If you’re a history or social studies teacher, check out the Periodic Table of the Presidents. It’s got lots of historical information in an easy-to-use format, and you can get it in poster form to hang in your classroom.
Category Archives: Teaching History
Tennessee officials are floating a proposal to combine geography and history. This approach will supposedly “give students a deeper grasp of both subjects and free up more time for teaching language skills that are measured on standardized tests.” I would’ve assumed that shoehorning two subjects into one class would mean students would get a much shallower grasp, so I’m a little perplexed here.
Of course, my perplexity is beside the point, because this isn’t really about giving kids “a deeper grasp” of history and geography, is it? This is about marginalizing social studies to make way for math and language arts, because with the Common Core standards you live and you die by math and language scores on standardized tests.
Think the cost of health care has been going up? Check out the cost of college textbooks.
Maybe we should all think about replacing our usual textbooks with something like Robert Remini’s A Short History of the United States. Students would still be getting their background and context from a distinguished and reputable historian, but at a fraction of the cost of the glossy, illustration-heavy volumes put out by textbook publishers. They’d also save time and money that could be spent on other reading material, material which would demonstrate what historians do and how they do it.
Or maybe we should ditch the background, textbook-type reading completely. I’m gradually becoming convinced that survey-level history texts aren’t just overpriced—they’re a little superfluous. When I teach survey courses, I spend most of my time lecturing on important historical trends, covering critical events, providing context, and so on. In other words, I’m doing the very same thing the textbook is doing, except I’m doing it verbally. Is the textbook really necessary when it does nothing but elaborate on the same material we cover in lecture?
In the past, I’ve tried to save my students’ money by replacing the supplementary source reader with material from the Internet History Sourcebook or another online primary source collection, and assigning the main text as the only book to buy. Maybe I’ve been doing it backwards. Perhaps we should all ditch our textbooks instead, and assign a good primary source reader along with an accessible monograph or two. Thus we’d have lectures for background coverage, and assigned reading to learn interpretation and historical thinking. Some professors have been doing this for a long time. Is it time to take that approach mainstream?
There’s a hubbub brewing over new social studies standards for Minnesota’s schools. As is generally the case in these situations, there’s a fair amount of knee-jerk alarmism mixed in with the legitimate concerns.
Lawyer and commentator John Hinderaker is upset because the new standards emphasize the different impacts that the American Revolution and the Civil War had on various groups. He writes, “One might have thought that events like the American Revolution and the Civil War would affect Americans generally, but such a concept is foreign to today’s academics.”
Well, certainly the Revolution and the Civil War did affect Americans generally, but it didn’t affect all of them in the same way. If you were a white male living in Pennsylvania, the Revolution probably resulted in a greater exercise of political power. If you were a white woman living in Massachusetts, you took on new roles as a republican mother and citizen. If you were an enslaved black male who managed to hitch a ride with the British as they evacuated the seaboard cities, you got freedom. And if you were an Indian of any gender living in the Ohio Valley, the Revolution wasn’t exactly a bonanza. There’s nothing wrong with teaching kids about the varied effects of important events. Indeed, history teachers need to introduce the complexity involved in significant events like the Revolution.
Hinderaker also charges the standards with attributing “institutionalized racism” to big business. But that isn’t exactly what the relevant passage says: “As the United States shifted from its agrarian roots into an industrial and global power, the rise of big business, urbanization and immigration led to institutionalized racism, ethnic and class conflict, and new efforts at reform. ” The standards are clearly dealing with a number of transformations in the U.S. during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, of which the rise of big business was only one. The rise of big business, the growth of cities, and immigration resulted in a number of changes in American life, including racism, class conflict, and reform efforts. And, of course, shifts in immigration patterns and urban growth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did result in institutionalized racism, as evidenced by the emergence of measures like the Chinese Exclusion Act and the restrictions on Asian immigration in the Immigration Act of 1917.
Perhaps, then, the problem isn’t with the standards, but with the reading comprehension of the people criticizing them. Or perhaps the problem is something else. Hinderaker writes that when he saw Joseph Brandt’s name on the standards’ list of “historically significant people” from the American Revolution, he had no idea who he was and had to look him up. He notes only that Brandt was “a Mohawk Indian,” which is sort of like saying that Stonewall Jackson was “a guy from Virginia.” Since Hinderaker had to look up the name of one of the most important figures of the Revolutionary frontier, might I suggest that he isn’t the person to be assessing standards for teaching history in Minnesota’s schools?
Every undergraduate student at Lincoln Memorial University is required to take a one-hour credit course called “Lincoln’s Life and Legacy” which serves as an introduction to the university’s namesake, his significance to the history of nineteenth-century America, and the story of the school’s origins. (In case you’re wondering, the required texts are William Gienapp’s short but solid Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America; a one-volume selection of Lincoln’s writings; and whatever supplementary essays, articles, and excerpts the instructor wants to add.)
I haven’t taught this class in a while—not since a previous tour of duty at LMU a few years ago—but I’ve got a section next semester, and I’m really looking forward to it.
I used to end the course with a short overview of Lincoln in memory using the five themes identified by Merrill Peterson, and then I’d show clips from some of the more notable Abe-related movies. It’ll be interesting to see what impact, if any, the past year’s Lincoln films have had on the 18-22 set. I’m guessing it’s not a whole lot. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter didn’t draw big crowds, and most of the people I saw at screenings of Spielberg’s movie were quite a bit older than me. Maybe I’ll add a scene from AL:VH to my last lecture just for the heck of it.
I once heard my pastor (who also happens to be my uncle) quote another minister to the effect of, “The preacher’s job is to reach up and take it down from the top shelf, and put it in people’s hands.” The preacher, in other words, must not only have a certain level of expertise in his subject matter, but also the ability to translate it into a usable form for people whose expertise is in some other area. When I worked in museums, I used to see my job in pretty much the same way. The public historian’s job is to take it down from the top shelf and put it in people’s hands.
There’s an unfortunate tendency in academia to look down on public historians, as if curators, park rangers, and their colleagues at museums and other institutions are engaged in a less demanding enterprise than those who earn a paycheck from teaching and publishing. But in many ways, the demands placed on the public historian are greater. The public historian, like his academic counterpart, must be able to conduct original research and make sense of the relevant secondary literature—to reach the top shelf. But his success will also depend on his ability to get that stuff down from the top shelf and into the public’s hands. That’s what distinguishes the public historian from the ivory tower historian.
A few days ago, however, it occurred to me that although I’m not in the museum field anymore, my job still consists of taking things down from the top shelf. I make a living by teaching college survey courses. My audience isn’t composed of colleagues or apprentices; it’s made up of individuals from a variety of backgrounds, each with different levels of interest and differing aptitudes when it comes to the study of the past. I’ve therefore decided that teaching a college survey course is essentially an exercise in public history.
Lately the historical Interwebs has been talking about the new Grant bio by H.W. Brands. I read his life of Andrew Jackson several years ago and thought it was pretty good, even if the availability of Robert Remini’s one-volume abridgment version of his multi-volume work made another popular Jackson bio seem a little superfluous.
The Grant and Jackson books are both part of a series of biographies which will constitute a complete history of the United States, with Brands using each individual exemplifying a particular era. It’s a pretty interesting idea.
I wonder if you could do the same thing for a survey course, organizing each lecture around the life of some historical figure. Could students learn history just by getting acquainted with individuals whose life stories reflect their respective time periods or subjects? Here are a few possibilities:
- Pocahontas for early colonial Anglo-Indian relations with her first encounters with the Jamestown colonists, her capture, baptism, marriage, and eventual death
- Jacob Leisler for the evolution of the colonial-English relationship in the late seventeenth century
- Jonathan Edwards for the intellectual/religious developments of the early eighteenth century
- John Adams for the Revolutionary and Federalist eras, with the emergence of his commitment to independence and the development of his ideas on government
- John Sevier for the trans-Appalachian frontier, with his career as Indian fighter, leader of a dissident separatist movement, land speculator, and state governor