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Webb Society Sponsor's Handbook - Introduction

Why Local History?
The History of the Webb Society

Introduction: Why Local History?

A fine historian and an inspiring teacher, speaking at a history educators' conference, made the embarrassing accusation that "most kids hate history." He supported his claim by explaining that the two key factors in the learning process are frequently missing from history and social studies instruction--DISCOVERY and INVOLVEMENT. Stated otherwise, the traditional teacher teaches and the student remains the passive occupant of the classroom.

Within the context of this mountain top analogy, the student, their associates, and their community--their entire known world--are excluded from the usual higher education history curriculum. History to the student, therefore, becomes a remote and unrelated subject focusing primarily on the deeds of political figures, heads of governments, and military leaders. Thus history--textbook history--evolves in the student's estimation as the record of "old folks and dead folks," people and events totally removed in time and space from the scope of the young adult experience.

To further destroy interest in historical studies, some students find themselves in classrooms where the routine frequently becomes a dead-weight chore: the usual lecture, a daily reading assignment, and instructions to "answer the questions at the end of the chapter." Therefore, the well-meaning instructor, victimized by the time-honored pedagogical syndrome, eliminates the inherent drama and adventure in history by omitting the two key elements to good teaching: DISCOVERY and INVOLVEMENT--and thus students hate history.

While the mountain top analogy emphasizes the student's physical and intellectual remoteness from textbook history, it also identifies those specific areas which hold the potential for better understanding. The deep valleys, both literally and philosophically, contain the people, places, and events omitted from the history textbook, which, significantly, are also the familiar habitats of our history students. By turning to the home community as a historical resource laboratory, the creative and imaginative history instructor DISCOVERS a new and frequently unexplored teaching potential, while the history student DISCOVERS a new type of history--a living history--where he lives and goes to school. He DISCOVERS tangible relationships with the recent past: familiar people, familiar places, and familiar events. He DISCOVERS he has a personal history that is part of a total experience, which incidentally, is recorded in the here-to-fore uninteresting textbook.

It was upon this premise--the teaching potential of local resources and the ability of young people to interpret them--that eminent historian Walter Prescott Webb established the Junior Historian program for middle and high school students and years later the Texas State Historical Association established in his honor the Webb Historical Society for the college and university level. As members of these two organizations, thousands of Texas students have, through DISCOVERY, become INVOLVED in history. Through a wide variety of chapter activities, history emerges as a living experience. They DISCOVER a grandfather who captured a bandit in a cave, a grandfather who trailed cattle to Colorado, a neighbor who "flew the air mail" before airlines carried passengers, and a great aunt who, as a justice of the peace, gave a community its only law and order. And in this process of DISCOVERY, the students achieve an appreciation for the local members of society as their role in the community's history emerges.

Webb Society members can record their experiences in research papers for publication in the journal Touchstone or in a variety of other formats that can be shared at the organization's Annual Meeting each spring. Some recent titles reflect the high adventure they experience in DISCOVERING LOCAL HISTORY: "The End of an Empire: The Fall of Galveston's Free State," "LULAC 1929-1960: The Emergence of Latino Power," and "An Opportunity to Serve Mankind is All They Ask: The Role of Oveta Culp Hobby in the Women's Army Corp." When these local experiences are projected in a state and national context, the students see history--textbook history--as a totality, a vast framework of experiences made-up of all people of all colors, both rural and urban, that comprise something called the American Experience.

Recent educational research confirms the effectiveness of this strategy of engaging students in in-depth study on a topic in which they have some choice, then allowing them to express what they have learned through a variety of methods. The active nature of many of the suggested activities helps to create multiple connections between the content being learned and the experiences of the student, thus promoting long-term retention. The hands-on activities suggested as part of the Webb Society program appeal to a wide variety of students with a wide variety of skill levels and experience.

By applying local history examples and resources to state, national and international events, one can bring relevance to the content, while incorporating the skills that students need to succeed. Clifford L. Lord, author of Teaching History with Community Resources, noted the potential of the community teaching resource bonanza as follows: "Community resources put life into history. Localized history puts history into the life of the pupil. The materials are legion and of infinite variety; the possibilities are numberless; the horizons are unlimited. And so to work."

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The History of the Webb Society

Inspired by the success of the Junior Historian Movement, a group of faculty and students from several Texas colleges and universities met at Baylor University in October of 1973 and created a state-wide nexus of college and university history organizations. Under the leadership of Kenneth Ragsdale, Director of Educational Services for TSHA and hosted by Tom Charlton of the Baylor Department of History, the meeting had as its stated purpose the development of goals and priorities for the organization. The new organization, named in honor of the legendary Texas historian, Walter Prescott Webb, author of The Great Plains, The Texas Rangers, and The Great Frontier, first took root at Lubbock Christian College and Wayland Baptist College later that fall. A special Webb Society session was incorporated into the program of TSHA’s annual meeting where the various chapters could report on their activities for the year. In its first full year of existence, with the enthusiastic support of TSHA president, Ralph Wooster, the C. M. and Cora Caldwell Memorial Awards were established through the generosity of Mr. Clifton Caldwell of Albany, Texas. Because of these early successes, new chapters were established at other colleges and universities laying the foundation for further growth and accomplishment.

Following the retirement of Kenneth Ragsdale, David DeBoe began his tenure as Director of Educational Services. One of DeBoe’s early contributions to the Webb Society program was the institution of Touchstone, the TSHA’s journal of undergraduate research. The journal, original proposed at the 1973 conference, began as a cooperative venture between the Association and East Texas Baptist University (ETBU) through its Center of American Studies Education. Sheridan Nichols served as editor with Gwin Morris of ETBU as Managing Editor and David DeBoe for TSHA as Associate Editor. The first issue offered nine articles by students representing East Texas Baptist University, University of Texas at Tyler, Wayland Baptist University, San Jacinto College-North, and Lee College. In 1991, Lee College became the managing editors under the leadership of John Britt and James Maroney. In Touchstone’s first twenty-four volumes, over one hundred-seventy student authored articles were published. In many cases this was the first time students had an opportunity to see their work in print.

The history of the Walter Prescott Webb Historical Society is one characterized by numerous noteworthy accomplishments. Through published research and historical activism, Webb Society members have added to the body of historical knowledge on Texas and the Southwest while encouraging an awareness of history through their varied activities and projects. Those individuals who first envisioned a network of college students dedicated to the study of history in their communities indeed left an enduring legacy. Thousands of students and college/university faculty have been inspired to continue their interest in history and the preservation of the heritage of Texas.

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