How We Talk about Heroes with Feet of Clay

Earlier this week, near the end of class in my modern U.S. survey, an undergraduate student posed a provocative and timely question: Why do we only want to talk about the good things people from history did, and not the bad things? I think the wording was pretty close to that, though I don’t recall exactly.

In the context of the lesson, the student’s question was about public monuments, and specifically the colossal presidential faces of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. (My student particularly mentioned George Washington’s slaveholding as an example of an inconvenient truth about a historical figure.) But the question also seemed to voice a complaint about the student’s experiences in K-12 education.

We were about to run out of class period, so we tabled this question for the next lesson.

I wanted to make sure we discussed this question properly because a lot of the students in this class are education majors. Whether or not they specialize in social studies, they’ll soon be dropped into a public maelstrom centered on this problem. And many of them will have to decide how they are going to teach children responsibly about flawed figures from America’s past.

Discussion backdrop with detail from a photograph by Sergio Olmos, via OPB

To set up the conversation at the beginning of the next class period, I looked up a story from two years ago.

In October 2020—on the weekend before the federal holiday that Oregon would later designate as Indigenous Peoples Day—some two hundred people in Portland participated in an “Indigenous Peoples Day of Rage.” By the end of that night, some of the protesters had pulled down statues of Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, defaced a mural of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and smashed windows at the Oregon Historical Society, accusing that organization of “honoring racist colonizer murderers.”

I focused on this story because—much more than the recent destruction of some other kinds of monuments—it presents us with legitimately challenging questions about public memory. (We’re toppling Lincoln now? Really?)

It also involves a specific atrocity I discussed in the last class period. Painted across the plinth of the Lincoln statue in Portland that night in 2020 were the words “Dakota 38”: a reference to Abraham Lincoln’s approval of the public mass execution of 38 prisoners after the U.S.-Dakota War in Minnesota in 1862. The statue’s hand was also painted red, presumably to signify Lincoln’s guilt as the Dakotas’ murderer. He had authorized, notoriously, the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

Basically, I didn’t want to make this conversation too easy. If we wanted to talk about hard truths, we should talk about hard truths, not easy ones. Thus, to begin our discussion in the following class period, I displayed a photograph taken that night in 2020 by the Portland journalist Sergio Olmos, and I briefly explained the story of the protest.

Then I posed two questions for the whole class. First, if you agree with the premise of your colleague’s question—that we usually want to talk about only the good, and not the badwhy do you think we’re like that? Second, how can we do better when we talk about our past?

The ensuing conversation lasted half an hour—a substantial portion of our total class time.

Out of an abundance of caution about protecting my students’ privacy, especially considering the political sensitivity of the discussion, I won’t go into the details of what they contributed. But I can tell you for sure that this issue has been on the minds of some of these students.

They are keenly aware that it’s a hot political topic. They understand that politics directly shapes what K-12 teachers can safely say about American history at work. And they already have strong opinions about this, opinions they have formulated with considerable care—in most cases, I’m quite sure, before arriving in my classroom.

Even though I’m being discreet about the contents of this class discussion, I’m writing about this because I think it’s important for American citizens who aren’t attending our colleges and universities to understand that these conversations are happening. It’s also important to understand that students are often coming to their own conclusions before they arrive in the college classroom.

And sometimes, correctly or not, they believe they’re reaching these conclusions in spite of the way they’ve been taught in primary and secondary schools, as much as because of it.

A New Career for History Majors

Many American humanities professors are worrying about evidence that students are avoiding us. Partly due to the extreme cost of a typical college education today, combined with the economic insecurity of our younger middle class, undergraduates are not only deciding not to major in humanities disciplines like history, but—even more worryingly—are also likely more likely than college graduates in other fields to regret their choice later if they do.

Into this darkness comes a sudden ray of hope: a brand-new career opportunity for history majors. And it’s lucrative!

I think we can expect a rebound in history enrollments once young people realize that studying history can prepare you very well to compete for a rewarding job as the king of England.

I discovered this recently when I heard a BBC radio report that mentioned that the newly elevated Charles III studied archaeology at Trinity College, Cambridge, in the 1960s. Looking into this, I found that Charles had indeed studied archaeology and anthropology at first, but had switched to history for the latter part of his time at Trinity.

Now, I’m not exactly an expert on how subject examinations work at Cambridge, but as I understand it, this meant Charles’s baccalaureate degree was indeed a B.A. in history when he earned it in 1970.

In any case, that’s how the New York Times reported it at the time. Describing “the first university degree to be earned by an heir to the British crown,” the Times noted the following:

The degree awarded, based on examination results, was an honors degree in history, Class 2, Division 2. That is about the average at Cambridge — ‘a good middle stream result,’ as one don put it.

There are three classes of honors degrees, awarded according to grades, and the second class in turn has two divisions. …

The Prince’s tutor, Dr. Denis Marrian, senior tutor at Trinity, was asked whether Charles had been in any trouble as an undergraduate. ‘Nothing went wrong,’ was the reply. ‘In fact, I think you’ll find I have more hair now than I did three years ago.’

According to a recent story in the Guardian, the British monarch’s main income last year (the “sovereign grant,” a sort of royal allowance from the government), amounted to £86.3 million, or $98.2 million. That’s revenue derived from official wealth totaling an estimated £17 billion or so. (The crown owns expensive parts of London, much of the sea floor, the swans, etc.) In addition, the late queen had a private fortune estimated this year at £370 million; presumably much of that has passed to Charles III. Being the monarch also means significantly expanded access to housing in today’s tight market.

Seen at sunset: Just one of the exciting benefits of a career in history
Photo by David Iliff, 2006 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

I think we can all agree that this means a bachelor’s degree in history, even with only average grades, can be an excellent investment for a student’s future economic security. I trust American colleges and universities won’t overlook this crucial opportunity to publicize the value of what we do.

To be fair, though, it’s a career with limited opportunities for promotion.

A Democratic Rationale for Public Higher Education

It is not enough to see to it that education is not actively used as an instrument to make easier the exploitation of one class by another. School facilities must be secured of such amplitude and efficiency as will in fact and not simply in name discount the effects of economic inequalities, and secure to all the wards of the nation equality of equipment for their future careers. Accomplishment of this end demands not only adequate administrative provision of school facilities, and such supplementation of family resources as will enable youth to take advantage of them, but also such modification of traditional ideals of culture, traditional subjects of study and traditional methods of teaching and discipline as will retain all the youth under educational influences until they are equipped to be masters of their own economic and social careers.

— John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (New York: Macmillan, 1916), 114

Class at a Historic Site: The Glassboro Summit of 1967

History, the Past, and Public Culture

Last year, the American Historical Association released the results of a detailed survey about how Americans interact with history. One finding caught my attention.

Nine in ten respondents indicated they trusted museums (90%) or historic sites (88%) either “some” or “a great deal” to convey “an accurate account of history”—compared with only three in four who said the same about college professors (76%) or high school teachers (70%). The intensity of their trust was striking, too: Respondents were three times as likely to trust museums or historic sites a great deal as to say the same about high school teachers.

Looking closer, I found something especially interesting. Historic sites, even more than museums, enjoy a distinctive level of trust among Americans who tend to be skeptical of other information sources.

For example, only 18% of Republican respondents said they placed a great deal of faith in college professors, whom they were just as likely not to trust at all. But 57% of Republicans said they trusted historic sites a great deal. Except for religious texts, in fact, historic sites were the only sources of historical information that Republicans were more likely to trust strongly than Democrats were.

A chart showing that 57 percent of Republicans, 47 percent of Democrats, 48 percent of independents, and 42 percent of people with no preference said they had "a great deal" of trust in historic sites.
Trust in historic sites as sources for “an accurate account of history,” by political party.
Fig. 45 in “History, the Past, and Public Culture,” 2021

These results suggest to me that historic sites may be uniquely important tools for engaging skeptical audiences—including, perhaps, earning the trust of students in high school and college.

Mulling this over, it occurred to me that skeptical Americans probably think of historic sites as primary sources. They may place greater faith in them because they sense that historic sites give them more immediate access to the past. (Of course, there are several other important factors in play, too, but let’s not overcomplicate the blogpost.)

This immediately focused my attention on a teaching idea I’d already had. And it brought together different aspects of my idea, which I now saw with new clarity. I suddenly got more serious about making a plan.


This autumn, I’m scheduled to teach a modern U.S. history survey course at Rowan University in southern New Jersey. As it happens, Rowan’s campus was the site of a high-level Cold War diplomatic meeting in 1967.

Press conference in front of Hollybush, from Rowan’s Glassboro Summit Collection

That summer, President Lyndon Johnson invited the Soviet premier, Alexei Kosygin, to speak with him at Hollybush, also known as the Whitney Mansion. That was the home of the president of what was then called Glassboro State College.

As you may already have guessed, this building still exists on campus.

A newspaper front page in Rowan’s Glassboro Summit Collection

Usefully for my teaching purposes, the Glassboro Summit was not only local. It also involved several distinct topics of interest in this course, including nuclear disarmament, the Vietnam War, and the Six-Day War. Although Rowan’s summit was less immediately consequential than some others, therefore, it’s actually a pretty good window into the Cold War.

Today, the restored Hollybush mansion is maintained by Rowan University as a space for special events. So I’ve requested permission to hold class there one day this semester. And it now looks like I’ll be allowed to do it.

If my plan works, we’ll have an on-site discussion of primary sources related to the event. I’ll ask my students to read, view, or listen to those sources beforehand; furthermore, I’ll allow the students themselves to select some of the sources they’ll examine.

These primary sources may include:

Many of these sources are available through the Glassboro Summit Collection, a project hosted by the Rowan University Libraries Digital Scholarship Center. Before my class heads to Hollybush, therefore, I’m asking a DSC representative to come speak with us in our regular classroom about that collection.

If everything works, we’ll devote most of one class period to getting to know our digitized primary source collections, with help from a curator; then I’ll give students a few days to explore those collections on their own; and then we’ll convene in Hollybush to discuss what students have discovered—speaking together in the actual rooms where the summit took place.

I am pretty excited about this plan.

Looking Ahead: National Voter Registration Day

This year, elections will be held across the United States on November 8. It’s a good idea for American college instructors (and some secondary teachers) to help eligible students learn how to participate.

One way to do that: Observe the tenth annual National Voter Registration Day in class on September 20. This nonpartisan event, endorsed by a wide array of civic and professional organizations, provides a convenient excuse to explain the concept of voter registration, point students toward appropriate resources, and encourage them to plan ahead.

To make sure I won’t miss the day, I’m already setting up course announcements already in my various LMSes. They’re scheduled to go live automatically on the morning of September 20. I’m using variations on this template, adding appropriate links to specific webpages:

This year, [State] is holding elections on November 8. Although 2022 is not a presidential election year, the stakes are still high for [State] residents. All of [State]’s members of Congress are being chosen. So are many state and other local officials, depending on where you live. If you’re a U.S. citizen who will be eligible to vote that day, you want to make sure your voice will be heard! That means making sure you’re registered to vote.

Today, September 20, is National Voter Registration Day—a day to check on your registration status, register to vote if you haven’t already done it, and encourage other people to register to vote as well.

Even if you have registered before, it’s a good idea to make sure your registration is still current. (If you have moved or changed your name, or if you simply haven’t voted in a while, your registration may need to be updated.) And if you will be eligible to vote for the first time—for example, if you have recently turned 18 or attained U.S. citizenship—you definitely want to register now to avoid missing your chance to participate this year!

[State] has a convenient website for all your election needs: [URL]. If you live in [State], you can use this website to check on your voter registration status, learn about voting as a college student, apply for a mail-in ballot instead of voting in person, and—of course—register to vote if you aren’t already registered or if you need to update your registration. The website can also answer your questions about whether you’re eligible to vote.

(If you’re not a [State] resident, you can use the National Voter Registration Day website to find out how to register in your own state for any elections that may be happening there this year.)

The deadline to register to vote in [State] if you want to participate in this year’s election is [date]. But don’t wait! Act today to make sure you won’t be left out. 

Of course, I’ll pair this announcement with appropriate instruction in class on September 20, as well as with ongoing reminders as various deadlines approach.

“Finding New Angles at Which to Enter Reality”

It should be said, first of all, that description is itself a political act. … Writers and politicians are natural rivals. Both groups try to make the world in their own images; they fight for the same territory.

— Salman Rushdie, “Imaginary Homelands,” London Review of Books (Oct. 7, 1982)

“It’s Made Me a Very Proud German”

In this short video, Katharina Matro, a high school teacher who works in Maryland but grew up in Germany, reflects on the benefits of confronting hard truths about the national past. The video was recorded for the American Historical Association’s “Teaching History with Integrity” project.

Matro refers in this video to a great line in the 2020 memorial address by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the president of Germany: “This country can only be loved with a broken heart.”

French Summers in Austin in the Age of Abu Ghraib

The Rio Grande (downtown) campus of Austin Community College
Cropped from a 2014 photograph by Larry D. Moore (CC BY-SA 3.0)

When I recall my time in college almost two decades ago, I remember scenes and moods.

The prickling of my damp skin when I stepped into air-conditioned buildings in August in the Piney Woods. The odd thrill of sneaking into classrooms late at night to watch classic movies on the projector screens while student security guards turned a blind eye. Basking in the love of my new friends as I walked back to my dorm through pouring rain, which seemed to keep coming down throughout that October. But also the loneliness and impotent anger I felt as an antiwar student at an evangelical Christian college in Texas during the early 2000s. Then the exhaustion and euphoria that hit me in the middle of each week around 3 a.m. during the misbegotten semester when all seven of my classes met on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And then, as looming storm clouds forced the outdoor ceremony into the basketball arena on the day I finally graduated, feeling as happy, sad, confident, and scared as I’ve ever been, then sensing catharsis as the rain started while our new local congressman, Louie Gohmert, gave our commencement address.

A few days ago, I learned about the deaths of two people who defined two of my summers during those years.

Continue reading “French Summers in Austin in the Age of Abu Ghraib”

How to Study a History Textbook

In my work as a college teacher, students often ask for advice about how to study their textbooks. Since I keep offering the same advice, I thought I should write it here in case it’ll be useful to other students. I’ve asked some other college and high school teachers what advice they would offer, too.


Let’s be honest: Using history textbooks is hard.

By “textbook,” in this case, I don’t mean just any kind of history book. Sometimes instructors do ask you to read other kinds, and we may refer to all of them informally as textbooks. But in many of your courses, a textbook may be a special kind of oversized, expensive book, designed exclusively to be used for school. You’re probably never going to read a history textbook for fun. Often, you’ll have to take quizzes or exams based on it.

Now, a lot of history teachers today don’t assign this kind of textbook at all. But there’s a good chance yours does. And these books can be deceptively difficult to use. They’re supposed to be relatively easy to read. But if you’re trying to sit down and read one straight through, you’re likely to find it boring, overwhelming, or just impossible to follow.

Students tell me all the time that they’ve carefully read a textbook chapter, even studied it more than once, only to discover that they can hardly remember anything they’ve read. Or that they studied part of a textbook and thought they were ready for an exam, only to discover that the questions on the test were completely different from what they had expected.

These are common problems. So let me offer some advice from the perspective of history teachers.

Continue reading “How to Study a History Textbook”

Things I’m Reading to Prepare for Fall

We’ve somehow reached that the point in the summer when I suddenly have just four to six weeks left to finish planning all my fall courses. That means I need to find my focus and motivation … fast.

Typically, for me, that means reading things that could fire the imagination, generating excitement about what’s possible in the upcoming semester. This week, I’ve queued up a few freely available publications—open resources that don’t require access to a library (or venturing out into the heat).

First, there’s The APA Guide to College Teaching: Essential Tools and Techniques Based on Psychological Science (PDF), published in 2020 by the American Psychological Association’s Committee on Associate and Baccalaureate Education. (It was inspired by an earlier publication for K-12 teachers.) This 46-page report identifies 21 evidence-based principles for teachers working in higher education, pairing each principle with brief but specific advice.

For the sake of balance, though not necessarily contradiction, I’m also reading a brief appeal the English instructor John Schlueter wrote for the AAUP’s newsletter in 2019, called “In Search of What We Do”—together with a classic article that helped inspire it, Elliott Eisner’s 1983 essay on “The Art and Craft of Teaching.” Both of these texts warn against overly prescriptive and rationalistic (“teacher-proof”) theories of undergraduate education, which run the risk of making us forget that getting a college education is about liberating one’s imagination as a member of specific and dynamic communities of students.

Next, to assist with my effort to do a better job helping burned-out COVID-era students identify the importance and relevance of history—and perhaps also to teach U.S. history more persuasively in the current political climate—I’m studying the American Historical Association’s 2021 report History, the Past, and Public Culture: Results from a National Survey (PDF). This 112-page publication offers very detailed information for thinking with, as well as a series of ten summary statements on the “challenges and opportunities” the data reveal.

I’m also revisiting a great article by Kimberly D. Tanner, “Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity,” which was published in CBE Life Sciences Education in 2013. Why am I reading an article for biologists? Because it’s applicable to any undergraduate course. Tanner’s article is an especially clear and well-organized discussion of basic challenges and almost two dozen practical techniques for encouraging participation from students who otherwise might be left out.

Finally, because I’m teaching at two Catholic colleges again this fall, I’m rereading a 1993 educational statement released by the Society of Jesus: “Ignatian Pedagogy: A Practical Approach” (PDF). Most history teachers, of course, don’t need to worry about the specific theological commitments than animate this text. But the Jesuit order has a 500-year tradition of conceptualizing education as an imaginative, reflective, and aesthetic enterprise that prepares learners to become leaders in the world. Though not a Catholic myself, I always find this text energizing.