Today during our weekly history department meeting we considered a questionnaire submitted by one of our students inquiring into our political beliefs and how our politics shapes both how we teach history and how we interpret the past. It’s incredibly encouraging to see a student take an interest in his education and express curiosity as to how his teachers think about his/her respective subject. On the other hand, the questions reflected a view of history education that has become all too common and that is that historical understanding is little more than an expression of personal politics. I almost feel as if we failed as a department to properly convey just what is involved in thinking historically.
It is impossible to deny that our understanding of the past is influenced by our personal backgrounds and that includes our political views. But historical thinking involves much more than this. My history classroom isn’t a laboratory for competing political views. I ask my students to think like historians, which includes learning how to frame questions and how to go about searching for answers in the primary sources. It involves interpreting the evidence they uncover and trying as best they can to come to some conclusions. Those conclusions are then challenged and revised based on new questions, new ideas and new evidence. History is a process. I could inquire into how their personal backgrounds are influencing their reading of the sources, but I am not interested. My job is to assist them in working through the historical process. Right now my students are interpreting a collection of primary sources and thinking about whose vision of Reconstruction prevailed and why. Continue reading “Gordon Wood, the Politics of History and the History Classroom”
As a graduate student in Philosophy at the University of Maryland I concentrated on philosophy of history. While much of the literature in this sub-discipline continues to address questions first formulated at the height of the Logical Positivist Movement, I was much more focused on empirical questions that were more closely connected to actual working historians. So, I wasn’t weighed down with the problem of objectivity or causation; rather, I was interested in how historical debates evolve and how various competing interpretations are evaluated within the historiography. As I was thinking about a possible thesis topic my adviser suggested that I utilize a case study to help ground my thinking. I received permission to take a graduate level history seminar and ended up registering for Prof. Ronald Hoffman’s seminar on the American Revolution. The first evening was a real eye-opener as I stared at a syllabus that outlined about 1,000 pages a week. The first week included all of Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. Compared to a philosophy seminar the amount of reading was overwhelming and I even thought about dropping out. Somehow I managed to make my way through just about all of it only to show up for the second session having learned that few people actually read it. It turns out that some graduate students simply go through a number of book reviews. I certainly can understand and empathize with such a decision and I will admit that on occasion I did take the easy way out, but I am so glad that I didn’t that first week. Wood’s book was a revelation to me. The book is clearly the product of a creative and analytically sharp mind. This was a Revolution that was completely new and full of questions and issues that I had never thought about before. Most importantly, it made me want to understand much more about the Revolution and the Early Republic.
The seminar provided me with a thorough grasp of the various schools of thought beginning with the earliest histories of the Revolution through the Progressive, neo-Progressive, Whig, and neo-Whig interpretations. I must have read at least twenty books, not to mention the many journal articles. The seminar taught me how to think about the process of writing history and how interpretations evolve over time and why. Since then I’ve retained my interest in this period of American history and, specifically, the work of Gordon Wood. My hardbound copy of The Radicalism of the American Revolution is held together with a rubber band and his short survey of the Revolution is used in my own survey classes. With that in mind, I must admit that today I snuck off campus to pick up Wood’s new book, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. The book is part of the Oxford History of the United States, which makes Wood the ideal author. Like the rest of the books in the series, this is a thick one numbering 700 pages, but I suspect that it is going to be a page turner like everything else he has written.
If I sound a bit over the top than you will have to excuse me. Now seems like a good enough time to admit that most of my heroes are intellectuals. I make no apologies for that. I place a great deal of value on people who are not afraid to use their minds and who enrich my own life by forcing me to think harder about a host of issues. Gordon Wood has managed to do that consistently over the years and I suspect he is about to do so again.