Teaching Local History as National (and Transnational) History

What is the role of local history in the American history survey? Should the history survey always be taught in the same manner, with the same emphases, and with the same material? Should it be taught, for instance, in Massachusetts as it is in Texas? In cities as in suburbs? In poor schools as in rich schools? When it comes to states, for instance, major textbook publishers don’t offer 50 slightly different versions on the American history survey. Should our courses?

Surely most of us do, at some level, incorporate the local into our surveys, even if only in casual references and occasional illustrative examples. I certainly make it a point to integrate local history into the American history survey whenever possible. At its most basic, local history offers an immediacy and a reliability that is otherwise lost in the long train of far-off events. It’s one thing to talk about a mass wave of early-twentieth century racial violence, it’s another to delve deeply into a local incident that occurred on streets and in neighborhoods that students are familiar with. In Houston, for instance, while glossing over the details of several other well-known race riots, I delved into the 1917 Houston Race Riot to explain the many complicated historical dynamics surrounding race during the country’s racial nadir. Conceding that full-coverage is not only impractical but impossible, instructors have to pick their spots. So why not shop locally?

Dangers lurk in using local history to teach American history, of course. Teaching local history as national history can too easily fall into an inward-looking provincialism. While local history can empower students by enmeshing their surroundings in larger national and transnational narratives, it can also blind them with localism. History, and higher education in general, is, I think, designed to liberate us from our narrow surroundings and at a time when transnational scholars can criticize the narrowness of a bounded national history survey, what is there to justify local history in an American history survey? Local history, or at least deploying it in an American history survey, therefore needs a theory.

I resort to local history whenever I feel that it can 1) better illustrate a larger national or transnational trend or 2) reveal something about the process of history itself. The first option is perhaps the most obvious: local history offers something real and immediate. But if you can satisfy the second rule as well, local history is that much more useful. This year, for instance, while teaching in the Rio Grande Valley (along the U.S./Mexico border in South Texas), I assigned several readings on the history of the Valley in the early-twentieth century. The readings variously covered local politics (progressivism versus “bossism”), immigration (the transnational forces and politics that pushed and pulled Mexican immigrants into the Southwest), racial violence (the wanton terror of the Texas Rangers in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution and the aborted Plan de San Diego), and civil rights struggles (the politics of whiteness in the origin of the Mexican American civil rights movement). I asked students to compare these readings and these narratives to standard textbook narratives. The readings, discussions, and resulting essays shed light not only on a poorly understood chapter of regional history, but on the complexity of textbook construction and the broader narrative construction of American history itself. Why did textbooks mention some of these incidents, and not others? What aspects of the Valley’s history reinforced established historical narratives and which challenged them? What does all of this say about the process of “making” history?

Teaching local history as American history, if done consciously and with particular pedagogical ends in mind, promises not to provincialize American history but to expand and enrich it. Content and strategies will vary from place to place, but the ends and rewards remain the same.