In a recent exam in my U.S. survey course, I asked my students this question:
“American history between 1876 and 1976 is the story of _________?”
I gave them the question in advance because I don’t think surprising them and trying to get them to think historically in a few pressure-packed minutes in the classroom is a very useful exercise. Instead, I wanted to give them plenty of time to chew over the question and think about creating a historical narrative.
As I glance over their responses, what I like about the question is that it really helped them to develop a historical argument and construct a narrative around it. Most students had a sentence in their first paragraphs that literally just filled in the blank. This might seem rudimentary, but it gave a focus and coherence to their essays that they may otherwise have lacked. In the future, students may be able to construct arguments with less scaffolding.
So, here are their responses:
American history between 1876 and 1976 is the story of…
An empire being built on the backs of the poor
Hardship and struggle
National hypocrisy (2)
The battle to achieve the American Dream
Equality, freedom, and protest movements
Constant conflict from within and the outside
An evolving nation
White supremacy (4)
Establishing the American identity
Inclusion and exclusion
Terrorism hidden by good desires and good outcomes
A century that constantly challenged the values held in the Constitution
Supremacy of white heterosexual males
Continual remaking and reestablishment of white supremacy
Struggle and progress
Progress through failure
Growth and progression
Pride, courage, and progress
Americans realizing the power they have
Hardships many endured but no one talks about
The fight for freedom
Growth and demise
Deception and disillusionment
Expansion and change
Containment and independence
Some of these are head-scratchers, to be sure, and some may be too vague to do much good. But I was pleased with the variety of responses and I thought some of them were quite insightful.
Maybe another step to this exercise is to think about and discuss the difference between historical narratives and making stuff up. After all, these are very different stories the students are telling. How do we know which ones are good? Are they all true? What is the difference between a historical argument and a conspiracy theory? I don’t think we should assume students know the difference.