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U.S. History Course Evolves from “800-Pound Gorilla” Of Curriculum to Manageable, Student-Friendly Class

History 300, Andover’s required U.S. history course, is widely recognized as the bane of Upper year. Though the course is still a challenge, both the course expectations as well as the Academy’s curriculum have changed significantly over the past few years to render it more “student friendly.” Instructor in History and Social Sciences Edward Rotundo said, “One of the things that I always say to my classes is that [History 300] is a tough course, it’s a demanding course – it should be – but I think if you actually polled Uppers about what their hardest course was, history would not come out on top. I think because History 300 has that historical reputation it’s still viewed that way, but if you look at people’s grades I think you would find that as many or more kids struggle with Physics or whatever math or language as do with history….It’s intended to set the bar high, but not so high that students can’t clear it.” Until the late 1960s, Phillips Academy required its students to take four years of history courses. History 4, as the U.S. history course was then known, was the final requirement in a series of year-long history classes. Dr. Rotundo described History 4 as the “capstone” course in an Andover education. History 4 was a comprehensive survey of American history known for its high expectations and substantial homework assignments. Though outside sources praised the History 4 as one of the best courses in the country, Dr. Rotundo said, “The people in the History Department felt that it was a great course, but in other departments it was viewed as the 800-pound gorilla of the curriculum.” Instructor in History and Social Sciences Victor Henningsen said, “[History 4] remains a landmark memory for many alumni, but more because of the ‘forced march’ aspect of the course than because it taught them much history, other than an intimate knowledge of major Supreme Court decisions from Marbury [vs. Madison] through  [United States vs.] Darby, a case only those who took the course would remember.” History 4 was such a demanding course that it had its own wing in the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library until the 1980s. The course, however, faced a turning point in the late 1960s after an overhaul of the Andover curriculum. Along with many changes to the history requirements, the U.S. history course was moved to Upper year and its workload scaled down to that of a “normal” Upper class. Though it was no longer the same arduous course, U.S. history still overwhelmed many students. As part of the 1960s curriculum changes, Phillips Academy significantly reduced its history requirements for underclassmen. As a result, some student took no history classes before being confronted with the demanding History 300 in Upper year. Thus, with some students having no prior experience in history, History 300 seemed insurmountable to many. Even more daunting to students was the renowned 12-15 page History 300 research paper. Instructor in History and Social Sciences Derek Williams said, “[In the1980s] there was no prep work [for the research paper] and a few students did great but most just muddled through.” The impersonal nature of the course also added to its reputation for severity. For the entire fall term each class followed the same strict syllabus with a weighty homework load from John Garraty’s history textbook. According to Instructor in History and Social Sciences Kathleen Dalton, the book contained “subtle biases” that flawed the History 300 course. She cited the lack of social commentary on African-Americans and women as two major gaps in the course. The fall term culminated in a standard final exam. The exam had 50 multiple choice questions to be completed in 30 minutes, in addition to an essay. Students wrote their student ID numbers on their papers, and the essays were graded anonymously. Thus, no student could appeal to his own teacher on his exam grade. Though the winter and spring terms gave teachers more freedom in their teaching, the winter term still had a standard final exam. In spring term, students were given the option of writing a full-length research paper or writing both a shorter paper and a final exam. Dr. Dalton said, “Standardization was a problem for the teachers, misery was a problem for some of the students….Those of us who were Young Turks in the department wanted the change.” Mr. Williams, Chair of the History Department in the mid-1980s, pioneered the movement towards individual teaching programs. After much discussion within the department, the faculty voted to test a new, more individualized History 300 course for one year. Ever since, the History 300 course has employed a less standardized curriculum. In the words of Mr. Williams, “Humpy Dumpty never came back together again.” Since this change in the U.S. history curriculum, the History and Social Sciences Department has made even more adjustments to the notorious History 300 course over the past 10-15 years. Dr. Rotundo said, “We can’t expect students to respond to the demands of another era.” Consequently, the History and Social Sciences Department reduced the length of nightly reading assignments. Students are also now permitted to take U.S. history either at the beginning of their Upper year or wait until winter term of Upper year to begin it “off-cycle.” In addition, History 300 teachers now frequently accept re-writes for some essays. Though the History and Social Sciences Department decreased the length of the spring term research paper to 5-8 pages, current students must both write a paper and take a final exam. Also, the previous weight placed on the spring research paper in students’ grades has now been reduced to be closer to that of a normal essay. History 300 students have also benefited from the History 100 requirement as well as the Lower program, which was implemented six years ago. Though some complain about the rigidity of the Lower program, it is designed to improve students’ writing skills in preparation for the Academy’s advanced humanities courses. Mr. Henningsen said, “I do believe that taking Rel[igion and]Phil[osophy], a term of history, and a year of English really helps students develop and cement the reading, writing, and analytical skills that are central to success in eleventh and twelfth grade.” Within History 300 itself, the History and Social Sciences Department has made an effort to provide opportunities for students to practice research techniques and writing skills throughout the year. “Today the morale of History 300 teachers is much better, and I think our students are happier though still well-challenged and well-educated in History 300,” said Dr. Dalton.