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?

Continue reading “Land of Many Voices: Teaching a Truer National Story”

What Was the Electoral College For?

I have a short essay out now in Contingent Magazine. A couple of teachers have remarked that they have already found it useful for talking with high school students. (It’s probably short enough and glib enough to elicit a number of different kinds of responses.)

In the article, I consider the original purpose of that most mysterious of jury-rigged institutions, the electoral college—and I point out that, despite the stated intentions of some of its framers, the Constitution still does not guarantee Americans the right to vote for president at all.

“Fundamentally,” I argue, “the electoral college failed to work as designed because its design was contradictory in the first place.”

The whole article is available for free. Educators may also want to look around in the magazine’s curated collections of articles for classrooms. If you find them valuable, please consider supporting Contingent in its work.

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

How to Reframe the Civil War in the Classroom

MusteredOut-medium

If you teach the history of the American Civil War to students anywhere in the United States, you will almost certainly teach at least a few students who have absorbed Lost Cause mythology. In many parts of the country—and not only in the southern states—most of your white students (or at least their families) will believe in at least part of the Lost Cause story. Indeed, many of them will have received this view from their teachers.

Tackling the mythology head-on will often be wise. But there are also subtler ways we reinforce or challenge the pro-Confederate pattern of thinking, usually without realizing it, and we should address those too.

(This post began as a Twitter thread that became popular yesterday. You may want to read the responses of the many teachers and writers who engaged with it directly.)

Continue reading “How to Reframe the Civil War in the Classroom”

Assessment in the Survey: Three Experiments (Part I)

grailly-oxbow-from-mount-holyoke-cleveland-museum-of-art

This fall, I’m implementing a new scheme to assess overall student learning in my introductory courses. When I say “overall learning,” I mean learning not with respect to particular facts and skills—that’s what the existing quizzes, exams, and assignments are for—but in the form of changes in the way each student conceptualizes the whole topic of the course.

I’m adapting a simple and brilliant exercise described a few years ago by Jennifer Frost, a U.S. historian at the University of Auckland. For a course on the Civil Rights Movement, which she designed to challenge the top-down “Montgomery to Memphis” narrative that she believed most students would bring into the classroom, Frost devised a pair of assignments for the beginning and end of the course.

The first assignment directed students to “write a brief overview of the African-American Civil Rights Movement: when it happened (beginning and end), why it emerged, who participated, and what was achieved.” At the end of the term, the second assignment referred explicitly to the first: “In your overview of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, you commented on when it happened (beginning and end), why it emerged, who participated, and what was achieved. Do you still agree with your overview? How would you change or modify it in light of what you’ve learned this semester? You are not rewriting your overview, but rather reflecting and analyzing on what you originally wrote.” Frost reported that her students were eager to show that the course had changed their thinking―specifically by correcting misconceptions they had held.*

Now, Frost’s entire course was organized around the principle of questioning a certain grand narrative, which probably took a fairly explicit form in students’ minds when they began the course. The linked assignments were part of that design. They were meant to shape student thinking as well as reveal it.

My goal in adapting Frost’s linked assignments is a bit different. With the notable exception of my early U.S. survey, I hypothesize that the first linked assignment will show most students how much they simply don’t know (or aren’t sure they know) about the subject of the course. The second assignment, if all goes well, will show them that they now have the ability to articulate a basic (narrative-shaped) explanation of the course subject, including subtopics of which they previously weren’t aware at all.

In the early U.S. survey, however, my goals are closer to Frost’s. I assume that many students will enter the course with a certain grand narrative distinctly in mind. I hope that the course will challenge and complicate that narrative as well as present students with new information.

With those goals in mind, here are my initial drafts for the prompts I will give my students next week in the first linked assignment.

  • World History I: Write a brief statement (about 250-300 words) describing, purely in your own words, what has happened in the world since 1500. If possible, include several key events, changes, factors, concepts, etc. (This is an assessment tool that will help the instructor understand the overall picture of world history you have in mind as you begin taking this course. It will be evaluated only on the basis of completion, not on graded for accuracy. Please be honest—do not consult any sources.)
  • Western Civilization I: Write a brief statement (about 250-350 words) explaining how you might define “western civilization” and then describing, purely in your own words, what happened in the history of western civilizations between prehistory and the 1600s. If possible, include several key events, changes, factors, concepts, etc. (This is an assessment tool that will help the instructor understand the overall picture of western history you have in mind as you begin taking this course. It will be evaluated as participation, not graded for accuracy. Please be honest—do not consult any sources.)
  • U.S. History I: Write a brief statement (about 250-300 words) describing, purely in your own words, what happened in the United States (or in the places that later became the United States) up to 1865. If possible, include several key events, changes, factors, concepts, etc. (This is an assessment tool that will help the instructor understand the overall picture of American history you have in mind as you begin taking this course. It will be evaluated only on the basis of completion, not on graded for accuracy. Please be honest—do not consult any sources.)

Students’ answers will be due as homework in the second week of each course, giving me time to provide a bit of coaching and reassurance about the assignment in class but also ensuring that students’ answers will reflect minimal exposure to course content.

_______________

* Jennifer Frost, “Using ‘Master Narratives’ to Teach History: The Case of the Civil Rights Movement,” The History Teacher 45, no. 3 (May 2012): 437-446, esp. 441.

Image: Detail from Victor de Grailly (attributed), The Oxbow Seen from Mount Holyoke, after 1840. Bequest of Mrs. Henry A. Everett for the Dorothy Burnham Everett Memorial Collection, Cleveland Museum of Art. Public domain / CC0.

Don’t Be a Teacher Steve King Would Like

Speaking with the New York Times for an article published today, Congressman Steve King seems to have put one of his few remaining cards on the table:

Mr. King, in the interview, said he was not a racist. … At the same time, he said, he supports immigrants who enter the country legally and fully assimilate because what matters more than race is ‘the culture of America’ based on values brought to the United States by whites from Europe.

‘White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?’ Mr. King said. ‘Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?’

Those of us who teach American history—especially those of us who appear to be white—have a responsibility to design history courses that will refute the impression Steve King says he got in his.

“Our history and our civilization” are not white. From the beginning, and continuously to the present, the territories and societies that became the United States have involved and incorporated and held captive, as well as excluded and expropriated, non-European and non-Christian peoples.

The story of America, told honestly, is not a white story. It may indeed (unfortunately) be a story of white supremacy—but whiteness is not the story of “us.” Neither were the dominant cultures of the United States created by simply transplanting some supposedly European cultural essence to the western hemisphere.

Unfortunately, it is very easy for even truthful history teachers to fail to challenge the perception their students have already received long before they reach our courses.

In 2019, let’s make sure our students would have a very difficult time getting the impression Steve King got.

Yawp Yawp Yawp

americanyawpIf you’re teaching a U.S. history survey course–or if you would like to use a general textbook for background information in a related course–you may want to examine The American Yawp, a free online textbook. (I am one of the contributors, and I edited the ninth chapter, “Democracy in America.”) It’s been available for a few years, so why am I mentioning it now? Because it’s just been updated under the aegis of Stanford University Press, complete with peer review and professional copy-editing. In the spring, this improved version of The American Yawp will be available in an inexpensive SUP print edition as well as in the existing digital version. I’m proud of my small contribution to this resource, and I’m proud of this update to the story of its development.