As Chris mentioned yesterday, we’re taking our inspiration this week from David’s question, which was initially in response to my musing about teaching the Articles of Confederation:
I had raised the Articles because they, like French military engagements and “government programs,” are easy targets for glib “historical” comments, but are actually very complex and thought-provoking – hence the tendency to be glib about them.
As I begin my teaching tomorrow, I feel less inclined to humor those sorts of glib comments, honestly. The past few months – and the past year and a half – have re-emphasized to me how important historical thinking skills are. I’ve spent some time this summer thinking about how well my classes teach historical thinking, and how to make clearer to my students the way historical thinking is a thing that they can and should be doing in their daily lives. As such, I’ve created one new assignment and re-committed myself to an emphasis on ideas and meanings.
If the last eighteen months have shown us anything, it’s not that “kids these days” have a poor grasp of what we’d call civics, it’s that all people in this country do. My new assignment, described here, uses the NHPR podcast Civics 101 to help my students shore up their civics knowledge. I didn’t need the 2016 election to show me this was a problem, though. As I noted:
Even though many of my students – certainly those from Connecticut – took a civics class within the last five years, they often struggle to understand the contemporary structure of the U.S. government and the ideas behind it. This makes it hard to teach the history and evolution of those structures and ideas, not least because students sometimes can’t see just how different things are.
Helping my students to think more about civics connects to the broader emphasis I will be bringing to bear in my classes this semester with renewed vigor: things mean things. I generally have a pretty Socratic approach in the classroom, though I know its limits, but I am going to really push myself to push my students to think through the ideas behind the systems.
For instance, most of my students don’t know that direct election of senators hasn’t always been a thing. When they learn that it wasn’t a thing in the first half of the nation’s history, they make sense of it pretty easily by saying things were different then. To be quite honest, I often have students argue that slavery could have been made “less bad.”
These responses remind us that the notion that the past is a foreign country can be really dangerous, as we have seen in recent discussions about monuments to white supremacy under the guise of honoring the Confederate dead. I’ve seen an awful lot of people say “Things were different back then, people thought differently” and then move on.
If I ask my students if they’d accept enslavement under the conditions they propose, or even accept an amendment that canceled out the 17th Amendment, they say “of course not!” This year, I want to push them harder to think about why these ideas are so repugnant to them, to think about why they are so quick to say they were nbd in the past, and to think about what it actually meant on the ground for people and the systems they created and engaged with.
The supposed foreignness of the past enables and is enabled by a refusal to acknowledge the diversity of people and opinions in the past. I always push students when they say “people” but mean ” white people” or “men,” and I’m going to do that more this semester. Because “people” didn’t put up those statues, the same way “people” didn’t need to be persuaded that slavery was bad. Just because things were different in the past doesn’t mean that everyone in the past agreed with them, and I can push my students to think about whose dissenting voices and views might be erased by thinking of the past this way.
When thinking about how to approach this semester, I lamented to a friend that I felt I had little patience for students who could say “History doesn’t really matter” right now. She replied that people who say that are really saying “I think history doesn’t matter for me, and I don’t care that it matters to the lives of other people in this classroom.” That framing really helped me understand why I was so anxious and and even angry, but it also reminded me that I had a way through this.
Historians have ways of thinking that break down the notion that any of us are outside of or disconnected from the past. Those ways of thinking reveal to us the systems we inhabit and re-create every day and the way those systems are shaped by everything that has come before.
We also have ways of thinking that encourage empathy and understanding, ways of thinking that help break down the notion that any of us can ever be disconnected from the people around us.
This can be really unsettling for students of all stripes. I have had students break down in tears in class upon comprehending anew the gravity of American slave culture. I have also had many students react quite angrily to the notion that our contemporary culture, one in which they have many unearned advantages, is the legacy of a past culture in which they would have had even greater advantages.
I’m scared of this semester, honestly. My university has a high Jewish population, and a significant international population. Last spring, we had an uptick in the amount of antisemitic and anti-Muslim graffiti on campus, graffiti that is always there, to some extent. The JCC down the street got numerous bomb threats. We got a letter from the university president telling us what to do if ICE approached us on campus. All the professors got email from a white supremacist group saying it had a presence on campus. Some students felt emboldened to voice more racist, ableist, sexist, and xenophobic ideas in the classroom, ideas that have always been there in their speaking and writing. This is all on top of the normal low-level stuff that comes with being a young female professor teaching women’s history.
But I can’t not do it, you know? I don’t just mean because it’s my job. I have the ability to teach young adults how to be more critical thinkers and more understanding people. So I’m heading into the classroom tomorrow, and I’m ready.