Teaching the Long-Term in a Time of Crisis

We live, as the imprecation says, in interesting times.

In part because most American historians are now on a summer break—a time for rest, research, writing, stock-taking, and other critical activities we set aside during the regular teaching year—many of my friends have been reflecting on their need to feel their work is somehow significant to the world. Do the things they write actually matter? Is academia a worthwhile use of a short lifetime? And how does anybody find a way to focus in this environment?

A few friends have commented, however, that their sense of living in a time of crisis makes them eager to return to the classroom. They can’t wait to talk with students again, to tell a story about how we reached this point and explore the turning points along the way and encourage students to take action.

I wouldn’t say I’m eager for summer to end. There’s a lot to do before the end of August. But otherwise, I’m as eager as anyone to teach through this moment. The question is, how should I approach that task? This autumn, as usual, I will be teaching mostly first-half survey courses that end with events of either 150 or 500 years ago. My spring courses usually involve a lot of direct commentary on current events, simply by virtue of their chronological structure, but most of my autumn courses don’t—unless by careful design.

There’s a lot to say about how I can engage in that kind of design, by highlighting certain topics and training students in certain critical tools. I will probably write about that on other occasions.

In the past few years, however, I’ve grown more conscious that these first-half survey courses are also crucial for understanding our own time in less direct ways. Here’s how I’ve shifted my teaching approach to make the most of the opportunities they present.

First, I’ve been trying to cover more material in more detail—of all kinds. When I began teaching college, my overriding concern was to capture the imagination. I wanted to make history interesting and cultivate habits of mind that would keep people studying history after the course was done. I haven’t abandoned that commitment at all. Now that I have a repertory of techniques for meeting it, however, I’m working a lot harder to cover many different topics that may come up later as background for the news, and to test my students’ factual knowledge about them. Basically, this means I’m trying to do a better job dispelling (or anticipating) all kinds of misconceptions and myths about the past, not only the ones that seem most salient right now. (In some ways, I suppose, this makes my teaching approach more old-fashioned than it used to be.) So far, I’ve been very happy with the results.

Second, I’m trying to show my students the difference between the myth that “history repeats itself”—a notion that tends to make people easy to manipulate with bad analogies—and the truth that humans in different times and places tend to have similar concerns and make similar mistakes in all kinds of different combinations, but in ways that cause long-term structural changes. I haven’t come up with a pithy way to say this, but I do like the joke that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” I think this insight is crucial for preparing students for creative action in the world.

Third, I have become more conscious that students need to understand how slow, hard-fought, and fragile most great historical changes have been. This means, for example, that instead of grouping everything about a topic in one place—an obvious and infamous case would be the way some US history courses throw everything about slavery and abolition into one week—I try more and more to scatter references to any particular struggle across the course so that it pops up repeatedly in something more like real time. I think this is something I’m still learning how to do well; I have a long way to go.

Finally, in times of obvious crisis, I think it’s more important than ever to demonstrate the existence of mundane beauty, goodness, and resilience in past times and places.

The way we teach history can promote apocalyptic habits of mind: If anything interesting is happening in a human society, our students infer, it’s either a catastrophe, a marvelous deliverance, or a slow steady march of progress into utopia. When students perceive themselves to be living in a time of crisis, the last option is completely unavailable. I believe this is corrosive to healthy attitudes. It’s not simply that this way of teaching nurtures paranoia and makes ordinary life more difficult. For many people, a bit paradoxically, it’s also destructive to political willpower in the long term.

Of course, there certainly are plenty of truly apocalyptic moments to talk about in any history course, and they’re crucial to cover well. But most of human experience, and indeed, most of the human struggle, consists of people trying to make meaningful and reasonably happy lives together under difficult conditions. All people—from the most vulnerable to the most powerful—do this in circumstances that, when everything is accomplished, lead to their deaths. Mortality is the most reliable historical fact, the most insurmountable social problem. Apocalyptic thinking (as a general state of mind), oddly enough, is based on the implicit denial of its universality.

Nobody gets out of the past alive, but that doesn’t make the past a desert. We have to find ways to honor this fact. That task is critical if we want to avoid pessimism. The ultimate lesson of history must include the insight that everybody lives, not only that everybody dies. So I’m trying to get better at finding ways to portray the everyday vibrancy that’s there in the past. I want my courses to have more voices, more experiences, more forms of happiness and quotidian triumph.

I think that attending to these long-term, structural features of any history course can be as important as anything else teachers do. It may well be as important for teachers as for students.


Image: Front page of the New York Tribune, June 29, 1914. Library of Congress.