In Defense of Empathy

Why Study History CoverIn a recent post at The Anxious Bench, Elesha Coffman of Baylor University asks, “Why was [Robert] Orsi, whose scholarly home is the American Academy of Religion, giving a plenary at the C[onference on] F[aith and H[istory]?”

As the person who invited Orsi to deliver a plenary at the CFH, I am the one responsible for his appearance. Due to other CFH commitments, I only heard half of Orsi’s address on “disgust,” but what I heard was a real barn-burner.   You can get a sense of what he said in Coffman’s post.

I had originally asked Orsi to talk about his most recent book History and Presence.   I thought his reflections on “real presence” in the American Catholic experience would resonate with CFH members.  I was just as surprised as anyone by the talk, although I also realize that this often happens in academia.  Nevertheless, my role as program chair is to invite plenary speakers who will provoke conversation and discussion.  Mission accomplished!  🙂

Coffman writes:

For many of us who attended the recent meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, the heaviest moments in a consistently weighty gathering came during Bob Orsi’s concluding plenary, “The Study of Religion on the Other Side of Disgust.” The address was rooted in his current research on clergy sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, and he spent at least 20 minutes recounting in excruciating detail the exploits of Father Paul Shanley, a predator whose superiors allowed him to abuse young people with impunity for decades. Not just allowed—empowered and paid by the church to run what one lawyer called a “pedophile paradise.” Why was Orsi, whose scholarly home is the American Academy of Religion, giving a plenary at CFH? Why was he telling us this appalling narrative? And what were we supposed to do with it?

I can only speak of my own reaction. For me, this was a painful but necessary step in moving away from my own scholarly formation toward something that feels more true in our historical moment.

I was trained to see the historian’s foremost ethical task as the cultivation of empathy. For years, I talked about this virtue on the first day of class. We historians, I used to say, “resurrect the dead and let them speak.” We listen to voices from the past humbly. We refrain from pronouncing anachronistic sentences on our fellow human beings who could not know what was coming next, and who did not have the benefit of whatever enlightenment we have gleaned since their passing. My white, male, Southern doctoral adviser used to say, “If I had been born in the early 19th century, I would have been a racist slaveholder, too.” Generations hence, our descendants will marvel at our blindness. Judge not, lest ye be judged.

Read the rest here.

Actually, Coffman was not the only one who criticized the idea of “empathy” in Grand Rapids last week.  Margaret Bendroth, the conference’s first plenary speaker, also criticized the pursuit of empathy in historical inquiry.

Count me as one who is not convinced by this call to move away from or beyond empathy in the practice of history.  Don’t get me wrong, I hope the Catholic sex abuse scandal will trigger “disgust” in all of my students, but a case like this is not the best test case for whether or not empathy is still useful in historical inquiry.  (Who wouldn’t be disgusted by sexual abuse of children?).

There might be subjects we discuss in history class that might trigger disgust in only some of my students or only a few of them.  If we are studying the history of the culture wars, for example, some students might be disgusted that abortion ends the life of babies in the womb.  Others may be disgusted by the fact that pro-lifers do not respect the rights of women to control their own bodies.  When we let something like “disgust” drive our study of history, the history classroom turns into an ethics or moral philosophy classroom.  At my institution, students take a course in ethics with another professor who is trained in the field.  My responsibility is to teach them how to think historically–to walk in others shoes and try to understand the “foreign country” that is the past.  Of course ethicists and moral philosophers can talk about the past as well, but they don’t talk about the past in the same way historians do.  (I should also add that my views here were born out of more than a decade–and eight years as a department chair–defending the place of history in the college curriculum and the larger society.  I have tried to argue that history as a discipline offers a way of thinking about the world that other disciplines do not).

The best historical works, and the best historical classes, are those that tell the story of the past in all its fullness–good and bad–and let the readers/students develop their ethical capacities through their engagement with it. See my colleague Jim LaGrand’s excellent essay, “The Problems of Preaching Through History.”

Of course some folks will now say something like, “Hey Fea, you just wrote a book criticizing Donald Trump!  How is that not preaching or moral criticism?”  It’s a fair question and it is one I have been wrestling with ever since I agreed to write Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  I think Believe Me draws heavily upon my work as a historian, but I am not sure I would call it a work of history.  It is instead a work of social criticism targeted at my fellow white evangelicals.  This, I should add, is the primary reason I decided to publish it with Eerdmans, a Christian publisher with connections to the evangelical world.  Wherever I go on my book tour I talk about this.  There are times in Believe Me when I write as a historian and there are times when I do not.

I should also add that I do not bring my approach and tone in Believe Me to the history classroom.  My direct criticism of white evangelicalism and Donald Trump have no place there.  In the classroom we are in the business of understanding and empathy.  If we want to move past empathy and understanding in our classroom, as Coffman suggests we do, them we are doing something other than history.

Of course I have been arguing for this for a long time and still stand by my central thesis in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  In this polarized society we need more empathy for people with whom we disagree.  I still think history is the best way of cultivating this virtue.

The American Revolution in Texas Schools

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The Texas State Board of Education has “streamlined” the state’s social studies standards in a way that limits what students will learn about the American Revolution.  Michael Oberg, Distinguished Professor of History at SUNY-Geneseo, describes the changes:

One of my favorite undergraduate professors, John Walzer, taught the course I took on the American Revolution a long time ago at Cal State Long Beach. One of his students once made a movie reenacting the Boston Tea Party. The local marina stood in for Boston Harbor, somebody’s fishing boat for The Dartmouth, and cardboard boxes for chests of tea. After the “Sons of Liberty” committed their act of defiance, the cameras followed them home. When they attempted to wash off their “Mohawk” disguises, no matter how hard they scrubbed, they would not come off.They were revolutionaries now, and there was no turning back.

I have always loved that story. It gets at the dramatic urgency of the colonists’ protest movement, and depicts that moment when defiant opponents of parliamentary taxation realized that their relationship to Great Britain as subject and citizen was broken beyond repair. The story of this film helps students see the excitement of the Revolution, but also its danger. It is a powerful and important thing for students to experience.

So I worry that if states like Texas have their way, we will lose the drama and the excitement of the Age of Revolution. In a set of revised learning standards, the Texas State Board of Education reduces the revolution to little more than a constitutional dispute with Great Britain, of value only because it produces the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and a new nation at its end. Nothing is at stake. Little will be lost. The revolution seems inevitable, and no more disorderly than a game of Canasta.

And here is another taste of Oberg’s piece at “Age of Revolutions”:

Given its history of social studies education and its highly politicized methods for revising curricula, it is easy to beat up on Texas. But here’s the thing. Too many of my students think of the Revolution primarily as a creature of the “Founding Fathers.” They associate it, barely, with the Revolutionary War, and know little of the protest movements that preceded it. They know little of the consequences of the Revolution, save for the fact that the United States emerged as a new nation at its end.

Texas offers its schoolchildren a highly truncated presentation of the Revolution, and that is both disappointing and a cause for concern. The state’s approach robs students of the opportunity to explore the contingencies, the rending compromises, and the internal conflict that characterized these years. It deprives students of the human drama, as ordinary Americans—Anglo-Americans divided by class and region, immigrants from Europe from a host of religious traditions, Africans and Native Americans in all their diversity—found themselves forced to choose sides. Revolutions never tolerate neutrality, and the American Revolution was no different. Our students are seldom asked to consider that the gains brought about by the Revolution often came at the expense of others. 

Read the entire piece here.

When You’re Teaching Edmund Morgan’s *American Slavery, American Freedom* and a Student Brings Some Tobacco Leaves to Class…

Tobacco was life in seventeenth-century Virginia.  It defined everything about Chesapeake society–race, class, gender, labor patterns, family life, marriage, religion, economy, and politics.  So far I am having a great time teaching Edmund Morgan’s classic American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. (I hope my Colonial America students are enjoying it as well).

Today one of my more inspired students showed-up with some tobacco leaves.  He got them from an Amish tobacco grower here in south-central Pennsylvania.

Morgan Tobacco

Rebecca Onion Interviews Sam Wineburg on Teaching History

WineburgI love this interview at Slate.  It is not only a subject–historical thinking in schools–that I interests me, but both participants in the interview are former guests on The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Sam Wineburg was a guest on Episode 3.  Rebecca Onion was our guest on Episode 12.  (We hope to have Wineburg back this season–stay tuned).

Onion talks to Wineburg about his new book, Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone).  Here is a taste:

I loved the note you made about the difference between “sounding critical” and thinking critically. President Trump recently said that Google is biased against conservatives. There have been a number of instances of this, where Trump or someone Trump-ish will say something that sounds critical or wise but isn’t. It’s hard because it almost feels like there is an appropriation of the language of critical thinking on the right that makes it hard to explain what the difference might be between that and what we are talking about.

It’s not “almost an appropriation,” it is an appropriation. And in this respect, the work that has influenced me the most is the work by Kate Starbird, an absolutely brilliant internet researcher who studies crisis communication at the University of Washington’s College of Engineering.* And she has a paper that shows that the alt-right has, right there with Alex Jones, has appropriated the language of “Do you have an open mind? Are you an independent thinker? Are you willing to trust your own intelligence to make up your own mind when you review the evidence?”

And so absolutely, this is the language that has been appropriated by the alt-right in particular, these neo-Nazi sites and conspiracy sites that basically say, “The wool is being pulled over your eyes! But you have the power to [pose] thoughtful questions through your own powers of discernment if you have an open mind.” This is the stock-in-trade of propagandists—you can go back and see the same kind of thing in work by Lenin and Goebbels: “You should trust yourself. We’re not going to tell you what to believe, you evaluate the evidence—here is the evidence.”

Read the entire interview here.

Sam Wineburg’s Scathing Critique of the Teaching American History Grants

WineburgIn Episode 3 (February 2016) of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, Stanford education professor Sam Wineburg told us that the Teaching American History grant program was “conceived in sin.”  Listen here.

At the time, Wineburg was working on his book Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone).  The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast listeners got an early test of the book, released yesterday by the University of Chicago Press.  My producer tells me that Wineburg will back on the podcast to talk about it in the Fall.

Wineburg is promoting the book in a piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Obituary for a Billion-Dollar Boondoggle.”  It continues Wineburg’s scathing critique of this federal grant program.  Here is a taste:

Catholics enumerate seven cardinal sins, including TAH’s greatest: the sin of gluttony. The program consumed much and left little. While stacks of reports were sent to Washington that boasted of stupendous successes (thus committing another mortal sin: pride), almost all failed the sniff test when examined by independent evaluators.

If timidity were a mortal sin, the Department of Education would certainly have to serve penance. Rather than earmarking funds to develop assessments that could be used for cross-project comparisons, the department treated each project on its own, wasting untold resources in fruitless attempts to reinvent the wheel. Worse still, department officials ignored advice given to them back in 2002 at a meeting that included the executive directors of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the National Council for the Social Studies. This gathering (and another, held two months later) called on the Department of Education to abandon bubble tests in favor of assessments that examine “student understanding of historical thinking and important, in-depth, contextualized subject matter rather than discrete historical ‘facts.’” While leaders of individual projects may have heeded this advice, it never influenced the program as a whole. When evaluators in 2011 submitted their recommendations at the end of their report, the department was, yet again, urged to create tools that “could contribute both to stronger local evaluations and to potential comparisons between projects.” This suggestion came too late for TAH.

By 2015, with TAH a distant memory, Stacia Kuceyeski, a historian with the Ohio History Connection, a statewide organization, wistfully recalled a time when her organization partnered in 22 TAH grants, and money flowed like water over Brandywine Falls. “Many of us at history museums and departments of history,” she blogged, “were like Scrooge McDuck, sliding around giant piles of sweet [federal] money that was especially designated for American history. How Amazing!” But with the party over, she and fellow historians were left with a “massive hangover, the likes of which can’t be helped with three Advil and a bunch of Gatorade.”

The history profession sure got plastered on TAH dollars. The billion-dollar bash lasted for a decade. But with sobriety comes a reckoning — in the words of the Twelve Steps, “a searching and fearless moral inventory.” We’re still waiting.

Read the entire piece here.

Full disclosure:  I defended the TAH grants here.

 

Texas Social Studies Standards: Here We Go Again!

Hillary Congress

Should Texas students know something about Hillary Clinton?

The Texas State Board of Education voted last week to “streamline” the state’s social studies curriculum because there are too many historical names to memorize.  Here are some proposed changes:

  • Remove “San Jacinto Day” and replace it with “Constitution Day” in a first-grade unit on customs, holidays, and celebrations of the community, state and nation.
  • Remove Hellen Keller from a third-grade unit on “citizenship”
  • Amend the Civil War standards to recognize “the central role of the expansion of slavery in causing the Civil War and other contributing factors including sectionalism and state rights.”
  • Require students to learn about the “heroism” of those who “gave their lives” at the Alamo
  • Reinsert the phrase “Judeo-Christian (especially biblical law) into a 7th grade unit on “major intellectual, philosophical, political, and religious traditions that informed the American founding.”
  • Reinsert “Moses” and remove “Thomas Hobbes from a 7th grade unit on “individuals whose principles of laws and government institutions informed the American founding.”
  • Remove Hillary Clinton from a unit on “the contributions of significant political and social leaders in the United States.”

Some things to think about:

1. Teachers can do whatever they want to do in the classroom.  If they want to talk about Hillary Clinton they can talk about Hillary Clinton. If they want to talk about San Jacinto Day, they can do it.  If they want to talk about the Old Testament as a source of the American founding, they can do so. (Although I would urge them to do it carefully and responsibly, perhaps along the lines of Dan Dreisbach here).

2. These decisions are less about history and education and more about politics.  This is pretty obvious from the examples above.

3. It is important that students are exposed to a variety of voices in American history.  I say this not because I believe in political correctness, but because I believe that all human beings have dignity and thus have voices that should be heard.  If an American history course contains all white voices, this would be a problem.  If an American history course contains all black voices, this would a problem.  For more on my approach here see my Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

4. In many ways, this entire conversation about standards and who is “in” and who is “out” misses the point of history education.  It favors “coverage” over historical thinking.  Rather than develop this idea here, I point you to other places where I have written about it:

John Fea, “Don’t taint teaching of history in Texas,” Houston Chronicle, July 26, 2009

John Fea, “The Texas Social Studies Standards Debacle,” The Way of Improvement Leads Home, January 15, 2010.

John Fea, “Why study history: A bill before the Pa. Senate is only part of the answer,” Harrisburg Patriot News, July 6, 2017.

Thanks to my colleague Cathay Snyder for bringing this story to my attention.

Would You Sit for a 24-Hour Lecture on Texas History?

On August 24, University of North Texas history professor Andrew Torget is going to try to set a Guinness World Record for the longest history lesson.  Torget will be delivering a 24-hour lecture on Texas history.

He seems prepared.  He is physically fit.  He has his PowerPoints ready to go.  He has 500-pages of notes.  He will not be drinking coffee because it dries out the vocal chords.  (He will be getting his caffeine from “flat Cokes”).

Torget will be raising funds for an online Texas archive.

Read all about it at The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Or watch this.

Good luck!

What James Loewen Needs to Learn About History Education

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Many of the readers of this blog are familiar with James Loewen, the author of the popular 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.  In the introduction to a recent interview with Loewen in The Atlantic, journalist Alia Wong described Loewen’s approach in Lies:

In 1995, the University of Vermont sociologist and historian James W. Loewen published a book that sought to debunk the myriad myths children were often taught about the United States’ past. Framed largely as a critique of the history education delivered in America’s classrooms but also serving as a history text itself, Lies My Teacher Told Mewas the result of Loewen’s analysis of a dozen major high-school textbooks. It found that those materials frequently taught students about topics including the first Thanksgiving, the Civil and Vietnam Wars, and the Americas before Columbus arrived in incomplete, distorted, or otherwise flawed ways. Take, for example, the false yet relatively widespread conviction that the Reconstruction era was a chaotic period whose tumult was attributable to poor, uncivilized governance of recently freed slaves. Textbooks’ framing of the history in this way, according to Loewen, promoted racist attitudes among white people. White supremacists in the South, for example, repeatedly cited this interpretation of Reconstruction to justify the prevention of black people from voting.

Wong’s interview with Loewen is occasioned by the release of a new paperback edition of Lies My Teacher Told Me.  You can read the interview here.

As I read the interview I was struck by how much emphasis Loewen places on the textbook as a measure of the state of history education in schools.  He seems to be unaware of the changes that have taken place in history education since he first published Lies nearly a quarter-century ago.

Anyone familiar with the work of the Stanford History Education Group or the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History knows that effective history teaching requires teachers to challenge or confirm narratives about the past through the close reading of primary sources and the critical reading of textbooks.

After reading Wong’s interview with Loewen, I ran across a Facebook post written by Nate McAlister, a history teacher in Kansas, 2010 National History Teacher of the Year, and my partner in the Gilder-Lehrman Institute’s “Colonial Era” summer seminar for teachers held each year at Princeton.  Here is his response to Wong’s interview with Loewen and Lies My Teacher Told Me:

I like and dislike the article. And I agree and disagree with Loewen. His analysis based solely on the textbook discounts one major factor, the teacher in the room. He assumes that every history teacher cracks open the textbook and calls it a day. I do agree, that textbooks narratives are often poorly written or plain wrong. I also agree, that if a teacher is reliant on only the textbook the results will be as he stated, poor. But I don’t think this is where history education is in this country. I believe that history teachers are some of the best in the field. I believe that history teachers push students, daily, to think critically and challenged the given narrative. In essence, we—history teachers—are more than the textbook.

“I don’t think this is where history education is in this country.”  Well put.

Princeton’s Robert George on Intellectual and Ideological Diversity in the Academy

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While I was visiting a big state university a couple of weeks ago I had a robust, spirited, and civil conversation with the history faculty about how to teach controversial or morally problematic issues.  Many of the history professors in the room said that they use their classrooms to advocate for certain political causes (all on the left) or see no problem giving their personal opinion about a particular issue or idea that arises from the study of the past.

I pushed back. I wondered whether the history classroom was primarily the place where such moral criticism should happen.  Those familiar with my Why Study History?: A Historical Introduction know that I think there is a difference between moral philosophy (ethics) and history.  Though I obviously have my opinions, and many of them are informed by my understanding of the past, I rarely bring those opinions into the classroom.  For example, the only time I talk about Donald Trump in my classroom is when he gets something wrong about history or uses the past irresponsibly to justify this or that policy.   I do the same thing with any public figure who manipulates the past for political gain.

In other words, my blog and other social media feeds are not the best representations of what my classroom looks like.

Robert George of Princeton University is very conservative.  I have seen him defending moral conservatism in public talks, in writing, and on social media.  But if I read his recent interview with Matthew Stein at The College Fix, I don’t think these conservative political and moral convictions dominate his classroom.  George has some very interesting things to say about intellectual and ideological diversity in the classroom. Here is a taste:

The College Fix: In your Open Minds Conference panel, you mentioned that you don’t think professors should “use their classrooms as a soapbox for advocacy,” and that you and professors like Cornel West make your classrooms as intellectually stimulating and valuable as possible by honestly portraying both sides of an argument. This seems to hit on a big issue with the universities today, as many professors of the “progressive orthodoxy” you later mentioned seem to use their positions to influence their students into becoming activists of related social causes. How do you think society can address this issue, particularly given the system of tenure and the sheer magnitude of the problem?

Robert George: Like most of the problems in academia—and society more broadly—today, what is needed above all is courage. We need the courage to speak the truth even when it is uncomfortable, and even when truth-speaking carries risks. Professors who seek to indoctrinate their students are betraying a sacred trust. They are supposed to be educators. If there is an antonym to “educating,” it’s “indoctrinating.” Professors (and other teachers) who engage in indoctrination need to be confronted. Certainly administrators need to do this. Fellow faculty members need to do it. And students themselves need to do it, too.

Is this risky, especially for students? You bet it is. But that’s where the virtue of courage comes in. All of us—including students—need to muster the courage to call out teachers who betray their sacred trust. In addition, professors who understand the importance of truly educating students, and who grasp the fundamental difference between education and indoctrination, need to set an excellent example for their colleagues—especially younger colleagues. Together, we can establish a milieu that powerfully discourages indoctrination.

CF: You also mentioned that you should create an atmosphere of “unsettling” each other in the classroom. Looking at the campus more generally, there are continually accounts of the opposite atmosphere in regards to discussing “unsettling ideas,” whether it be by an outside speaker being shut down or students on campus being afraid to express unpopular viewpoints. How can this negative general atmosphere on campus be improved to encourage students to act out the ideal intellectual atmosphere that you described?

RG: Again, courage is the key. Students must have the courage to express dissent—even if they are alone or in a small minority in the class in holding a particular view. And faculty members need to model courage for their students—and for their colleagues (especially younger colleagues). All of us must overcome the natural fear we feel in oppressive environments of the sort that too often exist today in college, high school, and even middle school classrooms. And when a dissenter does speak up in defiance of a campus dogma, all of us (and not only those who happen to share his or her dissenting opinion) need swiftly to provide that individual with support.

That is how we will establish an environment in which people are free—and feel and know they are free—to speak their minds, thus benefiting the entire community by contributing to robust, civil campus debates.

CF: Identity politics was one issue you touched on in the Q&A, which you said has a negative effect on both college campuses and society at large. Could you speak a little more on how identity politics and student groups organized around group identity has negatively affected the university? Are there any common issues of identity politics amongst the faculty? Has it had any effects on your or other professors’ ability to create the positive intellectual atmosphere you previously mentioned?

RG: Identity politics, and the dogmas of the phenomenon that has come to be known as “intersectionality,” harm learning environments by encouraging groupthink and stigmatizing dissent.

One especially regrettable consequence of the rise of identitarianism is the pressure placed on female and minority students to hold and express opinions that are in line with what women and members of minority groups are “supposed” to think. If you are female, you are “supposed” to hold a certain view on abortion and the status of unborn human life. If you are black, you are “supposed” to express a certain view on the desirability of affirmative action programs of certain sorts. If you are Latino, you are “supposed” to have a certain set of beliefs on immigration policy.

I find this reprehensible. People need to think for themselves. And they need to do that, and need to know that they are entitled to do that, whether they are male or female, black, white, green, blue, or purple.

 

Read the entire interview here.  He also has some interesting things to say about Liberty University.

Do Objects Tell Us the Truth?

Can they lie?

Yes.

Check out Carla Cevasco‘s and Christopher Allison‘s video:

Learn more in Cevasco’s post at The Junto.  Here is a taste:

Is material culture as inherently untrustworthy? I was once at a conference roundtable where one attendee claimed that “Material culture is so elitist, just rich people’s stuff in museums.” Fortunately, a historical archaeologist in the room begged to differ, arguing that archaeology offered a rich record of people who did not necessarily leave written sources behind. When I recently required my students to analyze both a material and a textual source, they concluded that material sources were inherently more difficult to work with than their written counterparts. “Once I describe the object, there’s nothing left to say about it,” one student complained.

I’ve been hearing variations of this argument my entire academic life. As a scholar who both studies and teaches with material culture, I find this reasoning both fascinating and frustrating. Why do so many people, from scholars to students, consider material culture somehow a lesser form of evidence than the written word? New Materialists—the dominant theorists in material culture studies today—have argued that, in academia, the principle of “semantic ascent” devalues the material in favor of the abstract.[1] They contend, and I agree, that there are real drawbacks to focusing on abstractions. A lot of abstract academic work isn’t very approachable to the general public. Why not start with material things, things that surround everyone every day? When historians make public scholarship, shouldn’t we be looking at stuff?

Read the entire post here.

An 8th Grade History Teacher to His Students on the Last Day of Class: “Never Stop Learning”

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Moses Brown School, Providence, Rhode Island

Jonathan Gold teaches 8th grade history at Moses Brown School, a Quaker school in Providence, Rhode Island. (See his September 2016 piece on teaching history in the age of Trump and his October 2015 piece on teaching historical thinking).

Gold ends every academic year by delivering a formal speech to his students.  Here is a taste of this year’s version:

I’m not ever sure what students actually learn in here. But my hope is that you have come to embody the insight of my favorite educational philosopher, John Dewey, who articulated the goal of education as the ability to acquire more education. In other words, education should teach you how to learn — what questions to ask, how to find answers, and how to make connections — but also give you an insatiable desire to keep learning.

So how do we do that? We start, perhaps ironically, by embracing the limits of our own knowledge. Remember when we studied Israel and Palestine? We didn’t rush to solve the conflict or develop a thesis; we asked ourselves what else we needed to know and sought more information. What we found were irreconcilable narratives that helped us understand why the problem is so difficult to resolve. What we focused on was embracing complexity and tolerating uncertainty. We used this same mindset in our student-led discussions. The goal was to connect to others’ ideas, to bolster each other’s thinking, and to keep probing. It was about the process, not the result.

The human brain craves simplicity and clarity, but the world — with its infinite strangeness — offers only ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity. We can’t change the nature of the world — it will always be complex — so we need to train ourselves to be comfortable with that complexity, to lean into what we don’t know and acknowledge our own small place in the universe.

Part of that means an aspiration towards humility. What I mean by that is starting with the assumption that we don’t know very much and that what we do think we know is incomplete and unrefined and helplessly biased, so much so that we are better off constantly seeking more knowledge and information than declaring something fully known. That doesn’t mean we can’t have opinions, or we can’t develop a worldview, but it does mean we need to see our viewpoints as subject to improvement and refinement. Those who disagree with us having something to teach us, and we can’t possibly know everything. Mostly it means developing an insatiable thirst for new knowledge and information.

It may feel odd to get to the end of the year and hear me arguing that we can’t fully know anything. It can be scary to think that there’s always more to know, more detail, more nuance, more subtlety, more perspective, more work to do to scrub bias from our thinking. But I find that to be perhaps the single greatest thing about being human: there’s always more to learn.

Read the entire text here.

Teaching Liberty

Liberty Appeal

Over at The Junto, Tom Cutterham writes about his course on the “meaning of liberty” from the American Revolution to Civil War.    Here is a taste:

The truth is, I find it hard even to begin thinking collectively about freedom. Our starting point is unfreedom. It was the same for Thomas Jefferson. His Declaration of Independence gives meaning to liberty by listing its violations. When we read David Walker, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs in my class, we try to glimpse freedom by looking deep into its absence. But it’s too easy for students to assume that because slavery has been abolished in America, the problem of liberty has already been solved. Spend too long pondering slavery, and just about anything else starts to look like liberty.

There were critics of abolitionists who tried to raise the same problem. In my class, we read William West’s series of letters to The Liberator, describing “wages slavery” as a system of dependence, abjection, and poverty which West calls “worse” than chattel slavery. It is wage slavery that can most truly claim to be the “sum of all evils,” West writes, because it is only this variety of slavery that hypocritically appropriates “the name of liberty.” We read West critically, of course. But when I ask my students if they ever felt like their boss was a tyrant, that’s when they begin to understand that freedom is a problem of the present, not just of the nineteenth century.

It’s the curse of such a topic—the meaning of freedom in American history!—to be so deeply bound up with progress. Didn’t things just keep on getting better; sometimes faster, perhaps, and sometimes more slowly, but basically, better? We read Judith Sargent Murray in the second week, then Sarah Grimké in the seventh, the Seneca Falls declaration and Lucretia Mott in the tenth. One of my students noted how depressing it is to see the same good arguments repeated, periodically, over sixty years of alleged progress. The way we raise and teach our children, the way they imbibe the ideology infused in their surroundings—as those women powerfully described—is an unfreedom none too easily abolished.

Read the entire post here.  I love the way Cutterham challenges his students to think historically about the “meaning of liberty.”  History teachers take note.

Is the Hourglass Effect Necessarily a Bad Thing?

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I really enjoyed thinking through Nathan Perl-Rosenthal‘s post at Panorama titled “The Hourglass Effect in Teaching the American Revolution.”  Here is Perl-Rosenthal’s description of the so-called “hourglass effect”:

Many of us who teach the American Revolution in an Atlantic and global context have run into the “hourglass problem:” A course that is geographically capacious at the beginning and the end but narrows in the middle to eastern North America. This post analyzes that problem and examines some solutions, one of which draws on my essay, “Atlantic Cultures and the Age of Revolution,” published in last year’s WMQ-JER joint issue (William and Mary Quarterly 74, no. 4,  667–696).

The hourglass problem arises from trying to synthesize old and new ways of seeing the American Revolution in a single course. You probably start your class with a wide-angle early modern frame: Big, oceanic topics like global empire, Atlantic slavery, and the consumer revolution are good for framing and explaining the coming imperial crisis. But before long, the course’s terrain contracts as you turn to the traditional chronology of the Revolution. One feels the squeeze already with the Sugar, Stamp, and Townshend Acts. After early 1770, it gets hard to leave eastern North America. First one is in Boston for the Massacre, then explaining the local politics of the Coercive Acts, followed by Lexington and Concord, and the debate over independence. The same goes for the war years and the critical period. A reopening outward typically only gets underway in the 1790s….

The geographic cinching-up of the 1760s and 1770s, by temporarily shutting out events anywhere but North America, paradoxically ends up reinforcing the very exceptionalist narrative of the Revolution that a wider lens is supposed to help us avoid. The wider world may play its part in the revolutionary era, this approach implies, but during the crucial period of the 1770s and 1780s there is a particular and special North American story that must be told. 

Perl-Rosenthal offers some interesting suggestions for avoiding this hourglass problem, which he believes “reinforces the very exceptionalist narrative of the Revolution that a wider lens is supported to help us avoid.”  I encourage you to read the entire piece.

As I read Perl-Rosenthal’s post I was struck by the presuppositions that guided the piece.  It is assumed that any discussion of local narratives is bad or somehow contributing to American exceptionalism.  He uses terms like “traditional chronology” as if that is a bad thing.  Those who get too caught-up in this narrative “feel the squeeze.”  And, of course, the word “exceptionalism” is a very loaded term with negative connotations in the academy.  (In some ways, I would argue, the American Revolution was an exceptional event, even as it was shaped by global forces).

Maybe I am just too old and traditionalist, but I do think that a course in the American Revolution still has a civic function to play in the development of our students and this can be done without falling into unhealthy forms of nationalism.

Another Conservative Misses the Point of History Education

FraserOver at The National Review, Stanley Kurz claims that U.S. history textbooks are anti-conservative.  Here is a taste:

The most underappreciated political story of our time is the changing content of K-12 textbooks in history, civics, social studies, and related subjects. Yes, I said political story. Why are Millennials so receptive to socialism? Why are today’s Democrats dominated by identity politics? Why have movements on the political right shifted from a constitutional conservatism symbolized by the Boston Tea Party to a populist nationalism? All these changes, and more, are connected to what today’s history textbooks are, and are not, teaching. Yet we’ve barely noticed the link.

Almost any Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. history textbook has more influence on American politics than 90 percent of the books reviewed in our leading newspapers and political magazines. Yet when was the last time you read a review of a high school history textbook? Never, I’ll bet. That’s partly because these thousand-page monstrosities are tough to read, and even tougher to judge for anyone but professional historians. And with growing academic specialization, even historians find it difficult to assess an entire text.

Liberals needn’t bother keeping track of history textbooks because they’re the ones who write them. But conservatives have dropped the ball on this issue so essential to their survival. Conservative politicians, institutions, and donors focus far more on short-term electoral politics and policy than culture. History textbooks don’t even register. Over the long haul, that’s a recipe for political exile and social ostracism.

Conservatives saw the tip of the enormous textbook iceberg earlier this April when a radio host tweeted out pictures a Minnesota student had sent her of an AP U.S. history (APUSH) textbook. The student had photographed pages of the not yet formally released update of James W. Fraser’s By the People, an APUSH textbook published by the international education giant Pearson. Those pages covered the 2016 election and the Black Lives Matter movement. Their blatantly partisan bias set off a conservative media firestorm. (I commented here, and Joy Pullman’s important take is here.)

Read the entire piece here.

I don’t know if Kurtz is correct about Fraser’s textbook because I have not read it.  But it does seem clear to me that Kurtz has no clue about how history is actually taught–or should be taught–in schools.

First, Kurtz’s entire argument rests on the fact that students actually read the textbook.

Second, and more importantly, most students learn history from their teachers.  In other words, Kurtz assumes that American history textbooks are the only way students learn history.  The best teachers know that all textbooks, like all history, are subjective.  They thus use the textbook to teach bias or to show how the textbook matches-up with their students’ work in the primary sources.  Show me a teacher who believes that his or her textbook represents received wisdom from on high and I will show you a bad history teacher.

Rethinking the History Survey Course

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Steven Mintz of the University of Texas has some good ideas to get more students engaged in the study of the history through the required survey course.  Here are some of them:

  • Thematically Organized Surveys: One striking example at the University of Kentucky focuses on citizenship: historical controversies over the rights of immigrants, voting rights, marriage rights, and other rights.
  • Interdisciplinary Clusters: Georgetown, UCLA, and the University of California, Berkeley are experimenting with paired and team-taught courses that combine the insights of a variety of disciplines on a topic (the 1960s, for example) or problem (climate change).
  • Career-Aligned Pathways: The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley redesigned the pathway through the biomedical sciences to emphasize professional identity formation, with students taking a history course in the history of disease and public health, a literature class on the literature of pain and illness, a philosophy course on medical ethics, and an art history class on representations of the body. The University of Texas at Austin has an introductory-level course on the history of engineering.
  • Inquiry-Driven Approaches: The University of Michigan’s History 101, which focuses on the question “What is history?,” offers an overview of the approaches historians have taken to studying the past and how they analyze and interpret historical sources and uncover the meaning of history for life today. My own inquiry-driven US history survey course focuses on solving historical mysteries, wrestling with troubling moral dilemmas rooted in history, interpreting a wide range of historical sources (artifacts, architecture, fashion, film, hairstyles, maps, naming patterns, paintings, photographs, and political cartoons, among others), and responding to such questions as “What if?” and “How do we know?”

Read the entire piece at AHA Today .  Of course no discussion of innovative approaches to the history survey course is complete without considering the work of Lendol Calder.  Lendol has been talking and writing about these matters for years.

Teaching “Remember the Ladies”

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Abigail Adams

Over at The Panorama, Texas State University history professor Sara T. Damiano reflects on teaching women’s history in the era of the American Revolution. She gives particular attention to Abigail Adams’s famous “Remember the Ladies” letter.

Here is a taste:

The well-known exchange between Abigail and John Adams offers a pithy example of opportunities foreclosed for women during the revolutionary era. On March 31, 1776, Abigail urged John to “Remember the Ladies” and to “not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands” because “all men would be tyrants if they could.” Two weeks later, John brushed off Abigail’s “saucy” admonition, stating, “I cannot but laugh.” He maintained that men “have only the Name of Masters” and that surrendering this “would completely subject Us to the Despotism of the Peticoat.”[ii]

As a teacher, I am tempted to play up this exchange between Abigail and John. It seemingly stands in for the revolution writ large: Despite some women’s urging, the Founders failed to “Remember the Ladies.” And, it captures undergraduate interest. Particularly in my upper-level women’s history courses, students admire the spunk and assertiveness of Abigail Adams, whom they see as articulating an early version of modern feminism.

Yet, especially in light of my contribution to the October joint issue of the William and Mary Quarterly and the Journal of the Early Republic on “Writing to and from the American Revolution,” I worry about my role in facilitating such views of the American Revolution and Abigail Adams. If we aim to teach students to analyze the foreignness of the past, then we undercut our work by focusing only on the quest for “rights.” Doing so arguably flattens other aspects of historical actors’ lives and even marginalizes those individuals who were not necessarily thinking in terms of “rights.”

Read the entire piece here.

 

Who is Teaching Your Introductory History Courses?

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I have a month or two left as chair of the Messiah College History Department. At the end of the 2017-2018 academic year I will have completed 2 four-year terms.  I am sure I will reflect more fully on this experience as my tenure winds down in May and June.  But right now I have been giving some thought to where my teaching duties will lie over the course of the next decade now that I am giving up administrative responsibilities in the department.

Lately I have been seeing a lot of articles about senior professors teaching introductory courses.  I have always believed this to be a good thing.  In fact, the 100-level U.S. survey class (to 1865) has always been my favorite course to teach.  While I was chair I taught it once a year.  In my post-chair life it looks like I may be teaching it in both semesters.

I thought about all of this when I saw Becky Supiano’s piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education: It Matters a Lot Who Teaches Introductory Courses.  Here’s Why.”

A taste:

Introductory courses can open doors for students, helping them not only discover a love for a subject area that can blossom into their major but also feel more connected to their campus.

But on many campuses, teaching introductory courses typically falls to less-experienced instructors. Sometimes the task is assigned to instructors whose very connection to the college is tenuous. A growing body of evidence suggests that this tension could have negative consequences for students.

Two papers presented at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting in New York on Sunday support this idea.

The first finds that community-college students who take a remedial or introductory course with an adjunct instructor are less likely to take the next course in the sequence.

The second finds negative associations between the proportion of a four-year college’s faculty members who are part-time or off the tenure track and outcomes for STEM majors.

The community-college paper, “Role of Adjunct Faculty in Realizing the Postsecondary Dreams of Historically Marginalized Student Populations,” is not the first to examine the link between part-time instructors and student outcomes, said Florence Xiaotao Ran, its lead author. Several previous papers have found a negative relationship between contingent faculty members and student outcomes.

 

Read the entire piece here.