Welcome to Teaching Trump Week. Our theme this week comes from our own David Mislin, who pondered on Twitter recently:
Thought for @historycontext posts this week: What are we teaching/would we teach differently this year as a result of the past few months?
— David Mislin (@dmislin) August 26, 2017
So how does the Trump presidency inform our teaching of American history? I have thought a lot about David’s question in terms of the American history survey, since it is the broadest audience that most of us reach. The rest of the post below explores a few of the themes that I would explore and see as especially crucial in using the Trump presidency to inform our understandings of American history.
“This is America”—Normally I begin my survey class with the fall of Byzantium. The death of the Eastern Roman Empire marked the closing of Christian access to the trade routes of the Middle East, forcing Europeans to find new ways to reach the West. This year, I would start by putting one of those memes (like the one below) that we’ve all seen floating around up on my PowerPoint. I’ve scripted my opening below.
“We can all sympathize with the sentiment being expressed here. That we, as Americans, in times of need, set aside our differences and help one another. That whatever differences we may have we will rise to the occasion and give aid and comfort to our fellow human beings. And that those who espouse fascism, white supremacy, and other ideologies of hate have no place here. They are fundamentally un-American. It’s an argument that, to borrow from Lincoln, appeals to the better angels of our nature. Yet it’s also a lie. The truth is both of these images are America. The unity and the division. The helping and the hate. And if we have any hope of understanding our past and using it to inform our present and future, then we have to recognize that the history of America is the history of BOTH of these ideas.”
Adversarial Media—In a political environment where the sitting president frequently attacks journalists as the enemies of the people and there entire media outlets shaping and disseminating conspiracy theories and misinformation, it’s worth remembering that a partisan press has been a staple of the republic. Pro-Jeffersonian newspapers attacked John Adams’ as a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, not the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Later, the man responsible for many of these attacks, James Callender, switched sides and levied charges against Thomas Jefferson of having fathered children with Sally Hemings. In the 1820s, pro-Jackson newspapers accused John Quincy Adams of selling a white girl into slavery to the Russian Tsar during his term as ambassador to Russia. Anti-Jackson papers, meanwhile, accused Jackson’s wife, Rachel, of bigamy.
As with any partisan media, there was a mixture of truth and lies. Adams was not a hermaphrodite. His son did not sell a girl into white slavery. Jackson’s marriage to Rachel had been bigamous at its beginning since she had not divorced her previous husband. Jefferson, it turns out, did father children with Sally Hemmings. If we want to understand the origins of Fox News, InfoWars, Breitbart, and other right-wing media, then we need to look at the broader history at play here. That way we can uncover what’s new (and not) about how the operate and manipulate their viewers.
The Meaning of American Freedom—This is an issue that I’ve been thinking a lot about in terms of a unifying theme that can span both sections of the American survey. It’s obviously influenced by Eric Foner’s The Story of American Freedom. It’s a useful marker for the big moments in survey classes—the Revolution, Jacksonian Democracy, the Abolitionist Movement, Civil War, Reconstruction, Women’s Suffrage Movement, Civil Rights’ Movement—to see both continuity and change. How do the proponents of any of these movements justify their actions? How do they incorporate themselves into the history of America?
I would then ask students to look at President Trump’s understanding of America. What does he believe makes America great? What makes America weak? How does this fit in with what has come before it? And most importantly, what do students think about this? Where do they see themselves fitting in?
Hindsight Bias—Armed with the benefit of hindsight, students are overly critical of historical figures who fail to measure up to modern standards. Working class people drank too much. Everyone was a racist. The students know exactly what they would’ve done in the past. If they were slaves, they would have rebelled or run away. They would have been abolitionists, suffragists, or Freedom riders. The truth, of course, is that few if any of them would have done those things. But now is their opportunity to put their principles to the test. What will they do? Will they march? Will they protest? Or will they stay silent?
Those are the questions that only the students themselves can answer, but informed by everything they learn in the classroom.