Ever-Growing Past Confounds History Teachers
In college, study of American history is often broken down into two chunks. Professors pick a date to divide time in two: 1865, after the Civil War, say, or 1900, because it looks good. So for those who teach courses on the first half, their purview is fairly well defined.
But those who teach the second half, such as Jonathan Rees, face a persistent problem: The past keeps growing. Rees teaches U.S. history and, like many teachers, every few years responds to major events by adding them to his lectures. But that means other important events get left behind. He wrote about this conundrum in a piece for The Historical Society blog, "When Is It Time To Stop Teaching Something?"
Rees tells NPR's Neal Conan that when he first started teaching, in the late '90s, he taught history up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. But "September 11th just changed things, so I had to change my course," says Rees. "And I'm still struggling with those decisions."
Of course, his lessons didn't change on the day of the attacks, but once students started showing up who had completely forgotten about it — "18-year-olds who were about seven when 9/11 happened" — he knew he had to teach it. But there are only so many hours of instruction in the semester.
That meant he had to start making cuts in his lesson plans. Take Watergate. Once, he used to spend an entire lecture on the political scandal, but now, he covers it in 10 to 15 minutes. "The New Deal is another really good example," he says. "When I first started teaching, I think I had three lectures on it." Now he's down to two, and that's changed the way he teaches, too. "I try to do it differently so that I won't overwhelm people with lots and lots of facts. And then they'll be able to understand more history, hopefully, through only having to know a little less."
Still, he doesn't have it as bad as world history professors. "You have 500 years of world history," he says. "Can you get through everything? No, of course not. So everybody's got to cut something. The question is just what to cut."
Teachers, tell us: As time marches forward, how do you make room for the new people and events that make up the recent past?
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Many college students take survey courses that cover American history often in two chunks, and professors pick a date to divide the two: 1865, maybe right after the Civil War, or 1877, to leave Reconstruction in the first half, or 1900, just because it looks good. The problem, notes history professor Jonathan Rees, is that modern history keeps getting made, and if you want to cover 9/11, well, that means you have to drop something else: world wars, Watergate, Woodstock? History teachers, what do you skip to leave room for the near past?
Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Jonathan Rees is a professor of history at Colorado State University-Pueblo. He wrote a blog post for the Historical Society titled "When Is It Time to Stop Teaching Something?" and joins us now from member station KRCC in Colorado Springs. And nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.
JONATHAN REES: Nice to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And you wrote in your blog post that when you started teaching in the late '90s, the course ended well, pretty neatly, the fall of the Berlin Wall.
REES: It made perfect sense at the time. But 2001, September 11th just changed things, so I had to change my course, and I'm still struggling with those decisions.
CONAN: You said initially, after 9/11, you brought it up to, I guess, 9/10, the day before 9/11, thinking that everybody would know what happened on 9/11. But then you had to change that.
REES: My 18-year-olds were about 7 when 9/11 happened, and some of them have very faint memories of it. But a lot of them have completely forgotten it already, and that's very hard for someone my age to understand since it was such an important event for everyone around. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. So, yeah, I have to teach it if I really want to feel like history is useful to the students I have in front of me.
CONAN: You only have a certain amount of time and space, however.
REES: Yeah, 14 weeks in my case, three hours a week, and I don't want to spend the entire class lecturing either. So there are other considerations I have to make when trying to decide what parts of history I'm going to keep in and what parts of history I'm going to keep out. And it's one of those things where everybody is going to come to a different set of decisions, but 9/11 was just a no-brainer.
CONAN: And so you've got to go into the past and then presumably this is stuff that you...
REES: Start cutting things.
CONAN: But stuff you thought was pretty important to put in, in the first place.
REES: Yeah. No, I don't necessarily have to, say, cut a war or cut all of Watergate. In the case of Watergate, I used to go for a whole lecture, and now I do about 10 or 15 minutes. The New Deal is another really good example. When I first started teaching, I think I had three lectures on it. I'm down to about two, and I try to do it differently so that I won't overwhelm people with lots and lots of facts. And then they'll be able to understand more history, hopefully, through only having to know a little less.
CONAN: And I wonder, is there a conflict? This is a survey course. You're supposed to cover certain things.
REES: That's true. But imagine what it's like teaching world history, if you have 500 years of world history. And can you get through everything? No, of course not. So everybody's got to cut something. The question is just what to cut.
CONAN: Do you ever envy those people who teach the first half of the survey course where at least it sits still?
REES: I do, actually. It's also good for research purposes because they don't have quite as many sources as I have to look through if I'm trying to write history as well. But I made that choice when I was in grad school, and I'm sticking with it.
CONAN: But we constantly see, you know, new interpretations of everything, I guess from the Crusades to Watergate.
REES: And that's true. How you teach things has got to change as well. Another reason I need to make more time isn't just for the very recent past, but I've decided over the course of my career to spend more time teaching writing skills and reading skills. And when I spend time not talking about facts, that means more stuff has to fall by the wayside. And so it's really a series of brutal decisions I have to make just about every single semester if I want to do this the way that I'm happy with.
CONAN: And you have to also take into account when you started in the mid-'90s, well, the Internet existed, but you couldn't instantly Google any fact you wanted to see.
REES: Exactly. I think if anything, the existence of Google just makes teaching history as a long series of facts something that people simply won't be able to do very soon, because no one will care. They can Google anything. So I try to teach concepts and skills, which just means I have to cut more facts.
CONAN: And you do have to cover certain periods of history, though. Did you reduce your time spent on, for example, the New Deal because as time passes, maybe it's not as important as it once was?
REES: It's still important, but the New Deal is a really good example, because conservatism has grown so strong since Ronald Reagan's election that I want to spend more time specifically on where that came from and how it's affecting the present. So it's not necessarily a direct tradeoff, because conservatism is a number - one of a number of issues that seem more important now than they used to. Terrorism is another one. But the tradeoff is still there. And so you just sort of look at your syllabus before you teach your class, try to construct a balance and hope that you'll be happy with it when it's done. I'm still not happy with it yet, and I think I've been changing it every year for the last six or seven years.
CONAN: And one has the impression that these courses are somewhat immutable, that once written, these lectures get delivered clockwork every fall.
REES: I may be peculiar in that regard. I had people in college who were giving the same lectures off of very yellow notes, and the paper was originally white when they first wrote them. And I didn't want to be that way. So I keep changing in order to keep me happy, because it's much more interesting not to repeat yourself semester after semester after semester.
CONAN: But I wonder, within the field, do you get resistance when you say: How do you possibly spend less time with the progressives or the populists?
REES: I absolutely do. There is sort of a school of thought in history - it's small now - people who are interested in something called uncoverage, developed by a guy named Lendol Calder at Augustana College, which simply says: You know, we're going to throw up our hands, simply say we can't cover everything. And so we're just going to make some choices and try to do it very well. And that's a little bit of an oversimplification of uncoverage. But, I mean, related to my changes in the syllabus, I've stopped using those 800-page history textbooks, because, it's very simple: Nobody read them. So why should I be concerned if people don't know these things if they're not going to read them?
CONAN: But they got strong lifting them.
REES: And they hurt their backs carrying them from class and back to their dorm rooms.
CONAN: We're talking with Jonathan Rees, a professor of history at Colorado State University-Pueblo, about the dilemma of teaching modern history when you want to include the near past, and then you have to lose some of the more distant past. History teachers, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Fred's on the line with us from Holland, Michigan.
FRED: Hello. You know, I teach history at Hope College. And what I found in instructing my courses is that the events going on in the modern world and the early 21st century - things like terrorism, the economic crisis - all these things are a recurrent scene in American history. I teach the first half of a survey, and I'm also focusing on the Civil War. But I also teach U.S. foreign policy. And so my approach to class is you look at something like terrorism, terrorism is something that has been with us - it was an act of terrorism that started World War I with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Some people called John Brown a terrorist for the act that he committed at Harper's Ferry. So some of these things that we find that are going on today, it's just a process of humanity that has continued for people to act on different things, on some of the more violent ways. And the Panic of 1837, you look at it - the professor said something about the New Deal. I find those subjects back then to be just as relevant today because it shows how we keep on going down these same paths, and it's that historical memory, I believe, that we tend to lose so the past, as they say, is prologue.
CONAN: So what - you have a limited amount of time, too. So if you wanted to include more examples of terrorism - for example, you talked about John Brown - you've got to drop something else.
FRED: Well, yeah, I can't include John Brown. But the thing that actually really resonates with me is - particularly with regard to the political climate today, your candidates are in a race for office, and they say things like: We're going to take this nation back to the principles of the Founding Fathers. I always tell my students that I don't know - especially as an African-American professor - I don't know that I want to go back to that period where women had no voice, black people were enslaved, Native Americans are being kicked across the continent.
The principles in the Constitution, the Declaration, very lofty and very worthy goals to strive for, but I always remind them that those things are placed in a certain kind of context and to not mistake - not mistakenly overlay their freedom or their equalities that we have today for the period that it was back then. So it's very important to address those things.
CONAN: Thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.
FRED: Thank you.
CONAN: And, Jonathan Rees, I guess he's right. If you have to focus now more on terrorism after 9/11 because it's more important than it used to be, well, you've got to go back to the anarchist period, too.
REES: I think he's definitely right. One of the other things that the caller made me think of is the interesting process of historical discovery. For instance, I don't think anybody really cared much about Osama bin Laden certainly before 1993. And now, in order to put 9/11 into proper context, we go back - at least I go back to America's relationship with bin Laden in Afghanistan during the Soviet period. We discover things that didn't seem important at the time and then become much more important later.
Another really good example of that is the Stonewall uprising from the late 1960s, the beginning of the gay rights movement. I think it got covered on page six of The New York Times the day after it happened. And now I think it's probably one of the most important cultural changes out of that entire decade.
CONAN: We're talking with Jonathan Rees. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And Chris is on the line with us from Long Island.
CHRIS: (Technical difficulties) How are you?
CONAN: Good. Thanks.
CHRIS: Listen, I teach history at a community college here in Long Island, modern U.S, early U.S. And I agree with Professor Rees. I feel like every year, they just add another page to the college text. And I know in my last three semesters in teaching modern U.S., I barely got to 1980. But as I teach, I teach the thematic issue, you know, the themes that come up again and again, and let the students know, hey, look. This is - as the previous caller said, this has come up again.
One of the things I've emphasized is - looking at the beginning of the modern U.S. course, is the period of the robber barons and how, in essence, we're seeing that yet again. We're seeing a more hands-off approach to government, and that really that, with the establishment of the progressives, helps to create that struggle between hands-off and hands-on government, and as we go through the New Deal and to Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. And then, you know, if we get through (unintelligible) they can get a sense as to what's really happening. And I feel like that's one of the solutions to teaching this, you know, and running out of time.
CONAN: Yeah, but it does sound like you stop in 1980.
CHRIS: Yeah. Well, you know, the problem is is that when I - when we studied the film "Easy Rider" to look at the '60s, the students don't want to go to 1980.
CHRIS: And they love it. You know, we - that's the other thing. I mean, I do use film in my courses to teach the thematic issues. I mean, I use, you know, Ron Howard's "Cinderella Man" to teach about FDR's New Deal, along with the Great Depression. It's amazing stuff. But I understand the complexities. And, I mean, like professor Rees, I live it every day, you know, what do I teach? So - but I want to thank you guys. It's a great topic today. Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.
CHRIS: My pleasure. Thank you.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get one more caller in. This is Jake, and Jake's on the line with us from Anchorage.
JAKE: Hey. How's it going?
CONAN: Good. Thanks.
JAKE: I was wondering if you guys could discuss a little bit about how to be sure to cover contemporary issues with enough time to allow for perspective and reflection by the students. It seems like if we have to cram everything in - I teach high school, and we have to cram a lot of things into one semester, we kind of brush over the top of things that we're expected to, and it doesn't necessarily allow for enough time for a critical analysis of really big issues that students could really grow from.
CONAN: Jonathan Rees, it sounds like that's the kind of thing that you're trying to focus on more.
REES: I think what I would do - and it's a little harder, I know, if you teach secondary school rather than college - is ditch the text. The text just sort of makes your framework decisions for you. It makes your content decisions for you. And if you ditch the text and replace it - in my case, I use primary sources - then you have a lot more flexibility to talk about what you think is most important, or to organize your course around themes rather than simply one darn fact after another, to paraphrase Harry Truman.
CONAN: Is it conceivable to dump the text in Alaska, Jake?
JAKE: Well, it really depends on your context of what school you're teaching in and how supportive your administrators are. I know a lot places, teachers aren't necessarily being treated as professional, say, historians that could make those kinds of decisions. And if you venture off the text, you risk getting a reprimand from your administrator. Or if you venture too far off the farm and a parent gets angry because you're covering one thing at the expense of another, you really sometimes don't have a leg to stand on if you're trying to defend yourself.
CONAN: And - go ahead, I'm sorry.
REES: I'm sorry. I agree with that completely. It's much harder if you're a secondary school teacher. Those of us who teach college have tenure, in some cases, to help protect us. And I think - I don't - didn't even think - imagine that I would ever dump the text until I realized that some of my colleagues and related schools in Colorado had already done so. And I said, wow, you can do that? And I just want to say, if you're considering doing that and you think you have the freedom to do that, I've never been happier teaching without a textbook.
JAKE: Hmm. That the - this problem is one of the most internally rewarding kind of conflicts that I've ever had to deal with. It's really - it's a great problem to try and come to terms with every single semester. Thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Oh, well, thanks very much for the call, Jake. I wonder - we've just got a few seconds left. I don't mean to put this to you. But how do you make the recent past more manageable? Because these are things, as you say, people have lived through but don't necessarily comprehend.
REES: You put into context. When you see things like terrorism as a long series starting with anarchists - series of events starting with anarchists, then it makes a little more sense that way. If you see conservatism as a reaction to the New Deal, then what's happening with modern conservatism makes much more sense that way. And really, we're not in the business of teaching the present and the future, but we should sort of understand history so that the present and the future will seem more clear. I don't know if that makes any sense, but it does to me. And it helps me decide what parts of the recent of the past I'm going to teach.
CONAN: Professor Rees, good luck to you.
REES: Oh, thank you.
CONAN: Jonathan Rees teaches history at Colorado State University-Pueblo, and joined us from nearby member station KRCC in Colorado Springs. We've posted a link to his blog post at npr.org. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.