I assigned Herbert B. Adams' "Special Methods of Historical Study" from G. Stanley Hall ed., Methods of Teaching History. (Boston 1902) this week for my History 240: The Historians Craft class. It's an amazing, disorganized, bundle of observations, ideas, and arguments. He reports on everything from the texts used by freshman as Smith College, where Adams taught in the late 1870s and early 1880s, to the methods employed in his famous seminar at Johns Hopkins. Many of his observations are quite modern and could well appear in a more modern teaching manual.
In particular, Adams rails against the use of lecture in teaching history.
"[lectures or dictations], though good to a certain extent, become deadening to a class when its members are no longer stimulated to original research, but sink back in passive reliance upon the authority of the lecturer. That method of teaching history which converts bright young pupils into note-taking machines is a bad method. Its the construction of a poor text-book at the expense of much valuable time and youthful energy... The simple minded student assents to this counsel, and says, that it is a great comfort to have everything in black and white, so that he can carry it all home. But no scrap-book of facts can give wisdom, any more than a tank of water can form a running spring. It is, perhaps, of as much consequence to teach a young person how to study history as to teach him history itself." (p. 120)
Adams goes on the sing the praises of the seminar system where students work independently on research projects and meet periodically to share ideas, citations, and criticisms. He notes that the seminar is well-suited for work in local history as considerable local resources exist at hand and can be brought together in a seminar library. Moreover, according to Adams, there was a great need for local history in the U.S. from works of basic analysis of governmental structures to the arduous task of accumulating documents and preparing archives which would ultimately sustain the work of seminar students into the future.
What is remarkable, of course, is that much of Adams advice continues to echo the halls of departments today. The relatively recent push for public history (which almost invariably involves a local component) and its emphasis on method updates and complements century-old invectives against content-driven lecture classes. The internet has emerged as a kind of global archive of historical documents and data and producing a kind of universal seminar library accessible to students from their laptops in the classroom.
At the same time, many of our students continue to resist the risks and effort involved in original research and prefer lecture driven classes, the clear "black and white" content, and routine of memorization and reproduction to the unpredictable, syncopated rhythms of archival research.
It's sort of discouraging when you think too hard about it.