It’s Complicated

Last week I showed my students the recent HBO film, All the Way. It stars Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame (although he’ll always be Malcolm’s dad to me) as Lyndon Johnson and presents the struggles of LBJ’s first year in office in a gripping and accessible portrayal. In addition to teaching the regular post-1885 survey course, this semester I’m also teaching an upper-level course that focuses more specifically on American history after 1945.  The shorter timeframe and smaller class size allows me the opportunity to linger on particular moments and dive deeper into them than I can in the normal survey where breadth of content is king.

Because of this, I decided at the beginning of the semester that one of the things I wanted to do was focus on the complexity of American history – particularly when it comes to discussing historical figures who often get boiled down to just a sterile list of accomplishments, big mistakes or signature speeches. So, when my class reached the 1960s and all of its historical drama, I decided that All the Way would be a good entry point for discussing the various political conflicts, compromises, highs and lows of the decade and of the Johnson administration in particular.  It helps of course that LBJ was so, let’s say, idiosyncratic a person and also that Cranston’s performance is so good that for all intents and purposes he IS Johnson in this movie, rather than just an actor palely imitating him.

Still, for as useful as they can be for adding complexity to a conversation, you can’t just show movies the entire semester (although convincing the dept. to actually let me get away with that one day is a long-term goal). In my mind, a good history course doesn’t offer easy answers or simple interpretations. Yet, when discussing important historical figures like say LBJ, Nixon, Rosa Parks, or MLK, fighting against the facile, mythologized perceptions that have become ingrained in the collective memory is more often than not an uphill struggle. How do you get across to students raised on fast-food versions of history that there’s an entire buffet of knowledge worth savoring? How do you make students understand that King wasn’t just a “dreamer” but was targeted for being a disruptive radical, or that Parks wasn’t just a tired old lady riding the bus but a trained activist with a plan?

I always take care to bring up such points in my lectures and class discussions, but I still struggle at times to find a way to introduce such topics in a way that feels organic and not like a tangential factoid. This is also to say little of the inevitable “will this be on the exam” chorus that accompanies any detour away from the historical master narrative. Threading the needle here is a challenge,  but it’s one that I feel helps students walk away from the course with a fuller understanding of the past. I want to hear from you all, though. What steps do you take in your own courses to add complexity to the material?

One thought on “It’s Complicated

  1. Thanks for this Jason. Complicating master narratives can indeed be difficult. I’ve attempted three strategies: First, I have students read historiographical debate. Second, I offer my students conflicting primary sources and invite them to create the narrative. Third, I highlight public misperceptions of the past. These strategies sacrifice clarity, but I think it’s worth it.

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