Teaching Controversial History: Four Moves

Inspired by some recent conversations and experiences, I have been thinking about how I approach the task of teaching controversial topics.

Much of my approach, I think, is directly inspired by having been a fairly prickly kind of student myself. I still see a lot of myself in students who aren’t prepared to buy what their instructors are hoping to sell. (Let’s assume, for the sake of simplicity, that we instructors are correct, though of course that is not universally the case.)

I think I can reduce my approach to four basic instructional moves. These moves strike me as both pragmatic and principled; I make these moves because they tend to work, but they work because they’re the morally right thing to do anyway.

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The False Choices of Pedagogy Critics

Framing the instructional situation as a set of either-or choices, such as abandoning textbooks in favor of primary sources or substituting student inquiry projects for teachers’ lectures, ignores the perennial challenges that history students and, consequently, history teachers face in trying to learn history and develop historical understanding. History is a vast and constantly expanding storehouse of information about people and events in the past. For students, learning history leads to encounters with thousands of unfamiliar and distant names, dates, people, places, events, and stories. Working with such content is a complex enterprise not easily reduced to choices between learning facts and mastering historical thinking processes. Indeed, attention to one is necessary to foster the other.

—Robert B. Bain, “‘They Thought the World Was Flat?’,” in M. Suzanne Donovan and John D. Bransford, eds., How Students Learn: History in the Classroom (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2005), 180

Land of Many Voices: Teaching a Truer National Story

Last weekend, in my response to Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, I focused on what I think Wilfred McClay got wrong about teaching U.S. history. I wrote that McClay’s version of an American nation-narrative lacks “a sense of real stakes, of divergent possibilities, of the weight of choices and conflicts in their own moments” because it shies away from conflict.

Land of Hope does not want its major American protagonists to have been disastrously, avoidably, mulishly wrong—they can have been badly mistaken, but they must have meant well. It apparently wants history’s apparent losers to have been inevitable victims, doomed by forces beyond anyone’s control or by paradoxes with no way out, rather than to have been acted upon by other people who made choices that could have been made differently, choices against which the oppressed protested and fought at the time. And it does not want national reform to have come through vicious struggles for power.

That last desire, I think, helps explain Wilfred McClay’s strident criticism of the “1619 Project” in other venues, despite the deeply patriotic and humane spirit it shows. The 1619 Project asserted not that America is irredeemably corrupt, as some of its critics seem to think it did, but that everything good about America has come through struggle—specifically, struggle by people who don’t play a very active role in Land of Hope. “Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans,” Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote, “our democracy today would most likely look very different—it might not be a democracy at all.” That is a contingency Land of Hope cannot seem to face.

The fear of contingency thwarts Land of Hope’s stated purpose of giving students an inspiring and coherent national narrative. Stories without meaningful conflict, without the possibility of different outcomes, are lifeless to everyone except perhaps those who identify most strongly with the actual outcomes. Worse, they are also ahistorical, in the sense that most academically trained historians believe contingency is a core concept of their discipline.

Yet I strongly sympathize with McClay’s goal of producing a student-friendly history of the United States that not only holds together as a story, but also provokes sustained reflection on normative American civic values. I often have been critical of academic training in history that does not teach instructors how to build narratives in the classroom.

I would even say that McClay’s narrative voice is often a voice I recognize in myself. We are both unabashed moralists, at the end of the day, committed to the idea that studying American history can make people better citizens. And frankly, I am quite conservative in temperament; there’s something in the book’s temperature, as it were, that I find comfortable—an inclination to be patient with flawed institutions, perhaps, and a conviction that it is as important to shore up valuable aspects of existing American life as it is to fight for reform.

So what is my alternative to McClay’s approach? How do I think a “great American story” can be told better? How, in fact, do I try to tell such a story in the classroom?

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American Narratives and Identities: Another Primary Source Activity

Last month, I wrote about how I used four primary sources—images and texts from revolutionary-era America—to introduce students to the concept of “cultural narratives” in my American studies course. Now I’d like to talk about another primary source discussion I found valuable this semester: one designed to shake up students’ mental picture of the United States at the end of the Revolution.

In 1783, around the time the American War was formally ending, the London publisher Carington Bowles released a “new map of North America and the West Indies” that attempted to capture the boundaries and larger context of the newly independent colonies. The Library of Congress has helpfully provided a high-resolution scan of the map, which has an almost alarming wealth of detail.

(To take an example at random: In what it considers western North Carolina, the map shows not only rivers and settlements but also notes about history and future prospects, labeling a “remainder of the Natchez allies of the English,” a putative location for the 17th-century Fort Prudhomme [“dest.”], and “a fit place for a [trading] factory.”)

1783mapofnorthamerica-caringtonbowles

In class, using the classroom computer and projector, I pulled up the map’s webpage.

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American Narratives and Identities: A Primary Source Activity

For my new introductory course in American studies, which began last week, I wanted to explain the concept of American cultural narratives—a term fundamental to my framing of the course—through a discussion activity rather than a lecture. So for our second class meeting, I prepared a slate of four primary sources for us to examine together.

I wanted this discussion activity to establish (or begin establishing) several ideas at once:

  • Concepts of American national identity take the form of shared narratives.
  • Narratives of national identity and of personal identity are interrelated.
  • Contrasting, even contradictory, narratives of American identity are nothing new.
  • Narratives can be read in sources that do not appear to take the form of a story.

To make my argument for these ideas—or ideally to help my students make the argument on their own—I combined a simple slideshow of images and a stack of photocopy handouts. I entitled the slideshow “The Stories We Tell: Setting an Agenda for Study.”

In class, to set a scene, I explained that we were going to be visiting the era of the American Revolution today. In some cases, we would be focusing on the region around Philadelphia, the new (sometime) national capital, which also happens to be the city in which our course is happening in 2020.

Source 1: Winthrop Chandler, Homestead of General Timothy Ruggles, 1770

I wanted to begin with a source that might shake up preconceptions a bit, and which would require virtually no background historical knowledge.

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