Tell Me About Your History Classes

I would like to hear your thoughts.

In these unsettled times, one of my ongoing long-term activities is a book project related to teaching. If it works out, the book I’m developing may help teachers overcome some of the particular challenges of presenting history in ways that students (in secondary school and college) find engaging and intellectually satisfying. It’s still a bit early to get more specific than that because I would like your help making sure this project is relevant to students.

As part of my early background research, I’m hoping to collect comments from adults who have taken history and social studies classes at some point in their lives. Over the years, I’ve spoken informally with a lot of people who have definite opinions about the history they had in school or college. Now I would like to collect some of those opinions more systematically.

I want to know what your experiences were like, what you think your teachers did well or poorly, and how things could have gone better. Maybe you had great experiences; maybe you had terrible experiences; maybe your experiences were neutral or mixed. I want to hear your thoughts in all of these cases!

If you’d like to help me out, please consider responding to this brief questionnaire. (The link will take you to a Google form.)

Please answer as many or as few of the questions as seem relevant to you. This is an opportunity for you to talk about your experiences, not a scientific survey. Your thoughts can be completely anonymous if you wish, too.

Thank you for your contribution to this project! And please consider circulating the link to the questionnaire among other people you think might enjoy participating.

“Many Students Are Now Taught in School to Hate Their Own Country”

I have been reluctant to comment on the “1776 Report.”

If you aren’t familiar with it, this is a document that Donald Trump’s White House published early this week. Signed by the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission—a panel Trump created to promote “patriotic education,” which was given its name in direct criticism of the New York Times’s “1619 Project”—it drew predictable outrage from academic historians.

I wasn’t sure I had anything useful to add to the conversation about it, especially considering that Joe Biden took office only two days later, rendering the “1776 Report” a dead letter. Biden disbanded the 1776 Commission on Wednesday afternoon with his first executive order. (The “1776 Report” was archived as a matter of routine when the new administration took office. It is available in the National Archives’ copy of the Trump presidential website.)

However, some conservative activists seem to be rallying around the “1776 Report” even now. And historians’ responses to the text are unlikely to persuade most American conservatives that anything is wrong with it. In any case, the controversy isn’t really about United States history as such. (I mean, it is, but that’s not why it matters.)

Fundamentally, the “1776 Report” is about America’s history teachers and how they do their work.

When Donald Trump signed the executive order creating the 1776 Commission, he asserted that “many students are now taught in school to hate their own country.” That incendiary statement is the heart of the controversy over the “1776 Report.”

I do have some things to say about that.

On a reasonably objective reading, there are three fundamental problems with the way the 1776 Commission went about its work, plus a major problem with its claims about what American students learn in school. Let me describe these problems one by one.

Continue reading ““Many Students Are Now Taught in School to Hate Their Own Country””

“There Was a Shining Moment”

A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle [I and others have been waging in America]. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war. …

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, ‘What about Vietnam?’ They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. …

Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’ It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that ‘America will be’ are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land. …

If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

—Martin Luther King Jr., “Beyond Vietnam,” April 4, 1967

For context, see Christina Knight, “Martin Luther King’s Most Controversial Speech.” A recording of the address, which was given at Riverside Church in New York, may be heard here:

Land of Many Voices: Teaching a Truer National Story

Last weekend, in my response to Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, I focused on what I think Wilfred McClay got wrong about teaching U.S. history. I wrote that McClay’s version of an American nation-narrative lacks “a sense of real stakes, of divergent possibilities, of the weight of choices and conflicts in their own moments” because it shies away from conflict.

Land of Hope does not want its major American protagonists to have been disastrously, avoidably, mulishly wrong—they can have been badly mistaken, but they must have meant well. It apparently wants history’s apparent losers to have been inevitable victims, doomed by forces beyond anyone’s control or by paradoxes with no way out, rather than to have been acted upon by other people who made choices that could have been made differently, choices against which the oppressed protested and fought at the time. And it does not want national reform to have come through vicious struggles for power.

That last desire, I think, helps explain Wilfred McClay’s strident criticism of the “1619 Project” in other venues, despite the deeply patriotic and humane spirit it shows. The 1619 Project asserted not that America is irredeemably corrupt, as some of its critics seem to think it did, but that everything good about America has come through struggle—specifically, struggle by people who don’t play a very active role in Land of Hope. “Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans,” Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote, “our democracy today would most likely look very different—it might not be a democracy at all.” That is a contingency Land of Hope cannot seem to face.

The fear of contingency thwarts Land of Hope’s stated purpose of giving students an inspiring and coherent national narrative. Stories without meaningful conflict, without the possibility of different outcomes, are lifeless to everyone except perhaps those who identify most strongly with the actual outcomes. Worse, they are also ahistorical, in the sense that most academically trained historians believe contingency is a core concept of their discipline.

Yet I strongly sympathize with McClay’s goal of producing a student-friendly history of the United States that not only holds together as a story, but also provokes sustained reflection on normative American civic values. I often have been critical of academic training in history that does not teach instructors how to build narratives in the classroom.

I would even say that McClay’s narrative voice is often a voice I recognize in myself. We are both unabashed moralists, at the end of the day, committed to the idea that studying American history can make people better citizens. And frankly, I am quite conservative in temperament; there’s something in the book’s temperature, as it were, that I find comfortable—an inclination to be patient with flawed institutions, perhaps, and a conviction that it is as important to shore up valuable aspects of existing American life as it is to fight for reform.

So what is my alternative to McClay’s approach? How do I think a “great American story” can be told better? How, in fact, do I try to tell such a story in the classroom?

Continue reading “Land of Many Voices: Teaching a Truer National Story”

An America Where Everyone Meant Well

At the U.S. Intellectual History Blog, I have a post today about Wilfred McClay’s 2019 United States history survey textbook Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, along with the teacher’s guide co-written by John McBride. My essay is a companion to a more thorough review by Thomas D. Mackie last week.

We wrote our responses independently, but Mackie and I came to similar conclusions about what the book does right, what’s missing from its picture of U.S. history, and what we find strange about its understanding of the history teacher’s job.

The question my response poses, though not in these words, is this: Why do McClay and some other historians seem to think we are “condescend[ing] toward the past” when we teach history as if people made choices, they could have made different choices, others disagreed with their choices at the time, and their choices mattered?

National Greatness Is a Moving Target

It is this appreciation for change and multiple perspectives that makes the U.S. history classroom a poor place to inculcate or beat back patriotism. ‘How great are we?’ is simply not the question history seeks to answer. ‘How did we get here?’ is closer to the mark.

The point of history is not to list all the good things or bad things that have happened, nor to strike some desired balance between them. It’s to understand origins, persistence and change. We teach it because we hope that knowing how slavery ended or the Second World War began will equip students to think intelligently about the present. History helps them to see why and by whom their world was built. It shows them how visions have had consequences — sometimes far-reaching, sometimes unintended. It gives them the intellectual tools to act on their society: a complex, dynamic place that is theirs to change or conserve.

The aim of history class isn’t to get students to love or loathe their country. It’s to prepare them to live in it.

Daniel Immerwahr, “History Isn’t Just for Patriots,” Washington Post, Dec. 23, 2020

Human Seriousness

Cover of 'Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life,' by Zena Hitz

Free adults who undertake sustained and serious inquiry are not made from scratch—they are cultivated on trust. Education begins from the assumption that students are capable of taking responsibility for their own learning and that they are naturally motivated, even driven from within to pursue fundamental questions. That assumption is based on nothing other than the simple humanity of the student and the student’s free choice to take up an education.

It is a commonplace of the theory of human excellence, going back at least to Aristotle, that virtues are learned by imitation. If we wish to promote the virtue of seriousness in young people, to pass on free inquiry, to lead students into the depths where real insight and understanding take place, we must first cultivate ourselves. We should remind ourselves of the human questions that once gripped us. We should reconsider our work, our choices, the broad scope of our lives in light of those questions. We must form the community of equals that human seriousness makes possible, and invite our students to join us.

—Zena Hitz, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (Princeton University Press, 2020), 196-197

“Never Waste a Good Pandemic,” He Actually Said

I’ve been quoted in Inside Higher Ed this morning.

Two days ago, the Twitter account of United Campus Workers Colorado, a new union local that organizes workers across the university, shared an announcement from the interim dean of arts and sciences at CU Boulder.

In the original message to his colleagues, James W.C. White announced that his college intends to meet (and exceed) a budget-cut target through “incentivized retirements of tenured and tenure-track faculty” in the arts and sciences, with the likely aim of replacing many tenure lines with a smaller number of jobs for contingent workers.

Yesterday, Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Ed interviewed me by email about why I have said (previously) that we should expect to see many more announcements like this in U.S. higher education in the coming years. Some of my response made it into her article after a comment about tenure by the dean (which I didn’t see before I wrote):

Asked about concerns that his plan chips away at tenure, White said, ‘That horse left the barn a long time ago. We weren’t the ones who did it.’

He added, ‘We have culture in higher education where our value as departments revolves around how many tenure-track positions we have and how many graduate students we have,’ and ‘we need to think about whether that is sustainable in the long run.’

Jonathan W. Wilson, an adjunct instructor of history at several institutions in Pennsylvania and New Jersey who has written about the adjunctification of higher education, said, ‘Things like this news from CU Boulder don’t surprise me at all. We’re going to see more and more stories like this.’

Once colleges proved that contingent workers were an ‘acceptable substitute’ for full-time professors in the classroom, ‘once the pool of excellent underemployed academics became big enough, and once public pressure and financial pressure built up enough, it was just a matter of time for many colleges to start dispensing with even the pretense of tenure,’ he said. ‘It’s an expensive anachronism. Contingent faculty members teach our courses for a small fraction of what tenure-track academics cost. And we’re much easier to fire if you don’t like the job we’re doing in the classroom.’

Like Wolf-Root, Wilson said that many contingent faculty members ‘do engage in research and publication. But mostly we do it on our own time and our own dime. It usually doesn’t result in any job security or recognition.’ Colleges and funding sources ‘don’t actually care much about scholarship,’ though, he added. ‘If they did, they would pay for it. Today, we’re just waiting for a coming wave of retirements to allow them to dispense with the pretense.’

You can read the rest of the article, including the quip from Dean White that I quoted in the post title, here at Inside Higher Ed.

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Edit: Having this opportunity, I would like to clarify one thing about my remarks in the article. When I said that many academic institutions and funders “don’t actually care much about scholarship,” I was referring to the role research has in undergraduate teaching.

Obviously, many institutions do sponsor research even when they don’t absolutely have to. However, hiring adjuncts and other contingent workers to teach core courses reveals that they don’t really believe research, or forms of job security designed to protect research, are crucial for most college teaching. When adjuncts are the only experience some students have with entire disciplines—when colleges routinely allow adjuncts to be the entire face of history, biology, English, chemistry, or mathematics for students who aren’t majoring in those subjects—they are revealing what they really think about the nature of higher education itself.

And because most American colleges and universities exist because they offer undergraduate instruction—that’s where most of their revenue and public support comes from, either directly or indirectly, even if they also get research grants—and because so many academic departments are “service” departments that exist because of general-education courses they provide to students majoring in other disciplines—anything that is not critical for basic college teaching can be sacrificed as pressure builds to cut costs.

Many established academics have been trained to find this unthinkable; they think research and publishing are their core mission because research is how they got hired, tenured, and promoted, and that is the basis of most of their professional relationships outside their institutions. But for purposes of long-term planning in a time of retrenchment, this is an illusion. Their employers don’t actually think research, or the tenure system designed to protect it, is necessary for doing most of their jobs.

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Edit 2: I think it’s worth reading John Warner’s Twitter thread (and now an Inside Higher Ed essay) on this situation. As Warner says, the real question is not whether tenure in its traditional form can be preserved. It’s whether post-tenure higher education will fairly compensate, retain, protect, and promote its non-tenure-track faculty members as they do their work.

Thus, I largely disagree with the demonization of James White that I’ve seen on social media since this news came out, although his wry phrasing was highly infelicitous. White has been ordered to slash his budget, and unless he can somehow resist that order as an interim dean, he effectively has no alternative but to propose cutting tenure lines.

He could have proposed moving to exploitive, degrading adjunct employment instead, but he didn’t. He proposed creating full-time lecturer positions—jobs for people who might conceivably be fairly paid and recognized for their teaching and provided with reasonable job security and health and retirement benefits. This is not inherently the wrong thing to do in the current academic environment. But it does mean dropping a pretense.

Why I’m Still Thankful I Teach in the Age of Trump

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.

Continue reading “Why I’m Still Thankful I Teach in the Age of Trump”