Parachutists and Truffle Hunters

Front cover of ‘Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History’

American history educators sometimes find themselves taking sides in a peculiar long-running battle of the culture war.

One side in the battle says that history instruction has become relativistic and impressionistic, discarding coherent narratives for fragmented particular stories. People who take this side believe that history is in danger of losing public support as an integrating force in civic life, and that students have a tenuous grasp of fundamental facts.

The other side says that traditional narratives depict nationalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and economic inequality as the natural order of things. People who take this side believe that historians must encourage students to think of history primarily as a critical process. A reliance on unified traditional narratives, they think, tends to perpetuate injustice. And the traditional canon of facts is largely a collection of facts about wealthy white men—what about the facts students should know about other people?

The picture I have just drawn is too stark. Most academically trained history instructors I know actually have a foot in each camp. As a matter of theory, too, both camps make a point that could be valid, and I suspect most well-trained history teachers take the point. But we tend to think one camp’s complaint has been exploited to nefarious ends more than the other’s.

But here’s where I think the battle could be more useful to the profession than it typically is: It should lead us to think about how students construct or question the larger narrative frameworks that they necessarily rely upon to make sense of critical history.

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We Need to Cover the Recent Past

TeachingUSHistory

This is a cross-post of today’s content on Teaching United States History, where I am blogging during the current academic year.

In 2014, the former interrogator Eric Fair asked young undergraduates at Lehigh University to recall what it had been like for them to learn about the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. They gave him blank looks. To these students, who had been small children in 2004, a scandal that had been a landmark in Fair’s recent life (and a turning point in contemporary global politics) was mere history.

Not just history. History they had never been taught.

Those of us designing modern survey courses this spring can do our students a favor by making sure to cover things we still think of as current events—including material from the 1990s and 2000s and probably even the 2010s. More time has passed than we realize.

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Don’t Be a Teacher Steve King Would Like

Speaking with the New York Times for an article published today, Congressman Steve King seems to have put one of his few remaining cards on the table:

Mr. King, in the interview, said he was not a racist. … At the same time, he said, he supports immigrants who enter the country legally and fully assimilate because what matters more than race is ‘the culture of America’ based on values brought to the United States by whites from Europe.

‘White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?’ Mr. King said. ‘Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?’

Those of us who teach American history—especially those of us who appear to be white—have a responsibility to design history courses that will refute the impression Steve King says he got in his.

“Our history and our civilization” are not white. From the beginning, and continuously to the present, the territories and societies that became the United States have involved and incorporated and held captive, as well as excluded and expropriated, non-European and non-Christian peoples.

The story of America, told honestly, is not a white story. It may indeed (unfortunately) be a story of white supremacy—but whiteness is not the story of “us.” Neither were the dominant cultures of the United States created by simply transplanting some supposedly European cultural essence to the western hemisphere.

Unfortunately, it is very easy for even truthful history teachers to fail to challenge the perception their students have already received long before they reach our courses.

In 2019, let’s make sure our students would have a very difficult time getting the impression Steve King got.

Painted in Bright Colors

Photograph of the cover of the book Everything Happens for a Reason

I can’t reconcile the way that the world is jolted by events that are wonderful and terrible, the gorgeous and the tragic. Except I am beginning to believe that these opposites do not cancel each other out. I see a middle-aged woman in the waiting room of the cancer clinic, her arms wrapped around the frail frame of her son. She squeezes him tightly, oblivious to the way he looks down at her sheepishly. He laughs after a minute, a hostage to her impervious love. Joy persists somehow and I soak it in. The horror of cancer had made everything seem like it is painted in bright colors. I think the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.

—Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved (New York: Random House, 2018), 123

Pessimism and Primary Sources in the History Survey

My friend Eran Zelnik poses an interesting problem related to students’ “emotional well being” in history courses:

It was, oddly enough, when I went back to my own work on my book, that I finally realized what was troubling me. It was the narrative trajectories I keep employing [as a lecturer]. Virtually all of them start on a positive note and end on a somber one.

From lectures about New England and Virginia during the late seventeenth century, through lectures on the American Revolution, to lectures on Redemption and Jim Crow, they all started with opportunities lost and ended with the retrenchment of power structures of one variety or another to the detriment of the majority.

Since—as I keep saying—narrative is fundamental to history at all levels, I think Eran is right to raise this as an issue.

The problem crystallized in my mind one day a few years ago. In the modern U.S. survey, I was covering 1950s society and mass culture. My young students seemed entranced by the cultural optimism I was describing. I commented on their reactions, and some of them explained that they were fascinated by—and perhaps needed (I’m pretty sure that was their word)—a vision of American optimism about the future. For they had come of age in a pessimistic time. And, I suspect, they had been paying attention to the narrative trajectory of some of my other lectures.

(Don’t worry. I did plenty of things to complicate their picture of 1950s optimism.)

This matters for reasons beyond emotional health. First, historians’ habits of pessimism tend to produce cynicism about public affairs. Second, if left unchecked, our pessimism also does an injustice to the vulnerable and marginalized people of the past—people who built lives of meaning for themselves amid the large-scale public failures we describe.

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The Snowflake Myth

 

snow-cotton-marywood

Today, Vox published my first-person essay about safe spaces and trigger warnings. There’s a lot more to say—including some things that were actually in the longer draft. But I think what I wrote is a pretty good encapsulation of the reasons that I (and a lot of other American college instructors) find the current public discussion of these topics to be misdirected.

Here’s what I see as the heart of the matter:

None of them asked for a trigger warning. None asked for a safe space. If they had, they would not have been avoiding ideas. All my students have ever requested is a way to keep engaging with the content — all the content — of my courses, in spite of setbacks. In other words, they want to finish the work they started.  …

Whether the debate over trigger warnings involves criticism within the academy or attacks from outside, it has contributed to popular clichés and ideological grudges that have little to do with what most students learn. Its stereotypes about students are mostly slander. Worse still, it promotes cynicism and closes minds.

Membership Has Its Privileges

presidentialcompensation2016

Today the Chronicle of Higher Education released new data on 2016 presidential compensation at nonprofit colleges and universities in the United States.

When Kenneth Starr left Baylor University in disgrace, his golden handshake made him the highest-paid university president of 2016—with total compensation of $4.95 million for the year. (We should all have such a discrediting.)

As Bloomberg points out, however, Starr has plenty of company in the millionaires’ club. The average college president, of the hundreds who are included in the Chronicle data, made $560,000 in total compensation for the year.

In the age of adjuncts, online classes, and lethal levels of student debt, university presidents’ compensation packages are only growing—and rapidly. Together with the toadyism of the many people who defend such avarice in “nonprofit” institutions, it’s one of the most ludicrous and transparently self-serving elements in the general crisis of American higher education.

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

TeachingUSHistory

This is a cross-post of today’s content on Teaching United States History, where I am blogging during the current academic year.

The 2016 election launched countless anxious responses from American academics. Many instructors reworked their syllabuses. Some worried about being targeted for harassment. Many became more explicit in the classroom about their political views. A creative writing professor, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, declared that “expanding the study of history could be an essential bulwark against the rising tide of misinformation, manipulation, and lies.”

“On a superficial level,” wrote Frank Cogliano, who teaches in Scotland, “Trump’s good for the business of teaching history. We’ve got more students than ever in our courses. … One of the unforeseen consequences of his election is that there’s probably not been a time in recent memory when it has been more to vital to be an historian.”

As others pointed out, though, there was nothing really new about the urgency of U.S. history in the age of Trump. What was new, perhaps, was the attention white Americans were paying. As my fellow Teaching U.S. History contributor Robert Greene observed this summer, “African Americans have led the way in this fight for over a century, refusing to yield to an explicitly white supremacist interpretation of the past.”

My modest contribution to this genre in the summer of 2017 was to argue a bit peevishly that the main job of college history teachers hadn’t changed at all.

* * *

Now two years have passed, and another general election has taken place in the United States, altering the political scene a bit. And this is the week of Thanksgiving. So I’m going to take stock and give thanks for one of the blessings I’ve received.

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Religious Beliefs in History: Viewpoints versus Conclusions

cornwallvillechurch-farmersmuseum

In the wake of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History’s recent annual conference, L.D. Burnett presents historians in the society with a question that relates to teaching as well as research. It’s a question about treating religious ideas with respect:

[S]hould we treat religious thought differently, as a special case, from other kinds of thought? Should we refrain from critiquing arguments as racist, or sexist, or anti-gay, or anti-woman, or anti-intellectual, because they proceed from a position of deep religious conviction?

That was the suggestion offered to me in conversation at USIH. …

These are the kinds of questions I have to think about as the editor of this blog. For, at the conference, someone suggested to me that religiously conservative intellectual historians feel unwelcome in this space.

I wasn’t a party to the original conversation and can’t address its particular context or nuances. But the question is important, and I think it comes up a lot in different forms.

For example, this question is part of the subtext of current academic debates over “viewpoint diversity.” (I hate that term, but it’s fairly widely used now.) In my understanding of the term, a viewpoint isn’t the same thing as a scholarly conclusion, so viewpoint diversity is different from what academics usually mean by “academic freedom.” It describes a much greater degree of intellectual openness and tolerance.

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