US Survey Themes and Why Studying History Matters

Last spring I conducted an unscientific poll about teaching practices in the US survey. One of my goals in this survey was to get a sense of the different themes that we emphasize in our classes, across the halves of the survey. In my review of the results, I am risking preaching to the choir. But before I delve into the different structures, methods, and outcomes of the survey, I felt it was important to highlight, using the themes in the responses I received, this framework.

In the second half of the survey, my traditional themes have been largely content based. I emphasize: the growth of the federal government and the enhanced role of the president; the development of a national economy and American consumer culture; America as a world power; and the ideas and strategies for expanding civil rights and democracy. (The last one fluctuates a bit). Recently, I have been using the Henretta, America: A Concise History (Vol. II) from Bedford/St. Martin’s, which has themes such as Work, Exchange, and Technology; Peopling; Politics and Power; and Ideas, Beliefs, and Culture. In particular, it emphasizes the evolution of liberalism, a concept that I like to focus on, especially in the New Deal era.

My goal in the poll/survey was to get a sense of how well my themes connect to the other half of the survey, as well as what commonalities emerge. I’ve put the entire list of responses below, but four key areas emerge from the survey of the survey:

  • Race, gender, ethnicity and these categories’ relationship with democracy, citizenship, and culture
  • Politics/political philosophy and power/policy and growth of the federal government
  • American and the World, including borders, empire, war and peace
  • Technology and environment (smaller showing)

While this is not an earth-shattering finding (surprise ending: our themes cover big trends and key conflicts in American history), I included thematic content in the survey of surveys  (say that three times and it starts to sound really weird) because how we construct our content, or how much we focus on one big theme or multiple developments, shapes the learning outcomes of our courses. Moreover, highlighting thematic developments are a way we can emphasize our subject’s value to our students, university, and broader public.

By emphasizing thematic developments and analysis, we can help non-specialists see how college-level history classes are not about memorizing dates, names, and events, but rather introduce students to the process of synthesizing information and ideas to explain broader patterns and developments over time. One only has to review some of the materials gathered by John Fea at his blog to understand the challenges faced by history programs and the possibilities opened up by historical study to see that we have a duty to explain the broader value of our content and the skills we develop (dare I say, marketability?). Highlighting our themes and explaining the importance of humanistic inquiry must be the overarching framework if we are to hold on to what matters, and not let our subjects be for elites only, as L.D. Burnett argued convincingly.

The themes that emerge here not only connect to topics ripped from the headlines, and connect students to the American experience and their humanity, they are foundational to engaged citizenship in the United States. This is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night. If students take only one history course in college, and they arrive with the assumption that history is all about memorization (after all, how many of them have read Harry Potter, with the moribund history professor—a ghost—who recites the events of the past with mind-numbing dullness), how can I best use one short semester, where my class is one of five for students, to change their minds about what history is and what it offers?

So what other themes are important to the US survey? How much do you rely on the thematic content or approach of your textbook (political, social, etc.)? Do you develop your themes largely in class, using lecture and discussion, or do you select primary sources and essays/memoirs/monographs that develop them? Let me know!

And here are the responses from the survey, in raw form:

  • race, religion, gender
  • Race, Cross-cultural encounters
  • Race, gender, and class through popular culture
  • Freedom/unfreedom
  • Power relationships
  • politics
  • racism, sexism, culture, and memory
  • Social Injustice
  • American Identity and Ideals, American Dreams, War & Peace, Freedom & Democracy
  • For first half: use and control of land, who gets to decide all that, and what it says about power
  • For second half: how society defines and enforces norms and how and why people deviate from those norms
  • Revolution, slavery, & capitalism
  • American Empire
  • Citizenship, technology, role of the federal government
  • environment, minorities/women, culture
  • Race and slavery, ideas of political inclusion, western expansion, cause and effect relationships, writing/reading in history
  • Slavery, dispossession
  • i)why do 13 colonies declare independence ii)The American Revolution in three parts, Const. and Union, women in the North, African Americans and the abolition of slavery in the North, and then from an elite hierarchical republic to a popular democratic republic iii) race and slavery, 1770 – 1870
  • Democracy, Equality, Civil War
  • “liberty” (using Foner’s text)
  • Citizenship (who gets it, what the rights and requirements, how is it regulated, who bestows and protects, what do people do to get it and when)
  • Freedom (a la Foner, whose textbook I use), but also the rise presidential power, US emergence as global power, liberalism v. conservatism, the role of the federal government, grassroots movements.
  • Race, power, gender, slavery
  • Worlds, Global-ness
  • Technology, conservatism vs liberalism
  • Colonial period
  • Race and class
  • Race, Class, and Identity
  • I like talking about the Constitution. I also try to emphasize America’s diversity.
  • Slavery and Freedom

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