The End Days are Nigh! Where to End the US Survey?

The clock is the real ruler of the history survey. One can begin a semester with a million different goals that involve deconstructing narratives, incorporating historiography, or flipping the classroom. By late April and early May, some of those dreams are stripped from us, especially when we look at the calendar and realize we only have, say, six sessions left. Where to end a survey is one of the choices that often gets made twice, once explicitly when one designs a syllabus, and then later implicitly as one reacts to ‘facts on the ground.’ At most institutions, the US history survey is broken up into two semester long classes, and how each of them ends entails a series of questions and problems that are worth taking seriously.

Where in time to end the first half of the survey seems like an easier call than the second half, or at least the choice seems limited to two options: the end of the Civil War or the end of Reconstruction. The Civil War seems to be almost too easy a telos to build a course toward, or as Brendan McConville has described both the Revolution and Civil War, a “scholarly vortex that sucks all that came before it into its deterministic bowels.”[1]

Of course, being a profession that holds ‘problematizing’ as something to seek rather than overcome, even these seemingly clear end posts become fuzzy on closer inspection. Recently some historians like Greg Downs have pushed back against the notion that the Civil War even ended in 1865. Should we see military occupation of the South and the bloody fight of Reconstruction as a rupture or the enforcement of emancipation? Even if one does think (as I do) that the battles of Reconstruction are fought on different terms than those of the Civil War, it seems strange to separate a counterrevolution from what came right before it.

On the other hand, many scholars (including Downs) have pushed against any short periodization of Reconstruction, and might find slipping a few years more into the first half of the survey as a move that invites a misinterpretation of the period.  Whether an instructor means it or not, where they choose to end their course includes some implicit interpretations over the meanings of slavery and freedom in the nineteenth century.

Many colleges already their surveys go all the way to 1877, a move I expect will become more and more common. Sooner or later the first half is going to need to go the end of the 19th century, say 1898. Otherwise the second half will just become more and more unmanagable. The other solution would be to break up the survey into three, but I’m not sure if more history requirements are the safest bet for the future. Some themes in the first half of the survey, like western expansion or changing conceptions of race, would benefit from a wider view of the first half. Others, especially those centering on colonial history, would suffer. The semester clock makes butchers of us all.

if anything, choosing an end point for the second half entails more conceptual choices, including a decision about what counts as history.  Even those who plan to make all the way to yesterday often end up stuck somewhere around Vietnam, or maybe Reagan’s election. For some, this boundary is fine or even desirable. When history ends and current affairs begin is open to debate, but I would dispute that historians don’t have an obligation to help put the happenings of the last couple decades into context for our students. An 18-year-old freshman today was born around 1997. For my students, most of who are from New York, September 11th is just on the edge of living memory. I would bet in almost any other city it has passed that line already. To many students starting college today the beginnings of the War of Terror are as far removed as anything from the 1970s.

Teaching the recent past is messy, but in theory one of the lessons that we try to get through in a history class is that constructing an interpretation of the past is always a messy business; the seams are just harder to hide when one is talking about something like the Iraqi War. One of the best discussions I’ve led in my sections started by asking students if a history class should cover everything up until the current day. I was surprised how divided the students were, with many arguing that some perspective was needed to get a clear view, and others pointing out that dealing with bias was always an issue. Great discussions can come out of what begins as a simple syllabus structuring choice.

Many of us have been converted to the idea that “coverage” cannot be the golden standard of a survey.  Ben Wright has pushed the idea that we need to see our class sessions as building toward a conclusion rather than just running out of time,; we should try to make sure the same coherent structure can be found in the course as a whole. Whatever model we choose, we should try to be intentional where we end, seeing the class as working on a series of questions and topics that need the last few weeks just as much the first few to grapple. That being said, the last time I taught second half material I got stuck in Vietnam.


[1] Brendan McConville, The King’s Three Faces: The Rise and Fall of Royal America, 1688-1776 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 3.

One thought on “The End Days are Nigh! Where to End the US Survey?

  1. Such a thoughtful post about how to conceptualize U.S. History. As a middle school/high school teacher, where the concerns are a little different from college, I think the switch to 1898 makes more sense now, in order to give more time to the 20th century. Conceptually, Reconstruction is “tidier” but I think the writing is already on the wall. The division at the Civil War has been the division for generations–when getting up to the present meant getting up World War II. To do justice to the post 1945 world, I think we have to start making cuts from the first half.

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