Managing American History

Caleb McDaniel’s fine post on how to teach the nineteenth-century American history course has got me thinking about my own survey course.  The survey course is designed to introduce students to the major issues in American history from colonization to the present.  Anyone who has taught the survey, however, is aware of the ongoing tension between depth and breadth.  It is simply impossible to teach the course and achieve the kind of detail and meaning that many teachers hope to leave their students with and at the same time cover all of the standard stops along the way. 

I am in the last week of classes and we are only just finishing up the 1960′s and Vietnam.  We will finish up the year with a discussion of Nixon and Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War, and the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.  Unfortunately, we will not have a chance to discuss more recent events.  And this is the problem.  It seems to me that students need much more coverage of world events and specifically the way in which U.S. policy has contributed to the present state of affairs.  When I say contribute I of course mean both positive and negative.  I go through this at the end of every year, but I have yet to make any substantial changes to the course.  What topics am I willing to give up or minimize?  These are tough questions given my interest in the Colonial period through the Civil War.  (Such question are irrelevant for AP classes since the curriculum is already to a great extent dictated by the test.)

Ideally I would like to spend the entire second semester (roughly Jan.15 – May 15) on twentieth/twenty-first century history.  I see myself in the last week discussing sections of Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat.  I’ve heard that some teachers actually start with the 20th century, proceed forward before going back to the Colonial period.   While it may make it easy to ensure coverage of more recent events it does so at the expense of not fully understanding how important modern themes evolved.  No, the foundations must be laid at the beginning of the year.  How did colonization evolve and why did slavery develop as a labor system – along with it insidious racial component – by the beginning of the 18th century throughout the colonies?  So much of American history hinges on a mature discussion of these and other important issues.  I simply do not know how students can make sense of complex chain of events without proceeding in chronological order. 

If I am going to make these fundamental changes I am going to have to seriously reconsider how I teach some of the more high-profile events in American history.  Is my job to prepare students to better understand the world in which they live or is it to provide them with an encyclopedic background of American history?  Does a post-September 11th world and the complex issues involved in trying to better understand U.S. Foreign Policy sway the way this problem is framed?  While I don’t necessarily believe that this tension between breadth and content is ultimately a mutually exclusive choice, the fact that I have a short amount of time does force the issue. I hope to post more on this issue as I get a better idea of how to proceed.  Your advice is always appreciated.

9 responses... add one


More and more I am convinced that a fundamental reordering of the entire curriculum is fast becoming necessary. There is an explosion of information and so much of it that should be given to our students that in order to achieve that breadth the amount of information necessarily has to be paper thin. Perhaps it made sense in the 1940s and 1950s to break US History into halves. But we’ve had a lot of history since then, and halves may not do. To achieve the necessary depth we may want to divide US History into thirds. Freshmen study US History from colonization through 1820, Sophomores take it from 1820-1920, and Juniors from 1920-present, or something like that. Seniors might take a more specialized class such as the history of the state, or perhaps even World History or Western Civilization.

Perhaps we even need a more fundamental restructuring of the entire educational experience and maybe add another year of high school.


Cash, — Thanks for the feedback. I wish it were as simple as spreading US History out over the course of two or three years. Our students are required to take three years of history. There first two years are spent on World History while junior year is reserved for US History. A large percentage of our students go on to take a senior level elective. I actually agree with our policy of having students spend two years on World History and one on US. Students graduating today need to have some grasp of foreign cultures. Given Thomas Friedman’s assesment of communications and outsourcing it is imperative that these kids understand the world in which they will be competing in and operating. A good history class can give them the necessary grounding. I am not saying that I wouldn’t love to have more time to teach this stuff, but it looks like I am going to have to find a way to do it under present conditions. Still, it’s nice to dream once in a while.

Kevin I hope it’s okay I respond though I am not an instructor. However, one of the reasons I read your blog is that I am about to enter my pre-Internship and finish my teaching license next fall/spring as well as working on my masters.

Your question got me thinking: “Is my job to prepare students to better understand the world in which they live or is it to provide them with an encyclopedic background of American history?”

Isn’t teaching history also about developing the critical thought processes where as a teacher you get the students to understand things such as historical context? I don’t think it’s simply a matter of what parts, how much, or for how long. I think the study of history allows for students to learn how to interpret current events because if taught well they can use the critical thinking methods established via their history classes.

I think you make an excellent point Chris. The most important skill you can teach in a history course is analytical thinking and writing. My concern is that most of my students don’t read the newspaper or even listen to the evening news. At times I am a bit disconcerted at the thought that my students know more about the Civil War than they know about the war in Iraq. In the end you have to make choices about coverage and that is the issue that I am now dealing with. What aspect of American history should I be using to teach those analytical thinking skills? Thanks for the comment.

Great post, Kevin. From where I’m sitting it sounds like you already do a fantastic job with the courses you teach. (I enjoyed your piece in the OAH Magazine of History, by the way.) But it’s a testament to your teaching that you’re not satisfied with that: good teachers always want to be better teachers.

I tend to agree with Chris: one of the things I want students to grasp is that all the accounts they receive of the past and the present are fragmented and complex, including the account that I’m giving them in the course. My goal is not to inspire them to be knee-jerk skeptics or cynics about what they read, but to cultivate a certain degree of epistemological humility. History can do that better than some disciplines precisely because we are hyper-aware of the lacunae in all of our narratives of the past. I recently read Sam Wineburg’s book on historical pedagogy and he made this point well in an early chapter: “Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, [history] is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the fact of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of human history.” In some ways, trying to cover everything (and making it clear to students that coverage is our ultimate goal) militates against the cultivation of those virtues. (Winebur’s is a good book, by the way, for suggesting answers to the kinds of questions you’re raising.)

That said, obviously we want to give our students some concrete skills and knowledge that will help them better understand the world around them (even if ultimately what we also want to do is emphasize how difficult “understanding” is to achieve, how sound-bytes and simple answers don’t suffice). Maybe one way out of your dilemma is not to rearrange the curriculum so that you spend less time on Civil War (we do our students a service, I think, by teaching what we know and are passionate about), but to think about what kinds of questions and themes contemporary events raise and then contemplate how the study of earlier periods might help students grapple with those. For example (and I’m thinking off the cuff here), if you decided that one of the most important things about the post-9/11 world is the resurgence of certain ideas about American nationalism and the role of American power in the world to spread democracy, then you might think about stressing the relationship between popular nationalism and foreign policy in the nineteenth century. The goal would not be to suggest a facile continuity between, say, the Mexican-American War and the second Iraq War, but instead to explore the kinds of historical and social processes that would give students a toehold for thinking critically about contemporary events as well.

Thanks again for the post; it’s gotten me thinking about these issues too.

Caleb, — Thanks for a very thoughtful response. I love the way you frame the task of teaching historical thinking around the idea of “epistemological humility.” It seems that everywhere you look individuals and groups are simplifying the past for political purposes. Nothing new of course, but the pervasiveness of media and other forms of communication drives home the importance of trying to equip our students to wade through.

I pretty much agree with you and Chris. Let me say that I begin each year with the belief that this may be the last history survey course that many of my students will take. Now I understand that survey courses are required in many colleges and universities, but these classes are going to be very large and probably not conducive to the kinds of discussions that I can generate in my classroom. This means that I need to think hard about how to hook the students into a more serious consideration of the past. Most of my students are interested in 9-11 and its consequences which is why I’ve been thinking more along the lines of stressing more recent history. You are absolutely right that the resurgence of nationalism has ties with the late 19th century and the Spanish-American War. In fact, in discussing the causes of the war and reading speeches some of my students were able to make connections with more recent events. They also made connections between Lincoln’s suspension of habeus corpus and Bush’s authorization of the NSA’s wiretapping as examples of executive power during wartime.

I should say that I find it very difficult to teach 9-11. I lost my cousin who was 34 years old and working in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. It is hard for me to treat it as a staight-forward historical event. At the same time, it seems to me that my emotional connection could add to the way my students interpret the past. I’ve thought about beginning the year by handing out the opening chapter of the 9-11 Report and handing out some personal accounts from family members and newspaper articles about my cousin as a way to connect the personal and “objective” history. From there we could raise some fundamental questions about what brought about these horrific acts plus their consequences and look to the American past for assistance.

Well, you’ve got me thinking even more. Thanks again for taking the time to write.

I think it can be useful to students to see the broader reasons why we are interested in a particular historical subject. That’s something else Wineburg talks about: textbook accounts of the past (or newspaper accounts of the present, for that matter) tend to remove the “I” from the story. They purposely submerge the historian (and his or her decisions about what to study and how to study it) from view.

The kinds of questions you’re raising are, I think, ones we’ll be wrestling with for a very long time. As long as we’re teaching anyway.

As a veteran social studies teacher, I certainly understand your dilemma. We address it, albeit very imperfectly, in my team-taught. Sophomore, American Studies Honors class by means of our Decades Project. We spend three-plus weeks on civil rights and Viet Nam, during which time our class of 30 students is divided into 6 groups, each of whom has a half-decade to research and for which to develop a 40-45 minute presentation to the class. Over the years we have refined what we ask and feel that it is a reasonable compromise between coverage and depth [we do have a double-period, two-credit class.]

We expect students to deal with certain categories of events and require a notesheet, timeline and 60 question multiple-choice quiz at the end. Certainly not perfect but one way to at least introduce the years from 1970-2000.

In response to a previous post: I’m sure I have cribbed this from someone but I tell my students at the beginning of the course that if I can turn them into ‘caring, informed, skeptics’, I’ll be happier than a pig in s**t! I’m not sure how well I do but it helps me deal with the fact that there are so many issues I can’t get to.

Hi Art, — Thanks for sharing your approach. I love the idea of a team-taught class and I hope to try it in the near future. Finally, I couldn’t agree more in re: to your point on the importance of teaching healthy and informed skepticism.

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