History, in my opinion, is about understanding the complexity of human events—the intersections of people and places and things and ideas. Rather than attempting to draw a set of guidelines for the future, students should be pushed to question the past on its own terms. Why did certain people make certain decisions? What impact did the actions of this group have on that group? Do we see changes? Continuity? How does our understanding of the past directly impact the way we make decisions today? Does history really matter?
Too often, textbooks fail to encourage these kinds of questions. Instead, they tend to provide a fairly simplistic “master narrative” of history, one which places an overwhelming emphasis on political history, often to the detriment of other approaches.
I do think it is important to acknowledge that textbooks can serve an important function, especially for students who need a foundation structured around a master narrative broken down into discrete sections. And there are indeed textbooks that do just this and present history in all of its richness and complexity. There is an excellent online textbook over at Steven Mintz’s Digital History site, which could be assigned for background reading as we move through the various texts. Keep in mind that this idea is for my regular American history survey courses and not for the AP classes. I simply do not see how the class could dispense with the textbook approach given the AP curriculum and its emphasis on content. That said, there are aspects of the curriculum, namely the DBQ essay, that forces students to think deeply about the American past.
I am working with one of my teaching colleagues on a list of books that could be used in such a course. As I mentioned in that previous post I’ve been thinking about such a move for the past few years but for one reason or another failed to make the move. Teaching can be like any other job where you grow sufficiently comfortable with a certain process and resist change. I believe it is absolutely essential for teachers to keep their end of the classroom fresh and challenging for their own well-being.