Revisiting My Honors Not-a-Western-Civ Course

This fall, I’m scheduled to teach Honors 121 again at La Salle University. More than two years ago, I described some of my planning process for that course. The outcome was excellent, if I say so myself. It may have been the most fun I’ve ever had teaching.

Now I’m in the late stages of revising my syllabus (PDF) for another attempt.

This time, one big thing has changed: The honors program is now explicitly trying to avoid thinking of Honors 121 as a western civilization course. What it is instead … is an interesting question.

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To Teach in Narrative, Think in Scenes

When I started teaching history on my own—working from my own syllabus rather than assisting someone else—I was thrown into a college U.S. history course just a couple of weeks before the semester started. I was still a graduate student, though I had my master’s degree, and I was replacing another adjunct instructor at the last minute. (I would eventually get to meet her at a conference. She’s nice.) She had chosen a set of textbooks that I’d never heard of, much less seen, and I found the department’s description of the course bizarre.

When I walked into the classroom, which had broken desks and obvious water damage, I still didn’t have access to my university email account or the university library. For the first few days, I had to ask the department secretary to come unlock the classroom computer any time I planned to use it.

Did I mention this was going to be the first time I had ever taught my own solo course?

I won’t keep you in suspense: That semester did not end up being my best work.

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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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An America Where Everyone Meant Well

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?

Pauli Murray at Hunter College, 1932

Cover of Pauli Murray's memoir Song in a Weary Throat

My one bad experience with race at Hunter College was a year-long American history course. I was the only Negro in the class, and as far as my professor was concerned I did not exist. She was not openly insulting, but she never once suggested that colored people played any role in the nation’s development other than as abject objects of the national controversy over slavery. Her treatment of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction made me shrivel in my seat in the back row, feeling shame and resentment. I knew from my own family history that her presentation was one-sided but was too unsure of myself to challenge her in class. Unable to mount an effective protest against her bias, I performed so indifferently in the course that I got only passing grades in a subject in which I had always excelled. That ordeal, however, spurred me to become a passionate student of Negro history after leaving college.

The experience also led me to take my first tentative steps toward activism.

—Pauli Murray, Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage, 1987 (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2018), 110