Mike Davis, one of our correspondents at the 2018 annual meeting of the American Historical Association, checks in with some reflections on three panels on teaching history. Read all of Mike’s AHA 2018 posts here. –JF
I attended three panels at the AHA conference on Friday (Day 2), each one engaging with issues relating to historians and their relationship with the broader community.
The first was a sales meeting for Pearson’s new Revel “interactive learning environment,” billed as an alternative to traditional online and physical textbooks designed to meet 21st century students where they live by letting them engage with ADA compliant audio, video, primary sources, and other learning techniques. While I found Revel engaging, I felt particularly empowered by the number and diversity of faculty present for the talk. Junior and senior faculty from high schools, community colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and comprehensive state universities all turned out for the opportunity to learn better ways to engage with their students.
The second panel: “The Culture Wars of the Texas K-12 Schoolbooks” dealt with Texas K- 12 schools and the efforts by both AHA members and their community allies to both build Mexican-American history studies programs and defend those programs from a hostile state legislature eager to heavily regulate – or outright abolish, any programs that encouraged “nationalism.” The panelists emphasized how the anti-Mexican historiography the state had considered was not simply immoral; it was also bad history, omitting decades of recent Mexican-American historiography. Having used this scholarship myself in the classroom, I was particularly looking forward to this panel and I was not disappointed.
I was particularly pleased at how the panelists – Emilio Zamora (taking the opportunity to present as two of the attendees had been unable to attend thanks to the inclement weather) and Carlos Blanton – emphasized that the focus of their work was on promoting critical thinking and student engagement rather than simply promoting ethnic pride. As they pointed out, this work benefited not just students from a particular ‘minority’ – but all students who get the opportunity to learn the contested nature of history and the way various disempowered groups have fought for power inside historical narratives.
The last panel I attended today was “Teaching the Master Narrative: American History Textbooks in the 20th Century”, a panel inspired by the scholarship of Kyle Ward (Minnesota-Mankato) that looked at the changing (or unchanging) ways various key moments in the “master narrative” of American history have appeared in secondary schools. The University of Miami’s Michael Horton looked at Columbus, offering his audience an interesting antidote to usual Whiggish notions of “historical writing improving over time” by looking at the historians of the 1920s and 1930s who were actually quite critical of Columbus and his career. In the same vein of anti-Whiggishness, Michael Kniesel at Kent State looked at the Boston Tea Party in high school textbooks – finding no particular improvement in accuracy in the way textbooks have discussed the Tea Party from the early 20th century. American teachers are reluctant to paint figures from the American Revolution as economic terrorists – despite the historiography in recent decades leading that way.
Finally, Lindsey Bauman looked at the way textbooks in the 1950s dealt with slavery – finding that textbooks generally relied on Ulrich Phillips’s master-centered economic history when telling the story of slavery. Bauman’s research showed that even as historiography in the academy moved beyond Phillips’s white-centric and white supremacist take on the history of slavery, school textbooks continued to directly use arguments and evidence from a work published some thirty-five years earlier even by the 1950s.
This was a good day – and it left me with good thoughts for my own panel presentation tomorrow. I look forward to seeing readers at the Early Career Lightning Round at 10:30AM on Friday.