Hoisted From The Comments

May 30, 2012, 3:46 pm

Mark Santow, Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, put up an excellent analysis in the thread on Eric’s post. So excellent that I forwith appointed him “Guest Blogger For A Post”:

The CAS report laments that “one looks in vain for any course that provides a connected view of the sweep of American history.” Putting aside their odd focus on this one particular semester for the moment, don’t the upper division courses the report lists provide precisely that sort of view? I’m zeroing in on the word ‘connected’ here. The standard 100-level US history survey provides a ‘connected view’ only if one assumes that moving chronologically somehow provides intellectual coherence (history as just ‘one damn thing after another’). Of course, most good teachers of history try to cover the survey at least partially through sub-themes — ones that fit our particular expertise, ones that seem to attract the interests of students, one that work pedagogically, etc.

The virtue of the upper division courses that the report mentions (Race, Riots and Violence in the US; Af-Am History in the 20th century; American Women/American Womanhood; Immigration and Ethnicity in American Society) is precisely that they DO offer a ‘connected view of the sweep of American history.’ Surveys, by and large, do not. The implication of the CAS report seems to be that we need LESS American history taught to undergraduates, not more. Now, if they want to argue that American public universities don’t make enough undergraduates (regardless of major) take American history — I can get behind that. Students can graduate from my university (UMass Dartmouth) without ever taking an American History course (though they can cover it in other disciplines).

But the argument of the CAS report seems to be more ideological (and ill-informed).

I know that when I am designing and teaching my upper division US courses, my goal is generally to either pick a theme or question that enables the students to dig more deeply into the broad sweep of American history, or one that gives students a fine grained look at how some overarching structure, idea or relationship looks up close in a particular place or period. For example, my class ‘The American Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in the modern U.S.’ surely provides more of a ‘connected view of the sweep of American history’ than any survey does.

To me, the goal with themed upper-division courses is to give students the opportunity to try on different lenses, to enable them to walk around that chronological ‘progression’ they learned about in the survey, to see what it looks like from different vantage points. Obviously what the CAS objects to is precisely this: inevitably, many (if not most) of these vantage points will give students the opportunity to see that dominant narratives are…well, just that: narratives, tied to power (‘dominance’), and its contestation. If we don’t give students the opportunity to see that, I hardly think we are producing patriots or citizens (or even conservatives). We would instead be producing fools. I think we have enough of those, across the political spectrum. How else can one explain the view expressed by Ross Douhat the other day in the NY Times, that the primary racial privileges in American society today and in the future are held by people of color, rather than ‘whites’? This isn’t simply a different and empirically justifiable perspective on the past and present; it is based on a fundamental ignorance of the past, and thus (inherently) of the present. If we don’t let students see how power has operated in the past — however distasteful it might be — how on earth are they supposed to see it in the present? How does one preserve the democracy the triumphalist narrative is so fond of, without teaching history this way? I think we can all agree that sometimes history courses (and scholarly work) are overwhelmed by leftist cant and disciplinary navel-gazing. But this is WAY down the list of threats to the effective teaching of American history to undergraduates.

Of course, part of why American historians have resorted to coming up with ever more jazzy thematic upper-division courses (at least in their titles) is because of the commodification of higher education — as stagnant wages, weakened social mobility, rising inequality, and the rapid escalation of the cost of college (and of student debt) forces more and more students to see their college experience in purely vocational terms, we often find ourselves having to create classes that grab students as consumers. In an ideal world, our history curricula would have a kind of intellectual and methodological coherence. But as department chair, if our upper division courses don’t fill, I lose people and resources. As I wrote above, it is quite possible to take even the most apparently narrow upper-division course — like Race, Riots and Violence in the US — and give students eye-opening access to deeper layers of the American firmament. But as in any institution, there are multiple forces at work. ‘Leftist ideology’ is way down the causative list.

Mark blogs at Chants Democratic, and has a biography forthcoming of Saul Alinsky, whom rightwing bloggers have anointed the 23rd worst person in American history.

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