As one of my students just put it, “Throughout American history there have been some themes have occurred.”
The final assignment that brought out this wonderful sentence was to assess whether or not the United States is more or less religious now that it has been in the past. The results have been fascinating.
What the assignment has unwittingly done is take their current perceptions of the world (hell in a hand basket or “ugh, all those Christians!”) and use history to prove those perceptions right or wrong. The bad papers use bad history and thin sources to prove preconceptions. The goods ones wrestle with it all.
In the end, most seem to argue that the United States is in fact more religious than it was in the past (go Finke and Stark!), although less Christian (go Immigration Act of 1965!). That makes some sense to me. Although I still ask, “what to do with all those ‘Nones?'”
That said, there has been more than one paper that reminded me that I clearly hadn’t gotten through to every student and, in fact, that I had clearly missed them. It happens every semester–you read a final exam and say “what did I do wrong?” It stings.
But then you read one that goes over all those “themes have occurred” and you feel, maybe, just a little bit better.