Back in September I began what would be a year-long experiment in my U.S. History survey courses. For a couple of years I've contemplated switching from the standard history textbook to a collection of secondary sources as core texts in my curriculum. A number of factors pushed me in this direction, including the quality of the writing as well as the way in which the textbook shaped both my own teaching style as well as the perceptions of the discipline among my students. In terms of the former, it is enough to say that history textbooks are written in a bland, often neutral language that tends to alienate rather than challenge or encourage critical thinking skills. Few students enjoy reading textbooks and those who do come away with very little understanding of how history is written and continually interpreted. Textbooks present the study of the past as static and encourage readers to see it as a collection of facts to be memorized rather than understood and applied to more abstract questions. The problem is often compounded in the case of multiple authors who seem to have little contact with one another throughout the writing process.
This year I decided on a collection of books that would introduce students to important moments in U.S. history through various approaches. Studies included a popular history of Jamestown, biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, a social history of antebellum America, and scholarly surveys of the Cold War and Civil Rights Movement. The wide range of sources opened up a number of options in the classroom. First and foremost, we were able to slow down and thoroughly explore key moments in history. In the case of Jamestown we were able to analyze a much larger collection of primary sources as well as some of the historiography surrounding our understanding of colonization. One of my favorite lessons involved the comparison of scenes from the Hollywood move, The New World with Disney’s Pocahontas and entries from John Smith’s history of the colony. This gave us a chance to talk about the various ways of interpreting the past as well as how our past is used in popular culture. The rat race of getting through the textbook leaves very little time for such exploration. This past year clarified the importance of emphasizing depth versus breadth. More on this later. Spending one month on a biography of Abraham Lincoln left my students with a much richer understanding of the political debates that led to secession and the complexity of the war itself, specifically the role that slavery played in shaping its outcome. With the Abraham Lincoln bicentennial set for next year my students are well equipped to deal with the vast amount of misinformation and confusion surrounding Lincoln’s public and private life. We experienced similar results while focusing on the Civil Rights Movement. Rather than cover the high-profile figures such as Martin L. King and Malcolm X we were able to look beyond to the various grassroots organizations as well as those individuals and organizations that provided the foundation for the movement before WWII.
There are a number of issues that need to be addressed. I need to do much more to link individual studies, especially in cases where there is a significant temporal gap. If textbooks do anything right it’s in the way they provide a coherent narrative over time. No doubt, certain students benefit from this in that they provide a foundation and frame of reference in which to make casual connections and other relevant comparisons. Some of the weaker students did find a few of the texts to be difficult reading and others who fell behind for various reasons found it more challenging to catch up or prepare for tests. I hope to address both of these concerns with supplemental materials that provide a thorough outline of the events under consideration as well as those areas not covered.
Perhaps the biggest concerns center on the content covered. There is no way of getting around the fact that this approach means that certain events/themes will not be covered sufficiently. I’ve struggled with this fact, but over the course of the year it has become much clearer to me that the benefits outweight the loss of coverage. I need to do a better job covering Women’s history, Native-American history as well as the late nineteenth-century. That said, the overwhelming response on the part of my students has been positive. Simply put, many of my students enjoyed reading history and admittedly for the first time. Finally, this experience has made me a better teacher. We need to take chances in the classroom to expand our own understanding of our subject as well as this craft we call teaching.
I am already looking forward to September. I have made a few changes to our list of titles and may even experiment with the order in which we proceed given the presidential election in November. The nomination of our first African American opens up a number of opportunities for American history teachers. We need to be able to explain to our students why it is happening now as opposed to 50 years ago. With this in mind, I am contemplating beginning the year with Harvard Sitkoff’s study of the Civil Rights Movement which should give my students a thorough grasp of the relevant history and a better appreciation of where this nation is in terms of politics and race.