminder for your students that careful reading and critical speculation about "the news" is necessary. Would you still stress caution with electronic news sources?

JH: It was the Chicago Tribune for the day after the election and it had a banner headline "Dewey Elected," although he lost when the late votes came in. A student teacher in my high school class brought the paper in the morning. You know, she didn't realize what she had. I asked her if I could have it, and she gave it to me. I think it was a great example of how we have to mistrust some of the things that come to us through the media. People believe what they see in print, and today many believe what they see on the TV. What concerns me is that the visual picture is, in many people's minds, even more reliable than reading. At least with reading you can always go back and check it over and say, "Hey, I'm not sure I believe that now." You can't do that with pictures that flash by on the screen.

Walter Cronkite, the grand old man of television news, commented that if all the information about public issues that people get comes from television news reports, then the public is inadequately prepared for civic life. On one of our much-watched TV stations, the 10 o'clock news has a segment called "The World in a Minute." What can you say about Bosnia or prospects for peace in the Middle East in a minute that will lead to understanding about those complex problems?

MH: Yet the other side of the coin is that now we can see and hear from Bosnia very quickly. If something happens in the Middle East, we receive images of the event very rapidly. We've gained in speed of information dissemination, but we haven't gained in depth of news, have we?

JH: You're absolutely right, and that's why television has so much impact. It arouses emotions. And it can do a lot of good in that regard. We see the inhumanity of warfare and of brutal things that are going on. Related to the skills question, we need those skills to make it possible for us to raise questions about human behavior.

MH: I'd like to ask you to reflect on the social studies profession over the years. NCSS is reaching a large number of social studies professionals across the United States through its journals, newsletters, and meetings. As you look back over the last forty years, what do you consider to have been the most serious issues in the profession?

JH: Well, that's not an easy one. Just getting classroom teachers more involved in the national organization was a major problem and in my view still is. However, we've made a lot of progress in that regard, because the figures now are immensely different from what they were when I was president. And that's good. I guess one of the major problems that I have seen is that the leaders in social studies education have developed the field somewhat distantly from the great number of teachers. I mean, the leaders were the ones who presented papers. Primarily, they were the ones who wrote chapters for the yearbook. They were the ones who determined philosophy, and so on. And there were some really great pioneers in the area. But the problem of getting from that level to the average classroom teacher in order to modify behavior in the classroom has been an ongoing challenge. A few years ago, a major study showed that a relatively small percentage of classroom teachers subscribed to professional journals, and many who were members of the national professional organization were not really capitalizing on the resources of the council. Now, as I read the annual meeting program, I'm encouraged by the involvement of so many classroom teachers, and the hands-on types of things presented there.

However, I sometimes wonder if we are tending to concentrate too heavily on the "hands-on" approach and if we are at times failing to consider that without theory, practice can be pretty second rate. Someone once said, "Study theory or remain forever a bungler in practice." You've got to be guided by some clear purpose and a theoretical context. This gap between theory and practice is one of those persisting issues in education.

I think that key issues in the profession were highlighted when Howard Mehlinger, also a former president of NCSS, wrote dramatically, "Perhaps social studies is even dead, and we have been too busy to notice or unwilling to admit it."1 He went on to make some very penetrating observations. He said there are three gulfs, major gaps in social studies education. The first gulf is between education in general and what the public sees as education. This is the gulf between what we're doing in schools and what the public thinks of us. That's a huge gap, and in many cases, an almost unbridgeable one. The second gulf is between the so-called leaders of education (and by leaders he meant curriculum directors, state education people, professors of education in social studies, etc.) and the classroom teacher. You know, there is some objective evidence that he's right on that, too. In one survey teachers admitted that they felt they got little help from outside consultants who were brought into their schools. The third gulf he said was that between the academic scholars (professors of history and the social sciences in colleges and universities) and social studies specialists -another distance we must bridge.

In that article, Mehlinger discussed what he considered to be two major needs that social studies education had to confront. One was a fresh look at the scope and sequence of what was being taught in the social studies. Of course, in recent years there has been considerable work done to recommend scope and sequence, and they've produced several possible alternatives. Second was the need for another national commission on the social studies to bring together all of these people caught in the gulfs, that is, lay citizens, teachers, administrators, academicians. Yes, we should try to bring these people together and look at what could be done "to deal with the questions of scope and sequence and values instruction"2 in order to improve social studies education. Although the article is about 14 years old, I think it was a real milestone.

It led me to reflect on an idea that kind of fascinates me, but I think has a lot of difficulties connected with it. Let me try it out on you. The motivation, the interests, the backgrounds from which today's students come are so vastly diverse that the attempt to meet their needs in the typical comprehensive American high school is now an issue. Sometimes I envision a campus, instead of a single high school, that would serve a larger group. The student with a special interest in the arts, the student with a special interest in the humanities, the student with a special interest in mathematics or science vocations, would have special opportunities. So would students interested in auto mechanics, farming, electronics, business, and other service occupations. I'm not sure how many grades you would include, or how many separate specialties you would have, but I think it would make a difference in meeting the interests of the students and therefore increasing their motivation for learning. Motivation to learn, I consider to be a basic problem that exists now. Yet I'm fearful of making educational programs too separate. We must have common experiences, because students are going to live in one society with all kinds of diverse people, and the school ought to give them some familiarity with that diversity. Maybe we are moving in this direction by the number of alternative schools we are now developing, as well as the notion of the magnet school. Can these be unified on one campus and still meet more specifically the needs of different kinds of students?

MH: When you talk about schools and bringing diverse students together, I think of the university schools which were prominent when I was a doctoral student in the sixties. We had one at Florida State University. Also, the University of Iowa's school was well known from the social studies literature on innovative curriculum designs and teaching methods. What are your views today on university schools linked to a university program in social studies education?

JH: Well I have very definite views on that. The University of Iowa high school started in 1917, but it was phased out in 1972. I thought at that time it was a mistake and 23 years later I'm absolutely convinced it was a mistake, because there were innovations being tried that had promise for making change. Why was it closed? We simply did not publish enough about the high school. We defeated ourselves by not making greater efforts to get the results out to other educators. But lets look at its contributions. The structure of the school was quite different. It was very open, and as an example, as a department head, I was aware that my department had immense liberty to create courses and to suggest procedures. There was not an "us versus the administration" feeling. We felt we were a team working on improvement. When the administration expressed concerns that what we were planning might not be possible to do, we, in turn, would often reply, "Well, let's try it" or "let's see if we can find a way to do it." I think that trust between those who were teaching in the school and the administration made a terrific difference in the climate of education. Another important difference was the quality of the teaching staff. The only permanent members were the department heads. All of the faculty within the departments consisted of bright young graduate students. Their majors, in many instances, were history, political science, and sociology, rather than education, although they did considerable graduate work in education, too. What they demonstrated was a philosophy that the university held (and that I held and still hold) based primarily on the work of Ernest Horn: that good teaching starts with command of the subject you are teaching. Then you try to find the most effective ways of communicating that knowledge to boys and girls. These graduate students carried that idea with them when they graduated and went to other institutions to educate teachers. To answer your question succinctly, I think the good campus school used as a laboratory for change is a fine thing, and I regret that we have backed away from this idea as much as we have in the U.S.

1 Mehlinger, Howard D. "Social Studies: Some Gulfs and Priorities." Chapter XIII in The Social Studies. Eightieth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Part II. Howard D. Mehlinger and O.L. Davis, eds. NSSE, 1981. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois.

2 Ibid.