Thinking About the Survey Course in a Post-Modern America

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.

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13 comments… add one
  • Sherree Tannen Mar 25, 2009 @ 1:39

    Hello rhapsodyinbooks. It is nice to know that other readers of Kevin’s outstanding blog are approaching the truly interesting age of 101. The lies that we are told, have been told, and continue to be told are elusive. I am currently confronting a rather recent pervading assumption presented as truth that I had hoped would actually prove to be true, but that is, alas, in reality, yet another untruth, and one that I have not talked about on this blog out of respect for our host, because, try as I may to prevent it, I know that my observations will turn into a rant. Suffice it to say, that the current notion that changing demographics in the Deep South will bring about enlightened ideas ain’t necessarily so. I am originally from the mountains of Virginia, but have lived in the deep south for 15 years now. My ancestors are English, Scottish, German, and Cherokee, and they lived in the same geographic area for well over two hundred years–the Cherokee ancestors, of course, living there much longer. In essence, when my ancestors weren’t killing each other; they were getting married. Near my house now is a sacred site where I have been doing ceremonies and saying prayers for eight years. This sacred site–which is a mound built by the Timucua over thousands of years (there are no descendants of the Timucua alive today, since the entire nation was annihilated by disease and war when the Europeans arrived in Grandmother Turtle Island)–is located within a very exclusive residential community that grew up around the mound. When I first began doing ceremonies at the mound and praying to Gitchi Manitou, the area was not developed yet and there were breathtakingly beautiful oaks with hanging Spanish moss and cypress trees, and there was also freely roaming wildlife that included blue herons and sandhill cranes and ospreys. In these eight years I have watched many of the trees be cut down (trees that were hundreds of years old!!) and houses built and airstrips put in for the homeowners so that they can use for their private planes. No local southerners that I know of, live in the community–neither black nor white–because they can’t afford to live there. Modern Indigenous men and women cannot afford to live there either, and the Timucua are all dead. The community consists largely of men and women who moved south from areas outside of the South. So, following the logic of the idea that changing demographics will bring enlightened ideas to the South, it would seem that this Indigenous mound would be protected and that it would remain accessible to the men and women who pray there. (I am not the only person who prays at the mound; nor am I the only person who leaves offerings of fruit, or who attaches prayer ties to the sacred trees on the mound.) Not so. Wealthy members of this community have successfully petitioned the state to put up a gate. There are some truly wonderful men and women in the community who tried to fight this. They lost, however, and the color of equality in this case is green. The state’s compromise is to allow Indigenous men and women access to the mound from ten to four, or with special permission. A sunrise ceremony cannot be done at 10 AM, nor can a moon ceremony be done at 4PM, and requesting entrance to the mound that invites an audience is not an attractive solution, since we go to the mound TO PRAY, and prayer is a very personal matter. What seems to be true is not always true. There are plenty of white southerners who encompass all of the stereotypes, including being racist. The worst racists I have met here in the Deep South have come from outside of the South, however. To add insult to injury, the damned planes fly right over my house. I have seriously considered rallying my Vietnam veteran buddies and getting a grenade launcher and shooting them out of the sky after clearing the area of all innocent civilians and wildlife and radioing into the pilots to bail out. Lies come in strange packages sometimes, and with articulate spokespeople as well, which makes them all that more insidious. Sorry, Kevin. This does qualify as a rant. If you do not post the comment, no offense taken. My heart is broken by this. Can you imagine putting a gate and lock on the door of a church or a synagogue? I am back to my original point. We need new eyes with which to see ourselves and our world. Thanks, Kevin.

  • rhapsodyinbooks Mar 24, 2009 @ 16:55

    I happen to have seen two techniques in my not too far from 101 years that were very effective. One was used where I went to high school (Gettysburg High, need I say?): everybody was basically turned into a reenactor for a year! It was a great way to get a real feel for history, but again, we were also on the scene, so that made it a lot easier. A second way I have used with people is expose them to a book like “Lies My Teacher Told Me” by James Loewen or even “Confederates in the Attic” by Tony Horwitz. There seems to be something hugely attractive about finding out teachers were wrong, or gave incomplete information, or left out interesting information. In my experience, this acts as a real spur to find out even more.

  • Sherree Tannen Mar 24, 2009 @ 14:13


    I think we are in agreement on the basics of this issue, especially your observation that it is not the place of a teacher to impose a view of the past on students “that implies anything along the lines of who or what to respect or vilify.” I am not advocating a return to the old version of history, but a movement beyond both the Whig “Great Man” interpretation and the many interpretations that arose to counter it. When you say that you want your students to learn to think of themselves as part of a larger narrative that has roots in their own backyards, the question becomes what is the larger narrative? Is the larger narrative totally subjective, or is there a distinctly American narrative that includes the entire spectrum of what can be called the American experience in all of that experience’s multi faceted expressions? President Obama said we are a nation held together by a set of ideas. Those ideas unite us as a people. In my opinion, there is a distinct American identity, and that identity is immensely rich precisely because of our nation’s great diversity. Thanks, Kevin.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 24, 2009 @ 12:14


    Thanks so much for taking the time to write this out. I want to be clear that I was not condemning or endorsing a Whig or “Great Man” version of the past. The post was more of an acknowledgment of what I see as a broad cultural shift over the last half century and the place of a survey course within. I am not so interested in whether or not individuals are able to express pride in country as much as I am in the basic identification with a broader narrative that extends beyond community and lifespan.

    More importantly, I don’t think it is my place as a teacher to impose a view of the past on my students that implies anything along the lines of who or what to respect or vilify. My job is to provide my students with the analytical tools to make those decisions themselves. I agree that there is much to celebrate in American history; however, I believe that the way in which any individual identifies with the past is a very personal matter and one that I have no interest in shaping or encouraging. Thanks again for the comment.

  • Sherree Tannen Mar 24, 2009 @ 3:29

    Well, Kevin, with your permission, the old woman reader of your blog will weigh in on this post. ( I have recently realized that I am probably one of the oldest readers of your blog. Without getting into specifics, let’s just say that at one time sixty seemed like an ancient age to me and now it looks rather young, or, as one of your subscribers says on her personal profile–I am 101. All of this is an introduction to what I am getting ready to say.)

    What astonishes me about this post–and astonish is the right word–is that we, as a nation, have forced our educators, and ourselves, to relinquish the heroic nature of the American narrative. I understand the reasons for this, because I have been on both sides of this great divide, in the sense that I was educated during the time period in which Thomas Jefferson, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Abraham Lincoln were all considered “great men”, and then I was reeducated in later years to understand that they were not great men. Yet, as I watched the 2008 presidential campaign unfold with the rest of the nation, I realized that one of the things that is most appealing about Barack Obama is that he is not afraid to be a “great man”, and a great man as defined by previous generations of Americans of all races. America is a great nation. I know that you know this, and I understand that you are not implying otherwise. We are afraid to say this today, however. Dr. King, who was beaten, imprisoned, and ultimately murdered because of America’s equally great flaws was not afraid to say it when he said that there could be no great disappointment where there was no great love. President Obama is not afraid to say it every day, as he attempts to lead us out of the enormous crisis we are in. Many men and women from without the US are also not afraid to say it. Why are we afraid to say it? We are a nation that is always redefining itself, and now, at the beginning of a new century, how we define ourselves is of paramount importance. Who are we, America? How is our great experiment in democracy fairing in the year 2009? I think we are doing remarkably well, and that what we need is to see with different eyes. You and I have talked about this before, Kevin, but I think it bears repeating here. To cast the national narrative in terms of oppressor vs. the oppressed no longer works for anyone and is insulting to everyone. Yet, this remains necessary, to some extent, because the injustices of the past have not been corrected. Still–and as you have intimated in several of your posts–there is great heroism in the American narrative, even in our history’s darkest moments, because always, always, we overcome the darkness. Can you think of anything more heroic than a country that is attempting, and actually succeeding, in overcoming the past? Can you think of a country more heroic than a country in which different races with tortured histories are actually attempting to learn to respect one another and build a future together? I think the disconnect came with a too severe correction of the original narrative. This seems to happen quite often. Feminism strives to correct a patriarchal system, yet in its severity becomes the patriarchal system itself, inverted. Emancipationist theory attempts to correct Lost Cause theory, and starts to mirror Lost Cause theory in the formulaic aspect of the theory that requires that all facts fit the theory. Multiculturalism attempts to correct the legacy of white supremacy and begins to mirror aspects of white supremacist doctrine, in this sense–at one time everything the white man did was considered sacrosanct, since white men wrote history. Now, anything the white man does is suspect and considered inferior, even if it is how the white man produces toilet paper. This sounds simplistic and like a cliché, but I think we need to get back to basics, and that history courses should be supplemented with the works of artists and philosophers who ponder the human condition itself, not in an attempt to mitigate responsibility, but to understand human nature. (I understand that this is done as well in many classrooms. Yet, I think a larger emphasis might need to be placed upon the role of artists, philosophers, and thinkers in helping to both observe, and shape, reality). Men and women of all races and religions are both good and bad, noble and ignoble. This is a universal truth. There is no race on earth in which men and women are fine and noble all of the time. Yet, men and women of all races and religions can be remarkably heroic. This nation was built by an incredibly diverse group of men and women, with incredibly diverse, and often diametrically opposed, goals. Yet, we are here–all of us–whether our ancestors were already here on Grandmother Turtle Island when the first European arrived, or came on a ship from England, or were forced against their will and in chains to board a slave ship in Africa. We are here. So where are we going? That is the question. Thanks, Kevin. Again, you have gone to the heart of this issue. My apologies for the length of this comment. It is a subject that does not lend itself to quick answers, as you noted in your post.

  • Marc Ferguson Mar 24, 2009 @ 2:12

    what you are suggesting here is similar to an approach taken in Western Massachusetts by one TAH grant program:

    • Kevin Levin Mar 24, 2009 @ 2:24

      Ooh. Very nice. Thanks Marc.

  • Crystal Marshall Mar 23, 2009 @ 18:06

    Although broad survey courses may have their limitations, they do serve to at least provide an overall sketch of a country or era. Even though the information covered on a specific topic may be slim, at least students will know that the event occurred and can connect it to other events in the broader timeline. Also, the scant attention paid to a given topic in class may encourage some students to go out and pursue that topic on their own for further, deeper understanding.

    You also mentioned the dilemma in having to choose between textbooks and other secondary sources. Another alternative, and one that may also serve to better connect the students to the time period which they are studying, is to use primary sources. In a few of my history classes in high school we almost entirely used primary sources (letters, diaries, speeches, essays, etc.) supplemented every once in a while with a secondary source to provide context, if needed. Actually reading the Federalist Papers, or reading Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and letters, did much more in helping me to feel connected to those men and to understand their times and thinking better. I’d rather discover for myself what the Founders and Lincoln really thought, than having someone else interpret it for me through a textbook. In a way textbooks assume that the students can’t really think on their own; someone else has to sift through the material and then feed it to the students in a way that that person sees fit. Examining the actual primary documents gives students a chance to interact with the material in a meaningful way and build their analytical skills.

    For the Applied U.S. History course, I say go for it! As a high school student myself, I would love to participate in such a class, as it would truly be “hands-on” history. Unfortunately up here in the Pacific Northwest we don’t have the wealth of monuments and historical sites that you have in Virginia. It just makes it that much more special when I do get to visit places like Williamsburg and other places that have a deep, rich history.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 24, 2009 @ 1:02


      I’m sorry I left you with the impression that I don’t use primary sources. I would say that 98% of my classes involve the analysis of some type of document. Glad to hear that you think it is worth giving a shot.

  • Jim Cullen Mar 23, 2009 @ 16:17

    You raise some interesting questions, Kevin. Right now, my survey course is oriented around the concept of freedom — contested and changing definitions over time. So I move from freedom and empire, to freedom and independence, to freedom and slavery (that’s the first semester) and then freedom and industrial capitalism, freedom and progress, freedom and equality (ending with FDR; post WWII is a third semester). I like the idea of using a place. But I think there’s something like an anthropological need for an overarching narrative that postmodern/multiculturalism can never quite expunge.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 23, 2009 @ 16:23


      Great to hear from you on this one. I also use the concept of freedom to frame my courses; in fact, my AP classes use Eric Foner’s _Give Me Liberty!_ which is structured around competing definitions of freedom. Foner’s book has made my AP sections bearable over the past few years. I agree that the postmodern turn doesn’t necessarily negate the overarching narrative. On the other hand it has done quite a hatchet job on the American pantheon, though it is probably much too simplistic too attribute its demise to any one philosophical legacy. Still, I wonder whether these abstract comments can be better grasped, say, at a place like Monticello where at least two definitions competed directly with one another. Just a thought.

  • Greg Rowe Mar 23, 2009 @ 15:40

    I like the idea, but I see some limitations to it. How would such a course framework serve students in other parts of the country? Virginia and even your native New Jersey have roots in the founding of the country as colonies, making it somewhat easier to replace a US History survey course with this type of learning environment.

    On the other hand, I have a modified version of a place to start with this in states that were not original colonies that I do with my seventh grade Texas history students. I have them do family trees, as far as they are able given the nature of blended families and individual family situations, in order that students can discover just how much history their families have been involved. My assignment only has them go back to their great grandparents, but I had one student last year that traced back 13 generations. I recently heard from a student that started her family history project last year and has traced one side of her family back to somewhere in Europe and the year 911! Last year I had and this year will have them do this at the end of the year, but I am thinking about making this a beginning of the year activity to whet their interest in the topics we will discuss, especially if they trace further back and see where their personal history crosses the state and national narrative. It would allow them to find heroes that they more readily identify with due to their particular circumstances at specific points in history. This project could begin early in the year, but students could continue to add to it throughout the year, expanding their understanding of how history influences individuals.

    As far as what a course like what you describe would be called, with the service learning and application portions of the course structured as you indicate, “Applied U.S. History” sounds good to me!

    • Kevin Levin Mar 23, 2009 @ 15:50


      Thanks for the comment. You are absolutely right that my little sketch has some limitations; in fact, I think it probably has some major limitations. Still, it’s just a sketch. The nice thing about such an approach is that it can be shaped around the history that defines a specific locale. Obviously, gaps would have to be addressed. Perhaps we shouldn’t think of my suggestions as reflecting an either/or proposition between the traditional and “applied” approaches.

      I love the idea of a family tree, especially as a way to begin the year and for the reasons you mention.

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