AMERICAN history texts may leave a lot to be desired in the view of many critics. But when high school history teachers get together, it isn't long before the talk turns to more basic issues - workloads and class size. That's what happened last month at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., where 50 top teachers, sponsored by the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, gathered to discuss the latest scholarship, and how to convey it to a high school class.
In one session, a teacher sets forth an incredibly detailed regime for guiding students through term papers. The assembly listens with mounting disbelief as the teacher described reviewing students' note cards.
Where does this guy teach? At a prep school in Delaware, he responds. He has 12 students per class.
There is an outburst of laughter. ``I have more kids absent every day,'' one teacher says. Another observes plaintively that she was ``overwhelmed'' when she tried assigning an essay a week to her 150 students. Which in turn prompts a suggestion that the visiting national press corps (meaning this reporter) note the discrepancy between public- and private-school class size.
Discussing what scholars call the ``social history'' of the American Revolution, the teachers are themselves providing a social history of American education - specifically, the enormous gap between private preparatory schools on the one hand, and public schools on the other.
Not that the new scholarship itself is not important. American history texts - like American newspapers - have traditionally followed the ancient Chinese model. Much as the Chinese viewed their history as a succession of dynasties, so Americans have seen theirs through the lens of presidential administrations.
At the college level, that's been changing. A generation of historians has written a new ``social history'' that looks at the lives of ordinary people - rather than presidential policies - as the wellheads of political change.
In the nation's high schools, however, change comes slowly. Textbooks still give students a tepid diet of campaign slogans (``Tippecanoe and Tyler Too'') and presidential caricatures (Teddy Roosevelt's ``Big Stick''), with little sense of the life circumstances to which such policies appealed.
``What is happening in the American history classroom today is what was happening 40 years ago,'' says Bob Skinner, a high school teacher from Essexville, Mich., attending the month-long institute at Princeton.
Leading one session was Edward Countryman, who teaches at the University of Warwick in Britain. His simply titled book, ``The American Revolution,'' is an engrossing summation of the new social history. It brings novelistic flair and a sense of why people in diverse circumstances - from a Boston tradesman to farmers in New York's Mohawk Valley - were moved to the extraordinary political acts of that era.
Mr. Countryman shows that the colonies that broke from Britain were not unified in a majestic, cosmic sweep, as textbooks tend to suggest. Rather, they were like the states today, except more so, riven by internal conflicts and tensions that somehow congealed into a war for independence.
In the Mohawk Valley, local farmers bristled under the near-feudal reigns of large landowning families such as the Johnsons, who even owned the courthouse and the jail.
In the northern reaches of the state, settlers resisted New York authority entirely, opting instead for the New England village model. They eventually became the state of Vermont.
Baptists upset the Virginia planter gentry by, among other things, embracing blacks as equals. Throughout the colonies, there was debate between radical democrats, who favored direct election of legislators for a year, with no governor or upper house, and moderate property owners, who wanted to buffer the majority.
The teachers at Princeton plunged into the questions that embroil frontline scholars. For example, was the American Revolution really a conservative one, an assertion of the mercantile and landholding classes in the colonies against a dominant one in Britain?
Countryman observes that Virginia does fit that conservative mold. ``You begin with a slave-based society run by planters, and you end with one.''
But overall, the war did open up the political process. State legislatures were much larger after independence, and they contained many more artisans, farmers - ``people with mud on their boots,'' he says.
Surveys show that students rate history their most boring class, and Mr. Skinner says the old dynastic approach has something to do with it. Students ``don't get what the regular guy is doing,'' he observes. The Princeton sessions, he says, are ``trying to get us to teach a little more from the bottom up, so students can relate to it.''
But textbook pap is just part of the problem. More fundamental is television. ``Students don't read any more and that's scary to me,'' Skinner says. ``Kids bring much less awareness [to the classroom]. It's not illiteracy, but functional illiteracy - an unwillingness and an apathy.''
Skinner says he's had some success with oral history - for example, getting students to interview their parents and grandparents on the Vietnam war and World War II. But overall, it's tough to teach when kids don't want to read.
The issue teachers kept coming back to is the resource gap. Some are confronting it in inventive ways. Lawrence Gore of Albuquerque, N.M., talks about dividing his classes into teams. The faster students help the slower in an effort to win such prizes as relief from a weekly exam.
Mr. Gore has 36 kids per class, not all of whom are promising students. ``Those kids like history when its taught this way,'' he says. ``They like to compete.''
But such tactics go only so far. Mark Hilgendorf, for example, teaches at Milton Academy, a well-known prep school just outside of Boston. He says he stays away from textbooks, and instead directs students to original source materials. A typical assignment will be to see what contemporary editorials in the New York Times said about Teddy Roosevelt. (The school has a microfilm collection going back to the 1840s.)
``We put a lot of money into primary sources,'' Mr. Hilgendorf says. In place of a text, he assigns eight to 10 different paperbacks for each major period, all of which the students buy.
Ben Sears, a teacher at West Philadelphia High School, doesn't have that luxury. ``At West Philly,'' he says, ``if you have enough books so that every kid can take one home, you are lucky.''