It’s that time of the year when I take a good hard look at how my classes are progressing or not progressing. For the past two years I’ve been experimenting with a new approach that replaces the standard textbook with different types of secondary sources such as biographies, social and political histories, etc. Overall, the approach has worked well. Students get a clearer sense of what is involved in the writing of history and I’ve enjoyed the space to explore specific topics, issues, and events in much more detail compared with the pace that is dictated by textbooks. However, even with these changes I am still weary of the overall approach.
Actually, my concern applies as much to the traditional textbook approach as it does to a small collection of secondary sources. The fundamental problem is not so much with the kind of sources we use to teach American history, but with the idea of the survey course itself. It seems to me that at the time the survey course became a part of the public school curriculum this nation was much more rooted in a heroic narrative of its past. The acceptance and possibility of a grand narrative could be used to emphasize the pantheon of American heroes. In short, the survey course functioned to shape each generation of young Americans in a way that allowed them to identify with or see themselves as part of a larger narrative. The pantheon could be used to teach moral lessons and act as a framework in which the individual could measure his/her own actions and behavior against an ideal rooted in the past. We may not agree with the idea of a static pantheon and we may even be disgusted by the politics involved in selecting who gets to be included and why; my point is that the traditional survey course served a purpose within this broader cultural milieu.
The problem is that we no longer see ourselves nor do we interpret our history from such a perspective. Multiculturalism and Post-Modernism has thrown a wrench in the very idea of objectivity as well as challenges the very idea of an American pantheon as strictly definable. The grand narrative has become fragmented based on more local interests revolving around gender, culture, and politics. Impersonal social and economic forces have supplanted the individual as the loci of historical investigation. We celebrate the victims as much as, if not more than, those who best exemplified the American ideal and its stories of rags to riches. Again, I am not suggesting for one moment that this is a loss that I personally regret, but as a framework that fit well into a traditional survey course.
Our textbooks have become much more sophisticated in their inclusion of minority history as well as elements of the new social and cultural history. I applaud these revisions, but what has not held up is the function which these narratives once served. To what extent, if at all, do these new narratives foster identification with something larger than the student’s immediate world view? Do these multiple and competing narratives encourage empathy with others or the importance of multiple perspectives? Do they have much to do with encouraging curious and responsible young citizens? This is a long-winded way of suggesting that the survey course in U.S. History has outlived its usefulness. Old habits are hard to break and the place of the textbook sits at the very core of our idea of U.S. History course, but have we ever seriously considered alternatives to this approach?
One idea that I’ve been playing with is rooting the survey course in local history. If the traditional heroic narrative is dead along with a culture that places value on a static list of heroes than we need to be thinking about the overall goal of the high school history survey. Beginning with the local community provides a setting in which students can identify by virtue of the fact it is where they call home. The community itself becomes a lab where individuals, statues, buildings, cemeteries, and other sites become the foundations of entire periods of study. The teachers primary role is to encourage students to interact with the historical elements of their communities. In short, students learn to think and live history. So, what does this actually look like?
Here in Charlottesville we are lucky enough to be surrounded by an incredibly rich history. Our study of slavery and the Revolutionary generation could be rooted in a close study of Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello. Of course, we could spend the day as a class on the grounds discussing any number of themes and events. Notice that much of the content of the traditional course would be maintained, but it would be introduced through local history and in a way that is much more tangible and easy to identify with. If one of our major goals is to encourage our students to be more conscious of the local community we could shape our projects in a way that gives back. For instance, perhaps instead of having students work on projects that never see the light of day outside of the classroom they could work in small teams and create lesson plans for Monticello’s staff to be used in the future for other school children of various ages. A study of 19th century expansionism could be rooted in the Lewis and Clark Monument on Main Street. The monument itself has recently come under protest owing to the positioning of Sacajawea behind Lewis and Clark. We could examine how monuments function and the way they shape our understanding of the past. One project idea would be to create a proposal as a class that would be submitted to city commissioners for an updated version of the statue. [Don't laugh. I am thinking off the top of my head here and trying to push the boundaries of what it means to think about history and how we measure our students' understanding of its importance.] There is no shortage of resources for the Civil War. Again, we can explore statues, but we also have a wonderful Confederate cemetery within walking distance of our school. Students could explore the service records of those buried in the cemetery and the data could be used as part of a larger profile of these men. The results could be printed and made available for visitors to the cemetery. When we get to WWII, I could have my students work with the local historical society and interview veterans. Charlottesville is one of the most popular destinations for senior citizens. My favorite idea has to do with the Civil Rights Movement. Charlottesville was at the center of the process of desegregation of public schools in the 1960s so there are numerous possibilities for case studies. Regardless of what we do I would love to see my students organize a symposium at the school that includes member of the community who were in Charlottesville during this time. We could explore what it was like for students to be bused to different schools along with the myriad ways in which court decisions impacted the lives of locals. The event would be organized and run by students. They would send out invitations, come up with questions and run the actual discussion. Best yet, the event would be open to the general public.
Again, I want to emphasize that the concentration on local history does not have to come at the expense of a broader national narrative. In fact, it seems to me that that broader narrative will make clearer sense given the anchor in local history. In some cases the experiences of the local community will conform to the national level and in other situations will prove to be the exception. Finally, I wonder whether there can be a service component to such an approach. How about having students spend 15-20 hours volunteering at UVA’s Special Collections, Monticello, Montpelier, Ashlawn (James Monroe’s home), the Albemarle County Historical Society, or Miller Center learning and practicing various aspects of historical interpretation and preservation. What do we call such a course? Perhaps Applied U.S. History?
I keep coming back to the idea of encouraging good citizenship and curiosity about the world in which we live. I want my students to learn to think historically and to think of themselves as part of a larger narrative that has roots in their own backyards. We have an opportunity to truly broaden the very idea of the history classroom. Let’s embrace it.