Tag Archives: history classes

Getting oriented

It’s our first week back to class at LMU, which means it’s once again time to deliver my little beginning-of-the-semester spiel at the first class meeting.  I’ve developed a tradition of opening my survey classes with a somewhat crude metaphor.

Imagine that a complete college-level education in history is a big shopping mall, with a variety of stores that cater to different needs and tastes—Ancient Rome, the history of Nazi Germany, the American West, the history of women or warfare, and so on.  Students who decide to major in history, to devote their college careers to the study of the human past, get to go into these stores and spend some time browsing, trying on the merchandise and perhaps finding a few items that suit them.

A gen-ed survey course, like the ones I’m teaching this semester, is different.  In a first-year world history class, we usually don’t spend enough time on any one subject for students to get much of a feel on it.  Students thus don’t get to do much of what historians actually do, which is developing interpretations to answer questions about the past.  A survey course is all about getting oriented to the general contours of human history as a whole, just as the word “survey” in another sense denotes scoping out the general contours of a physical landscape.

If the upper-level elective courses are like stores in a mall, then a world history survey class is more like a mall directory sign, which tells you where the stores are located and what you can find in them.

This distinction is significant to me as a teacher, because it reminds me that I will inevitably have to make sacrifices in content due to the nature of a survey course.  But I explain it to my students because I don’t want them to confuse the experience of taking a survey course with the experience of doing history.

It’s a tragic irony that the very classes in which we’re able to engage non-history majors are the very same classes in which students don’t get as many opportunities to see what makes history so captivating.  In survey courses, there’s so much material to be covered that you can’t delve deeply into the kinds of problems and issues that occupy the attention of historians and advanced-level history students.  The students who really get to have fun with history are the ones who take the upper-level electives, and yet students who sign up for those classes have often done so because they already know how much fun they can have doing it.

I do my best in my survey classes to try to give students a taste of the discipline of history, even though most of our time will necessarily be spent doing the less appealing work of laying a foundation of basic historical knowledge.  But I realize that many of them won’t be inclined take a history class beyond the gen-ed requirements, and thus won’t discover that history is more than mastering general concepts and facts.  That’s why I spend a few minutes on the first day explaining my shopping mall metaphor.  The orientation that we do in survey courses is necessary and I try to make it compelling, but if possible, I want students to use my introductory class to find a few stores that intrigue them, so that when it’s time to take some electives they might consider going in for a closer look at the merchandise.

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Of critics and classrooms

A little while ago I was one of the few non-teachers at a Christmas party.  The faculty of the school where my mom’s a principal were celebrating the start of the holiday break. 

I tend to hang out with teachers a lot; in fact, I know more teachers than I do members of any other profession.  It was the family business.  My grandfather and both of his siblings were teachers.  He married a teacher, and had two sons who also became teachers.  The younger one was my father, who left law school to cover my grandmother’s classes as a temporary gig when she got sick, and ended up staying in the classroom for three decades. 

Mom worked in the county school system, got a doctorate, and then taught education classes to prospective teachers in college.  When the college decided to start its own prep school, she designed the curriculum and became the founding principal.  She’s on her third tour of duty there now.  My aunt is a kindergarten teacher, and her younger daughter is about to start her own teaching career. 

Since my parents both worked in schools, many—probably most—of their friends and acquaintances have been teachers and educators, too.  They made up the bulk of adults I knew as a kid, and are a pretty fair proportion of the ones I know now. 

If you’re wondering what all this has to do with history, it relates to an issue that pops up with some frequency in the historical blogosphere.  The issue, it seems, is that left-wing nut jobs are in control of America’s classrooms, and they’re trying to poison the minds of our children with their radical, agenda-driven approach to history. 

The people who tell me this often support their argument by citing anecdotal instances from the news or from personal experience in which history teachers have said or done things that indicate some nefarious, leftist design.  They also tend to lump teachers together with college professors, which at first glance seems like a sensible conclusion.  (People in college humanities departments tend to be very liberal, those people teach classes, K-12 teachers also teach classes, and thus K-12 teachers must be predominantly liberal.) 

Furthermore, teachers’ unions have a pretty well-deserved reputation for standing to the left of the center.  The NEA hasn’t endorsed a Republican presidential candidate in over three decades.  Over 90% of its donations went to Democrats during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, and it has lent its influence to a number of liberal social causes. 

From condemning teachers for being agenda-driven wackos, it’s just a short hop, skip, and jump to condemning them for being incompetent.  They’re so busy filling kids’ heads with liberal mush, we’re told, that they don’t do their jobs, which explains why so many younger Americans can’t find the Bill of Rights with both hands and a flashlight. 

Lately I’ve been trying to count the teachers I’ve known who were or are leftist radicals trying to turn their impressionable young students into pajama-wearing shock troops of Marxism.  So far I haven’t come up with any.  

(As a side note, my dad was probably the most conservative person I knew.  He was a longtime political activist, a member of Southerners for Reagan, an officer of the Tennessee Conservative Union, and a delegate for Pat Buchanan to the Republican National Convention.  His dislike of all things leftist was both intense and public.  I once heard him offer an invocation before a meal—an associate pastor of our church was present—which he closed by asking God why He saw fit to make so many liberal Democrats.  He thought it was hilarious.  The other people at the table weren’t amused, and neither was my mom when she found out about it.) 

One thing that’s often missing from blanket denunciations of radicalized teachers is any evidence that the person has actually made some attempt to find out what the political inclinations of most American teachers are.  Instead of relying on anecdotes and general suspicion, why not just ask the teachers about their political affiliations? 

From Wikimedia Commons

It turns out that people have indeed asked, and that teachers are pretty normal folks, after all.  Here’s a compilation of survey data indicating that the breakdown of political affiliations among teachers matches up pretty well with the population as a whole.  Note also that the breakdown for teachers is quite different from that for college professors, despite the fact that critics of American education often lump the two groups together. 

In 2001, the NEA itself conducted a study which sampled a group of public school teachers.  More of them self-identified as Democrats than Republicans—45% for the former, 28% for the latter—but Democrats still made up a minority (though a plurality) of those surveyed, and that minority presumably included Democrats from across the spectrum of that party.  The remaining 27% claimed no party affiliation at all, and doubtless included some who were fairly conservative.  An impressive 77% were members of a church or similar religious organization.  Remember that this study sampled only teachers in public schools, the group most often singled out by critics of American educators as both too liberal and too secular.  Factoring in private and parochial school teachers would probably bring the percentage of Democrats down more, as in the study linked above. 

It’s also worth noting that teachers in states with paycheck protection laws haven’t been at all shy about stopping unions from spending their dues money on political causes.  Such payments fell by 90% in Utah when teachers in that state got the choice to opt-out.  Whatever the political inclinations of the NEA and its affiliates, it’s clearly a mistake to assume that all dues-paying teachers share them. 

One other thing about K-12 teachers is too often ignored.  These folks are professionals.  When I was in college, many of my fellow students in the history program were double-majoring in history and education in order to teach when they finished their degrees.  Those of us who were strictly history majors had it comparatively easy; we had to fulfill the history program’s requirements from the catalog under which we entered.  The folks going into K-12 education, by contrast, had to fulfill the history program’s requirements, the education program’s requirements, and the requirements to become a licensed teacher in the state where they planned to work.  Furthermore, if the state’s requirements changed partway through their schooling, then they might have to add an additional year’s worth of classes or more in order to accomodate them. 

The crucial difference between studying history as a subject, as I did, and studying history in order to become a history teacher is that those doing the latter get trained to teach as well as to study and interpret.  I “teach” college, but I’m not a trained teacher.  K-12 teachers are.  They’ve spent years learning pedagogical techniques, curricula, and child development.  They have to, because they’re expected to know how their students learn as well as they do the subject matter of their classes.  As someone who teaches history at the college level, I’ll be the first to tell you that K-12 teaching is much more difficult, and that the professional requirements for it are more exacting. 

I don’t have a problem with people critiquing the state of history education in America.  It’s an important topic in which we should all be invested.  Such a critique, however, needs to be informed.  We need to be careful about drawing generalizations, and we need to stop blaming the folks working in the classrooms for policies that originate in administrative offices and legislative chambers.  Let’s leave the broad brushes at home, lest we wrongly use them against decent, hardworking, and competent professionals engaged in a brutally difficult, generally thankless, and critically necessary task.  Fair enough?

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