Publicity for a Survey Course

I’m excited to be able to say that my modern U.S. history survey course is currently featured in a banner story on the Rowan University homepage. Barbara Baals, an assistant director of the university’s media office, came with us when we visited the Hollybush historic site, and she wrote a great article about our class.

Core history survey courses don’t often get that kind of attention, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to advertise our work.

The Presentism Essay

Cover of the September 2022 issue of Perspectives

This summer, James H. Sweet, the president of the American Historical Association, published an essay in the AHA’s magazine. It elicited weeks of indignation among some historians. At the end of October, The Atlantic’s David Frum wrote about the controversy. Frum described an American historical profession gripped by partisanship and chilled by political correctness. Now I’ve finally written my own analysis of the affair.

Today, in Clio and the Contemporary, I try to explain what happened, why it really happened, and why the whole thing was a missed opportunity. I hope you’ll take a look.

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.

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.

Dial 988 for Help

Blue-and-white logo for the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline

I’m excited about this development, which (so far) seems to have gotten less publicity than one might expect. Starting today, 988 is a new nationwide telephone number for free mental health crisis support in the United States.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) has been rebranded as the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. You can reach your nearest crisis center by calling or texting the new three-digit number, 24 hours a day. You don’t have to be thinking about suicide to use this service, and you can call if you’re trying to help someone else, too.

The lifeline fielded 2.6 million calls in 2021.

Update: Some activists have pointed out that 988 operators may sometimes send emergency services—including police officers—to a caller’s location against their wishes. Perversely, this practice may itself endanger lives, trigger mental health crises, and result in involuntary confinement or criminalization of people seeking help.

From what I can tell, the 988 system, unlike 911, does not yet have access to precise geolocation technology. However, the 988 Lifeline’s FAQ says that “currently, a small percentage of Lifeline calls require activation of the 911 system when there is imminent risk to someone’s life that cannot be reduced during the Lifeline call. In these cases, the crisis counselor shares information with 911 that is crucial to saving the caller’s life. … Currently, fewer than 2% of Lifeline calls require connection to emergency services like 911.”

Sadly, this may be important information for using the 988 Lifeline safely.

“Inherently Corrupt and Possibly Unsalvageable”

I want to talk about two pieces of writing that have appeared online in the last few days. Both focus on the role Thomas Jefferson should play in the way we imagine American history.

One article comes from a very thoughtful historian who wants U.S. history to have something to offer everyone in America. The other is a thinly veiled racist conspiracy theory.

I think talking about them together could be illuminating.


First, in the new issue of the Hedgehog Review, Johann Neem, a historian of education, expresses concern about what he calls “post-American” narratives of United States history. An immigrant from India, Neem discusses his fear that contemporary educators are being drawn to historical narratives denying that American heritage, in anything like its traditional form, can belong to everyone.

Another way of putting this, I suppose, is that Neem takes up the question of whether it’s still appropriate to teach the history—a single inclusive history, handed down from prior generations—of a united American nation. Perversely, Neem argues, some educators may be (accidentally) joining forces with white supremacists by claiming that America has only ever been, and thus can only be, a white nation.

Continue reading ““Inherently Corrupt and Possibly Unsalvageable””

When Lies About CRT Spill Over

Yesterday, a young racist attacked a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, shooting thirteen people in a targeted attack on an African American community.

Ben Collins, a reporter covering domestic extremism and disinformation for NBC News, has published an assessment of the accused Buffalo terrorist’s manifesto. (As a matter of principle, I will not name the accused terrorist or directly address his manifesto here.) The attack is part of a string of white-power terror attacks around the world and in the United States since 2018. But it has a couple of specific elements worth noting. According to Collins, the attack appears to be related to high school education in at least two ways.

First, the accused terrorist, who is now eighteen years old, “claims that he was radicalized on 4chan”—a known breeding ground for Internet extremists, including the earliest participants in the QAnon hoax—“while he was ‘bored’ at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.” Presumably, that would be the period when his high school was closed for in-person instruction.

Second, the accused terrorist “claims ‘critical race theory,’ a recent right-wing talking point that has come to generally encompass teaching about race in school, is part of a Jewish plot, and a reason to justify mass killings of Jews.”

Assuming the manifesto is authentic, as it appears to be, this is how paranoia and political lies spill over.

Xenophobia, treated as a useful tool and amusing plaything by cynical politicians and media personalities, finds new targets, over and over again. That’s its job. But people who know better will continue finding excuses for it.

What Can the Trojan Horse Hoax Tell Us About American Education Wars?

This week, I finished a podcast called The Trojan Horse Affair. It’s published by Serial Productions, which is now owned by the New York Times. In eight episodes, released together on February 3, it details the effort of two podcast journalists to find out who created a hoax that shocked the United Kingdom in 2014.

The hosts are Brian Reed, a This American Life producer best known as the host of the controversial 2017 podcast S-Town, and Hamza Syed, a former medical doctor who introduced Reed to the story and began reporting on it for a graduate-school project.

Syed is a Muslim from Birmingham, England. The hoax was a partial letter that had purported to detail an Islamic plot—risibly dubbed “Operation Trojan Horse”—to take over Birmingham schools from the inside and indoctrinate children as extremists.

Although the Times of London, among other press outlets, had recognized the letter immediately as a likely “crude” forgery, the British government had used it as a basis for a major inquisition in Birmingham schools, a campaign to ban several Muslim educators from their life’s work, and permanent changes in British counterterrorism law. So the hoax has deeply affected people like Syed.

Now that it’s available, the Trojan Horse Affair podcast may be instructive for Americans watching today’s “education wars” play out in the United States.

Continue reading “What Can the Trojan Horse Hoax Tell Us About American Education Wars?”