American History is the Story of ______?

columbian exposition
Columbia Exposition of 1893, Chicago.

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…

Diminishing provincialism

An empire being built on the backs of the poor

Hardship and struggle

Triumph

Reformation

Defining freedom

National hypocrisy (2)

The battle to achieve the American Dream

Technological advancement

Equality, freedom, and protest movements

Constant conflict from within and the outside

Oppression (2)

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

Freedom

Pride, courage, and progress

Growth (2)

Americans realizing the power they have

Change

Hardships many endured but no one talks about

Selfishness

The fight for freedom

Resistance

Growth and demise

Deception and disillusionment

Expansion and change

Idealism

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.

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