A Reading List for My Next Class

I’ll be teaching a 6-week online class late in the spring. The course will cover U.S. history from 1945-2020. I decided to organize it around ordinary things beyond the newspaper headlines. The themes for the six weeks are: eating, loving, growing, working, playing, and belonging. The students will be reading excerpts from this (provisional) list of books. I’m excited about it. I still need to choose a couple more.

Notes from the Classroom: First Day

Well, that’s a wrap for day one of The Historian’s Craft at Temple University.

I’ve tried more ambitious first day’s in the past and perhaps will again in the future, but today I had just two main goals: get students talking to each other and get them oriented to the class.

I admit it: for an ice-breaker I had them travel to the spring of 1889, to a certain town on the Austrian-German border, to a certain house in which resided a couple by the names of Klara and Alois. This couple trustingly asked them to babysit their infant son Adolphus.

What would you do with baby Hitler? (This thought experiment was an unnecessary risk for opening day, potentially offensive on a number of levels, and I don’t recommend it!)

Some students indeed wanted to kill baby Hitler. Some wanted to kidnap him and take him as far from Germany as possible. Some decided to babysit him like any other baby and dutifully return him to his parents. Some wanted to surround him with good art and art instruction.

Seriously, though, some students framed their answers from the get-go in terms of real historical questions of contingency and causation. Some believed killing Hitler wouldn’t make a difference, which suggests a certain perspective on the relationship between the individual and larger forces. Those who wanted to expose Hitler to a lot of art seem to have confidence in the pliability of human personality. And so on.

Really, it was just a chance for them to talk to each other. But we could claim some historical thinking took place as well.

The more substantive exercise concerned how they have learned history. What has influenced their view of the past? Here are their responses (lots of these were cited by more than one person):

Independent research

Wikipedia

School

Magic Tree House

Tv

Historical fiction

Museums

Music (Billy Joel – we didn’t start the fire)

Video games (Call of duty)

Family (history phd in the family!)

Oral history

Listening to others

History channel

Weather channel

NPR

Social media

Traveling

Pop culture (comics)

Memes

Word of mouth

Talking with family; family stories

Dad [interesting to note that some people nearly always say Dad but rarely say Mom]

Documentaries

Festivals

High school teacher

American girl doll

Colonial Williamsburg

Museums and monuments

Dance

History textbooks

Historic sites (one room school house)

Landscapes

Quaker meeting houses

Battlefields

Traveling and seeing other country’s point of view

I asked them what we might infer from this list. They said things like:

–History is all around us.

–We learn it in popular forms.

–It’s hard to know where the information is coming from or whether it’s reliable.

Most academic historians are likely to immediately note that nearly all the items on this list are “public history” or not even a direct form of history at all. Not surprisingly, not a single student said that academic monographs were important to how they have learned history. This need not be depressing to us, but it’s definitely important!

My example of how I learned history was church attendance as a child. There I received very powerful (though often implicit) lessons about what history was and what it meant.

My takeaway was that we are all engaging with the past constantly, and often unconsciously. Part of the point of this semester is to become conscious. If we are fated to remember, why not endeavor to do so consciously, and do it well?

American History is the Story of ______?

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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.

The Vietnam War was a War of American Aggression

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Vietnamese propaganda, 1965: “Only by fighting the invading Americans will our country be truly independent and free”

Historian Christian G. Appy has a great article in the New York Times this week on the Vietnam War. (I also recommend his recent book on the war and American identity.) After all these years, Americans are still reluctant to take a clear-eyed look at that war. What was the nature of the conflict? What was the United States doing? Appy writes:

Was America’s war in Vietnam a noble struggle against Communist aggression, a tragic intervention in a civil conflict, or an imperialist counterrevolution to crush a movement of national liberation? Those competing interpretations ignited fiery debates in the 1960s and remain unresolved today. How we name and define this most controversial of American wars is not a narrow scholarly exercise, but profoundly shapes public memory of its meaning and ongoing significance to American national identity and foreign policy…

In the decades since 1975, all three major interpretations have persisted. Some writers and historians have embraced President Ronald Reagan’s view that the war was a “noble cause” that might have been won. That position has failed to persuade most specialists in the field, in large part because it greatly exaggerates the military and political virtues and success of the United States and the government of South Vietnam. It also falls short because it depends on counterfactual claims that victory would have been achieved if only the United States had extended its support for Diem (instead of greenlighting his overthrow), or tried a different military strategy, or done a better job winning hearts and minds. However, the war as it was actually conducted by the United States and its allies was a disaster by every measure.

In recent decades, a number of historians — particularly younger scholars trained in Vietnamese and other languages — have developed various versions of the civil war interpretation. Some of them view the period after the French defeat in 1954 as “post-colonial,” a time in which long-brewing internal conflicts between competing versions of Vietnamese nationalism came to a head. As the historian Jessica Chapman of Williams College puts it, “The Vietnam War was, at its core, a civil war greatly exacerbated by foreign intervention.” Others have described it as a civil war that became “internationalized.”

While these scholars have greatly enhanced our knowledge of the complexity and conflict in Vietnamese history, politics and culture, they don’t, in my view, assign enough responsibility to the United States for causing and expanding the war as a neocolonial power.

Let’s try a thought experiment. What if our own Civil War bore some resemblance to the Vietnamese “civil war”? For starters, we would have to imagine that in 1860 a global superpower — say Britain — had strongly promoted Southern secession, provided virtually all of the funding for the ensuing war and dedicated its vast military to the battle. We must also imagine that in every Southern state, local, pro-Union forces took up arms against the Confederacy. Despite enormous British support, Union forces prevailed. What would Americans call such a war? Most, I think, would remember it as the Second War of Independence. Perhaps African-Americans would call it the First War of Liberation. Only former Confederates and the British might recall it as a “civil war.”

I would reverse Chapman’s formula and say that the Vietnam War was, at its core, an American war that exacerbated Vietnamese divisions and internationalized the conflict. It is true, of course, that many Vietnamese opposed the Communist path to national liberation, but no other nationalist party or faction proved capable of gaining enough support to hold power. Without American intervention, it is hard to imagine that South Vietnam would have come into being or, if it did, that it would have endured for long.

Read the whole thing for Appy’s thoughts on why this matters today.

I recently taught the Vietnam War to my U.S. survey class. I emphasized a few points that I think are fundamental to understanding what actually happened in Vietnam:

1) The United States opposed democracy in Vietnam.

The 1954 Geneva accords established a temporary division between north and south. A 1956 nationwide election was to unify the country. The United States did not want that election to happen because American policymakers assumed, correctly, that Ho Chi Minh and the communists would have won. As elsewhere around the world during the Cold War, defending democracy or human rights was not an American priority.

2) Nationalism was a more potent force in the conflict than communism.

As the propaganda at the top of this post illustrates, the Americans had it exactly backward when they described Vietnamese communists as communists first and foremost. From the Vietnamese perspective, the more salient fact was that they were nationalists fighting against generations of foreign rule.

3) The United States was not defending the nation of South Vietnam; it was trying to create the nation of South Vietnam.

The military escalation of 1964 and beyond was the result of political failure. The United States tried and failed to create an artificial nation out of the temporary Geneva settlement. In the absence of popular legitimacy and shared national purpose for the South Vietnamese government, the United States propped it up through brutal military force.

4) In the United States, the human cost was overshadowed by the psychic toll on the American identity and social fabric.

U.S. actions led directly to millions of deaths in southeast Asia in a worse than useless conflict. But Americans tended to focus on their own wounds. After My Lai, the murderers became heroes. Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter urged citizens to “honor the flag as [Lt. Calley] had done.” A popular song put these words in Calley’s mouth:

While we’re fighting in the jungles they were marching in the street; While we’re dying in the rice fields they were helping our defeat; While we’re facing V.C. bullets they were sounding a retreat.

The United States wasn’t defeated in Vietnam, many Americans believed. It was stabbed in the back by its own citizens. Appy’s book has a lot of insightful discussion of these attitudes. I was especially struck by this excerpt:

american reckoning

On the other hand, some parents made no excuses for what their children did in Vietnam:

One of the American soldiers at My Lai was Private Paul Meadlo. While guarding a group of about sixty Vietnamese who had been rounded up and made to squat down, Lieutenant Calley approached and ordered Meadlo to “take care of them.” At first, Meadlo did not understand. “Come on,” Calley barked, “We’ll kill them. Fire when I say ‘Fire.'” Meadlo obeyed. The villagers were about ten feet away when the two men began firing their M-16 rifles on automatic. After killing many of the Vietnamese, Meadlo stopped. With tears streaming down his face, he turned to a buddy, shoved the M-16 toward him, and said, “You shoot them.”

Two days after the massacre, Calley ordered his platoon to walk through a known minefield that had recently caused American casualties. Most of the men ignored the order, so Calley took only a small squad. Paul Meadlo was ordered to walk point carrying a mine detector. Calley grew impatient with Meadlo’s careful movements and ordered him to stop sweeping and pick up the pace. A few seconds later, Meadlo stepped on a mine. His left foot was blown off. When an evacuation helicopter arrived, he seemed to be thinking more about My Lai than his missing foot. He screamed at Calley: “Why did you do it? Why did you do it? This is God’s punishment to me, Calley, but you’ll get yours! God will punish you, Calley!”

Twenty months later, journalists tracked down Meadlo in his hometown of Goshen, Indiana. They found that most townspeople supported the young veteran and what he had done at My Lai. “He had to do what his officer told him,” said the owner of a pool hall. “Things like that happen in war. They always have and they always will,” said a veteran of World War II and Korea.

Meadlo’s parents, however, did not agree. His father, a retired coal miner, said: “If it had been me out there I would have swung my rifle around and shot Calley instead–right between the God-damned eyes. Meadlo’s mother said this: “I raised him up to be a good boy and did everything I could. They come along and took him to the service. He fought for his country and look what they done to him–made him a murderer.”

Notes from the Classroom: Teaching the History of the Present

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Bill Clinton, a leading villain of the history of the present

I’ve structured my U.S. history survey course to go right up to the present day. The last lecture of the semester is title “The Radicalization of American Politics, 1994-2018.” I do so with some trepidation, but I have several compelling (I think) reasons for it.

1) Over half of the class is made up of journalism majors. They will spend their careers in the world of 24 hour news cycles, and they will be much better at their jobs if they can put the news in historical perspective.

2) Communicating the inherent difficulty of thinking through the noise of the present to discern what is historically significant is part of the teaching objective. In the last week of the semester, I will be explicit about the speculative nature of this project. Thinking about our knowledge and perceptions as provisional is inherently humbling and can lead to better thinking.

3) It allows me to teach about the Trump era without letting Trump intrude on the whole semester. I’ve been very deliberate about avoiding Trump in my teaching this semester. If connections between the Trump Era and the Gilded Age suggest themselves to students, fine. But I’ve been determined not to recast the American story on the basis of the fleeting events of the past two years. Precisely because we don’t yet know how historically consequential this moment is, or its denouement, I’ve tried hard to let the significance of other eras stand on their own terms.

This restraint is easier for me when I know I’ve got that last lecture at the end of the course. Talking about the past with reference to Trump all semester would be inimical to historical thinking. But it would also be strange to go through a whole survey of modern U.S. history without communicating to students the unique features of the present moment of crisis. By the way, I’m eager for any suggestions about how best to do that.

One simple rule of thumb is to think about how Trump is different from past Republican presidents. That way you’re removing some of the partisan emotion from it while encouraging students to understand how and why we ended up with a president who rejects the post-Watergate norms of the presidency, 70 years of bipartisan American foreign policy, and matters of the rule of law and the constitution previously thought to be settled.

4) I’m trying to model thinking historically about the present as I prepare students for their final assignment, a “time capsule” project. I’ve never done anything like this before and I don’t know if it will work, but it goes like this:

The premise is that you are creating a “time capsule” that you imagine historians will open 100 years from now. What will be important for them to study?

You will identify a contemporary (in this century) event, process, person, movement, cultural change, technology, or other phenomenon that you believe is of historic significance. You will briefly describe its history and context and make an argument that justifies the historic significance of your choice. Your objective is to cut through the noise of the present and think in a longer time-frame than we’re used to thinking. In hindsight, what will people think was unique or important about the early twenty-first century?

Having made your choice and argued for its historic significance, you will select three primary sources that are essential to understanding it. You will offer a brief analysis of each source and explain why it will be useful for historians to study it a century from now.

I’ve cut out the details, but this is the conceptual gist of the assignment. It is still over a month away so if anyone has words of caution or ideas to make it better, there’s still time for me to change it! In my ideal world, students come away from this assignment having exercised intellectual muscles they didn’t know they had, and might even be interested in using them in the future.

Why Isn’t There Conservatism in the United States?

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William F. Buckley

In 1984, Eric Foner wrote an article asking, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” In that spirit, I present this deliberately provocative and messy think piece. I’ll be giving a lecture on the rise of modern American conservatism after World War Two to my U.S. history survey class later this month. If I framed the lecture in the terms below, would it work? Does this argument hold up at all? What is it missing? What are the most obvious counterarguments? I threw this together without looking at any primary or secondary sources so I cringe at all that I’m surely glossing over here. Is there something to be said for this?


My key argument today is that modern American conservatism arose as an insurgency from both the intellectual margins and the populist grassroots. During the dominance of the New Deal coalition from the 1930s to the mid-1960s, conservatism seemed to be pushed to the margins in American politics and elite culture. Now, to be sure, you might look at the 1950s and say, gosh, wasn’t the whole American mainstream conservative? But this question fails to understand how American politics and culture looked from the perspective of the conservative insurgents.

They sought a radical conservatism (and I use this seemingly paradoxical phrase deliberately) that would upend the moderate consensus in American life and usher in their vision of a society of localism, laissez faire economics, and social order. Thinking about the New Right as an insurgent and radical force helps us to think about how and why American conservatism became so distinctive. Often when we talk about conservatism in a broader global context, we might think of the conservatism of landed elites stretching back into a feudal past, the conservatism of certain European Catholic parties, the conservatism of a very class conscious British society.

The United States, for all sorts of reasons, did not have those conditions. So, just as historians have asked, why didn’t socialism ever take root in the U.S? We might dare to ask the question, why isn’t there conservatism in the United States? This is a deliberately provocative and simplified question, but it helps us to think about the paradox of radical conservatism, a “conservatism” that sought to not conserve and preserve as much as transform.

Because the New Right found itself blocked out of the mainstream of both major parties, it assumed the posture of political insurgency from a very early date. The nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964 was not a case of a conservative party choosing a conservative nominee. It was a shocking takeover of a moderate party by the insurgents. Modern American conservatism never lost that insurgent and radical quality, even after gaining power, and that has had profound consequences for American life.


The lecture would go on to discuss both populist conservative forces (especially women mobilizing at the grassroots) as well as intellectuals like Buckley and Hayek (yes, I know he wasn’t American!). One of the things I want to avoid is the conflation of conservatism with backlash and reaction. The New Right had goals it was fighting for, not just changes it was reacting against. I also think the framing of “radical conservatism” and “insurgency” could be helpful for setting up the very end of the semester when we talk about the contemporary radicalization of American politics and conservatism’s inability to govern. 

Are College Students Being Brainwashed?

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A typical liberal professor caught in the act of indoctrination.

Conservative activists often claim that college classrooms are places of indoctrination. But a new survey finds that college increases students’ appreciation of views across the political spectrum:

college political attitudes

I hope this is true! The survey seems quite robust but I’ll leave that to the statisticians to sort out. In my classroom, I’m much more interested in provoking new questions and ways of thinking in students than in moving them toward a particular political posture. I hope that the vast majority of my colleagues feel the same.

In the field of history, to paraphrase one of my colleagues, we’re trying to get students to “give a crap” about people who are different from them. That means suspending judgment long enough to try to really understand people who are unfamiliar or even repulsive to you. We’re working on the level of imagination and empathy. These are the habits of mind and character required to engage seriously with the past.

If we’re doing our job well, it would make sense that students would have more nuanced views of the political other. It is not so easy to caricature people after you’ve stepped into their shoes. But before I get carried away with the grand effects of historical teaching, the authors of the study argue that what we’re doing in the classroom probably isn’t driving this phenomenon:

our best guess is this finding might ultimately have little to do with faculty directly and instead relate to the climate that campuses strive to create for the expression of diverse viewpoints, political and otherwise. While students may come to college never having met someone on the political “other side,” it is hard to avoid doing so in college. One central aim of higher education is to encourage contact, debate, discussion and exposure to persuasion from different kinds of people.

After a year of college, in other words, it might be more challenging for students to brand all liberals or conservatives as wrongheaded when they are studying, eating and learning alongside them. These experiences might even help students appreciate others as people with diverse histories and shared interests in working toward common goals.

One takeaway is clear: It appears as though the first year of college is doing what it should, exposing students to experiences that teach them how to think rather than what to think.

It’s worth thinking about this in relation to the widely-publicized (alleged) free speech crisis on American campuses. There is plenty of anecdote in that hysterical genre, but perhaps the data indicate our college environments are healthier than many people suppose.

The Moral Stakes of Contingency

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North Carolina Congressman George H. White, elected during the Republican-populist alliance of the 1890s.

Historians are almost allergic to the word inevitable. We talk about contingency, about the what ifs, about the choices people make and how they matter. As we look at the past and see how complex and interconnected everything is, we ponder how history-making events might have turned out very differently but for seeming coincidences, unpredicted variables and—the greatest variable of all—human behavior that defies expectations.

Last week students in my U.S. survey class read an astonishing document from Frederick Douglass. In 1869, Douglass bluntly defended a vision of American society built on diversity and universal equality. At a time when most Americans saw diversity as a problem to be solved, Douglass declared there was nothing wrong with diversity that equal rights wouldn’t solve. In many ways, the document feels incredibly contemporary. Students were naturally sympathetic to it, in contrast to the other materials we read promoting human inequality.

But their sympathy only got them so far. When asked if Douglass’s vision was actually possible to implement in the 1860s and 1870s, the students said it was not possible. The implication—though they didn’t say it in so many words—is that the revival of white supremacy after the civil war and reconstruction was inevitable.

Today, I presented a lecture designed to challenge the assumption of inevitability. Though the end of reconstruction is traditionally dated to 1877, we talked about key moments in the struggle for interracial democracy in the twenty years after the final withdrawal of federal troops from the South.

I emphasized that much of what we imagine would be required to implement Douglass’s vision was actually put in place during his lifetime. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 did much of what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would later do, only to be struck down by the Supreme Court in 1883. The Lodge Force Bill of 1890 would have established federal oversight of elections not so different from the system later created by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. After passing the House it fell to a Senate filibuster.

For decades after the withdrawal of federal occupation, black southerners continued to vote in large numbers and wield political power. In fact, they forged interracial coalitions with white populists and, in the case of North Carolina, took over the entire state government. After winning big in the election of 1894, the fusion party promptly enacted a reform agenda to relieve poor farmers, invest in public education, and expand access to the voting booth. So popular was this agenda that in the election of 1896 the interracial alliance actually extended its gains. Democrats were almost completely wiped out of the state house and senate.

White supremacists won the election of 1898 not with better or more popular ideas but with more violence. Amid a campaign of relentless demagoguery encouraging poor whites to think about their racial status rather than their class interests, Democrats used violence and intimidation to keep people from the voting booth. In Wilmington, having failed to win the local elections even with such tactics, white militias simply attacked and overthrew the government by force.

Faced with interracial political alliances between poor whites and poor blacks, white elites in the South made the writing of new constitutions a major priority. These constitutions drastically restricted the right to vote using poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses. Provisions that were colorblind on their face, they were designed to completely eliminate black voting. They also disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of poor whites.

It took white southern elites the better part of four decades to establish a new system of white supremacy on the ashes of the old. In that time of flux, the forces of democracy might have won. What if the federal government had ensured free elections? What if the Lodge Bill had passed? In the end, after much struggle and violence, the terrorists won. But they almost didn’t.

Having placed the new system of segregation on solid legal and electoral ground, white supremacists in the South promptly began to spin myths about it. Suddenly this new system was not new at all, but a natural state of relations between white and black, a tradition, an inevitability. Tell that to the 1,000 black government officials in 1890s North Carolina.

In the Jim Crow south, inevitability was the ideology of the oppressor and the complacent. Contingency was the resistor’s hope.

This was why it was important for Martin Luther King to write from a jail cell in Birmingham in 1963 that progress was not inevitable, that time would not heal wounds. Civil rights for all was not an idea whose time had finally come. It was an old idea—known and tried and fought for generations before—and now the civil rights movement was trying to rebuild what had been so tragically lost.

Maybe if enough people were willing to make themselves, in King’s words, “coworkers with God,” the passage of time would indeed bring progress. But maybe, had the dice landed slightly differently a century before, had a few more people been willing to act, Dr. King wouldn’t have been in Birmingham at all.

Notes from the Classroom: First Day

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I never know quite how to start a new semester. I’m teaching the second half of the U.S. history survey (since 1877) and decided to do a little group activity to get students thinking about change over time in this crazy 140 year period we will be studying.

I divided them into five groups and assigned to each group a roughly 30 year period (the contemporary group got a shorter time) and asked them to come up with the three biggest changes/events/transformations they could think of during those 30 years. Here’s what the first class came up with:

Group 1 to 1906: Plessy v ferguson; New states in the west; Gilded age (industrialization)

Group 2 to 1936: World war 1; Great Depression; Prohibition

Group 3 to 1966: World War Two (holocaust); Civil rights movement; Cold War (space race, second red scare)

Group 4 to 1996: Watergate, Clinton’s election; End of Vietnam war

Group 5 to 2018: 9/11-> Afghanistan; Election of Obama; Tech (smartphones)

An interesting list, heavy on politics and war. I’m extremely skeptical that Clinton’s election was one of the three most important events between 1967 and 1996, but hey, make the argument!

And here’s what the second class came up with:

Group 1 to 1906: Ellis Island opened; Plessy v ferguson; Wright brothers

Group 2 to 1936: Great Depression; World War One; White Women’s suffrage

Group 3 to 1966: World War Two; Civil rights movement; Cold War

Group 4 to 1996: Watergate; Moon landing; Clinton impeachment

Group 5 to 2018: 9/11; Internet/social media; Increasing social acceptance (lgbt, first black president)

Another list heavy on war and politics. Clinton’s impeachment as historically significant seems more on the mark than his election, but on the other hand, he had to get elected to get impeached. Causality! Group 2 initially said “women’s suffrage” and then a black student pointed out that we’re effectively talking about white women’s suffrage. Sharp thinking.

I was very surprised these lists were not more tech heavy. I thought technology would be an easy thing for students to grab onto when they thought about change: lights, cars, planes, radio, tv, atomic energy, etc. But we had few mentions of it.

I asked students to remark on what they found interesting or surprising about the lists, and then I asked them to think about what kinds of change we didn’t put on our lists. They were pretty quick to identify that we were missing cultural changes (especially in the sense of popular culture). Other changes students mentioned were environmental, commercialization, and religion. In both classes I added my own suggestion because no one mentioned it: intellectual change. Students could readily identify large events in the realm of politics and war, but the lists did not directly include changes in the realm of the mind.

I used these discussions to make a few fairly obvious points. First, there’s been a lot of change! The way we understand ourselves and the world around us is bizarre and unusual; it’s different from the way Americans thought 140 years ago. I don’t think students understand that in a deep way, which is why our lists were heavy on outward events rather than more formative but harder to define changes in thought and culture. Second, our lists were not right or wrong as much as they were peculiar. I emphasized that our lists reflected our time and place and identities. They’re not good or bad, they’re just ours. Might they tell us something about what we believe is important in both the past and the present? Do they say something about what we think we ought to study when we study history? (Or maybe they just tell us what’s easiest to look up on a smartphone when you’re in a hurry).

After thinking so much about change over time, it was a natural transition into discussion of Flannery and Burke’s 5 C’s of historical thinking. All in all the class was probably more blah than scintillating, but I thought the exercise was fun.

Notes from the Classroom: Oops, I asked A Bad Question

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Huh?

On the final exam I gave students several essay question options. Here is one of them:

“Why did the civil rights movement succeed in some ways and fail in others?”

A couple dozen students responded to this prompt, and it turned out to be a bad question. There was a huge gap between what I thought I was asking and what I actually asked. I know this because not a single student out of dozens gave me an answer I was looking for.

I thought I was asking a why question about the key variables that played into success and failure during the civil rights movement. Students could argue that the movement succeeded when it managed to combine powerful symbolic action with a clearly defined end goal (as in the Montgomery Bus Boycott). They could argue that media publicity was the decisive factor, as in Birmingham. Or that divisions within black communities in places like Albany, Georgia were crucial causes of failure. They might argue that whichever side was perceived as the initiator of violence lost, leading to sympathy for the movement in the early 60s and backlash in the later 60s.

After talking about all these factors in lectures, these are the kinds of arguments I was imagining in response to my question. Instead, students treated it as an opportunity to list a series of successes and failures: Brown v Board, success! Lack of enforcement, failure! Voting Rights Act, success! Police brutality, failure!

The consistency of this form of response across dozens of essays clearly shows that my question was hazy. Yes, I did have the word why in it, but as I read it now, I’m all but inviting students to list successes and failures, and that’s what they did.

Put another way, I wanted students to make an historical argument in response to this question, and none of them did. That’s not a sign of lazy students. That’s a sign of a professor who failed to to provide clear instructions and the tools to implement them. So, how could I have asked the question more clearly?

More broadly, what kinds of questions have you found do a good job provoking historical thinking and argument? Are students conditioned to use exams to regurgitate information rather than making arguments?