Higher Ed

Thoughts on Teaching History

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My friend Caleb dropped the first half hour of his edit of our conversation. In it is the part where he observes that we need to be careful about assuming our students have the same type of reaction to history as we do. He said something to the effect that he has to remind himself he was the “weird kid” in class who was super interested in what the teacher was droning on about. I was the same, of course. Always sitting in the front row. Reacting to the professor almost as if we were having a one-on-one conversation. Asking and answering questions.

These are all things we hope to see in our own classes, and sometimes we do. More often though, in my experience, the classroom fills from back to front. Students typically only answer questions when I actually call on them, not when I ask a question of the group. Some students stop coming to class if they determine they will not lose points toward their final grade by not attending (I think they DO lose overall, because they probably retain less from reading the chapter than from the lecture. But I don’t take attendance).

But really, when I think about it, my students are NOT me. Very few of them are even History majors. A larger number are in the Social Studies Education program, preparing to be high school teachers. But most of the students in my surveys (which due to their much higher enrollments means most of my students overall) are checking a “Liberal Education” core requirement box. My surveys fulfill the “History and the Social and Behavioral Sciences” goal. They also fulfill either the “Human Diversity in the United States” goal or the “Global Perspective” goal. They also all help fulfill a “Critical Thinking” requirement, although they aren’t listed as such (pretty much ALL courses at my university supposedly meet this goal, so it isn’t listed on any).

I’ve said several times in the past that I’m very interested in trying to make history relevant to the present for people, and I think about my surveys along these lines. I do think it’s helpful for members of the public to know some basic facts about the past. For me, it’s the same idea as the saying “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Similarly, if you know nothing you can be convinced of anything. This has been one of the big downsides of having all the world’s info on your smartphone, and I suppose ChatGPT may only exacerbate the problem.

In any case, I think it’s important for students to learn some info about the past. Especially some info that challenges the “Master Narrative” they have been taught all their lives. And I’m not just talking about the half-assed social studies I was taught in high school by guys whose first priority was coaching football. Even students who have taken APUS or Concurrent Enrollment “college in the high school” classes have often been “taught to the test”, which requires coverage of a fairly limited range of topics. These ARE, I admit, some of the “must-know” bits of info about our past. But it’s not my goal just to revisit that familiar territory.

What I’d prefer to do is to take students to places they might not otherwise have seen. Like a tour guide that leaves the well-worn path for some interesting side trips. The key to these explorations off the beaten path, though, is that they need to enhance the overall picture and give the traveler a more complete understanding of the territory. And it needs to be relevant to their actual lives. So what can I add to survey-level history that will enhance my students’ understanding AND be relevant to their present lives and futures? A couple of things come to mind:

  • The idea that what happened was not inevitable. Understanding the contingency of the past, I think, may suggest to them that the present and future are similarly “not a done deal”.
  • Awareness of the contested nature of all big social choices. This involves seriously considering the perspectives on both sides of an argument. I’m not expecting students reading a primary source in which a Southerner defends slavery to agree with the author. But I WOULD like them to try to understand why the author thinks so, whether the position is sincerely believed, or whether they are reading a rhetorical rationalization.
  • A sense that the past involves choices made not only by “Great Men” but by people like themselves. How did those people make those choices? How did they make their voices heard? Hopefully, this exposure will suggest to students that they too will have the opportunity (and responsibility) to do the same in their lifetimes.

I was talking with my fellow History faculty yesterday and we agreed there are periods in American History that remind us A LOT of the present moment (we actually agreed that in addition to the first Gilded Age of the 1920s, the decade of the 1840s seems particularly resonant). There’s a limit to how directly you can call attention to those similarities. After all, history only “rhymes”, it doesn’t repeat itself. And it’s a bit anachronistic and “presentist” to make this type of correspondence the one and only focus of a history course. But I do think it’s valuable to connect the dots a bit, especially for general students who are not aspiring historians. And it may be interesting to them, too.

At St. Olaf

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Yesterday I spent some time sitting in Northfield Minnesota in front of the Chapel and Commons of St. Olaf College. It was about a four and a half hour drive from Bemidji (and then back) to pick up my son Gio, who had been at a music camp there this past week. The campus is on a hilltop at the edge of town -- although not too far out, since I just heard a train horn at a crossing near the Malt-O-Meal factory. Carleton College, the other school in this town, is right up against downtown.

Yes, there are two pretty well-regarded private Liberal Arts colleges in this town of fewer than 21,000 people. This one, Olaf, sits on a hilltop and feels a bit separated from the rest of the world. I walked a couple of miles, circling around the campus a couple of times and zigzagging across all its paths. It reminded me a bit of Hogwarts, although for that matter, in spite of being much closer to downtown, Carleton has a pond and an island with a little meditator's labyrinth.

Admission to both these colleges is very competitive and once admitted students' families can expect to pay a "family contribution" of at least $25,000. My son will not be going to either of these, although he has done summer programs at each. Instead, he will be attending the largest university in the state system for which I work. Will he receive a different education at a state university? Probably. Will it be one that is more in line with his interdisciplinary interests? I hope so.

These questions remind me of the issues currently faced by Higher Ed. What are we doing? For whom? And will it make a difference to our students lives? The answers to questions like these are on a lot of people's minds right now, because they appear to be changing. The
All-In podcasters this week argued about the effects of the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Affirmative Action in college admissions. The “besties” (as they call themselves) tended to focus on admissions to elite schools such as Harvard and Stanford, although there was at least a mention of "all public institutions that take government money." I think Chamath said (I was listening on my drive down so I didn't see who said it) that there was a sense among some advocates that racial quotas were designed to right the wrongs of American history, but only for a time. Whether they have achieved the original goals of leveling the playing field is sure to be debated. But an interesting data point in this debate is that many of the people who agitated for this change were Asian students who felt they were being discriminated against; denied places despite having top credentials.

Another big issue that arose in the
All-In Podcast discussion was legacy enrollment. This is granting spots to the mediocre children of alumni. Although I generally agreed with the speakers that this should be prevented, it also reminded me that in the case of many elite institutions, educational credentials may not really be the whole point. Because educational achievement isn't the whole point. A big part of it is access to a community. The dumb son of a Harvard alum or big donor may actually have better "prospects" of joining the ranks of the plutocracy than the most brilliant minority student, and attending the school will introduce him to the people with whom he’ll be running the world in 25 years. I'd also question the value of adding diverse faces to the class picture of the next generation of plutocrats. Shouldn't we be trying to reduce the outsized role of this group on ruling supposedly-democratic America, rather than jostling for spots in the photo?

In any case, I wonder about the role of institutions like this one, where I was sitting in partial shade in a quiet quad, waiting for a concert to begin. It certainly isn't identical to either Harvard or the state university, and that may be an important point. Higher Ed is big and has many functions in our society. I think the part of it to which I contribute (preparing students to live and work in a complex society) is more valuable than socializing the children of elites. But even this is changing, as we reimagine what type of world we think we're trying to prepare these students to live and work in.