Trying to Turn Lemons into Teachable Moments: Oklahoma and the US College Survey

I, like so many of us, wonder what is supposed to come from a survey class. Almost none of our students will become historians, and the vast majority won’t become history majors. For most, the one semester they take a survey or similarly entry-level class will be their one exposure to the discipline.

Among the many possible goals of the survey, I will mention three. First, I want students to leave with some familiarity with the content or narrative of US history. While we shy away from what Paulo Freire calls the “Banking Model,” namely seeing our students’ minds as empty containers to deposit our accumulated knowledge, most us do think that knowing events from the past can help enrich someone’s experience in the present. Second, I hope that participating in a history survey strengthens my students’ abilities to analyze, interpret and communicate ideas and information. Usually this gets put under the heading of “critical thinking skills.” I believe a history classroom can and should build those skills, but in some ways this is weakest justification we can make for something like a history course requirement. Studying any discipline can help develop analytical ability. We have all met insightful thinkers and writers who know almost nothing about how emancipation played out in the Civil War, or how the New Deal changed the role of the federal government. These people are walking critiques (organic critiques?) of any claim that studying history is a necessary factor to build critical thinking skills.

The third goal is more modest, and perhaps more selfish. The survey is our brief window to convince students that history is interesting and important. While many students will forget the vast majority of the content covered in a survey, a positive experience with a skilled instructor might leave them more willing to read an article about history in the future, or to watch a documentary, or think about measures taken toward social studies curriculums in their kids’ school districts.

In this blog, we often wonder about how much historiography to bring into our lessons. Part of this desire comes from wanting to show the ambiguity that comes with historical research, how two highly qualified experts can look at the same event and come up with different explanations. This work is crucial, since it can help break down one the biggest misconceptions our students often come into the classroom believing: that history is a set of black and white facts to be memorized and regurgitated.

But along with bits of historiography, we also need to bring in public fights over historical interpretation that arent in scholarly journals. If there is a silver lining to the actions of the Oklahoma legislature  last week, it was in giving us a teachable moment (“teachable moments” are like “character building opportunities” in that they are proclaimed after a process of therapeutic rationalization). We should use controversies like that over the AP curriculum as a chance to discuss with our students how people can disagree not only over specific historical conclusions, but the role history should play in our lives. It’s important for these discussions not to become a rant or mini-lecture. We all have strong opinions over these public history controversies, and while I’m not saying we need to hide our opinions completely from our students, they are smart enough to spot the difference between when an instructor wants a discussion or a soapbox.

I’m going to assign a couple articles about the Oklahoma controversy and try to organize a classroom discussion around them. At the very least, I hope to get a few students to see that, no matter their opinions about the claims made in these curriculum debates, the stakes matter.

How have you included public history debates or political controversies over historical study into class discussion? What has worked? What hasn’t?

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