History of Science in High School, ca. 1958

In the middle part of the 20th century the American Historical Association engaged in a concerted outreach program. I don’t know if the discipline and the profession were experiencing one of those perennial anxiety attacks, but the association seemed to feel that it needed to bolster the image of history as a profession and the quality of instruction provided in secondary and undergraduate classrooms. Predictably, committees were formed and propaganda was produced (because nobody actually forms a committee or produces propaganda). As always, a favorite vehicle was the cheap pamphlet. Some of these celebrated history as a professional career. Other pamphlets sought to provide high school and undergraduate teachers the expertise and knowledge of established scholars in various historical areas. As one pamphlet declared:

Prompted by an awareness of the fact that the average secondary school teacher has neither the time nor the opportunity to keep up with monographic literature, these pamphlets are specifically designed to make available to the classroom instructor a summary of pertinent trends and developments in historical study.

In the late 1950s, one of the “pertinent trends and developments in historical study” was the history of science. To address this trend, the “Committee on Teaching” convinced Marie Boas to write a pamphlet for high school teachers introducing the history of science to them.

Marie Boas’s pamphlet for the AHA: History of Science
Marie Boas’s pamphlet for the AHA: History of Science

Marie Boas opens bluntly, connecting the history of science to modernity and Western Civilization:

In an age when high school students regard space travel as an eminently attainable and desirable practicality, it is hardly necessary to emphasize that we live in a civilization infused by and dependent upon applied science. It has indeed been plausibly argued that what distinguishes the most recent period of history, and particularly the history of Western Civilization, from other ages and from the whole history of other civilizations, is precisely the triumphant justification by results of that scientific method which first clearly emerged in the seventeenth century. If this is true—and there are cogent arguments to support it—then to study the history of our culture without studying the development of science within that culture is clearly to render any historical appraisal both incomplete and distorted.

Further, she suggests, the history of science appeals to “curiosity about the world around them which is so natural to most boys and girls.” The history of science engages those students whose interest lies in the sciences by offering a “valid and useful point of contact with history.” At the same time, history of science offers students baffled by science “some insight into the scientific point of view“ so common in the late 1950s.

She considers the history of science to be part intellectual history—concerned with the “internal development of science”—and part social or economic history—primarily how “science has influenced society through its application to technology.”

In one passage, Boas laments the struggles of past and present scientists: “One of the perennial problems of the scientist has been how to earn his livelihood.” Despite the increasing demand for scientists in universities and industry, “scientists have often grievously felt the lack of adequate funds and facilities … and the attempts of scientists to gain funds from governments, especially from democratic governments, presents a fascinating study of the relation of the scientist to the society in which he lives.” While some individual scientists today may want more money, it’s difficult to see the sciences as struggling or as underfunded. And salaries in the sciences are not particularly depressed.

The bulk of her pamphlet presents a bibliography of secondary and primary sources in the history of science. Technology is merely applied science and so does not merit inclusion in the bibliography. Boas’s occasional editorial comments in this section are entertaining because they continue to be commonplaces today—e.g., when referring to Joseph Needham’s work, Boas says “Volume I is a general survey of that strange peculiarity of Chinese civilization that a high state of technology did not lead to an advanced understanding of nature,” or later Boas comments “While historians continue to argue about whether there was such a thing as the Renaissance or not, historians of science are generally agreed that a special name is needed for the activities of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when a dying medievalism clashed with new forces in a highly complex transition,” or about the seventeenth century Boas confirms it as “the century of genius, the first indisputable age of modern science.”