Tag Archives: United States History

Dominion and liberty, NEH 2014, day 2

Andrew Cayton was our guest for much of day two and while he was largely speaking about concepts introduced in he and co-author Fred Anderson’s book The Dominion of War, Cayton was also present to lend his expertise on early America. I first met Dr. Cayton fourteen years ago when he was the commentator for a panel on which I was speaking about early frontier communities. I remembered being impressed by his thoughts at the time and over the years followed up on his work and how is examination of frontier Ohio and Indiana could be applied to my own research on Nebraska. Somehow, I missed Dominion of War, but more on that point later.

In preparing for the day, I took a look at a recommended Peter Silver book Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America. Silver’s book is about horor and fear and how it can change entire societies as well as the politics of these places. He focuses on British North America between the 1750s and 1780s and introduces an interesting theory as to how the concept of “white people” may have helped ease some cross Euronational tensions, creating a more unified colonial opposition to native land ownership and rights. Silver’s opening section focuses on conflicts between leaders of Pennsylvania and squatters (settlers living on the frontier, often on land they did not own or that was to be preserved for natives, or both). These conflicts were often set aside as native warfare became a common threat after the 1750s.  Silver includes a fascinating story about Moravians working with Inuits and how the latter traveled to Pennsylvania briefly and then felt grief when war struck in 1755; he also features the tale of Tom Quick, discussing how fear creates prudence and a spirit of enterprise (sick though it may be in terms of turning in scalp bounties) when living among natives.  Silver concludes with the postwar that wasn’t: “a generation that was constantly haunted by war, and shaped by the moments of fear it provided, had remade Americans’ beliefs in toleration, in the desirability of overcoming inter group prejudice, and in the democratic sovereignty of the people.” (301)

Pr. Cayton’s plan was to examine the Origins of the Empire of Liberty, 1763-1783, taking a closer look at the American revolution and expansion. By tracing how British victory in the French and Indian war, a conflict provoked by expansionism, resulted in arguments over land and power in North America, Cayton discussed the continuity of expansion that led to revolution and to the establishment of an empire defined by republican polities, racial exclusion, and commercial agriculture.

Empire in the 18th century meant a big, extended, and powerful nation.  Pr. Cayton argued that generally, people want to feel secure and that is what they seek from the relationship with empire.  As an individual, you are willing to provide tribute to the center so that you might be then left alone.  In the case of 18th century North America, perhaps you supply a certain amount of manpower for the militia or feeding the populace, etc.  When Great Britain appeared to no longer supply what is needed (security) and loses its legitimacy, North America was in the latter half of the 18th century; revolution resulted in a change of polity, but the basic problem of expanding territory and providing security was exactly the same as were felt in the 1750s.

So how did Americans begin to take or manage the Ohio Valley region and get what they wanted in terms of wealth development?  The land itself played a role, including the mountains and drainage basins.  The people on that land played a big role as well, both native people and other Europeans, who may or may not have challenged the new governments’ attempts to take control.  In a way the English had been successful because of numbers, but also the nature of fur trade and alliances with Iroquois made a big influence as well with native people like the Iroquois providing a key source of stability and market through the 18th century.  By the time of the American Revolution, the North American colonies had become the general store for the Caribbean and this relationship in turn attracted a huge number of people to the regions like the Carolinas and mid Atlantic region.

After French control was wrested by the British, there were continued problems.  The British interrupted the flow of trade goods in and out of the Great Lakes region and this changed the nature of empire and the rules which caused native leader Pontiac to “rebel.”  The British General Amherst tried to change the native-empire relationship through cutting off trade of arms and altering the fur trade.  Increasingly, empires became about “likeness” with violence and war acting key to these transformations – six decades of war, 1740s through 1810s over who is going to control this region west of Appalachians.  Because no one, the French, the British, the Native population, the Spanish, nor the Americans, could provide security, there was no peace in the region – here, Cayton, made reference to a Second World War era book, Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder, particularly because Snyder is describing what happens when there is no security and literally almost everyone’s life is at risk. I am currently reading Bloodlands and it is truly chilling – I can see the link Cayton was making very clearly.

As we might guess, and Pr. Cayton confirms, the American war for independence is catastrophic for native people.  Native people are the losers along with some loyalists.  During the American Revolution itself, Washington seized the opportunity to order attacks into Iroquois territory and other native peoples’ lands.  The Sullivan campaign assails Iroquois power and creates a kind of pattern in behavior followed by the American government in the years following.

Andrew Cayton and Peter Onuf discussed the concept of a “blueprint for expansion:” the constitutional origins of the empire of liberty examined how empire grew out of colonial experience and in response to native resistance.  By 1787, American leaders had constructed a new form of empire, drafting the Constitution and the passage of the NW ordinance (the document which outlines how all newly settled territories might become equal members of the American federation).  For Pr. Onuf, statehood and union are about both liberty development and union.  In Cayton’s vision of the frontier republic conflicts are replete between congress and squatters, Federalist authority and the burgeoning state of Ohio, national government authority versus local interests, etc.  It was extremely contentious in the following periods: 1807-1812, 1812-1819, and 1819-1824.  The dominant points of view were:

  1. Squatters and Jeffersonian republicans emphasizing local sovereignty
  2. Federalist seeking to bring regularity to a disordered society

But did federalists detest the American west?  Did they truly see it as an “open, dynamic, democratic, egalitarian frontier?  When one constructs analysis of the conflicts between these two above points of view, Pr. Cayton argues that both were inappropriate for the type of society growing in Ohio – “Neither absolute power nor absolute liberty could effectively govern Ohio.”
Yet, we wonder – isn’t Ohio out west? Why were Americans being kept from it?  Were these natives of the Ohio valley the civilizing project with which the new American government wanted to engage?  At this point, our discussion included references to Edmund Burke and his notion of morality becoming universal and superior.  We included a reference to the stadial theory of Scottish enlightenment discussing conjectural history as well – this theory begins classically with examining hunting and gathering societies, shifts to agricultural and perhaps eventually a commercial people, etc.  In other words this theory is about the teleological nature of history as one that is progressive and constantly moving forward.

This philosophical point pushed us towards some interesting questions – as we know from examining plays and government documents alike written texts when read out loud are sometimes interpreted differently – even when Americans believe they can draw on a “firm” constitutional heritage in order to create a government made on fundamental principles, the meanings can be somewhat confused.  In the aftermath of the revolution, Americans faced the same problems that the British had stared down.  Why was North America different from England though?  Did its residents share in that Burkean notion of universal morality?  If yes, or no, what is making a civilization then?  Is it allegiance to the Constitution or is it print culture, or is it something else entirely?

Our final element for day two was a close discussion with Pr. Peter Onuf regarding his book Jefferson’s Empire: the Language of American Nationhood.  The discussion of this groundbreaking series of essays, opened with a dialogue focused on how historians related to the theme of the institute as well as on experience and challenge of producing innovative and important scholarship.  As it was a free flowing conversation, subject to interpretation by all types in a variety of ways, I’ll close by referencing a few of the questions and observations that we raised in reference to Jefferson’s understanding of empire.

  • Jefferson and Native people – An important question is that Jefferson did not take the Marietta, OH mounds seriously, insisting that there must be another explanation for their presence.  If so, how could Jefferson conceive of Native people being part of the empire?
  • Additional questions on what Jefferson takes “seriously” or not – eg, sending Africans to Haiti  in order to keep them out of the US? Is this for real? How would you pay for it? When would they do this move? Why would others agree?
  • Why was Jefferson concerned about the possibilities of violence among freed slaves? Why does he use this notion of slaves as captives in war?
  • Are natural rights meaningless unless in a civic context?
  • One of Jefferson’s great projects was the reforming of the laws in Virginia and yet these were arguably failures despite the interest in examining them.  Could Jefferson believe that he was successfully creating union through language?  Must the polity be same? – perhaps there was a need for or at least the illusion of equality?
  • Two exclusions we discussed – one, defining the community of the people (enslaved people not included and neither are the “savages” ); two, the “ward” republic concept (perhaps evolving out of a concern that local govt doesn’t exist in VA?) leads Jefferson to talk about the individual domestic household as another exclusion
  • Jefferson emphasized that love can help create the strength of nation; Is there a paradoxical problem about federalism and regional differences that love cannot solve?
  • Federalists might call what the United States was becoming simply an empire rather than add the liberty notion at the end; could it be an empire of reason?
  • What do lines in geography and polity do? Do they cooperate with one another to a degree? The Missouri line is a different one from those drawn during the NW ordinance and the crisis reveals the “restrictionist” views as Jefferson sees them
  • One thing predicated within NW ordinance is property rights – this creates a problem because one could potentially be both human and property at the same time  Is law constituted in legislatures as well as bars and on the corners, etc?

Apologies on the long delay of these summative comments.  More to come as the summer wanes.


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Visitations and guest lectures

One of the challenges of working as a professional educator is keeping current with ideas about curriculum, both in terms of content, style, and matching the needs of students.  Over the last several weeks, I have had the opportunity to both contribute to these conversations as a presenter and benefit greatly from my role as an observer and participant.

In mid-September, SUNY-Cortland Professor Gigi Peterson was kind enough to give me time in two of her classes and social studies teacher workshops.  Pr. Peterson and I met in January at the American Historical Association meeting in New Orleans when I sought out her post presentation entitled “A Class Apart?” Latinos in the Secondary Social Studies Curriculum.  Gigi asked several important questions including:

  1. How are Latinos included in social studies curricular guides and textbooks at the secondary level?
  2. How can their diversity and histories be re-framed as a vital part of the US past and its transnational dimensions?
  3. Secondary-level teachers face politicized, commercialized, and shifting state education expectations.  College history instructors work with students whose perceptions are shaped by these systems, which often promote interpretations of the US past that are at odds with current scholarship.  How can both of these groups incorporate Latino history into their teaching so as to promote critical rethinking of interpretations, and understanding of current issues? (questions taken from Pr. Peterson’s description of her presentation available at http://aha.confex.com/aha/2013/webprogram/Paper11619.html )

Pr. Peterson and I talked about our respective institutions and students, the nature of social studies educator preparation in New York versus Massachusetts, English Language Learners in the classroom, and more.  Over the spring semester and summer we planned on maintaining contact and eventually I was invited to speak on the issue of “Western ‘Exploration’ and Expansion:  Revisiting Pre- and Early US History and Building Historical Thinking Skills.”

For my two presentations the intended audience was M.A. students in history, local social studies teachers, professors, and a class of pre-practicum history education students.  I sent ahead some readings, (eg, Pekka Hämäläinen, “The Rise and Fall of Plains Indian Horse Cultures,” Journal of American History 90, December 2003; preface to Daniel Richter’s America’s Ancient Pasts; the prologue to Colin Calloway’s One Vast Winter Count), and agreed on an earlier assigned piece from Juliana Barr, “Beyond the ‘Atlantic World’: Early American History as Viewed from the West,” OAH Magazine of History 25:1, 2011.   Then I borrowed heavily from a couple of folks to give an organizational framework to my conversation.

I started by paraphrasing Laura Westhoff’s remarks in the July 2013 OAH Magazine of History, in which she suggested that a “perfect storm” of three fronts – intellectual, technology, and policy – created changes in history education.  I asked the students to identify what they believed Westhoff meant by intellectual, technology, and policy – with some prompting and conversation, we put the words “Standards,” “Internet,” and “historical thinking” on the board.  So, I asked, what standards? US history standards, curriculum frameworks of individual states, Common Core State standards, etc.  We explored why the Internet and what/why historical thinking?

While the importance of the former seemed obvious – the sheer amount of information that could be disseminated had grown tremendously in the last fifteen years, the latter was arguably more complicated.  Historical thinking can create an argument, it can be a form of deliberation, sometimes moral or ethical, it should be related to stories of the past.  In historical thinking, historians and their students might spend more time and energy wrestling with the information than focusing on “learning” information.

In exploring themes like the American West and exploration, I pointed out that while we want to accumulate knowledge and information, at times this can be at the expense of getting students to think for themselves about history and its significance.  As David Voelker and Anthony Armstrong, argue in the same OAH Magazine of History as Laura Westhoff, designing a question driven U.S. history course can help develop students’ abilities to think critically.  Can we then develop historical thinking through inquiry planning? What types of inquiry should be deliberated and who gets included in both the design of the question and as the subject of the inquiry?

On those two days, I was attempting to discuss exploration and the American West and what those concepts mean in the context of American history – in other words, where does the American West fit as a place, a time, etc?  At the same time, I tried to get students to address concepts of historical thinking and gain a better understanding as to the origins of their understandings of the American West.  To that end, we took a moment to draw ‘the west’ –  students in both classes were asked to fill in a blank box with images or a scene that captured, for them, the American West.  This idea is directly adapted from chapter five of Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.  While I was less concerned with questions of gender in the students’ drawings, I shared Wineburg’s interest in what commonalities would students utilize to represent the time period/place, etc.  It is an exercise I have done with my history education students for several years.

The end results shaped our discussion for the remainder of the period, so I didn’t get to my other exercises – students were to draw explorers or exploration and students were to write a 50 word saga about an event in the history of the American West.  That latter idea is borrowed from Daniel Pink’s Whole New Mind (he in turn borrowed the idea from a contest hosted by the United Kingdom paper The Daily Telegraph).  My purpose was to get students thinking about their own understanding of the past (in this case exploration of the American West and expansion in the American West).  Once we had the main ideas up from images and discussion, it was clear that almost every student had chosen an image from the nineteenth century.

At this point, I referred back to the readings and pointed out that we had a problem.  What is West?  Several students volunteered that West is about ones perspective and so quickly grasped that defining the region itself was a challenge.  I pointed out that in the twenty-first century we face the same types of challenges – I teach in western Massachusetts which to residents of the capitol in Boston is seen as “then end of the earth” yet there I was on a Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning working as a guest instructor some four hours west of my home base in a place that wouldn’t seem like the west to my wife who grew up in North Dakota.  Then I utilized images of different aspects of the American West as they would have appeared to native people and we proceeded apace to explore what the West and exploration/trade etc. meant to the continent’s first human beings.  Ultimately, I was also making a case for the importance of telling these, to borrow from Daniel Richter, layered pasts.  When we “layered” the New York state curriculum standards on we found we had another challenge – a lot of what I was talking about fit only into United States History and Government, Unit One, Standard I, A and B – geography.  This fact was not lost on me prior to my visit to SUNY-Cortland, but it revealed one of the problems Pr. Peterson and I share – how do you convince young teachers that exploring content at the fringe of the “standards” is worthwhile?  As it turns out, a lot of what I was discussing in these classes was reinforced by two experiences I had in early October.

This past week I returned to  the classes at SUNY-Cortland, this time as a guest, listening to a number of ideas presented by Hofstra University Professor Alan Singer.  Pr. Singer is currently a professor of secondary education and director of social studies education at Hofstra and worked for years a New York City high school social studies teacher.  Singer also is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.  Recent posts include “If Massachusetts was a Country”  and a piece about common core lesson planning in New York.  Pr. Singer is passionate, high energy, and all that we might hope a teacher of history/social studies to be, including interesting!  Students in his high school classes and the teacher-scholars with whom he collaborates to improve social studies education should count themselves lucky.

Among other topics, Pr. Singer discussed good, bad, and ugly uses of the Common Core state standards, using examples surrounding critical analysis of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Singer expressed concerns that in the ugly format, the future of education looked somewhat bleak – will Common Core, APPR, PARCC all combine to create a system whereby outside agencies (some making a fair amount of money) give us the curriculum to teach, then design the test for the kids, then test the teachers on how well they taught the kids?  Singer’s important point was that teachers must separate the Common Core from the tests for students and the evaluation systems established for teachers.

What was good about the Common Core, argued Singer, was that it encourages teachers to be conscious decision-makers and systematic planners.  In addition, adoption of the Common Core could be utilized by teachers as leverage to improve common planning time.  Teachers need to be able to strategize together in order to most effectively integrate these standards.  He pointed out several examples of coordination at certain high schools in his immediate region near Hofstra where teachers worked at combining disciplines where possible.  Always, Singer returned to the theme of teachers as conscious decision-makers and systematic planners – for our students to learn, he passionately explained, you need to organize around a question or a problem and then you have to design the lesson or unit in such a way as to give the students the opportunity to answer the question or solve the problem!  Systematic planning allows for Common Core standards and state curriculum guidelines to be used, multiple entry points for student consideration to be developed, and summary questions explored that allow students to integrate ideas from a single day or earlier classes.  Always, the teacher should reflect on their own good, bad, and ugly, developing strategies for improvement.

In a separate discussion Tuesday evening, October 1, Pr. Singer utilized political cartoons from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century rotating on a powerpoint slideshow behind him to illustrate the dangers of lobbying powers as they relate to the future of education.  Passionately critiquing Pearson in particular, but also Education Testing Service and the College Board, Singer used Eisenhower’s warning about the dangers of the military industrial complex to explain why we should be equally concerned with the combination of politics, financial markets, and education policy.  When Pearson, a British multinational conglomerate expresses their efforts at influencing American education as reform, Singer suggest that their actions, combined with those of the Gates Foundation, the National Governor’s Council and others is about guaranteeing money and profits while influencing education policy.  Pearson controls 60% of the market for education products and by July 2014 will take over teacher education evaluation in New York State.

The edTPA (Teacher Performance Assessment) is a classic example of what Singer describes as the problem with efforts at “reform” that are truly efforts at controlling exams, assessments, and evaluations.  This program was created by Stanford University but with investment money from Pearson.  The program was then “sold” back to Pearson who in turn has sold the product to states, including New York, for implementation.  Pearson will therefore be making money in New York from statewide administered tests at the elementary and secondary school levels, from the testing for licensure candidates seeking to become teachers, and from the evaluation systems used to assess teachers and their performance.  In short, argued Singer, a corporation will be making money on all steps of the educational ladder in a movement that he describes as decidedly anti-union and anti-government.  This passion can be followed on Singer’s various Huffington post articles and in his activism with present and past students.  I’ll be watching closely as Pearson continues to develop its connections to Massachusetts education “reform.”

Finally, on Friday in part due to my role as lead historian for the Teaching American History Grant project entitled “Memorializing Promise and Conflict,” I was fortunate to have a front row seat for a workshop conducted by University of Michigan professor and former Cleveland high school teacher Bob Bain.  I first encountered Pr. Bain a number of years ago at a few national conferences speaking on connecting the Common Core to social studies work (he also introduced his then nascent steps into the Big History Project which is a subject worthy of an entirely separate commentary, especially in light of its sponsors).  In addition to Bain’s call to embrace elements of the common core (check out some of his arguments expressed on these slides), he insists clearly that one cannot proceed with history/social studies instruction without considering and grappling with literacy.  In other words, history teaching is literacy teaching.

To raise student achievement by improving teachers’ knowledge, understandings and appreciation of American history was one goal of Teaching American History grants, but Bain made a compelling case that this stated goal from over a decade ago was not enough.  The goal, Bain explained clearly, was not sufficient for raising student achievement.  Bain sought, through a variety of workshops, his own teaching, and work in other TAH grants, to make certain that students understood a little bit more than when they started a course or unit and that they had a good time learning in the process.

The main strategy employed was to focus student attention on the argument, problems, evidence, etc. in order to excite their interest.  Bain referenced John Dewey here, pointing out that all knowledge was once a problem, a question, a puzzle, or a curiosity.  And yet, argued Bain, we as teachers tend to not give the students the problem or the question, but rather we give them the answer and then have them work out ways or methods to reach that set answer – this strategy can result in boredom.  Problems, argued Bain, are our friends because they make us think, and historiography and history is all about problems.  Constantly, we should be asking our students (and ourselves) how our problem or the grappling with a problem supports, extends, or challenges the way we think.  If you’re a teacher, you’re asking those questions about how you teach history and approach learning in general.

A specific example of Bain’s problematizing approach can be found in history/social studies classrooms exploring the question of why people choose to move to Detroit.  The kids in question are living in Detroit and might be wondering the same thing in this present day – Bain suggests that by exploring the question in different time periods in American history, the students become actively engaged in reading evidence, using evidence and are trained in how to support, extend, or challenge the way they think.  By giving the students more cognitive tools, anything that helps them think, the students can improve their ability to read, manipulate language, write, etc.  Perhaps, argued Bain, by exploring the historical problem of “why do people choose to move to Detroit?” students might create reasons to move there today in the twenty-first century!  The notion is not dissimilar to Singer’s approach to organizing a unit or lesson around a problem.

Teaching history is filled with unique and often hidden problems and through historical thinking and literacy practices, teachers can help create cognitive tools that will serve their student well in the history/social studies room and in society.  We can’t, pointed out Bain, see our own thinking let alone that of our students, but if we start working on issues of how habits of mind are developed and training our students on developing these cognitive tools we can not only deal with the problems we face as teachers of history, but also better understand the problems are students face as students of history.

In sum, Singer and Bain, and I hope to some degree, my own strategies, seek to make the subject matter.  By asking our students to “think aloud” and demonstrate their thought processes through problem solving or “picturing the American West” we can start the process of exploring a “standard” from a place of inquiry.  We want to make all thinking visible and hopefully when students see this in action, they can engage with historical and political problems in ways that not only engage our students, but gives them the power and evidence to reassert or challenge their assumptions and preconceptions about history and it impact on our lives.

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Some of the things I think James Loewen gets wrong…

James W. Loewen, Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks & Get Students Excited About Doing History.
New York: Teacher’s College Press, 2010.

First, I want to point out that I like a lot of the work that James Loewen has done to get teachers of American history thinking about new ways to go about their craft. Both in his books like Lies My Teacher Taught Me or Sundown Towns, Loewen has exposed people to new ways of examining history and American communities. He has asked questions that are difficult to answer about why we teach the way in which we do and why certain textbooks explore history as a cheering mission rather than a discipline to elicit more questions. And, in my opinion, he has, at times, become fixated on problems that have become less damaging than they were roughly twenty years ago.

In Teaching, Loewen intends to explore how history is often taught in a manner that hinders understanding and, in many cases, insures boredom and hagiography. He explores a number of important weaknesses or holes in teaching history in general and American history specifically. He believes wholeheartedly, and I don’t disagree, that American history teachers can do better. Loewen does acknowledge that there are history teachers who already have moved beyond their, as he defines them, limiting textbooks, but to read this particular work, you might believe that these types of teachers are few and far between.

I enjoy his writing style – Loewen certainly pulls readers in with his chapter titles (History as a Weapon), anecdotes, and occasional statistics. He is, consistently, enthusiastic, a trait he encourages all teachers to possess. He offers some very clear and concise rationales on why history should be seen as important both to the student and larger society. And, occasionally, I argue he missteps.

In his introduction, Loewen makes an important point about teachers of American history needing to take an unflinching look at themselves in order to better serve society. It does, Loewen contends, no good to present the history of the United States as solely exceptional, and as a story with no faults. Lynching is used as a clear example of a topic long overlooked in history classrooms and textbooks, though Loewen suggests that the lack of this horrific event occurring has made it easier for Americans to face this aspect of their past. Loewen asserts that “Americans don’t do that anymore” (16).

Now, to be fair, he explains in a footnote his line of thinking on this topic, suggesting that because the perpetrators were punished, the horrific events in places like Jasper or Paris, TX or Laramie, WY were not lynchings. But what about the violence inherent in these attacks? To be a lynching must the event result only in no punishment for the guilty parties? Do we have the number of lynchings we had between say 1890 and 1926? No. But to suggest that we don’t practice this reprehensible behavior anymore is at best naive.

As an aside, I have taught about lynchings in my US history courses at least since 1994 when I first began in the profession but my two most effective experiences were in using borrowed historical society images from the 1919 attacks in Omaha, NE and in accessing Without Sanctuary, a site I used with high school students from Los Angeles.

Loewen has some great ideas to help out new (and experienced teachers) especially about how to choose whether to include a topic in the class or not. But he also makes some statements that make it appear as though he is a bit out of touch with what it is that teachers are doing. For example, he uses data from 1991 to point out that many high school history teachers did not study history at the collegiate level (10). While this fact is disturbing it is also over twenty years old – in the footnote, Loewen states he is unaware of any newer study revealing a change in this trend. I can’t speak to the nation, but the programs in Massachusetts require those seeing secondary education licenses to select an academic major that is related to the content that will be taught. Should there be a new study by now? Probably. I wonder why Loewen himself has not begun this process? Such studies are not always accurate of course, but to draw conclusions on something like how licenses for teaching are distributed based in such old data is problematic.

In a way, there is an equally problematic point about the advanced placement US history exams as Loewen points out another “tyranny of coverage” issue with the document based questions (DBQs). Loewen is concerned about breadth of coverage and points to the idea that instructors “will want to include the era that ETS’s test will cover in its DBQ” (20). ETS has not revealed the era of the DBQ for a number of years.

Perhaps I am nitpicking, but these issues don’t sit well with me as we think about the teaching of history and what we are doing right and wrong in the profession. Of most use to me in future classes will be sections of Loewen’s work, particularly his explanations of ten things he believes history education should accomplish (28), four reasons textbook dependency creates bad history classes (30,31) and the case studies he provides from chapter five onward. In a way, Loewen’s work affirms some of what have done in my classrooms at the high school and collegiate level. His discussion of the $24 myth (chapter 7) is a prominent example of what I try to do in terms of myth busting, including visual culture interpretation (142-144) and the teaching of the first Thanksgiving (149, 150).

Is there useful material in Teaching? Yes, absolutely. Is there material or a conclusion or two to be taken with a grain of salt? Yes. Like any text I use with students, I am inclined to try it out but with writing assignments resulting in critiques wherever possible.

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America, Firsthand

Anthony Marcus, John M. Giggie, David Burner, America Firsthand, Volume Two Readings from Reconstruction to the Present. 9th Edition, Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2012.

Years ago I decided to experiment with a high school level history class and skip the traditional “textbook” as assigned reading.  The students would receive information about the “meat” or content of the time period we were studying in class lectures and their reading assignments were primary documents.  In addition, there were four assigned books, (one historical fiction), which focused on a discrete topic and were generally read one per quarter.

In general, students responded well to this arrangement, though it was sometimes a difficult sell to the parents, and there were times when students needed a bit more information than I had anticipated to make sense of the documents.  Overall though, I enjoyed approaching history in a different manner while teaching students about how historians construct history and historical arguments.  America Firsthand, now in its ninth iteration, is my textbook of choice for repeating this experiment with college level students.  It has been a few semesters since I taught this course, and the edition is a new one, so I started picking my way through the source choices about a month ago, and reading the book more in earnest this week.

The editors view the book as a grouping of personal views as to how Americans lived their lives and were a part of the path of history.  In addition, the text offers readers both context and credible sources.  An important point emphasized by the editors is that America Firsthand, “when used in conjunction with the supporting pedagogical apparatus, [can] evoke habits of inquiry and critical reflection that lie at the heart of historical analysis” (vii, viii).  It was (and remains) these ‘habits of inquiry’ and ‘critical reflection’ that I sought for students over the years.  My former high school students and certainly the majority of

All editions of America Firsthand contain the ‘points of view’ sections which give students multiple perspectives on a single event and questions, designed to spark conversation and inquiry about the documents themselves.  The documents are preceded by headnotes which contextualize material and over the years, editions have added so-called ‘gloss-notes’ to help readers with names, places, terms, and events.  There is an essay on how to use sources in the study of the past and a variety of visual portfolios, the latter of which I have found particularly effective for student consumption.

This particular edition has some new sources such as a lynch mob photograph from Indiana and an excerpt from Albert Parsons’ description of firsthand observations to the Haymarket Riot of 1886.  The lynch mob photograph should prove interesting as it gives me another contextual touchstone for an exercise conducted in class on lynching in general.  This exercise was adapted from the Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America book and companion website by Jon Lewis.  The Parsons document is headed by an important question – “do you trust this account of the Haymarket affair?” (79)  Given Parsons’ involvement in the Knights of Labor movement in the years after the Civil War, a legitimate question about reliability should be considered by all readers.  While Parsons was a journalist, and had changed his opinion about a number of issues over time (serving on the Confederate side in the Civil War but becoming a Republican Party supporter and marrying a woman of mixed race after the conflict), his involvement in the labor movement gives his description of the event for which he was thrown in prison and ultimately executed a certain twist.  It’s a great opportunity to use the excerpt as a training device on reliability, historical source analysis, and examination of an issue which might not be studied at length by students in other situations.  Perhaps placed in connection with Martin Duberman’s work of historical fiction on Haymarket, this event could become a major interpretive moment in a class with a labor base.

America Firsthand is divided into seven parts or themes and while each of these might have been reorganized or included different types of documents, it works fairly well in dividing a course on post-Civil War United States history.  On the other hand, sometimes, there isn’t a direct relation between sources which instructors need to be cautious about (eg, points of view on the Battle of Little Bighorn followed by points of view on the African American experience in the “New South”).  Each part includes “for critical thinking” and closes with the aforementioned visual portfolios – one of my favorites in the new edition focuses on advertising that uses race in the interwar period of the twentieth century.  I’ll be interested to see how students respond to this portfolio given its obviously racist overtones.

As I make my final choices in organizing this course, I’ll need to carefully balance some of the readings in the ninth edition with some additional primary sources to enhance the opportunity for historical inquiry that the collection in America Firsthand promises.  Any collection of primary documents often challenges teachers with this task however, and it is one I enjoy pursuing.

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