Two years ago at Thanksgiving, I wrote about my gratitude for the ways Donald Trump’s America had become a great place to teach history. I think what I wrote has held up well.
This year, after another general election—and during a mismanaged pandemic that has already killed some of my friends’ relatives, made the death of one of my friends (from other causes) lonelier and more surreal, forced some students to drop my courses because they couldn’t function for weeks after they were infected, and made effective teaching at any level all but impossible—I’m taking stock again.
It takes more effort to write it this time. But here’s why I’m still thankful I get to teach history in the age of Donald Trump.
Reason 1: Students are arriving in college with greater interest in history.
When I wrote two years ago, I observed that my college students were “more interested in history than they were before 2015,” with “a greater sense of history’s stakes.” That statement has held true. But now, I also have reason to believe this shift is happening in high schools, not just colleges.
My evidence is purely anecdotal, gathered from social media and from informal surveys of my students. But I have never before seen such strong indications from new undergraduates that they believe history is important to learn.
Assuming I’m right about that, it raises a couple of questions for which I don’t have definite answers.
First, are students getting better history instruction in high school than they once did? My anecdotal evidence is inconclusive on that point, or on the reasons that might be happening. But I think it’s possible.
Second, regardless of the answer to that question, are specific current events motivating students to take interest in history? Here I have strong suspicions.
For example, are the Black Lives Matter protests, which have made a strong impression on high schoolers in the United States, generating stronger awareness of Black history? Has the Trump-era activism of historians on social media, particularly on Twitter, promoted young Americans’ interest in history as something active and potentially exciting? What about the work of writers like Elaine Welteroth (formerly) of Teen Vogue, promoting a kind of activist youth culture, especially among girls, that is explicitly informed by history and its place in critical theory?
When I started teaching college students, the highest levels of initial engagement with history (especially U.S. history) among new undergraduates often came from apparently conservative-leaning young men. (Of course, this would vary with the institution and the course.) Today, I would definitely no longer say that.
What’s even more striking is that I hear new undergraduate students saying history is important even when they don’t report a high level of personal interest, and even when they say their high school experiences with history were unpleasant. That’s a really remarkable development, and I’m profoundly thankful for it.
Reason 2: Students find 20th-century binaries unpersuasive.
I’m hardly the first instructor to notice a difference between millennials and zoomers. Most of those differences are a matter of degree, and, of course, generations are semi-mythical constructs at best. But some differences seem to be fundamental.
Generally speaking, American millennials grew up in a time of extraordinary optimism and comfort, only to confront September 11, media fragmentation, and the Great Recession at critical moments in their young adult lives. They were also adults, or nearly so, when the United States elected its first Black president. Members of Generation Z seem to be different. For them, those epoch-making events have always been history. Just as crucially, they are also the first-ever generation of Americans among whom non-Hispanic whites are not a solid majority.
Rather than posing difficulties for older frameworks of understanding, as in the case of most millennials, these developments have to be a starting point for new frameworks for Gen Z.
This helps account for something that would be easy for older observers to misinterpret. Undergraduates today tend to be highly intellectually diffuse. They find old intellectual oppositions confusing—not so much disagreeable as difficult to bring into focus.
Over the last few years, for example, students in my classes have found it harder and harder to define the terms “conservatism” and “liberalism” at all. Today, they usually identify these words entirely with a few cultural issues and signifiers, with little sense that they relate to any comprehensive ideologies that could be articulated clearly.
Of course, during the last decade or so, older Americans seem to have drifted into intellectual diffusion too. Much of the Trump phenomenon, it seems, derives from the scrambling of what many people imagined were the basic tenets of conservative or liberal behavior among older Americans.
But Donald Trump’s appeal lies partly in activating 60-year-old racial and cultural resentments—grievances from a time before the full polarization of liberalism and conservatism in Democratic and Republican parties. For the most part, these resentments don’t seem to resonate the same way with younger Americans, who don’t remember that earlier period.
What happened instead? For their part, I think, millennials experienced the discrediting of the late 20th century’s conservative-liberal binary around the time they entered adulthood. But for Generation Z, that binary has never been comprehensible.
This, along with absurd disconnects between ideology and economic reality in 21st-century America, is crucial context for understanding both groups’ positive regard for “socialism” in recent years. Many older Americans—especially, but by no means exclusively, on the right—have responded to this development with alarm, fearing an upsurge in violent far-left ideologies, without always noticing how much “socialism” has become a free-floating term for almost any critique of the existing social order.
Similar factors also may help explain, for example, why zoomers are dramatically more likely than other generations to be comfortable with fluid gender roles and identities. This is a much more complicated topic, I think. But one factor involved is probably Gen Z’s greater distance from distinctive post-World-War-II cultural burdens related to gender.
But why am I, as a history teacher, thankful for these developments, given that they seem to involve a measure of historical forgetfulness? (After all, I spend a lot of time trying to teach my students the meanings of conservatism and liberalism in the 20th century.) Well, every generation has left behind something that was crucial to the worldviews of their forebears, so I’m not sure the process should be intrinsically alarming. History necessarily involves change, and this is an example.
But in any case, as a practical matter, I am thankful that in 2020 I get to teach undergraduates who are not only excited about history but also remarkably open to historical interpretations. They are trying to assemble an understanding of the world more than to impose an inherited understanding on it.
As they do that, they have become much less likely than my millennial students were to adopt a noncommittal both-sides-were-partly-right view of past disagreements. Millennials had a habit of trying to reconcile ideological opposites when they were in college. Zoomers have a habit of simply ignoring them as they seek out the most reasonable explanations and positions to take.
Reason 3: Tenured academics know higher education’s survival is at stake.
Rich Americans will probably always have access to a superb university education. But for the rest of us, the future is cloudy at best. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated changes that threaten the survival of the higher education system that Americans have known since World War II.
Contingent faculty members and professional staff members have been victims of the crisis for years now—and we have been warning about the scale of the crisis for years. Many of us have had the sense that many tenured faculty members and high-level administrators simply did not understand the gravity of the overall situation even when they expressed sincere sympathy with us on a personal level.
This year, I don’t think that’s true anymore. The pandemic has wrecked research plans, stalled career progress, slashed program budgets, provided cover for mass layoffs of tenured faculty members, and forced long-tenured professors to prioritize undergraduate teaching in a way many have not had to do for years.
In the process, the pandemic has demonstrated that college executives and trustees care far, far less about scholarship than academia trains tenure-track academics to assume. It has demonstrated vividly that compensation for teaching work is bestowed arbitrarily rather than as an equitable reward for either scholarly or pedagogical merit. The high-handed behavior of some college administrations during the emergency has also broken what remained of their trust with faculty and staff members.
And most importantly of all, the pandemic has forced everyone working in universities to fix their attention on the problem of declining enrollment, along with the forces driving it—including the student debt crisis, fierce political hostility to higher education in its current form, and the notion that higher education’s only legitimate purpose is career preparation—a disastrous notion that many colleges and universities have actively promoted.
This year at Thanksgiving, I am grateful that living in denial has become much more difficult.
Image: Protest march in Minneapolis, May 26, 2020. Cropped photograph by Flickr user Fibonacci Blue, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY 2.0).