Teaching History

Dr. David Johnston's Family Weekend Remarks
Every year before retiring in 2007, Dr. David Johnston took Family Weekend as an opportunity to share with parents his philosophy of teaching history. In the following, he recreates the spirit of those remarks, in this instance for a course in U.S. History. In a few places, however, he permits himself to include parenthetical asides about events that have occurred since 2007.

l’d like to share with you my goals for this course by describing, first, the historical content l hope your students Will become engaged with and, with any luck, learn; and, second, the skills l hope they will work to master.

First, content: it is a well worn truism that history teaches us Where we have come from, Where we are, and Where We may be going. Meaningful history consists of a dialogue among past, present, and future. Put another way, in the study of history, we learn from the past in order to live fully in the present in such a way as to help create our future. These points apply to any history class, but today l’ll focus specifically on how they play out in this U.S. History course. And along the way l hope to challenge your memories a bit by presenting the content of our history in the form of some of the questions your students confront during the year.

We can begin by considering our political history—how, in particular, has our democracy evolved? Throughout the two-plus centuries of our existence, how and when and why has the right to vote been restricted and expanded? What has been the role of political parties, and what have been the parties’ platforms and philosophies—in the era of Jefferson? of Jackson? during the New Deal? (in our own time?). And what has been the role of our Constitution, and the significance of its varied interpretations—in, say, 1789? 1803? 1857? 1896? 1908? 1935? 1954? (or 2011?). Politically, to summarize, what are the connections, the continuities and the changes, from our past to our present to our future?

We also devote time to our economic history: how have we evolved our particular form of capitalism? Has the balance shifted between laissez-faire capitalism and some form of a welfare state? If so, when and how? And how may such shifts be important to our future? Further, of great importance in both our political and our economic history, what has the role of politics and government been in our economic life? Are the debates between Hamilton and Jefferson about this role mirrored or altered in later periods—in the time of Jackson, of Roosevelt (and in our own time)?

ln addition, we cannot neglect cultural and social history: how have our ongoing debates about immigration, class, gender, and race grown out of our past—out of the various pulses of immigration, out of earlier “Gilded Ages,” out of Seneca Falls, out of slavery and Reconstruction?

Finally, we must come to grips with the history of our foreign policy: How have we envisioned our place in the world and how have we acted on that vision? From Washington and Monroe to Wilson and Roosevelt, from Reagan to Obama, have our views and actions been consistent or have they changed, and why? And what have been our attitudes and reactions toward revolutionary change—in, for instance, 1776? 1823? 1861 1917? 1949? 1959? (and in 2010?). Have we believed, and do we believe, that our foreign policy should be determined primarily by our values or by our interests? And, of great importance to me, what has been our attitude toward going to war? Are wars inevitable, or is there a sense in which one can argue that wars are avoidable? How have we answered that question, in 1776? 1812? 1846? 1861? 1898? 1917? 1941? 2003? Or, on the other hand, in 1798? 1931 1962? And, While acknowledging that hindsight is 20/20, what can we learn from our decisions in those years? And how can We apply our learning in our future? 

Many themes unite these various areas of content, two of which, very much alive in 2007 (and still, of course, in 2014), happen to be ones that we frequently discuss in this course. First, is America “exceptional”? Have we always been, and are we still, as some of our preachers and historians have claimed, “Gods chosen people”? And, second, has America been, and does it continue to be, the “land of opportunity”?

All of this historical content is hugely important, and l hope that much of it registers and sticks with the kids. At the same time, though, I’m enough of a realist to know that before very long, for them—as, in fact, for all of us—much of it will become quite fuzzy. We can retain only so much; we need to be actively, continually engaged with knowledge in order to control it. And, of course, we do not remain active in this particular focus; we move on to new courses, to new knowledge. And our U.S. History will fade. We all know this is natural. So, then, why teach it in the first place? Before allowing myself to become too depressed by this line of thought, turn to our second kind of learning, the skills we hope to impart in the course. ln this balance between, and mix of, content and skills, studying history, or any other subject for that matter, is but one instance of what we do throughout our lives. Take one example: the professional career of a lawyer (or, just as easily, a doctor, or a hedge fund manager—you name it). As she prepares and tries a particular case, the lawyer masters the content involved, just as she improves her skills in analyzing and arguing that content. Down the road, she will have forgotten the content of many cases, but in the process of working on them, she will have become a better, more skilled lawyer.

In all of our academic courses, We develop our skills by Working on particular bodies of content. In our history courses, the skills are easy to state—we read, we discuss, we write. But they are anything but easy to master! First, we read our daily assignments. I do not lecture; this is my longest lecture of the year. We don’t watch videos or Internet materials. Why? Because these are fundamentally passive approaches, whereas reading requires active engagement. One of my favorite exercises is to ask students to sit and think for a few minutes after reading an assignment and then have them reduce the assignment to a one-sentence statement of the central theme. If they can do that, I can hope that they have truly engaged the reading, whether it is from a secondary source, a primary source, or a historiographical essay.

Second, we discuss. We do have some time for formal debates and for research based presentations, but on the vast majority of days, we simply talk about the material. My job is to find focused questions, to structure the discussion, and to guide students so as to help them deepen their understanding.

And third, we write. We learn, we analyze, and we communicate. With the luxury of small classes, l have no use for short-answer or multiple-choice questions. True, these require students to have learned factual knowledge, but they are essentially passive exercises. Writing essays, in contrast, requires active comprehension, analysis, and argumentation.

l have been describing this course in terms of its content and skills. But, really, this is a false dichotomy, helpful for these remarks but fundamentally misleading. You can not truly master the content if you have not developed your analytical skills, just as you can not master those skills without a body of content on which to focus them. The two go hand in hand. I’d like to conclude my remarks, as I did when still teaching, by using a semester-long assignment to illustrate the interdependence in the teaching of content and skills. On the first day of class in September, I tell students that they will take a three-hour final exam in December. Half of the exam will consist of an essay addressing the following question: By 1861, to what extent had America fulfilled its promise as “the land of opportunity”? Throughout the fall, my hope is that students will have this question in the back of their minds as we read, We discuss, and We write essays, all of which will prepare us for that assignment, as challenging in its complexity as it is important to our present and future lives.
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