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.
As the summer begins, I’ve been fighting off a predictable cycle of postseason depression by enjoying a great new book about a different vocation. The book is The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act, by the dramatist Isaac Butler (Bloomsbury, 2022). My public library was kind enough to order a copy and reserve it for me.
Why is this book doing so much to cheer me up? Because it’s about a multigenerational group of people who dedicated themselves to figuring out how to tell truer stories—how to develop more vivid, more authentic, and more meaningful experiences for audiences watching the stage and screen.
It is flawed partly because its conception of liberal-humanistic education seems to be almost exclusively a Great Books model, which offers a limited view of what higher education should encompass. The book is important, on the other hand, because it’s written primarily, though not exclusively, to Americans who think of themselves as political conservatives, and it asks them to defy their own movement’s leaders by supporting, and generally having faith in, American colleges and universities.
I say Marks addresses readers who “think of themselves” as conservative because it’s not always clear how much practical common ground he has with the Trump-era conservative political movement, despite repeatedly declaring himself to be a conservative in this book and despite writing for well-known conservative publications including Commentary and the Weekly Standard over the years. A lot of self-declared conservative academics have that problem in 2021.
But nevermind: I know with some certainty that an audience exists for this book on today’s American right, however small a part of the conservative political coalition these readers may be. Likely readers include conservative high schoolers and new undergraduates—and their parents—who should definitely read this book as a counterweight to the massive stacks of books and articles that explicitly aim to terrify them.
Speaking to conservatives’ anxieties, Marks argues—correctly—that recent commentators have largely misrepresented what U.S. college campuses are like. College campuses, he writes, can be overwhelmingly left-leaning without being a stifling atmosphere for conservatives like him. (A full professor, he chairs the department of politics and international relations at Ursinus College.) Colleges are committed to rational discussion, and this means they have great potential for liberating minds. And pundits’ claims that millennials and Gen-Z undergraduates are intolerant little wilting orchids? They sound, to Marks, almost exactly the slurs older people cast upon the youth of his generation.
Let’s Be Reasonable asks readers to have faith in human nature: in the willingness of students and professors alike to answer the call to engage in rational discourse for the sake of rational discourse, trusting that it will have a freeing effect on the conversation’s participants.
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?
A friend recently asked me to recommend good history books for listening (on Audible). She’s outside of academia—a curious reader and homeschooling mother who has enough experience to be suspicious of what passes for history on the U.S. popular market. (“Perhaps what I also need,” she added, “is a list of which ‘historians’ not to read.”)
I thought it might be good—especially as the holiday season approaches—to expand on the advice I gave my friend, in hopes of helping other cautious readers, at least in the United States. Instead of naming specific titles or authors, I’ll recommend a method for doing research on one’s own.
Now, my recommendations are flawed at the outset. They’re flawed, first, because they are very conservative—if not in a political sense, then in the sense of playing things safe. You probably won’t find the most penetrating or controversial new interpretations of historical topics this way; my goal is to make it easy to identify books with mainstream recognition and wide respect among historians. These recommendations are also flawed because, quite frankly, there are countless magnificent works of history you’ll never find this way. And they’re flawed because they’re my recommendations, and other historians will give you different advice based on their experiences … and they’ll be right.
But I still think it’s worth offering this advice, if only because it’s advice I would have loved to have when I was a teenager sitting in a small-town public library, trying to figure out how to start studying history as an adult.
Speaking of Jesuits, here’s an assignment I used this spring for the first time. In my modern world history course at the University of Scranton, I assigned a short essay about Endō Shūsaku’s 1966 historical novel Silence, a story based on true events (involving Jesuits) in seventeenth-century Japan. It took a long time to work up the nerve.
If the assignment worked, my students would use the novel as a matrix upon which to practice visualizing a real time and place, building empathy with its people. They would also analyze how Silence, as a piece of fiction crafted to resonate with a modern audience, makes it easier to see that all kinds of historical discourse must communicate effectively between different times and places. This assignment would have the additional benefit of connecting the university’s Ignatian heritage with a specific topic already covered in class, in a way that students might find personally relevant and poignant. (I do not assume my students at the University of Scranton are—or should be—Catholics, but most of them do come from a Catholic cultural environment.)
As a history instructor, however, I had three main qualms about my own assignment. As the deadline approached, my apprehension grew.
First, my students needed to use the novel to clarify, not obscure, the relationships between fact and fiction. I didn’t want any confusion about Silence‘s genre, of course, but I also needed my students to grasp the historical-pedagogical purpose of reading fiction at all. This wasn’t supposed to be an arbitrary excursion into make-believe.
If you’re teaching a U.S. history survey course–or if you would like to use a general textbook for background information in a related course–you may want to examine The American Yawp, a free online textbook. (I am one of the contributors, and I edited the ninth chapter, “Democracy in America.”) It’s been available for a few years, so why am I mentioning it now? Because it’s just been updated under the aegis of Stanford University Press, complete with peer review and professional copy-editing. In the spring, this improved version of The American Yawp will be available in an inexpensive SUP printedition as well as in the existing digital version. I’m proud of my small contribution to this resource, and I’m proud of this update to the story of its development.
Alan Jacobs’s little book How to Think, published last year, draws an interesting contrast between “academic life” and “teaching”:
Academics have always been afflicted by unusually high levels of conformity to expectations: one of the chief ways you prove yourself worthy of an academic life is by getting very good grades, and you don’t get very good grades without saying the sort of things that your professors like to hear.
So again, no, academic life doesn’t do much to help one think, at least not in the sense in which I am commending thinking. It helps one to amass a body of knowledge and to learn and deploy certain approved rhetorical strategies, which requires a good memory, intellectual agility, and the like. But little about the academic life demands that you question your impulsive reactions ….
Being a teacher, though: that’s a different thing. I have been teaching undergraduates for more than thirty years now, and generally speaking undergraduate education is a wonderful laboratory for thinking. Most of my students know what they believe, and want to argue for it, but they also realize that they still have a lot to learn.[*]