Tag Archives: Teaching History

I Watched The White House Conference on American History So You Don’t Have To

In his comments at the close of the White House Conference on American History, a gathering that did not take place at the White House and that included few historians, President Donald Trump offered a chilling vision that is one more sign of the country’s steady advance towards despotism.

Trump wanted to “preserve our glorious inheritance: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights,” though nothing has threatened them so much as his administration. The Constitution, he said, “was the fulfillment of a thousand years of Western Civilization,” and “no political document has done more to advance the human condition or propel the engine of progress.” So he said.

Only enemies of the American state would disagree with him. He denounced “a radical movement” that “is attempting to demolish this treasured and precious inheritance.” These enemies of the American people have demolished statutes of slaveholders, that they have engaged in protests and riots. “The left-wing cultural revolution” visible everywhere, he said, “is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.”

He denounced Howard Zinn, whose forty-year old People’s History of the United States terrifies the right. Zinn has lived rent-free in the minds of think-tank denizens like panelist Mary Grabar for many, many years. Zinn, Trump said, wrote a “propaganda tract” that tries “to make students ashamed of their own history.” The 1619 Project, meanwhile, “rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principles of oppression, not freedom.”

Those pushing these views are disloyal. Trump said that. Like America’s enemies, they “want to see American weakened, derided, and totally diminished.” Teaching “critical race theory” to our children, he continued, “is a form of child abuse in the truest sense of those words.” Thus “Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project, and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together.” These ideas are so dangerous, in other words, that they must be suppressed. They are poisonous and they must be rooted out and eliminated. Indeed, the President boasted of having “recently banned training in this prejudiced ideology from the federal government.” We will reeducate those exposed to these subversive ideas.

The panelists, mostly white men speaking at a panel organized by the President of the United States at the National Archives, played variations on this theme. There was absolutely nothing new here. They could have plugged in the National History Standards in the place of the 1619 Project, and it would have been a 1990s flashback, or “multiculturalism” for 80’s Night. With no sense of irony these well-compensated denizens of Right Wing Think Tanks and ideologically-connected Colleges lamented their marginalization. And, one by one, they expressed their fear of ideas, taught by historians, that they know they cannot refute. It was a disgraceful affair, capped by the President signing an unconstitutional executive order establishing the “1776 Commission” to indoctrinate American children with “patriotic” values. Because he is afraid of them being indoctrinated.

I know many friends who have laughed at this President’s many monstrosities, but we are not laughing any more. This is dangerous. It is no joke.

When I hear how colonists wiped out close to 70% of the Indigenous population of the Americas and dispossessed them almost entirely, I do not believe that the country was founded on principles of liberty and equality. When I figure that more than 2/3 of the people who crossed the Atlantic to come to English America between 1630 and 1780 came in chains, liberty and freedom do not compute. When I remember that nearly 50% of enslaved children born in Virginia died before their fifth birthday, and that the United States abolished slavery only after a bloody Civil War and after our former imperial overlords in Great Britain, it does not seem to me that freedom and equality are cardinal American values, whatever we say about ourselves. When I realize that in the very same speech in which the President claimed the country was founded on such glorious principles he denounced those who want to take down monuments to white supremacy and congratulated himself on the punishments he has decreed through an unconstitutional executive order for those who damage them, all I see is hypocrisy and the emptiness of his arguments. I walk away from this still convinced that the widely held notion that this country was founded on principles of liberty and equality is the biggest lie in American history.

We can hardly expect a country founded by those who enslaved millions to have done otherwise than to create a republic based on white supremacy. And when I hear so-called historians, like some of those gathered at the President’s Conference on American History, claim that the Revolution is unfinished, that we are still engaged in the work of crafting that “more perfect union,” I am left unmoved. We have been at this for close to two-and-a-half centuries, I might point out. How much longer will it take for you to admit that our commitment to liberty and equality may be highly qualified at best?

The biggest lie in American History has been challenged in all sorts of ways. Historians, like those involved in the 1619 Project, have done so. And so have so many of the young people protesting out in the street.

The response of these “historians,” for few of them actually had any training in history, is not to engage with the evidence or to present interpretations of their own rooted in primary source research. Rather, they challenge the patriotism of those who write these histories, and who question “these truths.” You cannot possibly love the country if you believe these things, they say, and your thoughts are so dangerous that they must be suppressed.

At one level, there is nothing new about any of this. History has always been political. I think of the debates chronicled in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream years ago. I remember reading of the treatment received by Charles Beard after he published his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. Much of what Trump’s chosen panelists said about Howard Zinn’s People’s History and the 1619 Project was said about the National History Standards twenty-five years ago. History as academic discipline versus history as civic education and indoctrination; history as a scholarly pursuit versus a set of comforting myths we tell ourselves about our past; history as a method for studying change over time versus history as a dogma, the challenging of which is dangerous and subversive: it has all been done before.

So the arguments presented at the White House Conference were all pretty familiar. I have been at this for a while, and I have followed the “History Wars” over many years with great attention. I have seen this before. The notion that historians are unpatriotic, that they will destroy their students’ love of country, and that they are teaching kids to be ashamed of their nation’s past, has been repeated many, many times. But what strikes me as new, this time, is the stridency with which the President and the speakers at this conference cast their opponents not merely as historians with whom they disagree about the past but as enemies of the state. They advance a coward’s ideological purity that casts historians as dangerous subversives. The President likened them to child abusers, aligned with leftists, anarchists, and socialists. Oh, they are so frightened. And they will strike those who frighten them. This long ago ceased to be funny, and is one more reminder of how much is at stake in the coming election.

This Is Not A Lament


We all know that we live in tough times. A number of small, private, liberal arts colleges have gone belly up, a product of mismanagement, declining enrollment, or a combination of the two.  Funding for public higher education is either flat or falling, and some schools have dramatically cut back on programs.  Western Kentucky University, for instance, recently announced an end to 101 academic programs. Faculty members do more with less. 

Demographic changes, meanwhile, have made their impact felt, as colleges compete for a declining number of prospective first-year students.  Institutions with deep pockets and strong reputations are able to offer generous packages of financial assistance, while state colleges and smaller private institutions struggle to keep up.  Adjunct faculty do an increasing amount of the actual teaching at institutions across the spectrum, and universities seldom replace departed faculty members in uncertain times. I may be part of the last generation of tenured professors.

Perhaps predictably, this sorry state of affairs has produced some soul-searching. Some commentators or critics have explained that the current crisis is the fault of the academy itself.  The demographic trends could have been visible to anyone who looked, they argue. At the same time, professors, more interested in pursuing their overly-narrow research interests, do not put adequate time into their teaching.  This hyper-specialization spills over into the classes they offer. Quite simply, colleges are not offering classes that students want to take. Try to find a military or diplomatic history course, they say, and you will search for a long time. Maybe professors would be better off teaching relevant courses for their students than dunking on buffoons like Dinesh D’Souza.

Please.

Can we give it a rest?

Of course, there are serious problems in higher education. I do not want to dismiss the seriousness of the crisis.

But let’s not blame the liberal arts or their practitioners, and let’s not look to their alteration, diminution, or elimination as a solution to the deep structural problems afflicting the academy. At SUNY-Geneseo, where I teach, the number of majors in our history program has increased in each of the last three years. Our liberal arts programs are healthy and vibrant.

There are a couple of reasons for this. We have outstanding teachers in our department, and we encourage faculty to pursue their interests, to share their passions with their students. Instead of requiring old-school survey courses in United States history and Western Civilization, a tired model if ever there was one, we emphasize the discipline of history. We study continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions and cultures.  We teach students to formulate questions, to answer them in a manner that is honest, thorough, and disciplined, and to write with grace and style.  We offer no courses in military history, it is true, but we offer courses that our students find relevant and important and that teach students the skills of the historical discipline. They learn to work with facts, evidence and explanation. They study the history of everyday life, histories written from the “bottom-up,” and histories of groups traditionally underrepresented in other historical accounts. They want histories shorn of the patriotism and myth that they see as characterizing parts of their high school experience. But they study as well the classics.  They read widely and they read deeply. 

            Many of us are active researchers still, and our scholarship informs our teaching. Some of us focus on topics that are narrower than others, but we are working, exploring, asking questions, and examining our own assumptions as we examine the evidence.  We bring this research into the classroom. We deploy a variety of teaching styles. Some of us lecture. Some emphasize discussion and form our students into groups to analyze the reading. Most of us do both. Over the years, I have sat in on discussion classes where little has been accomplished, and others where the resulting conversations were so stimulating that my mind raced for the rest of the day. I have sat in on lecture courses as a student that bored me to tears. And I attended lectures that changed my life.

            If you were young once, you might remember how an idea could turn you on, how a topic about which you knew nothing could consume you, and inspire you to dig deeply for more knowledge. Students hunger for knowledge. They want to think big thoughts, ask and answer important questions, examine the contours of their own existence.  They want to learn the skills of their particular discipline, yes, but many also want to talk about meaningful citizenship. They want to understand the world they live in and the people in it, and how to make their world a better place.

            There are scholars who write on “narrow” topics, to be sure.  Some publish and present their work to small groups of like-minded scholars. There are writers in the liberal arts whose writing is difficult and jargon-filled.  But there are others whose work is accessible, urgent, and available. They write about subjects of immense importance, and they do so with energy and style.  Their work sheds light on the human condition, and they share their work widely with readers and with their students.  They may not write about war, politics, or diplomacy, but they explore what it is to be human, to live in community with others, and how we got here.  Those who read their work find it powerful and important.

            Students love their courses in history. 

In our current political climate, however, they hear from politicians and policy-makers that to be educated is to have a job, and that little else matters.  The president, his party, and their propagandists dismiss the value of the life of the mind. They dismiss the liberal arts as elitist, or as dominated by topics that are “politically correct,” largely because they distrust the democratizing potential of free inquiry, and resent the calls for justice that lie at its core.  Professors should teach the facts, they say, and they should not indoctrinate their students.  They express that fear frequently.  They worry about freedom of expression and freedom of speech on college campuses, but what they really fear is open debate and the discussion of topics that challenge their assumptions. When we ask students to consider the meanings of freedom, equality, and power, to explore the inconsistent relationship between law and justice, and to examine the yawning gap between our reality and our ideals, between the way things are and the way things ought to be, they see a threat.  They fail to understand how it is essential to a thriving republic for citizens to ask these deep, probing questions.  They fear the questions and those who ask them.

We who teach these subjects must push back against this style of thought.  We can talk about how liberal arts students will find work, about how they make decent money, and how students need to be adaptable because today’s students will likely be doing many jobs that do not even exist.  Many have made the point about the economic value of the liberal arts.  But there is a larger, cultural force against which we contend.  Anti-intellectualism and resentment against the privilege that colleges and universities seem to represent are powerful forces. It will not be easy, but it is essential, that we engage those who hold these views.  We are, after all, educators. And our most important job, in addition to teaching the students in front of us, may be to explain to a skeptical public the importance of the work we do, and how wrestling with big ideas is necessary not only for meaningful citizenship, but for a richer life.

Hey, Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone!

We’ve come to that point in the semester where I begin to see on Twitter and on Facebook and elsewhere “bloopers,” students’ answers to questions on their midterms or finals that are so wrong that their professors or teachers find them funny.

I would urge you to think twice before you post things like this, for those student bloopers may reflect more poorly on you as a teacher than it does upon the young people enrolled in your courses.

When I began my teaching career back in the mid-1990s, my first tenure-track job, I shared space in a department with two former “Jeopardy” champions  Our offices were small, and a packed in closely along a strip of contorted hallway on the eighth floor of the college’s Liberal Arts building. I could overhear the conversations in other offices. And I can remember one of those Jeopardy champions meeting with a student during office hours to review for an upcoming test.

“Abraham Lincoln’s first vice-president was?” I can remember him asking.

Dead silence.  Nothing.  The poor student did not have a clue.

“Hannibal Hamlin,” my colleague said.

“Oh.”

And so it went. And nowhere, in any of this, did the most important question of all appear: Who cares? So what? Why should I, some kid enrolled in a general education course I have to take to complete my requirements, care about Hannibal Hamlin? In what ways did he, or his vice-presidency, matter?  My colleagues tested students on how well they could memorize facts that, by themselves, meant little, and mattered less.

There was in that department as well a Missouri Synod Lutheran Pastor, who divided his time between his church and the department, and who used to brag that being a college professor was “the best part-time job in the world.”  He gave his students multiple choice exams, with one of the choices a joke, a crazy answer that he liked to think was funny.  He liked to share his exams with me.  He thought they were funny in the way that people who do not know how to tell jokes think things are funny.  When his students chose, for example, “D: A Heavy-Metal band” as an answer to the question, “What was the Black Death?” he would laugh at their lack of knowledge.  He couldn’t believe, he said, that the students would fallen for this and he would shake his head in dismay at their ignorance. “Kids these days,” he may as well have said.

No, I thought.  You have it all wrong. Both of my colleagues had it wrong.  It was possible, it seemed to me, that students do not know who Hannibal Hamlin is because you did not convince them that this individual mattered, that he lived a life that they ought to know something about.  Or that the lectures and the notes and the memorization of facts, or the mammoth textbook you assigned, sucked all the life out of a subject that is so inherently interesting when taught with passion, planning, and attention.  Or, perhaps, they may have chosen to identify the Black Death as a metal band because you failed to convey to them the significance of this event.  You may not have interested them in the topic. The students may not have cared about what you told them.  That is sad.  They may not have cared about you.

I cannot criticize students for this.  I encourage my students, as they read the books I assign, or listen to our discussions, to ask themselves and to ask me, “So What?”  If I cannot handle that challenge, then I am not fit for this line of work.

I have been teaching a long time.  I have worked with some truly wonderful colleagues, committed, dedicated, and creative teachers.  But there are those who quiz their students, to keep them honest, to give them an incentive to do the reading that these instructors believe they would not otherwise do.  Others offer exams that serve no purpose other than to demonstrate what students do not know or, perhaps, what the instructor failed to teach them.

I hated exams when I was a student. It was not because I did not want to work.  I loved history.  Even before I declared it as my major. I loved the work in the library, and the reading, and the discussions.  I can remember the first primary source from the library’s special collections that I held in my hands, a pamphlet written by the interesting Pennsylvania loyalist Joseph Galloway. It is important for those of us who teach to remember what drew us to this field in the first place. Every historian I know is a voracious reader. Yet I know of no historian who reads for enjoyment a textbook.   But I prepared for the exams. They caused me stress.  I memorized what I was expected to memorize.  I saw students who knew the material as well as I did at a conceptual level choke, or have a bad day.  And I know that I never learned a single thing taking an in-class examination.

Instead of trying to find out, in effect, what our students do not know, it might be better to assess them in a way that allows them to show what they do know, and to demonstrate how thoughtful and creative and worth listening to that they actually are. One of the greatest parts of this job is the opportunity it provides me to be inspired by and learn from my students’ insights.

In my nineteen years at Geneseo, I have never given an in-class exam.  I have never used a scan-tron form or a blue-book. I give students take home projects, short papers, really, and give them a week or more to work on them.  Some of the questions that will be appearing soon on the Resources page of this website are ones I ask my students in the Native American survey course. In my humanities course, in which the students read works from Antigone to Hamlet, I pose for them big questions.  Recently, for instance, I asked the students to reflect on Roger Rosenblatt’s essay that appeared in the Atlantic last year, an essay I have remarked upon for this blog in the past. It is a harrowing depiction of the capacity of human beings for evil and violence, but also about the possibility that beauty, and love, might survive even our darkest moments.

The strongest essays show me students who are thinking deeply, wrestling with huge questions, and who are striving to understand the great works that they have read.  I can see from the essays that the students took the assignment seriously, and I can see not only that the books I assigned mattered, but how they mattered. I think back to the best of these answers often. I think of the non-traditional student, a bit older than his classmates, coming back to make another try at college after spending time with the Army in Iraq. I have mentioned him in this blog before.  I could see him working through his wartime experiences as he wrestled not only Rosenblatt’s observations, but with Thucydides’ admonition that “war is a violent teacher” and the call in the Gospels not only to love our neighbors, but our enemies as well. Or the student, a volunteer in a hospice, now on her third or fourth major, fighting her own demons as she wrote an essay that moved me to tears.  Or the guy from some part of Francophone Africa, arrived in nearby Rochester through one of the refugee resettlement programs, who described the slaughter of his own family as he struggled to understand what was worth fighting for, dying for, and perhaps killing for.   And the kids with the more comfortable or conventional backgrounds, who are turned on by a text, whether Augustine’s own struggles to define who he was as a young man, or Antigone’s decision to resist an unjust law, or Cicero’s command that the man of virtue must serve the commonwealth, even when that service offered the frightening prospect of criticism or condemnation.

My point is that I learn a lot from these essays, and I am a guy who still has much to learn.  I rethink my own beliefs and assumptions about the texts I assign based on what my students write. I reconsider how I teach them. I see in them things I had not seen before.  I learn.

If this is not your experience, and if you are one of those professors out there who likes to post student bloopers on Facebook or Twitter, or even if your default position is one where you assume that the kids know little and care less, I would urge you take a good, long, look in the mirror. I love history.  If you are bothering to read this, there is a good chance you do, too. Many of our students have been taught by over-worked and underpaid teachers, racing to cover as much material as their states require for their students to be able to pass whatever standardized test awaits them at the end of the year.  I have watched my own kids as they take their high school history classes.  Watching them work through their assignments–the busy work and regurgitation and memorization–I would not blame them for a second if they did not like history as a subject.  In my mind, it is not at all unreasonable for these students to expect us to sell them on the significance of what we do, on why it all matters. We should not shy away from this challenge. And if you are concerned by your students’ shaky grasp of the facts, or bothered that they do not know things “that every informed citizen should know,” you might be asking the wrong questions. Before you laugh, consider what you are doing.  Facts are important, but they are only the most basic building blocks of history, and they have little value without creativity, interpretation, and imagination.

And here’s a final point.  When you laugh at student bloopers, you come off as smug, arrogant, and a bit of a prick. I doubt you would laugh about that student’s answer with that student sitting right in front of you.  Teaching matters. It is hard work. It takes great effort to do it well.  The failure of your students might be, at least in part, a failing on your part as a teacher.