Chronology and Content Coverage in the Second Half of the U.S. History Survey

Bloggers for Teaching United States History have recently started a good conversation about content coverage and historical literacy. One of the central issues, as dissected by Glen Olson and Kevin Gannon, is how we as teachers define the term historical literacy. Both pieces correctly argue against assuming that being historically literate simply means knowing a wide range of content. Implicit in this argument is the assumption that survey teachers who emphasize historical literacy tend to race through content in order to cover a lot of material and meet a certain chronological endpoint in their courses. This practice means that students get signpost events and key terms for a certain historical period or topic, but leave the class without fully understanding, at the very least, the complexities of how and why those events occurred and how they might inform the present.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue recently, particularly as someone teaching the second half of the U.S. history survey (1865-present). The obsession with content coverage can be especially acute for we who teach this class because, for us, the historical record is constantly expanding with the inevitable march of time. 15 years ago, for instance, some might have viewed, say, the Clinton presidency as more of a current events issue than a historical topic. Perhaps survey courses presented the Clinton years as a brief “epilogue;” perhaps these courses didn’t get to the 1990s at all. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, good teaching often requires history teachers to blur the line between past and present societies. Today, however, I would argue that those teaching the second half of the U.S. survey have a real obligation to cover the 90s because scholars have recently begun to subject this decade to historical analysis and it is now possible to retrospectively assess how those years affect our current social, political, and economic climate. I feel this way not only as a teacher, but as an aspiring historian whose research interests have moved forward chronologically. My original dissertation plan, for instance, was to focus on the mid-20th century, but the project now covers the 1960s through the 1990s. Writing the last chunk of the dissertation has been eye-opening because I’m realizing that, in theory, it could run all the way up to the present. I never thought that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio would end up in my dissertation. But there he was the other day, staring me in the face at the end of my 5th chapter.

A phrase I’ve heard more than once from colleagues and mentors who research, teach, and study 20th century America is that “U.S. history does not end in 1968.” And yet I think that for many teaching the second half of the U.S. survey this endpoint continues to cast a shadow over the discipline. The frightening part of this proposition is that 1968 was nearly 50 years ago. Even ending my survey course in 1990 means that a nearly 30-year gap would exist between the chronological endpoint of the course and when it is supposed to end according to college guidelines: the present day. This is the equivalent of telling those who teach the first half of the U.S. survey, which typically runs up to 1865, to omit the Civil War.

All this is to say that I am wondering when my survey class should “end” and how history teachers can balance the real need for “coverage” with an equally important need to burrow more deeply into certain topics, conduct extended research and analyses of primary sources, and engage in a more thematic approach to teaching history. While I agree that coverage for coverage’s sake is an ultimately unrewarding approach for both students and teachers, the reality is that chronological coverage matters in the U.S. 1865-present survey. To not talk about Ronald Reagan, the AIDS crisis, end of the Cold War, the revamping of the welfare state, and other topics does a real disservice to our students. The key issue, of course, is more about how these topics are covered rather than simply whether they are covered, but putting a class in a position to delve into more recent history requires one to always keep his/her eye on the sand in the hourglass. Inevitably this mindset leads to the “what did you cover today?” question I hear (and repeat) so often.

What do others think about this issue? Where do others who teach modern survey courses end their classes chronologically? How does the answer to this question impact our need to balance coverage with the necessity of engaging students with the broader and more abstract questions inherent in historical analysis?


2 thoughts on “Chronology and Content Coverage in the Second Half of the U.S. History Survey

  1. I remember watching an episode of “Designing Women” during the Clarence Thomas hearings and thinking Oh, my word, I can’t wait to show a portion of this episode when I start teaching history. And, here I am, at that point, and the confirmation hearings were barely a blip in the conversation because I had so many other topics that needed to be covered.

    My goal is always to “finish the book.” Wherever the book ends, that’s where I try to end, but this means that I rush through discussions, I gloss over things I think are of interest, and eliminate primary source examination in an attempt to meet the goal. If I don’t finish the book, I feel like I’ve done my students a disservice. And when I do finish the book I feel like I’ve done history a disservice.

    I’ve contemplated teaching thematically rather than chronologically but then I worry if that’ll be too confusing for my students because we’re not following an actual timeline…

    I don’t know. There just doesn’t seem to be a natural stopping point, does there?

    • I think a lot of it depends on the nature of the course. For a survey class (at least the way they’re run at my institution), the goal is to introduce students to some basic historical analysis and spark an interest in the subject that would encourage them to take more classes). For this reason, I organize the survey chronologically and try to thread large themes through the class. By the end, I hope students are able to see that history builds upon itself and the stuff we covered in the first week of class at least some bearing on the stuff we covered at the end of the semester. This organization, though, might be different for a higher-level elective more likely to be comprised of majors.

      I think the ending point issue can be a bit subjective and that it’s important to at least have a rationale for ending a class at a certain chronological point — but I think that it’s very difficult to find a compelling reason for ending a 20th century survey class in, say, 1968, today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *