Today Historiann and I finish up our discussion about the U.S. survey class. Together we have already outlined devious ways to undermine the entire nation through our teaching. Won't somebody think of the children?
If you are just joining the discussion, remember to read up on Part I and Part II. All of your friends already read Part I and II. You want to be cool like them, don't you?
Historiann: It would still be a Great Leap Forward if Anglophone historians would reorient their teaching, if not their research. Perhaps the best way to alter the center of gravity
GayProf (GP): *coughGravitas*cough*
Historiann: (ignoring GayProf) Perhaps the best way to alter the center of gravity in American history is to change the date of that split between the first and second "halves" of American history. (I put "half" in quotation marks, as someone who teaches a "half" that goes from 1492-1877 and is therefore 385 years in 15 weeks, by comparison to my modern U.S. colleagues who teach a "half" that goes from 1877-2010, or only 133 years in 15 weeks. What can I say? Some Democrat, who thinks that 60 is "half" of 100, must have done the math.)
GP: Our colleagues teaching the History of Asia won’t give us much sympathy in the divide. Remember that they often have to cover several centuries every class session! Sometimes my two-part lecture on the U.S.-Mexican War (which was, you know, less than two years) seems really indulgent in comparison.
Historiann: Let's end the first "half" in 1848, instead of 1877, putting the Mexican War rather than the Civil War and Reconstruction at the center of American history.
GP: Ending in 1848 would be a good start. If the goal was to end the class with the incorporation of tens of thousands Mexicans into the U.S., maybe it would encourage professors to provide a modicum of background on Mexico (and if, as a side effect, that increases the marketability of the Never Ending Research Project of Doom, how could I disagree?). But I worry even then we would just end up with a ra-ra version of the Texas Rebellion.
Maybe we could even end the first section in 1821 with Mexican Independence? Tell me that wouldn’t blow the minds of many historians to think that a “foreign” event could define the cycle of U.S. history! And, yet, it did. Once the wars for independence in Latin America took hold, the U.S. was in a very different place in the global economy. Independence in Latin America meant the U.S. could suddenly exercise its emerging power in ways that were unthinkable in 1780.
Starting the class earlier than the seventeenth century would also be a nice thing to do. It seems like (and the WMQ articles alluded to it as well) that most of the non-Anglo history is given scant attention. A typical first-day lecture usually goes, “There were Native Americans in the hemisphere for tens of thousands of years; but not much happened until Jamestown was founded in 1607!” Or, if you are in a slightly more informed class, “There were Native Americans in the hemisphere for tens of thousands of years; then Columbus sailed in 1492. Then not much happened until Jamestown was founded in 1607!”
Lately I have been toying with the idea of offering a colonial borderlands class. I’m not looking to move over to CEUS, but I feel like Spain’s northern frontier is entirely absent from BMU It’s either teach that or an entire semester devoted to the golden-age of Queen Hippolyta. Really a toss up to me.
Historiann: As Donna Merwick said back in 1994 in her response to Hijiya's article, "to tamper seriously with America's received story of its past is dangerous because it is tampering with a myth. It disturbs the fixed version of the sanctified past that makes the present bearable," (WMQ 51:4, October 1994, 736). Suggesting that the independence movement in another nation or a trumped-up war of imperial aggression, rather than a noble war to end slavery, is at the center of American history certainly would challenge "the sanctified past!"
GP: I also think it has to do with the fact that we (as a profession) never really talk about what purpose the U.S. Survey is supposed to serve. Are we there to provide a backdrop political history? If so, which one(s)? Or are we there to teach basic historical methodologies? Or is our goal to shake up that “sanctified past?” All of these are potentially worthy goals for a survey class.
I personally struggle with the balance between “coverage” and “skills” in all my classes. While I prefer to talk about more “fun” things (like how we understand changing ideas about sexuality through time), I also can’t help feeling that they should know some really basic events and people before they move out of college.
For instance, if my class is going to contemplate the Mexican Revolution as one of the most important events in North American History, I feel like I need to give students at least a basic frame of reference. Like, you know, who Emiliano Zapata was.
GP: But, of course, the problem with those types of narratives is that they privilege a pretty darn exclusive group: Men more than women; Whites more than people of color; Heteros more than the queer folk. Spending time on simply establishing who the hell Zapata was means that the soldaderas get cheated. It is much the same issue as how we all fall into the "Parade of Presidents" that you mentioned in the comments of Part I. We know better, yet somehow can't help ourselves. I am conflicted.
Historiann: I agree with you that we never discuss the purpose of the U.S. survey. At least, I can’t recall taking part in a formal conversation about the purpose of survey courses in the fifteen years I’ve been on various History faculties. This may have something to do again with the bruising “culture wars” of previous decades—a lot got said and written that I think embarrassed people in retrospect. (I’ve heard one confession from a culture warrior—with whom I utterly disagree—who told me personally that he regrets some of the things he wrote and said in those days. If I told you who it was, I’d have to kill you, so I’ll take his secret to my grave.) Immediately after 9/11, we had a brief discussion in which the importance of history to the creation of a patriotic citizenry was affirmed. But even then, none of us wanted to be terribly specific about what we’re up to because we all have different ideas and priorities.
GP: See, I don’t really see it as my job to affirm or discredit one’s patriotism. Instead, I think it is my job to provide historical context to our modern concerns as a nation. What students want to do with that once they leave my class (Wave flags, move to Canada, join the Army, start a sensible bistro) is entirely up to them.
What if instead of mandating “U.S. History,” we made the requirement “History of North America” or even “History of the Western Hemisphere (Including the Africa bits everybody always forgets is technically part of this hemisphere)?” We could forgo the nation as an organizing principle entirely.
Of course, there are downsides to that as well. Right now the rush to teach “Global History,” for instance, feels flat to me. It seems those classes are just “Western Civ, Now With China!” rather than really rethinking old structures. But that is another post entirely…
Historiann: What we certainly don’t want to talk about is the ridiculousness of expecting a compulsory history class of two quarters or one semester to cure historical ignorance in all of its many forms.
GP: True, but it would be nice if we could market our classes like they were a snakeoil cure. “Take Dr. GayProf’s Patented Chicano/a History Class – Cures All: Racism, Sexism, Homophobia, Scurvy, Billousness, and Dropsy. Satisfied Customers Feel Less Ignorant After Just One Dose! Goes Down Easy – Great for Young or Old!”
Historiann: If various states of the union, or universities, or liberal arts colleges actually thought American history was important, they’d require more than a one-semester dose. What we’re left with in the popular discourse is the insistence that U.S. history is vitally important for everyone to know, and the injunction that we (the History professors) are doing it all wrong. (A former mentor of mine used to call this the “history is too important to be left to the historians” point of view.
GP: That’s so true. We don’t have a hard time convincing either the political Left or Right that people should know history. They are just at odds in deciding what history they really want people to know.
Historiann: Maybe it’s my Midwestern low-church WASP heritage of conflict-avoidance, but this state of affairs (call it détante) is better than the projectile insults and name-calling of the kulturkampf. Let’s just all teach what we want to teach, and let others teach what they want to teach. Let a thousand flowers bloom, in other words. (Or as we say here on the plains: “it’s your affair, and none of my own.”)
GP: Yes, I want to echo that. I am not interested in establishing a formal curriculum or dictating what must be taught. Still, I’d like to think that most people want to be more inclusive in their classes (I’m in a “People are Basically Good” sort of mood -- Or at least, “Historians are Basically Good” sort of mood). The problem is that they either have never thought about it (because they, themselves, were never taught in an inclusive way) or because they don’t know how to go about it.
Historiann: That doesn’t mean busybodies like you and me can’t point out who’s being left out of the dominant U.S. history narratives, of course, and why it’s problematic.
GP: And we still get to judge them, right?
Historiann: By all means. Over cocktails, of course!