Describing a Democratic Approach to History Education

rcbcmountlaurelcampusguide

Earlier this month, I posted a draft syllabus statement for my new courses at La Salle University. It explains how my approach to history may fit into the “Lasallian” tradition—that is, the tradition of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, the 300-year-old Catholic teaching order that sponsors that university.

Now I’d like to present a draft syllabus statement for a different kind of college. This fall, I’ll be teaching a course in the history of western civilization at Rowan College at Burlington County (formerly Burlington County College), a community college with a main campus in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. It’s my first time working at a community college, which has long been a goal of mine.

Here’s my initial attempt to explain what I think a history education should offer students at a public two-year college. I welcome criticism, especially from instructors who have worked in similar institutions.

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Purpose of a history course at RCBC

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Public Philosophy

As a community college, RCBC invites Burlington County to learn together, making a college education something for all of us, “in an accessible and diverse environment,” rather than a privilege for the few.[1] This opens doors to greater personal prosperity and further educational opportunities. But it also strengthens our democratic society in two ways.

First, education helps you become a more responsible part of a free community. In the ancient Greek city of Athens, young citizens reportedly had to recite an oath when they reached adulthood. They swore to uphold their democratic society’s traditions in order to defend its freedom. Modern schools and colleges have sometimes adapted that oath in their commencement ceremonies to describe the ideal educated person:

We will never bring disgrace to this our city, by any act of dishonesty or cowardice, nor ever desert our suffering comrades in the ranks. We will fight for our ideals and sacred things of the city, both alone and with many. We will revere and obey the city’s laws and do our best to incite a like respect in those above us who are prone to annul them and set them at naught. We will strive unceasingly to quicken the public sense of civic duty. Thus in all these ways we will transmit this city not only not less but far greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.[2]

At the same time, “higher” education (or education beyond high school) should prepare adults to question tradition, criticize their society’s existing values and institutions, and create new forms of knowledge and wisdom. College should expand our freedom as well as preserve it. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, who helped establish one of America’s first public universities, we should “follow truth wherever it may lead,” enjoying “the illimitable freedom of the human mind.”[3]

A college education in history, especially at a public college like RCBC, should do both of these things at once. Carefully studying the past will help you think for yourself—using resources provided by the people of Burlington County—while inspiring you to cooperate with others in making your society freer, wiser, and more beautiful in the years to come.

You may find some irony in my posting this now, right after questioning how reliably a formal humanities education improves the health of a democracy. All I can say is that this syllabus statement is aspirational and normative, not necessarily descriptive. I am setting forth what I  hope my history course will help students accomplish. The eventual outcome will depend not only upon what I do during the semester, but also what my students do—both individually and together.

Describing a Lasallian Approach to History Education

My move to the Philadelphia area is basically complete, and I can now say publicly that I’ll be returning to La Salle University this fall as an adjunct instructor teaching at least two and possibly three courses. (I’ll say more about another new position in the area soon.)

La Salle was the first external institution to hire me during graduate school, making it the place where I taught my first training-wheels-off history courses. So it’s very exciting to be back.

One of my goals as I draw up new syllabuses this year is to do a better job communicating how my courses relate to the larger institutional missions of my employers. I think this can be useful not only to students—who benefit from explicit guidance about the various purposes of higher education—but also to faculty members and administrators, who can use continual reminders during this fraught time in the profession’s history.

To that end, here’s my attempt at a syllabus statement summing up the centuries-old religious educational tradition that its namesake university claims to uphold.

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lasallian philosophy syllabus statement

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Lasallian Philosophy

Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, a Catholic priest from an elite family, established the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools in the 1680s, when basic education in France was relatively disorganized. Living together in religious communities, members of his order gave up wealth and prestige in order to devote their lives to creating schools for working-class and poor children.[1] Today, the Brothers’ primary mission is still to provide “a human and Christian education” to the world’s poor—and to enlist the rich as their allies. As their rule says, the Brothers seek common ground among people of all religious traditions in advancing “human dignity, solidarity among all human beings, and the integral development of the individual.”[2] La Salle University is one of six colleges and universities carrying out this mission at an advanced level in the United States.

In keeping with the Lasallian tradition, this history course is grounded in the belief that all humans—across time, space, and social boundaries—share a common dignity. We can recognize ourselves in each other despite our differences and conflicts. Because of this, all aspects of human history have the power to help us live more coherently and meaningfully. You should use this course as an opportunity to develop greater solidarity with other people, especially the marginalized, through acts of the reason and the imagination. In the process, you may grow into a greater sense of your own personhood.

This statement is one of several (covering student learning outcomes, course design, and basic principles of academic freedom) that I’ve been happily developing or revising this summer.

Of course, this is a statement about ideals. The reality will have to emerge in the class itself.

Designing an Honors Western Civ Course

vermeer-artofpainting

This fall, for the first time, I’ll be teaching a course in a university honors program. (I’ll leave the institution unspecified since I’m not technically an employee there yet.) It’s also the first time I will teach a western civilization course as such. I started the basic planning weeks ago, but now that my last spring courses are finished, I can focus on the task properly.

My new course is unusual. It is part of a “triple” of first-year honors courses: My students, as a cohort of about eighteen people, will take a literature course and a philosophy course concurrently with my history course in the autumn. They will do the same thing again in the spring. Thus, their first year in college is designed to take them on an interdisciplinary journey through the history of western culture.

I’m really excited about this opportunity for a lot of reasons—including my own background in a university honors program, which provided access to a far richer undergraduate liberal-arts education than I might have had otherwise. I’m also nervous for a lot of reasons, including the politically fraught nature of any project framed in terms of “western” culture—though I usually enjoy politically fraught teaching. (I’ll leave most of that discussion for another time.)

I will coordinate with my literary and philosophical counterparts in the coming weeks, trying to align our courses as much as we can. In the meantime, I have been carefully considering how my course is supposed to fit into a larger education at this university. This is a chance for a more systematic approach to course design than I often get to take. There are several layers of objectives to consider.

Academic Objectives

First, I’ve been told that the honors program specifies that my course should meet the following official university-level institutional learning objectives (ILOs), which, together with ten other objectives, are part of the framework of the undergraduate core curriculum:

  1. Understanding diverse perspectives. (autumn)
  2. Information literacy. (spring)

The first of these ILOs seems natural for a course that surveys many different societies over a long span of time. (Stating it as an objective for a survey course even risks banality.) The second ILO, however, implies a definite shift in focus—from appreciation to research, or from accepted historical knowledge to critical historical knowledge, or from a survey to a workshop format. When I see the two objectives together, I begin to tell myself a story about how my students’ skills should evolve during the academic year. And I see what specific role the university believes historical understanding should play in the development of skills that apply to many other domains of knowledge and living.

In purely practical terms, this sequence of objectives implies that I should expect my students to engage in more sophisticated research and communication projects in the spring than in the fall.

Historical Objectives

In addition, I’m told the history department lays out four specific student learning outcomes (SLOs) for every section of the autumn half of this course:

  1. Students will identify those significant events, persons, institutions, and processes, which have shaped ancient, medieval, and early-modern western history.
  2. Students will carefully and critically read, analyze, and discuss a variety of primary and secondary historical sources.
  3. Students will learn to think historically, asking questions of the past and developing research methodologies to answer them.
  4. Students will develop clear expository and analytical writing skills.

Initially, those four objectives suggest to me that this course should meet all the content-coverage goals (SLO 1) and all the basic conceptual goals (SLOs 2 and 3) of any introductory survey course, but should also develop the student’s own research and writing skills (SLOs 3 and 4) more than a typical survey course might. None of these objectives in isolation would be unusual in any undergraduate history course. But the combination—if taken seriously—seems ambitious for a first-year course. (Which, obviously, is the idea.)

The temptation will be strong to skimp on content coverage in order to meet the analytic and skills objectives. That would be consistent with my experience taking honors courses in college; my professors usually designed them less to provide discipline-specific information and more to teach transferable humanist habits of mind. But that might be inconsistent with the university-level ILO for the autumn: to develop students’ understanding of diverse perspectives. Diversity necessitates breadth of coverage.

Furthermore, this course, as I understand it, will replace a regular history course in the general education core for my students. That is, any failure in content coverage on my part is likely to be a permanent gap in my students’ basic undergraduate education. And that is a problem I take very seriously.

During my years of teaching, I have grown suspicious of the tendency to prioritize concepts over coverage—not because there’s any problem with transferable habits and skills but rather because it is far too easy for students to evade basic knowledge throughout their formal education, and because that kind of basic knowledge is fundamental for sound thinking. I want rigor of information as well as analysis.

Possible Informal Objectives

Meanwhile, my own informal goals for a western civ course—whether they should be stated explicitly or simply pursued as the semester unfolds—might include some of the following:

  1. Students will learn regional and global contexts for western history, including knowledge of other religious and political traditions that western societies have used creatively as sources and foils.
  2. Students will critically examine western civilization and the western intellectual tradition as evolving concepts that reflect various modern ethical and cultural commitments and various conceptions of community—and which often have been put to invidious polemical use.
  3. Students will learn to appreciate history as a process of both investigation and imagination, with the object of attaining better factual knowledge as well as better understanding, rather than as a body of existing or closed knowledge.
  4. Students will gain insight into several causal mechanisms by which the so-called western intellectual tradition has been transmitted across time and space. That is, students will learn to appreciate the roles played by environmental, social, and political forces in intellectual history.
  5. Students will become more comfortable taking intellectual risks, resisting the notion that a university education can be reduced to a set of grades or professional competencies.

Potential Challenges

Finally, as I plan the course, I also need to keep a few problems in mind from the start.

First, I foresee a difficulty in the chronological misalignment likely to happen when a history course is linked with parallel courses in literature and philosophy. My course, for example, may take weeks to reach Homer or Plato, which may be roughly where the other courses begin. I will want to present all my lessons with this in mind, understanding that my students may experience any history lesson as a flashback or preview for something else in the other two courses.

Second, given the potentially vast scope of the course, I expect to need to identify from the beginning a few overarching themes that can provide some unity to the content and lines of inquiry. In a world history course, these would include general themes like “circulation,” “exchange,” or “authority.” In a western civilization survey, they might include more specifically appropriate ideas like “citizenship” or “liberty.” However, specificity is dangerous. Any theme that the course implies is specific to western civilization is likely to become (and may inherently be) a teleological imposition that reduces “the West” to a specific set of contemporary ideas rather than a set of recurring questions. Then again, in any survey, thematic coherence always involves that sort of risk.

Third, on a practical personal level, I have been asked to teach other western civilization survey course at a community college in the fall. I will be developing both courses over the summer. At the community college, although I have wide latitude on assignments and scheduling, I am required to use a specific assigned textbook, which I would prefer not to adopt in the honors course—and obviously two courses will require substantially different assignments and grading criteria in any case. My commuting time will also be considerable, in addition to the time I will spend putting together new lectures. Thus, although these two western civ courses will be far from identical, I need to design both courses together to maximize the efficiency of my own work—so that I am effectively creating, let’s say, one and a half new courses rather than two. This may be a difficult problem to solve.

Despite these challenges, which may seem much more intimidating after the semester begins, I’m very excited and hopeful as this work begins.

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Image: Detail from Jan Vermeer, The Art of Painting, c. 1666-1668, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Public domain. The woman in costume has often been identified as a representation of Clio, the muse of history.

Building a First-Year Writing Course

Ferns growing on a stone wall

This spring, I’m adding a new course to my repertoire. It’s a single-semester class called Composition. The advanced track of a first-year writing requirement, it focuses not on basic prose but on rhetoric, or “making effective contributions in writing to intellectual discussions, academically and in other cultural settings.”

In other words, this course will initiate new undergraduates into academic rationality.

This is exciting. No, that’s not strong enough. Planning this course is really, really fun.

Continue reading “Building a First-Year Writing Course”