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.