Did Lincoln’s Reliance on “Providence” Make Him an Incompetent President?

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This semester my Civil War class is reading Allen Guelzo’s Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer PresidentIt is, without peer, the best book on Lincoln’s intellectual and religious life.  Others seem to agree.  In 2000, Guelzo’s biography received the prestigious Lincoln Prize for the best film or book about the Civil War era.  Last night we discussed chapter 8: “Voice Out of the Whirlwind.”

Guelzo argues that Abraham Lincoln, at least in his adult life, was never a Christian, but he did spend a lot of time reflecting on big questions about free will and determinism and their relationship to a force or supreme being that governed the world.  Lincoln, in his pre-presidential years, believed in what he called the “Doctrine of Necessity.”  He wrote: “I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the “Doctrine of Necessity”–that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control…”  Guelzo compares Lincoln’s view here to the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s “philosophical necessity,” a believe “that human beings possess neither free will nor the moral responsibility for the right or wrong actions that is supposed to follow the exercise of free choices.” (p.117).

During his presidency, Lincoln’s “Doctrine of Necessity” took on a more religious flavor.  He began to use the word “providence” to describe this “power, over which the mind has not control.”  He came to embrace a “divine personality” that intervened in human affairs. (p.328).

Guelzo argues, and quite convincingly I might add, that the Civil War led Lincoln to apply his view of “providence” to the political decisions he made as POTUS.  This was particularly the case in his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.  The Proclamation was issued days after the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam.  In a cabinet meeting following the battle, Lincoln uttered what Guelzo calls “the most astounding remarks any of [the members of his cabinet] had ever heard him make.”  Lincoln told the cabinet that he had become convinced that if the Union won at Antietam he would consider it an indication of the “divine will and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation.” (p.341).  He added, “God had decided this question in favor of the slaves.”  Indeed, the Emancipation Proclamation changed the course of the war.  The Proclamation made it a war that was less about preserving the Union and more about freeing the slaves.  It could be argued that it was the turning point of the Civil War.  And Lincoln made his decision by somehow interpreting (with much certainty) the providence of God.

After class, a student asked me if I thought a United States President could get away with this kind of presidential leadership today.  What if George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or Donald Trump made a republic-altering decision and said that it was based upon his reading of God’s providence? (Bush came close on numerous occasions).  There would be many evangelicals who might love such a claim.  But most Americans, including many evangelicals who believe in the providence of God but do believe we can know God’s will in every matter on this side of eternity, would think that such a decision-making process might be the height of presidential incompetence.

More Thoughts on the U.S. Survey

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On Saturday we ran a post titled “How to Fix the U.S. History Survey Course: ‘Reimagine Everything.” One of the comments on that post came from veteran U.S. survey instructor John Haas, Professor of History at Bethel College in Indiana.  It was good that I decided to publish it here as a separate post.  Enjoy:

I recall a much-heralded teacher of undergraduates–his 8 AM survey courses were famous for filling up on the first day of enrollment–commenting when he received the university’s best teacher award, “I teach an ancient discipline in an ancient way. History isn’t broken, and there’s no need to fix it.”

If we’re just speculating, I would mention several challenges or mistakes that afflict the history survey today:

1. Specific to the survey, the American past is far more terra incognita for today’s students than it has perhaps ever been. The average freshman or sophomore comes to the survey with very little background knowledge–When was the Revolution? Who were we fighting? Why? Who won? and etc. are all mystifying questions in many cases–and if in our lecturing we’re assuming basic historical or geographical knowledge of the kind high school graduates once possessed, it will make our lectures incomprehensible. One has to work very hard, actually, to assume nothing. Everything has to be explained. This also goes for current events. If we rely on analogies drawn between the past we are explaining and a present we assume they are familiar with, our explanation will fail. Not long ago I was lecturing on the Revolution and mentioned some ways in which the Americans shared the advantages that the Taliban enjoy, and the looks on their faces indicated perplexity, so I asked, “Who can tell me who the Taliban are?” No one knew. (US foreign policy over the past 50 years or so is a total blank for almost all of them.) I mentioned Jerry Falwell the other day and no one–this at an evangelical college–knew who he was (Sr. or Jr.) The mental world of our students is essentially unpopulated.

2. Similarly, I’ve found that I really need to watch my vocabulary. It is not just technical terms that lose them. Words I would have never thought the least bit arcane are unknown to them. Once I used the term “affluent,” and someone asked what that was. I put it to the class. No one knew. I had a student who was perplexed by the word “nevertheless.” I’ve come to realize that unless I watch my analogies, references, allusions and vocabulary very carefully, it is quite easy to fill my lectures with so many unfamiliar or unknown elements that the students quickly become mentally exhausted. Of course, that they are loathe to indicate when they don’t know something you are assuming makes it all the more difficult, because it means I have to guess.

3. The use of PowerPoint has many downsides especially, I think, in history. This depends, of course, on how the PowerPoint is used and how one teaches. There are many ways in which it’s great. But in other places, it’s quite destructive. If, eg, one throws up a slide with 5 or 10 bullet points, one has undermined the element of suspense that makes story-telling a compelling experience. Instead of a drama or mystery to be unfolded orally in real time, the past has become a list of sentences that the student needs to quickly copy down before the slide disappears and the next one arrives. Even with something as simple as a map, the very evident superiority of the PowerPoint slide is undermined by the disappearance of the human dimension: Watching someone draw a map (or try to) is more compelling and interesting, as a process, than someone hitting a button and putting up a slide (even though the slide is a much better representation). Much of the human dimension of teaching (the quirks and foibles) have been erased from the classroom by technology, and the space has become efficient, accurate, and sterile. After reading Patrick Allitt’s book a few years ago, I began experimenting with devoting one class a week to still pictures and discussing them (as he describes doing in his book). I thought it was a lot of fun, and assumed students would like it too (“Hey, look! Pictures!”) But there is a downside here, too, as it removes opportunities for students to employ their imaginations (Andre Gregory once explained that that’s why the movie “My Dinner with Andre” is so entertaining–it lures the watcher into activating their imaginations).

4. There are no doubt other things affecting the course that are out of our control. I have found in the last couple years that interest in US foreign policy, and especially in the Middle East (two subjects I often teach courses on) had really dried up. During the Bush II years students were cramming into these classes, but over the Obama years interest declined and now it’s at the lowest ebb I’ve seen in my teaching career (we’ve actually ceased offering the course on the Middle East and North Africa). The way the course were taught remained essentially the same, and they were very well-received, so I can only assume that external factors have changed: We are no longer as a nation pursuing the remaking of the Middle East as a national project; there are wars aplenty, but there’s no effort to enlist the support or even interest of the population; the wars for their part have no narrative arc leading to successful or satisfying conclusions; and etc. I wonder, in addition, if this sense that the plot has been lost, or that there’s not a lot to feel good about, or similar affective and emotional dimensions to the topic, hasn’t impacted the study of US history as a whole? The history of a nation that elects a Barack Obama, eg, is more attractive as a subject to investigate than one that terminates in Donald Trump (to many students that is).

How to Fix the U.S. History Survey Course: “Reimagine Everything”

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Last month a group of Texas history teachers gathered at Houston Community College to talk about introductory history courses.  The event was sponsored by the American Historical Association and included keynote addresses by Steven Mintz (University of Texas at Austin), Andrew Koch (John Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education), and Nancy Quam-Wickham (California State University, Long Beach).

Jermaine Thibodeaux offers a report on the conference at AHA Today.  Here is a taste:

Steven Mintz (Univ. of Texas at Austin) kicked off the conference by offering a rather dire assessment of today’s US history survey course. Having taught the history survey for decades, Mintz cited historically low enrollments and lack of student interest or engagement in the classroom as reasons for the survey’s demise at four-year institutions. All is not lost, however, assured Mintz. The key to reigniting students’ interest in history courses, which for many begins with the survey, he said, is simply “reimagining everything.” By broadly rethinking pedagogy, assessment, and delivery modes, Mintz argued, the lackluster survey course can be saved, with great benefit to students and teachers.

While the gathered historians had likely heard sweeping diagnoses like Mintz’s before, he was able to offer a wealth of anecdotal evidence, best practices, and examples of engaging and exciting instruction that did not at all compromise higher order thinking. For example, in his own US history survey course, Mintz forgoes the standard midterm and final exam, opting instead for consistent formal assessment and weekly online modules that combine essay writing with content checks in the form of thoughtful multiple choice questions. Mintz encouraged history teachers to shun traditional models of instruction and instead embrace a combination of approaches that would make the introductory course more meaningful for students.

Read the entire post here.  I am not sure the survey course is broken, but I am confident that a lot of good ideas for improving it were bandied about at this conference.

Can You Really Spend Too Much Time on Religion in the U.S. Survey?

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Over at Teaching United States History blog, Eric Bartram discusses her “struggles” and “successes” in teaching religion in the first half United States history survey course.

Here is a taste:

A while back, I read Jolyon Baraka Thomas’ piece Teaching True Believers, and responded with my own thoughts: Teaching religious n00bs and skeptics. Where Thomas talked about struggling to get students with strongly-held beliefs to see religion as “a social construction or an anthropological conceit or a legal category bearing geopolitical effects,” I reflected on the difficulties of teaching the history of religion to students “who have little framework for understanding religion or belief but nonetheless have very fixed ideas about how religion operates.”

Both in the comments on the piece itself, and on Twitter, many scholars of history and religious studies expressed shock at the idea that students could be so ill-informed. Many put it down to geographical differences; some parts of the country are just more religious than others, and therefore some students more prepared to talk about it.

There’s something to that argument, but I think that something more specific is at play. Did students grow up in a place where religion was understood to be a public matter (at least if you belonged to the dominant religion) or a more private matter? I’m not saying that there’s anywhere in the United States that’s free of civil religion or laws that reflect the views of historically-dominant religions, but that in parts of the country where students don’t see religious belief, it might be easier for them to think it’s not there. As a result, even the moderate amount of discussion time we spend learning about American religious beliefs in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries seems like so much religion.

This presents a particular kind of challenge in teaching. It’s not like religion is the only thing we teach where students have to be persuaded that it’s worth thinking about, but for me, teaching in the Northeast, it’s also something where many students have almost no pre-existing framework to hang new analysis on, and the framework they do have largely consists of “religion was for people in the past and is a marker of backwardness.” I imagine this is the case for a lot of historians. But I can’t give up on teaching it.  And so, in my US I, we draw a lot of family trees to map out the branches of Christianity. We talk about the contours of antisemitism. We define terms: “heathen,” “Papist,” “evangelical,” “denomination,” “salvation.” We draw more family trees.

Read the entire piece here.

Teaching American History after Charlottesville

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Process, the blog of the Organization of American Historians, is running a round table on teaching in the wake of Charlottesville.  Participants include Jarred Amato, Beverly Bunch-Lyons, Michael Dickinson, Emily Farris, Kevin Gannon (don’t miss him on Episode 26 of the TWOILH Podcast), Nyasha Junior, and Heather Cox Richardson.

Here is a taste:

Did the events in Charlottesville change the topics and questions you were planning to address this semester or quarter? If so, how?

Beverly Bunch-Lyons: No. The events in Charlottesville did not change the topics and questions I planned to address this semester. I am teaching the first half of African American History this semester, which covers 1450-1865, so while these issues are certainly important, timely, and relevant, I believe they are better suited to the second half of the course. I have an obligation to my students to cover historical topics that fall within the time period we are covering. I will discuss Charlottesville this semester, but only if students initiate the conversation. I realize that events like Charlottesville can be important teaching moments, but as educators I believe it is important to make sure that we provide deep and thorough historical context for students if we choose to broach these recent issues in classes where the topic may be outside of the historical scope we are covering.

Michael Dickinson: The recent events in Charlottesville did not directly change the topics I planned to address. The events did, however, demand that I alter the timeline of my syllabus. I am currently teaching an undergraduate seminar in early African American history. While concepts of race and racism are critical to the entire course, discussions of the Civil War necessarily fall toward the end of the semester. That said, recent events posed an opportunity more than a challenge. Events such as those in Charlottesville remind historians that our work is about more than the past; our work is vital to the present. Tragic moments of national mourning and conflict, while certainly unfortunate, are opportunities to help students better understand—and develop the skills of critical analysis to combat—ignorance and hate. These are objectives neatly built into syllabi but the events in Charlottesville and elsewhere pushed me to consider concepts of historical memory, race, and slavery in ways temporally out of place in the syllabus but pragmatically necessary for the contemporary moment.

Emily Farris: The events in Charlottesville occurred right after I put the finishing touches on my syllabus this fall for Urban Politics. While Charlottesville and the monument movement aren’t officially on my syllabus, I do plan on talking about these issues (and others) with my students as examples for the concepts we are going to study. For example, one section of the class looks at power and representation in the city. During those days, we will analyze what power looks like in cities and assess which groups have power and are represented in city decisions. I plan on bringing two recent events in our city, Fort Worth, into the discussion: the racially divided decision by the Fort Worth city council to not join the #SB4 immigration lawsuit and the movement I helped lead to rename Jefferson Davis city park. I find current events like these and Charlottesville help ground students in larger ideas, particularly more theoretical ones.

Kevin Gannon: As director of my university’s teaching center, I’ve certainly observed a “Charlottesville effect.” Issues of diversity, inclusion, and justice have been at the forefront of many of our conversations since last fall. There seems to be more urgency for some of us, as well as many students, in the wake of Charlottesville. An urban campus, our university is diverse compared to our state as a whole, but that’s not saying much. The student body is 90% white, and getting at issues of structural racism and historical memory, as well as privilege and power, can be fraught. Much of my work with faculty centers on handling difficult discussions, teaching inclusively, and classroom climate, and my center’s programming on these topics is well attended (faculty have requested even more, which I am glad to facilitate). It’s one thing for an institution to say it values diversity and inclusion and stands against racism. It’s another to actually commit the time and resources to doing the work behind those proclamations. Charlottesville isn’t that long ago, but my initial impression this year is that more faculty (adjunct and full-time) are thinking intentionally about these issues than is usually the case. Our students certainly are.

Read the entire round table here.

 

The “Teachers Lounge” at History News Network

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I just came across this great collection of resources for history teachers.  Thanks to the good folks at History News Service for creating what they are calling “The Teacher’s Lounge.”

Here are just a few of the article you can find there:

Why You Should Be Listening to The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast

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This morning I finally got a chance to listen to one of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast summer bonus mini-episodes.  The episode features 2015 Messiah College history alum Cory Hulsizer who currently works as a middle school history teacher.  Cory spends the first sixteen days of his academic year teaching 7th graders how to think historically.  This is a great interview and Cory has wisdom beyond his years.  Frankly. I think this is one of the best episodes we have ever done.

Some of you who regularly listen to The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast may be trying to find this episode.  The reason you cannot find it is because this episode was produced exclusively for our patrons.  But the good news is that you can still get access to this episode by joining our team of patrons!  Learn more here.  (And you may qualify for a book or mug!)

From the 1850s to the 1950s in 10 Minutes

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Taylor Branch

Tonight should be an interesting one for students in my Civil War America class.  We are currently studying the 1850s and the political, social, cultural, economic, and racial lead-up to the Civil War.  The class usually runs from 6:15-9:15pm, but tonight we are stopping at 7:15pm so we can walk over a lecture hall on campus to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch deliver the 2017 Messiah College American Democracy Lecture: “King’s Dream for Justice: Then and Now.”  It takes about ten minutes to walk from our classroom to the lecture hall.  In class we will be discussing race in the Lincoln-Douglas debates.  The Branch’s lecture will ask students to think about race in America 100 years later.

Next week we should have a good discussion about “change over time” and “continuity.”  It’s going to be fun!

What a Historian Said to His Classes Today

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Central Michigan University American history professor Andrew Wehrman was kind enough to let me publish his Facebook post on how he and his students worked through the Las Vegas shootings:

Today was sadly not the first time I’ve had to address a class of students who have just learned about a mass shooting. I’m weary that I’m so used to it. I remember talking to in my first ever self-taught course at Northwestern after the Virginia Tech shooting. I remember talking to students in a lecture hall after a gunman had killed a professor and students at Northern Illinois. And on and on. This morning in my early American history class I reminded the students of what the Puritans did after tragedies. As strange and sometimes horrible as the Puritans could be, after tragedy struck they called for a day of fasting and humiliation. A day of solemn reckoning with events. A day to pray, but also a day to listen, think, and a day to ask hard, searching questions. I emphasized a point that I make in class about what the Puritans would think of our celebration of Thanksgiving. That every year we assume there will be something to be thankful for without taking time to reflect on things that we should be sorry, sad, or angry about and wish to change. I encouraged my students not to let recent tragedies like the mass-shooting in Las Vegas and the on-going tragedy of hurricane Maria dull our senses. I encouraged them not to let these tragic events become background noise. But to fully engage with them as our present and to think about ways not only to be kind to one another but also to seek ways to prevent such tragedies in the future.

Episode 26 Will Drop This Weekend

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Episode 26 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast will drop this weekend.  You can find it here or at your favorite podcatcher, including ITunes, Stitcher, and Player FM.

In this episode we will return to an old staple of the podcast:  teaching history.  Our guest is Kevin Gannon, aka, “The Tattooed Prof,” who runs the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and teaches American history at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa.

If you are a history teacher, or know a history teacher, feel free to share the episode.  It is a good one!  Our conversation focuses on Gannon’s “Teaching Manifesto,” the subject of his forthcoming book.

We continue to be excited about Season 4.

 

Race in America: 1860 and 1960

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Next week Martin Luther King Jr. biographer Taylor Branch will be at Messiah College to deliver our annual American Democracy Lecture. (Admission is free, but you need to pick up a ticket at the Messiah College box office).  I teach my Civil War class on the evening of the lecture.  We are planning to meet for the first hour of class and then walk over to the hall.  I had been thinking about some different ways of helping my students make the jump from the 1850s/1860s to the 1950s/1960s when I ran across this piece by Civil War historian James McPherson at the Oxford University Press blog.

Here is a taste:

The civil rights movement eclipsed the centennial observations during the first half of the 1960s. Those were the years of sit-ins and freedom rides in the South, of Southern political leaders vowing what they called “massive resistance” to national laws and court decisions, of federal marshals and troops trying to protect civil rights demonstrators, of conflict and violence, of the March on Washington in August 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the Lincoln Memorial and began his “I have a dream” speech with the words “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been scarred in the flame of withering injustice.” These were also the years of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which derived their constitutional bases from the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments adopted a century earlier. The creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau by the federal government in 1865, to aid the transition of four million former slaves to freedom, was the first large-scale intervention by the government in the field of social welfare.

These parallels between the 1960s and 1860s, and the roots of events in my own time in events of exactly a century earlier, propelled me to become a historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction. I became convinced that I could not fully understand the issues of my own time unless I learned about their roots in the era of the Civil War: slavery and its abolition; the conflict between North and South; the struggle between state sovereignty and the federal government; the role of government in social change and resistance to both government and social change. Those issues are as salient and controversial today as they were in the 1960s, not to mention the 1860s.

Read the entire piece here.

How to Build a History Course Around “Hamilton: An American Musical”

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Reeve Hutson of Duke University explains how to do it.  Here is a taste from his piece at Panorama:

To my surprise, Hamilton proved a wonderful foil for studying the Revolutionary era—because the students love it; because it’s so good as a musical; and not least because it’s so bad as an interpretation of the Revolution. Those of you who have heard or seen the musical know just how many problems are contained in it: the belief in American exceptionalism; the assumption of a natural, already-existing American nation that pre-dated the Revolution; the faith in American national innocence (with the prominent exception of slavery and the subordination of women); the association of American-ness with upward social mobility; the notion that the Revolutionary movement was singular and united; the assumption that the story of the Revolution was the story of the “founding fathers”; the belief that the Federalists embraced what we twenty-first-century audiences would recognize as “democracy” (again, except for the disenfranchisement of women and people of color).

Read the entire piece here.

Do We Need to Change Our Vocabulary When We Teach American History?

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Should this be called “The Appeasement of 1850?”

According to Christopher Wilson, the Director of the African American History Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, removing Confederate monuments is only the beginning.  In his recent piece at Smithsonian.com, Wilson argues that the vocabulary that we use to talk about American history is also tainted with Confederate values.

Here is a taste of his piece “We Legitimize the ‘So-Called’ Confederacy With Our Vocabulary, and That’s a Problem“:

Historian Michael Landis suggests professional scholars should seek to change the language we use in interpreting and teaching history. He agrees with people like legal scholar Paul Finkelman and historian Edward Baptist when they suggest the Compromise of 1850 be more accurately referred to as an Appeasement. The latter word precisely reflects the sway that Southern slaveholders held in the bargain. Landis goes on to suggest that we call plantations what they really were—slave labor camps; and drop the use of the term, “the Union.” A common usage in the 19th century to be sure, but now one we only use “the Union” in reference to the Civil War and on the day of the State of the Union address. A better way to speak of the nation during the war, he argues, is to use its name, the United States.

In the same way, we could change the way we refer to secessionist states. When we talk of the Union versus the Confederacy, or especially when we present the strife as the North versus the South, we set up a parallel dichotomy in which the United States is cast as equal to the Confederate States of America. But was the Confederacy really a nation and should we refer to it as such?

When historian Steven Hahn participated in the 2015 History Film Forum at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, he noted that using these customary terms to tell the story of the Civil War —Hahn suggests we use “War of the Rebellion”—lends legitimacy to the Confederacy.

“If you think about it,” Hahn said, “nobody in the world recognized the Confederacy. The question is can you be a state if no one says you are a state?”  

Read the entire piece here.

Teaching American History in the Age of Trump

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President Donald Trump lays a wreath, Wednesday, March 15, 2017, during a ceremony at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in Hermitage, Tennessee. 

I took a crack at writing a short piece on this subject for The Panorama.  Here is a taste:

In Spring 2017, I gave a lecture to my history students about a man of privilege, wealth, and power who took up the cause of a growing band of disgruntled, poor, fearful, white Americans. These Americans believed that the government was not listening to their concerns. They were angry about their lack of opportunity and political representation. They felt threatened by their encounters with people from another race and culture. The man of privilege heard their cry and led them in a rebellion that temporarily drove the ruling class from power. To the extent that some of the ruling class owned land near major rivers, it might even be fair to say that this rebellion was an attempt to “drain the swamp.”

Read the rest here.

American Ideals and American Reality

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During the first couple weeks of my “Teaching History” course at Messiah College we have been discussing whether or not a 7th-12th grade history course should be built around some kind of narrative.  And if a narrative is important (not all of my students think it is), what might that narrative look like?  As I posted yesterday, Gary Nash’s History on Trial has been helpful in this regard.

I really enjoy teaching this course and there is so, so much that I want to give my students to read.  Perhaps at some point in the semester I will introduce them to Duke law professor Jedidiah Purdy‘s recent piece at Politico: “Is America Still a ‘Nation of Ideas’?”  It seems like the tension between American ideals and American reality might be a nice way of organizing an American history course.

Here is a taste of Purdy’s piece:

It is a bipartisan commonplace to talk about America as a nation of ideas. House Speaker Paul Ryan declared in 2016 that the United States is “the only nation founded on an idea, not an identity.” President Barack Obama said pretty much the same thing when he won reelection in 2012. Alexander Hamilton himself opened the first of the Federalist Papers with this thunderclap: It was up to Americans “to decide … whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” What could guide “reflection and choice” but ideas?

But the image of the United States as a country of ideas suffered a severe setback in November, and it has been reeling ever since. Donald Trump’s unexpected presidential win violated so many norms—civility, avoiding explicit racism, the rudimentary appearance of consistency—that a subtler omission was easy to miss. Trump had no truck with the paean to America as a constitutional nation, a continuous inheritance of principle running from Lexington and Concord through Philadelphia and Gettysburg, Selma and the March on Washington, and down to today. The mogul from Trump Tower talked instead about warring tribes, the need for “Christians” to “stick together” (as he claimed Muslims do), the danger from “Mexicans” (including American-born judges of Mexican descent) and, of course, zero-sum “deals” that would surely cow the Chinese and the Iranians. And Trump was full of contempt for the fine talk of more conventional politicians, deeming the principles they preached just hypocritical horseshit.

Trump’s victory was a vivid reminder of something that has been easy for many people to forget in recent decades: As often as Americans have imagined that they inhabit a country of ideas, many have insisted instead that it is a nation of identity, a land of blood and soil, more about who you are than about what you affirm. Then in August, hundreds of white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to rally to the blood-and-soil idea—some chanting that very phrase—and one of them murdered a counter-protester in an automobile attack that could easily have killed many more. Notoriously, President Trump responded by lamenting violence and bigotry on “many sides,” implying that the white-tribe view of America is no less legitimate than its opposite.

As nation-of-identity politics has risen, nation-of-ideas practice has been battered. In his seven months in office, Trump has shown indifference to and contempt for the notion of shared principles, flouting basic ethical norms of financial disclosure, trolling the American institutions that elected leaders usually treat with some deference, like federal courts and the press. He has shown consistent contempt for the very idea of political principle in favor of an erratic personal code built around loyalty and betrayal, esteem for money as a sign of virtue (or at least virility) and a penchant for any utterance with shock value. As many have observed, it is as if the national id had occupied the White House and announced to its constitutional superego, “You’re fired!”

Read the rest here.

How to Improve History Education: 1997 and Today

NashIn his 1997 book History on Trial, UCLA historian Gary Nash reflected on his role in the crafting of the failed National History Standards.   After his experience fighting this battle in the culture wars, Nash encouraged teachers, educators, professors, legislatures, and anyone else with a stake in American democracy to consider four things:

1. As a nation “we should commit ourselves enthusiastically and unreservedly to a history education that is fit for a democratic society.”  For Nash, this meant “abandoning the notion that teachers or education authorities should designate certain historical facts, events, deeds, ideas, or interpretations as off limits to analysis or reassessment..”  He added: “no historical representations or explanations–even those dearest to the hearts of liberals, conservatives, Afrocentrists, Eurocentrists, or postmodernists–should be held in public sacrosanct or indisputable.

2. As a nation “we should end the futile struggle among educators and policy makers over whether we should teach more historical “content” and less “historical thinking” or vice versa.  This is a false dichotomy, as good teachers have always known.

3. As a nation “we must nurture the flourishing new alliances between schools and universities.  He adds: “legislatures and school boards should insist that new history teachers be well trained in the discipline.”

4. As a nation, we must continue to “broaden the scope of history education to ensure that the experiences of all classes, regions, and ethnoracial groups, as well as both genders, are included in it.”

The other day, while teaching this book in my “Teaching History” course, I asked my students to assess whether Nash’s points are still relevant today.  It made for an interesting discussion.  While some students pointed to progress in all of these areas, most said that these core issues are still relevant in 2017, two decades after Nash published History on Trial.

What do you think?

What the Founding Fathers Read

founders

I just learned about Greg Specter‘s Duquesne University course titled What the Founders Read at the Pedagogy & American Literature Studies blog.  It looks great.  Here is a taste of his post on the course:

This semester I’m teaching What the Founders Read. The class is a 200-level literature course and it is cross-listed with Political Science. I had one goal when I began designing the course: make sure that the Founders would run. I made several tactical choices about the focus of the class and the works that I included. I made sure to include Hamilton; I made sure to play that up in the course description. I included works like The Federalist Papers in order to meet the needs of the course’s cross-listed audience. Many of these choices altered my initial vision for the course. As I began planning the day-to-day trajectory of the course, I felt the class leaning towards what the Founders (and Lin-Manuel Miranda) wrote—not what they Founders read. I began to see nothing but problems the foundation of my class. Honestly, I started to rue even thinking about planning and teaching the class. I still find it a challenge to write and think about this course…

In light of the narrow topic of the course’s primary readings, I sought to assign additional resources that introduced a variety of perspectives. Given the topic of the course, the content is largely white and male—a direct result of the topic proposed. I sought to mitigate this limited focus by including a unit on the correspondence of Abigail and John Adams, plus a unit on the poetry of Phillis Wheatley. Still, the women included in the course can be seen as defined in relation to their connection to the Founders. I wanted to include additional voices and perspectives in this class. This is a 200-level course with a lot to cover. I did not want to add a wealth of secondary materials, but it would be irresponsible in a course like this not to include current critical conversations related to the Founders. I tried to reach a middle ground on this issue in two ways. First, I wanted the course to have a component that focused on public scholarship: pieces that were easy to read, models of writing for a general audience, but still rigorous. I selected works from popular media, blogs, podcasts, and other sources.

I tried the best that I could to include a diversity of voices and perspectives in the class, especially regarding scholarship by women, but I need to do better. In selecting readings and podcasts I added as many voices as I could. In day-to-day course meetings I try to be aware of which voices I emphasize from our readings. I try to point out these disparities in class discussion. Though the course doesn’t emphasize assigned secondary readings directly from journals or books, I want students to come away from the class aware of the ongoing critical conversations– like those that inspired the Women Also Know History initiative. In selecting the assigned pieces I made sure to select works that could act as conduits to additional secondary sources. I also created a Twitter list that could be a student resource.

Read the entire post here.

“Teaching History” Reading List

WineburgYesterday I had my first meeting with my “Teaching History” (HIST 390) course at Messiah College. Here are the books I have assigned:

Gary Nash, History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past.

James Percoco, A Passion for the Past: Creative Teaching of U.S. History

Bruce VanSledright, The Challenge of Rethinking History Education: On Practices, Theories, and Policy

Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts

Sam Wineburg, et. al, Reading Like a Historian; Teaching Literacy in Middle and High School Classrooms

We dive into Nash on Friday.

Teaching With Monuments

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Chris Gehrz (aka The Pietist Schoolman) steers the conversation on monuments away from the “take down” or “keep up” debate.  He suggests that we use monuments in our teaching.

Here is a taste of Gehrz’s post “How Historians Can Teach From Memorials“:

Memorials can indeed “sustain rich, nuanced interpretation.” But that requires the professional assistance of historians, whose most significant job it is to make meaning of the past. Historians should certainly critique Confederate memorials… but just as importantly, they should find ways to teach from those and other memorials: to bring representations of them into their teaching and scholarship as artifacts for students and readers to interpret.

Or better yet, to burst the walls of the classroom and take their students out into public spaces to encounter memorials in space, as well as time. Indeed, I first grew interested in commemoration while teaching a travel course on World War I, whose students regularly report that the most meaningful moments came in the presence of war memorials. Both on the former Western Front and in cities like London, Oxford, Paris, Munich, and Salzburg, students learned to notice and interpret a wide variety of memorials. (Few of which, it should be said, are statues of generals, on either side of the war.)

And if you can’t spend three weeks touring former WWI or Civil War sites… There are ways to teach about commemoration where you’re located. I now require an off-campus experience of students in my on-campus World War II class, one option being that they join me on a 90-minute walking-driving tour of war memorials in St. Paul and Minneapolis. And in the upper-division Modern Europe course I’ll teach again this fall, I’ve often given students the option of orienting their 20th century research project around the design and presentation of a new memorial or monument. Rather than writing a paper about, say, the Holocaust, they design a commemorative space and structure that forces them to wrestle with European memory in light of present-day European concerns.

Read the entire post here.