Teaching the Civil War in the South

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Check out Kristina Rizga‘s fascinating piece at The Atlantic: How to Teach the Civil War in the Deep South.”  Here is a taste:

The question of what students should learn about the Civil War, the role that slavery played in it, and the history of Reconstruction—the period from 1865 to 1876 when African Americans claimed their rights to freedom and voting, followed by a violent backlash by white Southerners—causes contentious disputes among educators, historians, and the American public. One outcome of these disputes is that ideologies often masquerade as historic facts. Texas’s 2010 standards, for instance, listed states’ rights and tariffs, alongside slavery, as the main causes of the Civil War—even though historians overwhelminglyagree that slavery was the central issue.

Another common problem is omissions: A 2017 survey of 10 commonly used textbooks and 15 sets of state standards found that textbooks treated slavery in superficial ways, and state standards focused more on the “feel-good” stories of abolitionists than on the brutal realities of slavery. When the same study surveyed 1,000 high-school seniors across the country, it found that among 12th graders, only 8 percent could identify slavery as the cause of the Civil War, and fewer than four in 10 students surveyed understood how slavery “shaped the fundamental beliefs of Americans about race and whiteness.”

Of course, students aren’t students forever, and the views of American adults are influenced by what they learn as children. When one 2015 poll asked American adults whether slavery was the main reason for the Civil War, 52 percent said that it was, while 41 percent said that it was not. In the same survey, 38 percent of adults insisted that slavery should not be taught as the main cause of the Civil War. That the country is divided on how to deal with Confederate statues and the Confederate flag follows in lockstep.

Read the entire piece here.

My Colonial America Course Hits Philadelphia

On Saturday I took some of the students in my Colonial America course at Messiah College on a field trip to colonial Philadelphia.  (I am taking the rest of the class this coming Saturday).

Here are some pics:

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Starting the day off at Welcome Park.  A great place to get students oriented to the colonial city.

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Group picture outside of Christ Church

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After we learned about Christ Church from a docent, I tried to say something intelligent about the Georgian architecture and its connection to Philadelphia’s 18th-century provincial identity

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Not a very “colonial” stop, but how could I not take the students to see the First Bank of the United States?  (And the Museum of the American Revolution across the street!)

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Carpenter’s Hall!

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And kudos to Joy Fea, our photographer on the trip!

“Age of Hamilton” Course

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My department chair has assigned me an upper-level “topics” course for the Fall 2019 semester.  I am seriously considering taking advantage of the popularity of the Lin Manuel-Miranda musical by offering a class titled “The Age of Hamilton.”

If you have taught a similar class that draws upon the musical or the soundtrack, I would love to hear from you!

Become a John Winthrop Student Fellow at the Massachusetts Historical Society

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I just learned about this great opportunity for high school students and their teachers at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston:

The John and Elizabeth Winthrop Endowed Fellowship encourages high school students to make use of the nationally significant documents of the MHS in a research project of their choosing. Selected students will be referred to as “Winthrop Fellows”.  Winthrop Fellows and their supervising teacher will each receive a $350 stipend. This fellowship gives students the chance to learn how to navigate an archive, work directly with primary sources, and experience what it is like to be a historian.

Although students are welcome to work at the MHS Reading Room in Boston, online access to hundreds of recently-digitized documents from our collections now makes it possible for students from across the country to identify, incorporate, investigate, and interpret these primary sources in their work. Together with their teacher advisor (a current or past History or English teacher, member of Library/Media staff, etc), students decide on a research project proposal that uses sources from the MHS collections.  This can be a project already assigned in class.  With the support of MHS library and education staff, students then perform research using MHS materials during the spring and must complete their research project to the teacher advisor’s satisfaction by 1 June, and finally write a blog post about their experience.

The John Winthrop Fellowship empowers students to explore a topic of their interest and helps them to access the often intimidating world of historical research. One of the most valuable aspects of this fellowship is the opportunity for students to directly interact with materials from the MHS archives.  In reflecting on their experiences, many students were struck by the immediacy of the artifacts:

“I never expected to be staring at a three hundred year old letter in which Hugh Hall, one of Boston’s prominent slave traders, complains rather vehemently of seasickness. The letter was written in big, loopy handwriting, the polar opposite of Hugh’s brother Richard’s cramped impossibility, on yellowed old paper that felt somewhat slimy. For a moment, I was overcome by the idea that I was touching Hall’s DNA.” (2015 John Winthrop Student Fellow)

“It was incredible to see old newspapers that were transported along the Post Road to relay the world’s current events in the early 1700s, transformed into a computer document and displayed right in front of us.  The only thing that could top it was being able to hold the physical letter that essentially started the Boston Post Road. Oh yeah, we did that too!” (2016 John Winthrop Student Fellow)

Many students appreciated the chance to draw their own impressions of history directly from primary sources rather than interpreted through a textbook:

“At points in the letters, Nora [Saltonstall]’s sense of humor and wittiness were evident which reminded me that she was indeed human and brought to life the events that transpired, in a way that textbooks are unable to.” (2013 John Winthrop Student Fellow)

“I suppose what I liked most was the ability to interpret the original documents on my own and draw my own conclusions around the actual evidence, rather than directly being told a conclusion by a third party.” (2013 John Winthrop Student Fellow)

Students also valued the opportunity to work with MHS staff and librarians, who welcomed them to the archive and made the work of historical research more accessible:

“The staff always took me seriously, and was always ready to help if I had a question. Until now I had never used microfiche, but within two minutes the reference librarian had me set up and I knew all I needed to know to use it. I could even take pictures of the old documents and email them to myself so I could do work at home.” (2014 John Winthrop Student Fellow)

“Although we were entirely new to the MHS, the staff treated us as if we were any other historians. Along with finding great sources, the respect we received from the staff boosted our confidence in our historical research skills.” (2016 John Winthrop Student Fellow)

Most importantly, students walked away from their fellowship opportunity empowered by their experience at the MHS:  

“I have always wanted to be a historian. My time at the Massachusetts Historical Society obliterated any lingering doubts in that ambition. Words cannot describe the joy of these encounters with the past, an opportunity I will never forget.” (2015 John Winthrop Student Fellow)

Applications for 2019 John Winthrop Fellowships should be mailed no later 18 February 2019. Check out our website for more information on the Swensrud Fellowship and how to apply!

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.

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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!

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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.