Church, State, and Schools: The Possibility of Nuance


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By David Mislin

On Monday, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that addressed one of the most hotly debated subjects in American life: the relationship between government and religious institutions, or, as more commonly expressed, the separation of church and state.

The 7-2 decision in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer – authored by Chief Justice Roberts with Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissenting – found in favor of a Missouri church in its dispute with the state government. Missouri has a program offering subsidies for refurbishing playgrounds, and Trinity Lutheran’s preschool had applied. Because the state constitution forbids public funds being used “in aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion,” officials rejected the church’s application.

The church’s argument, which swayed the majority of justices, was that because state funds were available to secular charities, Missouri’s rejection constituted discrimination against Trinity on religious grounds.

Some legal observers anticipated that the Court’s decision would reopen other issues of church-state separation. In particular, advocates seeking the expansion of school voucher programs to include religious institutions expressed optimism that the Court would soon rule in their favor.

It’s not surprising that the latest episode in the national debate over religion and government has raised issues relating to education. For the better part of two centuries, schools – both public and religious – have been the major source of debate about the boundary between church and state.

During the late nineteenth century, the growing population of U.S. Catholics redoubled their efforts to build a nationwide network of parochial schools. Believing (often correctly) that the lessons taught in public schools were hostile to their faith, Catholics thought that the only solution was the creation of their own educational institutions. At the same time, though, these Catholics asserted their perceived rights as taxpayers. They insisted that parochial schools should receive public funds. Non-Catholics responded with outrage to this proposal, and sought to present public schools as secular. Political and educational leaders presented the elements of religious expression that remained, such as Bible reading and prayer, as non-specific to any particular faith tradition. [1]

Even these small religious elements did not last beyond the mid-twentieth century. In Engel v. Vitale in 1962, the Supreme Court prohibited official, structured prayer in the nation’s public schools. In 1963, the Court ruled in Abington School District v. Schemmp that schools could not require students to read the Bible for religious purposes. Both of these court cases helped to galvanize religious conservatives, who felt that church-state separation had come to mean the removal of religion from education, and more broadly from public life in the U.S. [2]

With such a history, it’s easy to view education as nothing but a contentious battlefield in church-state relations. But in my own research, I’ve also found evidence of Americans working hard to compromise with innovative solutions to questions of public funds for religious educational institutions.

In the 1870s, the city of Poughkeepsie, New York, piloted one such solution. When Catholic schools there closed, elected officials agreed to fund two public schools for Catholic students with Catholic teachers. The only condition was that no religious instruction could take place during normal school hours, but teachers could instruct students in matters of the faith after the regular day had ended. Catholic parents enjoyed the assurance that their children would receive religious instruction and, more important, would not be ridiculed for their faith by unsympathetic teachers.

Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Minnesota, was one of the foremost American Catholic leaders in the late nineteenth century. A supporter of the Poughkeepsie Plan, he encouraged several towns in Minnesota to adopt it.

The Poughkeepsie Plan was enormously successful. One Protestant minister in the city credited the plan with “the harmonizing of the conflicting elements of our population,” while another observer called for it to be “universally adopted” throughout the U.S. While that ambitious goal never came to fruition, several other towns and cities did use it as the model for similar programs.

Of course, this solution only worked under very particular circumstances. It was not readily adaptable to communities where religious diversity went beyond Protestantism and Catholicism. This limit explains why Poughkeepsie’s model did not survive into the mid-twentieth century and was not widely adopted throughout the U.S.

Nevertheless, endeavors like the one attempted in Poughkeepsie are a reminder that church-state issues have not always resulted in irreconcilable disagreements. In the past, Americans have successfully negotiated thoughtful, nuanced solutions to questions of religion and government policy.

Time will tell whether the Supreme Court’s ruling in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer represents such a nuanced compromise, or if it merely flings open the gates to more heated arguments.

For more on the Poughkeepsie Plan, see Benjamin Justice, The War that Wasn’t: Religious Conflict and Compromise in the Common Schools of New York State, 1865-1900 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005).

[1] John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003), 112-118.

[2] Neil J. Young, We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016; see all of chapter three for a discussion of these cases and their effects.

“It must be nice to have summers off!”


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My post this week comes to you from the road. Am I on vacation? Nope. I’m working.

This is not a post where I complain about how hard academics have it in the summer. There are many things about an academic life in the summer that are pretty great, and no one’s going to deny they exist. [Two words: yoga pants.] But I do find that many people I know are unsure what exactly academics do during the summer, so I’m going to tell you what I’m doing.

Mostly I’m doing three things I have done every summer since around my third year of graduate school: I’m conducting research in archives that are not within easy driving distance of my house, I’m reading, and I’m writing. Since I am currently a contingent worker – meaning I teach courses but don’t have a permanent, tenure-track job – this work is all done using the money I saved from my teaching job during the year.* Sometimes there are grants you can apply for to help you with travel for research, but they’re competitive, and they never even come close to covering all the costs, and if you don’t get them, you have to do the research anyway.

What am I writing? Well, I’m writing a book. I wrote a dissertation, which might sound like a book and weigh as much as a book and even look like a book when it’s printed out, but it isn’t a book – at least, not to the people who get to decide whether I ever get a job and then get to keep that job. Essentially what I’m doing is reworking the research I did for the dissertation into something different, which in my case means a lot of brand new writing.

That leads to the other two things: the reading and the research. My book will still contain all of the arguments and ideas of my dissertation, but I’m also talking about some bigger, broader themes. More specifically, my dissertation was about female converts to Catholicism in 19th century America, my book is about how those converts show us the difficulties 19th century women had in a culture that celebrated the self and the individual but didn’t really seem to think women could or should have or be those things.

All of that means I have to read a lot more books and journal articles to help me hone my argument, beyond the hundreds I read when I wrote my dissertation. So one of the things I’m doing is reading and taking notes. I absorb the most when I take notes by hand and then type them up later. I’ve filled one-and-a-half 80 page notebooks with notes since the end of May. I’ll easily do two more by the end of the summer.

It also means that I have to do more research. This week, I’m researching at the place where I did most of my dissertation research as well: the Massachusetts Historical Society. I did and will do research in places much further from where I live in Connecticut, but most of my research was in the Boston area, which hits that sweet spot – too far to drive every day and get in a reasonable amount of research, but close enough to make you feel silly that you’re in a hotel/sublet c. 2010 or AirBNB c. 2017.**

The Massachusetts Historical Society

The Massachusetts Historical Society

Technology’s changed a lot about doing research, even since I started my dissertation work in 2010. I had a digital camera back then, but it wasn’t easy to get great shots without a tripod (which many archives don’t allow), and easy and relatively-inexpensive cloud backup for 45 gigs of photos wasn’t a thing. That meant reading documents and transcribing them in the archive. That’s still what I do in many archives, and what many of my colleagues do in all their archives, because photography is not allowed, or you have to pay for it, or you just can’t do it well without damaging the material.

It’s me and Charles Sumner! This is my favorite table at MHS and I get very put out when someone else is using it.

Today, I took 465 photographs, and transcribed all or part of a hundred letters. I’ll do the same tomorrow and every day through Saturday, by which point my body will be bent into a permanent hunch. Then when I get home, I will go back to the reading, and the writing, while I also read the thousands of pages of letters I photographed and think about how they add to and change the book I’m writing.


Gratuitous cross-hatch writing shot! This is actually one of the clearer versions of this technique in the collections I’m working in. Many of them are on thinner paper.

All the while, I’m also thinking about the courses I’m teaching in the fall. I need to revise lessons, readings, and assignments, and start thinking about the new course I’m teaching in the spring.

So that’s what I’m doing this summer. And I’ll keep doing it all when school starts again. I’ll just add the teaching back in and try to keep all the plates spinning.***


Every academic at the end of August. Actually this is a really optimistic portrait, but I couldn’t find a GIF with all the plates falling in succession and the plate spinner cutting her hand on the shards trying to clean it up.

*I know that TT folk don’t live in a land of milk and honey. But as a contingent worker I get nothing for research, so I think it’s fair for me to say that’s a different experience. Because of a paperwork mixup, I lost library access, email access, and health insurance this summer. It’s different down here.

**Yes, colleagues whose archives are further away/in another country, I hear you and I see you and I recognize that your challenges are different and often greater than mine. I am in no way trying to say I am the most beleaguered.

***There is also service work to keep programs/departments/colleges/universities running. I do departmental stuff all year round, but that’s about it because I’m not permanent. TT people have more committees and things.

Related: Why don’t archivists digitize everything?

Senate Health Care Bill



Since Erin and I started this blog, we’ve tried to provide historical context for contemporary events. We’ve especially tried to examine the history of healthcare in the United States and if you missed any of those posts, simply use the healthcare tag on this post to find them.

Sometimes historical context isn’t enough. As the Senate prepares to vote on its version of repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, rather than look to the past, we need to look at what this bill will do to health insurance in this country. According to ThinkProgress, these are the main features of the bill:


Elimination of the individual and employer mandates.

Premium taxes based on age, income, and geography like Obamacare but, but with adjusted thresholds that disproportionately hurt older and poorer Americans:

Begins to cut Medicaid program expansion starting in 2021, with a three-year phase out. (This will not matter for 8 states with “trigger laws,” which terminate immediately once federal funds are affected.) And then cuts the rest of the budget’s program too.

Tax cuts for the wealthy by repealing Obamacare tax increases.

Cost sharing subsidies end in 2020, but could end earlier if the Trump Administration cuts them off.

States can still waive Obamacare regulations, such as essential benefits.

Planned Parenthood could face a one-year Medicaid funding freeze.

The long and short of it is, it’s a tax cut for the wealthiest Americans at the expense of poor Americans. The bill is especially devastating towards Medicaid, the federal program that provides services to the elderly, disabled (of all ages), veterans, and well, pretty much every American unless you’re as rich as Donald Trump. Under the Senate bill, the Federal government would no longer match payments to the states to cover the cost of healthcare for Americans. Rather states would receive a single pool of money and use it as they wish. In reality, this means that states will have to set caps on how much money they will spend on health care for individuals. So that those among us who need healthcare the most will not be able to afford it.

I’m not a health care expert and I can’t explain all the intricacies of this horrid, cruel bill. But I can point you to some places that can.

The Kaiser Family Foundation: They detailed breakdowns of the effects of the Senate bill and how it compares to the ACA and the AHCA.

This NPR chart does a good job of outlining the key features of the bill.

The good folks at Indivisible have a good breakdown of the impacts of this legislation state-by-state.

If after you’ve read these resources and think this is a good bill, then sit back, relax, and hope you never need to go to the doctor. Ever. If not, call your senators and tell them to vote no. Here’s the list.

Slack Chat: Academic Burnout


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Chris Bouton: In this week’s chat, we’re going to talk about what happens to academics/intellectuals when they start to feel tired or burned out. For those of us, whose work is primarily mental in nature that feeling can manifest itself in different ways. For me, I know I’m starting to feel burned out when I just stop typing and stare at the screen. Normally when I write, the process between brain and page is continuous. When I’m tired, it takes effort to translate thought to page.

And I know I need to stop, when I can’t make the connection at all.

Erin Bartram: I have been doing a lot of reading lately, and re-examining of all the research notes I took during my dissertation years. I take notes by hand, because that’s the method that works best for me, and yesterday I used the last page of an 80 page notebook I started on June 9th.

I’m not denying that a job with physical labor is exhausting, but this is also exhausting. You can rest your body at the end of the day, hopefully, but resting your mind is much harder.

Chris: Yeah, we’re not comparing mental labor to any other kind and making better/worse judgments. We’re just talking about it in the context of how we and other academics work. And how we deal with it.

For me, generally when I reach that point, like I did yesterday, I need to get up and walk away from the computer.

And I won’t come back to the computer until I’m ready.

I’ve tried forcing myself to do that in the past and it doesn’t work out well in my case.

Erin: I have dyslexia (though fairly mild, by comparison), and I know that I need to stop when I start mixing up letters in my own writing, not just my reading.

And being an academic has given me a new appreciation for housework, in a sense.

There’s always something to be cleaned when your brain needs a break.

Chris: Yes, I’ve found that housework can serve that same purpose.

There’s always dishes in the sink or the dining room table that needs to be wiped down. Shoes go back in the closet, clothes in the basket etc.

Also, when I start a new project or a new part of a project, I clean my desk.

I generally keep a sparse desk, but the longer I work on something, the more it gets clouded by pieces of paper, books, and legal pads.

Erin: Yep. There are academic heroes on Twitter with immaculate workspaces. That is not me, but I know the line between productive clutter and “I can’t move for stacks of paper and old tea cups”

Chris: So I need to clean it up and start from a blank slate as it were.

Erin: That’s why I usually grade at the library or the cafe down the street. Nice big square tables where I can make piles. My desk at home just isn’t big enough for that.

Chris: Now that I have pets, I find making a visit to the bunny or the dog to be useful.

I usually don’t have to go far to find the bunny since she lives in my office. Right now she’s laying alongside the baseboard sleeping.

Erin: I will go find the cat who lives with me (my roommate’s cat) and talk to her for a while.

I think academic culture isn’t great at acknowledging/making a space for the fact that thinking happens in lots of ways and takes time.

That’s why a hike is good whether I spend it thinking through what I’ve read or whether I listen to a new episode of Mission Log or just look at trees.

I give my students an assignment that’s designed to make them read a primary source closely and then take time to let it percolate

Chris: I exercise every day.

And I don’t consider it lost time or time taken away from my academic work. Rather I consider it part of my academic work.

It keeps me healthy (or healthier), burns off energy and stress, and makes me happier in general.

That means I work better.

Erin: It’s a reverse-lyceum

Moment to brag here. A year ago next week I started working with a personal trainer, my treat to myself now that I was earning a slightly higher salary. When I started, I could only do 3 sets of 20 lb. deadlifts. Yesterday I did 3 sets with 130 lbs.

Chris: It’s an important part of being a person.

There’s a false perception in academia that all you are is your academic work and that should be your whole life.

I reject that narrative entirely.

Erin: I was joking with my trainer yesterday that in my academic work, the heaviest thing I lift is a dry erase marker, but now I’ll be able to hold it up for the whole class!

Oh absolutely.

I also sing, and sat on the board of my choir for three years. I was brought into it by one of my professors at UConn. It helped me get through grad school, no doubt, and keeps me happy now.

Chris: Exercising, running errands, taking care of pets, cleaning, cooking, these are all parts of being a successful person. That makes me better at what I do.

I like sleeping, I like cooking. I like walking the dog. And I don’t apologize for making time for those things.

Erin: They’re also necessary for being a person.

I’m uncomfortable with the old but still present narrative of “thanks to my wife for taking care of the kids, translating my sources, and typing my manuscript”

But also I’m a single person. Even if I wanted to dump all of the things that make life run onto my partner, I couldn’t.

Chris: Yeah, there is/was a Twitter feed that highlighted all of those lines in acknowledgments.

I love work, but I also love watching Fargo or a Red Sox game.

Erin: Yep.

Chris: I’ve also divided my life into separate spaces.

So I have a space where I work, a different space where I exercise. My bedroom is for sleeping, the couch is for watching TV. My chair is where I read.

I found that necessary since we do so much work from home.

Erin: The kitchen is where my roommate and I shout about politics while the cat looks confused.

Chris: Now I have the space to do that, not everyone does.

But having separate spaces allows me to keep the different parts of my life separate. When I’m in the office I’m working etc.

Erin: Absolutely. I’m incredibly lucky to have found the space I have, even if I did have to suffer through 2 months of plasterers and lead abatement people walking through my office and bedroom last year.

Chris: When I eat, I go out to the kitchen.

But it’s an important way to put up barriers between the different parts of your life.

Erin: I am less good about that

But I also think it’s hard to put up intellectual barriers

Chris: Definitely. I can’t turn that part of my brain off

Erin: Years ago, a fellow grad student told me and another grad engaged in a discussion of feminism at a party that we really needed to “leave that stuff in the classroom”

Chris: The skills I’ve learned earning a PhD apply everywhere, not just in the classroom.

I’m currently trying to perfect a roasted potatoes recipe. Because I cook it once, think what I can do better and then try it again next time.

Currently, I need to cut the potatoes bigger to get the crispy outside and fluffy inside that I’m looking for.

Erin: Are you half-cooking them to start?

It’s so hard to get that balance

Chris: Boiling them in baking soda for 5 minutes

Then roasting them at high heat, though I’m sure my electric oven runs hotter than advertised.

Erin: I think the past year or so has been particularly hard for historians, and probably all academics, because so much of the political climate has been contestation of the ideas that we hold dear

The importance of evidence, interpretation, deep understanding, and connectedness to the past

Chris: Yeah, it’s hard to see the values that you believe and espouse publicly rejected.

And not just rejected, but ridiculed.

Erin: People talk very glibly about how history is written by the winners, but I think we need to be clear that history and “dominant narrative advanced by those with the power to make it true” are different

There’s ultimately no “relaxation” for a historian in this climate.

Chris: The history is written by winners comment, almost absolves people of their responsibility to challenge or create their own narratives.

It’s a “well there’s nothing I can do about it” reaction.

Erin: And it sort of allows people to set themselves outside of the “winners” category, when a real interrogation of the past would force a confrontation with how each of us benefits from it

Chris: The key part of that is the confronting our own benefits.

People don’t want to confront their own, largely unacknowledged privileges.

They’d rather ascribe it to something unique about them. “I work hard.” “I pay my taxes.” “I play by the rules.” whatever it may be.

“I’m smarter/better/more charming”

Erin: Like that thread on the Louisiana couple who are mad about black Americans gaming the system by working and getting the EITC…

I am uncomfortable with the notion that the only way for me to relax my brain fully for more than an hour or two is for me to drop out of awareness of what’s happening in the world.

Usually I can manage two hours of disconnect in a movie. Last week I went to see Wonder Woman, and as much as I loved it, I couldn’t disconnect. (Same with seeing Rogue One in the aftermath of the election)

Chris: I think it is necessary to try. I only have a finite amount of energy in the day and sometimes I need to make sure I get through the day.

Or at least find a new or different way to engage.

Erin: I think the profession tries to make us feel guilty for not working and producing all the time. I tend to feel personally guilty for not engaging my mind and heart all the time in the current injustices produced by the things we study in the past.

Like, how can I disengage from this?

I know, I know, I can’t do anything if I’m burnt out, but a lot of people have done more than me being far more burnt out than me.

Chris: That gets back to the larger question we started with how do we function as academics and people

And the un-comforting realization that there’s very little in our lives that we can actually control.

Erin: That’s why the “inspiration” for the shape of the book I’m working on was A.Burr singing “I am the one thing in life I can control”

Chris: I love that song because it’s a position that I often sympathize with on a personal (not a historical) level.

I completely understand where Burr is coming from.

Erin: I just shouted at my car speakers: “Tell that to the people who are owned or barred from owning property!”

One thing that would make bearing the stress of engagement and activism more bearable would be if academia actually placed value on it rather than dinging you for it. It would not only validate the worth of that engagement, it would bring more people into doing it and the burden might be shared.

Chris: Yes, that’s a great point.

Erin: It would also provide a greater diversity of viewpoints.

Chris: Academia has its own sets of standards and most of the activism from academics, at least those that get the most attention, are from those with tenure, who already have that security.

Erin: Yep.

Chris: So they can devote the time to it, because they have the security. For those without that security, that kind of activism is seen as distracting or detracting from the scholarly pursuits.

Erin: And I think it adds to the burnout as a result. Junior scholars and adjuncts can’t stop thinking about this stuff, but are penalized for expressing it.

Chris: And the only way to work through the burnout is by taking time off for yourself and that feels selfish in the face of everything going on.

Erin: Also it’s okay to have a good cry or rage-induced yell once in a while.

Chris: Or go see a movie, get a burger, or a pint of ice cream.

Erin: I approve!

Trump is the New Lincoln


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But not in the way that you’re thinking. When you go into Barnes and Noble and explore the history section, you find the standard fare—so-called “Dad Books.” They have all the big wars: Revolutionary, Civil, and World War II. They have your great men of history: the Founding Fathers, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, and Nixon. These men (and they’re all men) share similar characteristics. They lived in and shaped memorable eras in American history. They had dynamic personalities and were presidents or other leading political figures. The last time I was in a Barnes and Noble (killing time while I waited for my dog to finish getting a bath), it struck me that a parade of books about Donald Trump will be up on those shelves soon enough.

If we follow the criteria for inclusion in the “Dad Book” genre, then Trump checks all the boxes. He’s a wealthy white man who became president. His domineering personality has driven his administration right into scandal after scandal and provided plenty of fodder for future historians. Courts have rejected both versions of Trump’s Muslim ban. Trump fired F.B.I. Director James Comey after clumsily failing to redirect the investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned for lying about his contact with the Russians, failing to register as a foreign agent, and a host of other crimes. (Is there anyone in the administration who didn’t have secret meetings with the Russians?) Trump has no significant pieces of legislation, other than largely symbolic executive orders. And then there are the tweets. The never-ending parade of tweets lashing out at his enemies, real and imagined.


Barnes and Noble Dad Book Recommendations: Notice any similarities?

Additionally, the public has a large appetite for Trump related news, buoying media outlets across the country.  His campaign elevated Breitbart News to a top position in the right-wing blogosphere (although that position has declined since Trump’s inauguration). Trump has also sparked a growth in media on the left. MSNBC has climbed to the top of the cable news ratings. Newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post, and other newspapers have seen significant boosts in their subscription numbers. Former Obama staffers Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, and Jon Lovett have spun their Keepin’ It 1600 podcast into a burgeoning podcast empire. There is a tremendous amount of interest from the American people in Donald Trump and the media are happy to meet that demand.

With Trump under investigation for obstruction of justice less than six months into his term and an endless parade of Trump associates under investigation for their links to the Russians, it’s unlikely that public interest will decline any time soon. Rather this Shakespearean tragedy seems destined to continue to play out. Trump will continue to facilitate his own demise through his impulsive tweeting and listening to whispers of an endless parade of counsellors in his inner circle. Even though Bannon, Miller, Preibus, Conway and the rest of the gang are all much more Falstaff than Iago.

My dissertation adviser, a comparative historian of American slavery, had a theory about historians who study slavery and the 19th century. Every scholar of slavery, he observed, seemed to write a book about Lincoln at some point. After all, it would be impossible to write the history of American slavery without some mention of Lincoln. He was president during the Civil War, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and thanks to his assassination, as the Balladeer in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins tells John Wilkes Booth: “Lincoln who got mixed reviews, because of you, John, now gets only raves.”

Based on the level of attention so far, Trump will likely garner that same level of historical scrutiny. It’s highly unlikely that he’ll be remembered as a peer of Lincoln, Washington, or Roosevelt. Rather he seems destined to join the ranks of Richard Nixon, Warren Harding, and Andrew Johnson. There will be a never-ending cascade of dissertations, articles, and books about Trump. Like Lincoln and 19th century scholars, historians of race, gender, class, and politics in the early 21st century will have their theories and explanations about Trump. Unlike Lincoln, however, I doubt the historical record will be as forgiving or kind.

Correcting the record


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Yesterday on the floor of the Senate, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) made good use of the historical record. He asked Joni Ernst (R-IA), who was presiding over the Senate at the time, to officially state the number of consecutive days the ACA was under consideration and the number of hours spent in consideration. In doing so, she cited the Secretary of the Senate and the Senate Library.

Now, the idea that Obamacare was done in secret without contributions from Republicans is so pervasive that even official Senate records might not make a difference, but it is important to note that we have those records.

We haven’t always. While the current Office of the Secretary of the Senate is a big operation, it started as one person whose job it was to keep minutes, send messages, and make sure senators had paper, ink, and quills, i.e. to keep the Senate operating for the sake of the senators, not the public. Both the House and the Senate kept journals, as is required in the Constitution. These are basically the minutes, listing bills introduced, nominees proposed, and letters read into the record. In some cases, we see days on end of no quorum and swift adjournment!

The Senate wasn’t initially open to the public, and while the House was, there was no one officially keeping record of what was said. Instead, newspaper reporters recorded House speeches and debates, which is why 19th century newspapers are full of multi-column speeches.

As a result, the first official published “records” of the debates in Congress – the Annals of Congress – covered the 1st through 18th Congresses, 1789-1824, but were compiled after the fact from records and newspaper reports, and only published between 1834 and 1856. The subsequent Register of Debates (1824-37) was published contemporaneously, but is still primarily a summary rather than verbatim transcripts.

The Congressional Globe (1833-73) started with summaries and moved towards verbatim transcripts over time, and from 1873 on, the Congressional Record has provided the most comprehensive official account of what’s said in the legislative branch.

As my links indicate, the Annals of Congress, the Register of Debates, the Congressional Globe, and the first year of the Congressional Record are available through the Library of Congress. If you don’t have access to the full bound edition (though what home is complete without it), you can piece it together through several different sites, including

In 1979, C-SPAN made Congress even more accessible by broadcasting live, though as last year’s Periscoped Democratic sit-in reminded us, C-SPAN cameras can only be used when Congress is in session, and the party that controls Congress decides when that is.

So often, though, we hear things like “history is written by the winners,” and lots of historians work on the history of people who often left scant record – even people who were barred by law from reading! The records we have for Congress aren’t perfect, but they’re a darn sight better than what we have for lots of other things in the past.

Still, though, they don’t capture everything. One of the most confounding things about the Puerto Rican debt crisis is that Puerto Rico was explicitly excluded from bankruptcy protection when a law was rewritten in the 1980s, and while there’s at least one mention of someone raising the issue as the law moved through Congress, there’s no indication in the record of why the exclusion was inserted in the first place.

But the situation I started with is different. I said earlier that there was an “idea” that Obamacare was passed in secrecy.

But it happened less than ten years ago.

And many of the people involved in it are still in Congress.

And we have the Congressional Record.

And we have C-SPAN footage.

And we have the Senate Librarian.

And we have Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi and the rest on tape. 

Obamacare’s secret rushed passage isn’t an idea. It isn’t a myth. It isn’t a common misconception. It’s not something we can’t verify because we don’t have any contemporaneous records.

It’s a lie.

It’s a lie, and it’s also a reminder that history isn’t just about facts, evidence, and “the truth.” If it were, Chuck Schumer would never have needed to make Joni Ernst read the facts into the record. If it were, Joni Ernst reading the facts into the record would have mattered.

Juneteenth: An American Holiday


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The United States has 11 federally observed holidays. These include New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Day, Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. States, meanwhile, are allowed to have their own holidays. Growing up in Massachusetts, I fondly remember Patriots’ Day celebrating the Battles of Lexington and Concord. It’s also the day of the Boston Marathon and when the Red Sox play at 11:00 A.M. Unless you live in Hawai’i, Montana, New Hampshire, or the Dakotas, today June 19 is one of those state recognized holidays. It’s called Juneteenth and while it’s largely unknown to most Americans, it celebrates the end of slavery in United States.

On June 18, 1865, Union forces under the command of Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to reestablish Federal control over the state. The next day, Granger, standing on the balcony of a mansion in Galveston, declared the end of slavery in the state. Reading from General Order No. 3, Granger announced:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

During the Civil War, slave owners across the South fled to Texas as a way to avoid the war and maintain their control over their human chattel for as long as possible. While Confederate forces in the East surrendered in early April 1865, Confederates out west did not lay down their arms until late May 1865. Granger had to take control of the state and enforce Federal policy. General Order No. 3 reiterated the Emancipation Proclamation that went into effect on January 1, 1863. All slaves in Confederate territory were freed.


The announcement prompted celebration amongst the African-American community in Galveston and laid the foundation for the Juneteenth holiday. Much like African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina following its occupation by Union forces, African-Americans in Galveston took to the streets in celebration. In the ensuing years, African-Americans in Texas and across the South began organizing and hosting celebrations on June 19. In 1872, a group of African-American community leaders in Houston purchased four acres of land and created a park, Emancipation Park, to host Juneteenth celebrations. Later, under Houston’s Jim Crow laws, Emancipation Park became the only public park available to the city’s African-American residents. With the Great Migration, African-Americans spread their Juneteenth celebrations to the industrial cities of the North and West. In the early 20th century, the popularity of the holiday waned as African-Americans drew little satisfaction in celebrating emancipation in the face of Jim Crow and white supremacy. The Civil Rights campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s sparked a renewed interest in Juneteenth as a way of celebrating African-American history and culture. Recently activism from the African-American community has led to 45 states and the District of Columbia recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday.

If we think of holidays as an expression of our national values, then making Juneteenth a federal holiday would be fitting. Celebrating the end of slavery is certainly something that we, as a nation, should acknowledge and celebrate. The holiday would recognize the efforts of all those who fought and died to cleanse America of one its greatest sins. It would also remind us that their work remains unfinished. The establishment of a federal holiday, however, seems unlikely.  As Erin, David and I discussed in our slack chat for Memorial Day, our holidays lack any specific character. We celebrate Memorial Day and Veterans Day, but rarely bother to distinguish between the two other than one is in May and the other is in November. And as the recent debates over Confederate monuments have revealed, large numbers of Americans are uninterested in confronting or even acknowledging America’s sins. Recognizing the significance of June 19 for all Americans, however, would be a step in the right direction.

Slack chat: a teaching crisis in the humanities?!


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Chris Bouton: As we’ve both written about this week, this seems to be the week of other disciplines dumping on the humanities. You wrote about that NPR piece and I tackled the article from Inside Higher Ed. So to start, I’d like to start with two related questions. First, is there a crisis in teaching in the humanities? Second, if there is, are these articles correct in their diagnosis of the problem and potential solutions?

Erin Bartram: It is almost impossible for me to tease apart the thousands of thoughts I have in response. To the first, I’d say “perhaps, though not restricted to the humanities.” To the second, I’d say “no” but through the loudest megaphone money can buy.

Chris: I’ll answer my own questions. On the first, I’d agree that there’s a lack of instruction and pedagogy taught at the college level. There are lots of universities and colleges that have teaching institutes, but they’re largely voluntary. By that I mean, graduate students seeking careers in academia aren’t required to take classes on classroom instruction. Second, the solutions offered by these authors are wholly and utterly wrong.

Erin: As an addendum to my second answer, I’d point out that one of the two articles said that teaching in the humanities sucked because it wasn’t enough like the sciences, and the other said it was trying too much to be like the sciences. Both are wrong for different reasons, but I think there’s a far more provocative point to be made with relation to the IHE piece.

Chris: To expand on my answer to the first one, I’d say that the lack of focus on teaching is a reflection of the way academic institutions view their own programs and their goals. Graduate programs view themselves as creating scholars first, teachers second. Research, we’re told, should be your primary focus. Even though, and I think Kevin Gannon pointed this point on Twitter a while back, 75% of academic positions are teaching focused.

We’re totally being academics right now by offering short answers and then going back and muddying them up.

Erin: And teaching helps your research, not just because you get to assign books you need to read (not a thing I get to do), but because you have to work through/talk through things with your students and your ideas bleed in. My teaching is all “active learning” or whatnot, and some of the best moments this past semester came when I shared something I’d just been reading about with my students and they wanted to know more.

Chris: Looking at both of these pieces together, it struck me how little knowledge the authors had of teaching in other disciplines.

Erin: I mean, here’s my question, which is sort of the question of the moment: Are they ignorant or are they lying?

Chris: I’d lean towards ignorant, combined with arrogance.

Erin: Which is, in fact, a question our students ask all the time when analyzing texts, and we as historians help them understand how it can be both and neither and something more interesting altogether.

Chris: I try to never underestimate the arrogance of academics. Especially when, as Jonathan Wilson pointed out, Schapiro as the president of Northwestern is making 2.4 million, and adjuncts are making 5K.

Erin: I’m sure this is exactly what they’d hate about historians, but I can’t think about what they’re doing without using Foucault.

Chris: Of course, I could be deluding myself into thinking it’s institutional arrogance, which is more understandable, than just lying or having some other more outwardly malicious intent.

Erin: I mean, I think there’s one thing that probably needs to be said about the IHE piece, and about a lot of these sorts of takes. I’d like to pull back the veil for a minute. I don’t think most people, especially people in power, are actually interested in teaching students the kind of critical thinking that the humanities engenders. At all.

The IHE piece argues that the humanities have tried too hard to be like the sciences. But I’d point to this piece in Harper’s from a few years ago. The piece deals with the ways that the humanities have tried to make the case for their value in a capitalist system.

So, this line in the IHE piece: “But if Shakespeare and Milton are no more important than any other “cultural artifact or practice,” and if they are to be studied only “insofar as” they connect with other social factors and not because of “some intrinsic interest or special aesthetic values,” then why invest the considerable effort to read them at all?”

They skip right over the reason. Like, they just erase it. The reason to read and think and do all of this is to understand humanity. But their vision of the humanities suggests that we can only do that by saying “these works are genius and better and represent what humanity should be” rather than what it is. What the humanities do for people is enable them to understand the way the world is and think about COMPETING ideas of what it should be. Yeah, it might inspire them to say “A Winter’s Tale” is great, but it might also inspire them to say “Wait…supply side economics sounds like a scam.”

Chris: The major problem I have with this entire line of critique is that critics begin with the assumption that we should evaluate the humanities solely in the context of capitalism.

Erin: Absolutely.

Chris: Why is capitalism the sine qua non for evaluating the humanities?

Erin: I mean, I think that evaluating it in that framework and constantly deeming it a failure is a way to contain its power.

Chris: And a way to elevate the power of those doing the framing.

Man we are deep into the discourses of power now (Thanks Foucault!)

Erin: Seriously!

Chris: I reject that entire framing device. As if capitalism is the only lens through which we should filter our evaluations of things. Human beings, in general, are terrible economic actors. By that I mean, they generally don’t act in their own best interest anyway. So why should the assumptions of that system govern everything?

Erin: [This is why I can’t stand the use of economic framing devices for historical arguments. I don’t think they explain economics well, so why should I buy them in their historical use?]

Chris: My favorite economists are those who detail how human beings act against the principles of economic theory. (Go behavioral economics!)

Erin: Historians, with their crazy ideas that we should look at what people actually said and did!

Chris: Yeah, why bother with that?

Erin: I actually don’t know how this conversation moves forward, though, without confronting this central issue that the skills of the humanities are actually not desired by most people.

Parents want their kids to go to school and learn how to critically think but also come out still agreeing with their parents

Chris: Well that I think is the tragedy that we’ve been tiptoeing around.

Erin: I have so many friends who are talented writers and thinkers, highly educated, but if your boss doesn’t actually recognize good writing, or if the forces of inertia in your organization are so strong that your co-workers will continue along with terrible procedures and structures rather than change, or if being 30 still marks you as an uppity child….

Chris: Morson and Schapiro decry the lack of people with good critical thinking skills and we constantly hear how employers want people who can think and write. Yet when it comes to the fields that teach those skills, there’s a disconnect there. It also doesn’t help that Morson and Schapiro bust out the tried and true straw-man argument and then spend their entire piece arguing against it.

Erin: As I think Caleb McDaniel said, nothing like a badly-argued essay to make the case for humanities education.

Chris: Congratulations you argued against a position that no one has taken. Well done.

Erin: One thing that really ticked me off was this idea that “analyzing” writing and thinking of it as a “text” somehow ruins it. I am not sure whether they hate historical methods all together or just “cultural” history, but it’s total BS.

Chris: One of my favorite courses I took at Hamilton was a course on the Brothers Karamazov. It was all about contextualizing the book within Russian literature and reading it closely.

Erin: One of my favorites was philosophy through Dostoevsky, in which I read Karamazov, and also The Idiot and Notes from Underground. No need to worry, my dudes, despite all that “analysis” of it, I still almost missed a cue while running the light board in our concert hall because I was reading the end of The Idiot and weeping.

Chris: Now, did spending half a semester on the Brothers K help me land a job? Directly, no. Did it further my critical thinking skills, teach me to write better, and expose me to a new genre (to me) of literature? Yes. Was it worth it? Absolutely. I reread the Brothers K a few summers ago and loved it again.

Erin: And I bet it didn’t diminish your recognition of it as a great and powerful work, but rather enhanced it.

Chris: No, it enhanced it.

Looks like we had the same idea there.

Erin: I mean, my other major was music, and I thought seriously about doing an advanced degree in music theory. [History writing can be hard, but it’s nothing compared to writing about music, let me tell you.] All I did in that was analyze and pick apart great works. In Theory 3 or 4, we spent several weeks on the third movement of Brahms’ Third Symphony

We didn’t listen to it, we just analyzed it. We tore it apart. And then at the end, our professor said “Let’s listen to it again.” Every student in that class cried.

Chris: Those are valuable skills! Understanding how something came together is crucially important. And not just in academia, everywhere. If I’m fixing a toilet in my house, yeah, I’m going to learn how to take it apart and put it back together. I’m going to deconstruct it. Study it, examine it.

Erin: I think those are the skills that are often most dangerous

Chris: Figure out how it works.

Erin: If you’re invested in keeping the system largely as it is. Like, at the end of reading that IHE piece, I honestly couldn’t understand exactly what they want us to do with the humanities. Step 1: Make students read Shakespeare but don’t analyze it too much and force them to love it and recognize genius, Step 2: Profit?

Chris: There were so many confusing things about that piece. I can’t explain that ending either.

Erin: I think one of the problems is you can’t encourage the kind of humanistic thinking that can be monetized without encouraging the kind of humanistic thinking that can help people analyze, take apart, and imagine new systems, institutions, and ways of being. Like this sort of thing.

Chris: That’s a good way of putting it. Because what did every historian on Twitter do in response to the IHE piece? Put their skills to work

Erin: Yep.

The humanities help us remember we’re all human, even the “geniuses.” That’s why this passage in that story stuck out to me: “It is a relationship Malloy says is discomforting to some friends, the ones who compliment her interest in the abstractions of second chances, while flinching at the realities, the idea that the first lady of Connecticut is comfortable getting in a car with an ex-convict.”

Chris: I’d like to circle back to the opening question for a second, to make sure we’ve exhausted that discussion. Is there a teaching crisis in the history/the humanities?

I think there is a perception of one, due to the decline in humanities majors. But not that there is actually one.

Erin: I mean, I think whatever crisis there is is rooted not in the nature of the humanities but in the larger issues of higher ed at the moment. As I noted in my piece this week, I think most historians would prefer to teach in the ways that Wieman advocates. No one is disputing that.

Chris: Agreed

Erin: People outside academia should think hard about why tuition keeps going up while the pay of the people who do the teaching – the primary labor of the university – are paid less and less.

Chris: Right and I think Wieman, Morson, and Schapiro are looking at symptoms of the disease and saying that they’re the cause.

Erin: Yep.

I also do not want to read any more higher ed hot takes from elite institutions any more. I just don’t. But of course that’s all we see, because Morson/Schapiro’s view of what is “worthy” in literature is how American society thinks about knowledge

Chris: Yeah, I also wanted to reiterate that point.

Erin: Whatever’s coming out of elite institutions must be the best/freshest thinking

Chris: Higher education is not just the Ivys, little Ivys, and R1s.

Erin: If you want the best genius, read Shakespeare/look to elite institutions

Chris: Yet publicly that’s all that gets discussed. (I know we’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth restating).

Erin: Most of the really pioneering and effective research/experimentation being done in higher ed pedagogy is being done at places that these writers have never heard of.

Chris: I just spent an entire week surrounded by high school teachers, giving up a week of their summer or school year to try and get better at teaching their students critical thinking skills. There are people practicing and teaching these skills, you just have to look down rather than across your Ivory Tower to see them.

Erin: I heard an amazing presentation at AHA years ago, in one of the Tuning Committee meetings early in its history, by a professor at a Catholic women’s college in Minnesota or Wisconsin, that served primarily first generation students, largely women of color. And it was about how the school’s liberal arts mission statement pervaded teaching. Each department had to take it and rewrite it for their department, and then professors had to do it for each course. It showed a level of understanding of and commitment to the liberal arts that took my breath away, and was so much more powerful than anything I’d ever heard from an elite institution.

Chris: The lesson is, good pedagogy is out there. You just have to be willing to look for it.

Erin: And acknowledge that people less prestigious than you are doing it.

Chris: I’m about out of stuff to rant about.

A Historical Teaching Crisis?



It has been a banner week for other disciplines lecturing the humanities on their failings. First, as Erin wrote about yesterday, Carl Wieman, a Nobel Prize winning scientist, suggested that historians and history teachers should adopt more active learning strategies. (Thanks, hadn’t thought of that one.) Then, Gary Saul Morson, a professor at Northwestern University, and Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern, argued that humanities teachers and professors should try teaching empathy and broadening students’ perspectives. (Again, what an original thought.) The decline in humanities majors, they stressed, is because the humanities only chase a superficial level of knowledge, reducing “Great Literature” to basic facts and plot summaries.

There are many, many problems with these think-pieces. The biggest is the intellectual arrogance that comes from assuming that historians and history teachers haven’t been using these strategies for years. Historians and history teachers already are teaching their students historical empathy and pushing beyond simple skills like memorization and recitation. The only reason Wieman, Morson and Schapiro think these are new ideas is because they haven’t bothered to look for them.


I spent last week at the Tampa Convention Center, sitting a table surrounded by eight other people, grading the U.S. history exam. Seven people at my table (including the table leader) were high school teachers. On the morning of the first day, our table leader quickly and effectively led us through the grading rubric for the long essay question about the impact of the Market Revolution on women’s lives. During our training, we graded practice essays, had lively conversations about evidence, historical thinking, and whether the students supported their theses. The intellectual atmosphere reminded me of graduate seminars or deconstructing a paper with a student in office hours. My high school colleagues had a strong grasp of the AP content and teaching their students to maximize their score and by extension, their critical thinking skills. They quickly identified examples of good and bad theses, good and bad uses of evidence, and whether students had effectively demonstrated change over time.

As I’ve been reading these articles on education practices in the humanities, it struck me that the problem is not that historians and history teachers aren’t engaging in active learning or teaching deeper critical thinking skills. They are. The problem is that Wieman, Schapiro, and Morson, rely on straw-man arguments rather than actual evidence. Morson and Schapiro claim that humanities professors blame the students for the decline in the humanities:

But humanities professors themselves, like a delicatessen owner selling spoiled meat and blaming business failure on the vulgarization of consumer taste, fault their students. ‘All they care about is money,’ they complain. ‘Twitter has reduced their attention span to that of a pithed frog.’

They cite no further evidence for this claim. In fact, Morson and Schapiro cite no data at all for any of their arguments in their essay. Perhaps they saved the evidence for their book (available for $29.95 from Princeton University Press). As Erin pointed out yesterday, there are plenty of easily accessible examples of historians engaging in precisely these kinds of active learning practices.

Over the course of the week at AP grading, I was impressed by my high school colleagues. These were high school teachers who gave up a week of their lives—for some this meant part of their summer; for others it meant missing a week of classroom instruction—to come sit in a convention center and grade for eight hours a day. I did it for the experience and the pay. They came to Tampa because they wanted to learn how the test is graded so they can better teach their students. They also want to make sure each kid got a fair shot. I watched them agonize over the students who wrote really strong theses, but failed to support them with evidence.  For these high school teachers, grading the AP exam provided them the opportunity to improve their teaching, further their historical understanding, and help their students to do better. These are the values that Wieman and Morson and Schapiro claim don’t exist in the humanities. They do. You just have to look for them.

Hey NPR!


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Most of the time we give you context for the news, but sometimes we are the news. NPR had a recent feature with Nobel-winning physicist Carl Wieman in which he talks about his efforts to encourage “active learning” in the sciences. Wieman talks about all of the hallmarks of active learning: small groups, engagement with the material, working through problems, not sitting and listening to long lectures. Wieman is not alone in advocating this, nor is this call new, despite the headline “Hey Higher Ed, Why Not Focus On Teaching?”

As a result, one question and answer stood out

Are the active learning teaching techniques applicable as well to the humanities, among those teaching Shakespeare or art history, or for that matter, a K-12 classroom?

That gets to be a more complicated issue, and I would argue on the basis of the research on learning that they almost certainly apply to most of the humanities because you can identify a historian … How they think about things, how they evaluate sources, etc. They have very much clear, expert decision making processes, and we have that. We know how to teach those better, but we don’t have people in those fields who have tried them in the classroom.

While many other historians have or are currently writing eloquent responses to this story, let me just shorthand all of those for you.




If you’re not in academia, which hopefully many of the readers of this blog are not, it is not surprising that you might think all history classrooms look like lecture halls full of sleepy students pretending to take notes while an old dude in a patched tweed coat drones on and on at the front of the room. That’s what you see in movies and on TV, and it may have been what you experienced in college.

But it’s not an accurate representation of what goes on in most history classrooms in 2017, nor does it take into account all the reasons why that style of classroom might persist despite the desires of the professor.

And so, there are really just two basic takeaways here. First, Wieman says “We know how to teach [the thinking processes of history] better, but we don’t have people in those fields who have tried them in the classroom.”


Everything he is talking about is being done, day in and day out, by thousands of historians across the country, in community colleges and Ivies, in small classrooms and large.

Historians have been doing those things for ages because they are the methods of our discipline. Despite the persistent stereotype, I don’t know a single history professor whose ultimate goal for their students is passive memorization and then regurgitation of material. Reading historical texts, analyzing them, writing about them, and discussing them with others is our bread and butter.  Yes, people do still lecture, though many of us do it very sparingly, and lots of historians are working on how to do it more effectively.

Secondly, any serious discussion of the kind of classrooms Wieman loathes and loves that doesn’t acknowledge the financial and structural constraints facing universities and professors is worthless. It’s not just about “good management.”

To be very blunt, lectures can be done on the cheap and delivered to hundreds of students at a time. In particular, if you are a publicly-supported university and have seen your state appropriations decline and then plummet, this is appealing, even if there is abundant research to support other methods of learning. In the throes of the recent recession, there was plenty of discussion of the “efficiency” of purchasing lectures given by faculty at top universities, to spare the expense of paying flesh-and-blood faculty. Good pedagogy? No. Driven simply by a failure to understand good pedagogy? Not really.

When I was a graduate student at a flagship state university, one that managed to maintain state funding far better than others during the recession, I usually was a teaching assistant for 250-person lecture course. We and the students attended two lectures each week, given by full-time (though not necessarily permanent) faculty, and then each teaching assistant taught three 25-28 person discussion sections on Friday, in which we engaged with students in all the ways that Wieman wanted. When I advanced and taught my own courses as a graduate student, I taught “small” classes of 40 people in which I employed the techniques of active learning as best I could.

Were these large lectures and smaller discussion sections the “best” way to teach students historical thinking? Perhaps not. Would state governments like to fund universities so that faculty could use the sorts of teaching methods that are best for their discipline?


Moreover, most of the teaching of history in the US at this moment is done by highly-qualified, engaged scholars with the highest degrees in their field who are hired by the course, or by the semester, often with little notice, paid very little, and not compensated for any “extra” work, including the work of course preparation. While many of the methods of active learning are not inherently “more expensive,” they often require investments of time that non-permanent faculty simply don’t have or won’t be compensated for.

These are some of the basic realities of teaching history on the college level as I see them –  from my experience at a large public university and a small private university, from reading about pedagogy in higher ed, and from talking to colleagues across the country and abroad. If NPR has any interest in talking to me or anyone else in the trenches, we’d be happy to talk, as we’re already talking about this all the time. Just know that we won’t offer any pithy answers or easy solutions.

If you want to read more about how historians are thinking about pedagogy and trying new things, there are lots of great people writing online. Teaching US History is a great place to start. I write there, and on my own blog, as does the awesome Kevin Gannon. The good people at Digital Pedagogy Lab are thinking and doing about teaching and learning all the time. Or you could just check out the #twitterstorians feed on Twitter and see what we’re talking about.