The 2016 election launched countless anxious responses from American academics. Many instructors reworked their syllabuses. Some worried about being targeted for harassment. Many became more explicit in the classroom about their political views. A creative writing professor, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, declared that “expanding the study of history could be an essential bulwark against the rising tide of misinformation, manipulation, and lies.”
“On a superficial level,” wrote Frank Cogliano, who teaches in Scotland, “Trump’s good for the business of teaching history. We’ve got more students than ever in our courses. … One of the unforeseen consequences of his election is that there’s probably not been a time in recent memory when it has been more to vital to be an historian.”
As others pointed out, though, there was nothing really new about the urgency of U.S. history in the age of Trump. What was new, perhaps, was the attention white Americans were paying. As my fellow Teaching U.S. History contributor Robert Greene observed this summer, “African Americans have led the way in this fight for over a century, refusing to yield to an explicitly white supremacist interpretation of the past.”
My modest contribution to this genre in the summer of 2017 was to argue a bit peevishly that the main job of college history teachers hadn’t changed at all.
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Now two years have passed, and another general election has taken place in the United States, altering the political scene a bit. And this is the week of Thanksgiving. So I’m going to take stock and give thanks for one of the blessings I’ve received.
In spite of everything, I’m grateful that I get to teach American history in the wake of the 2016 election. Not because I like the politicians who won, but because I like some of the changes that election effected in my courses.
Reason 1: Students are into it.
This is a generalization. But on the whole, I’m confident my (mostly white and middle-class) students today are more interested in history than they were before 2015. They have a greater sense of history’s stakes.
I also sense that many topics from the American past have more contemporary resonance than they once did. My students draw political analogies, facile or otherwise, far more often than they did a few years ago. My white students also seem to be much better prepared to discuss issues related to racism and xenophobia than they once were. I think they may be better at discussing American religious history in general.
This is all, at best, a mixed blessing. It comes at the expense of great and justified fear on the part of many students and faculty members. And my experiences are only mine; other instructors and other campuses may face different challenges. But one can give thanks for a mixed blessing.
Reason 2: There’s less whiggish nonsense.
In the autumn of 2008, I was a teaching assistant in a U.S. history survey course at an expensive private university. The liberal professor turned an abbreviated Obama campaign slogan—just the word “change”—into a touchstone for the course. It signified his belief that the United States is a land of experimentation and progress. “Don’t be afraid of change,” he meant. There was a lot of that sort of thing on that campus in 2008.
It’s difficult to imagine something like that happening today, and I’m grateful for it. My students, and some of my colleagues, no longer assume that change and progress are the same thing. They’re less complacent.
For most of the decade before 2015, I spent a lot of my energy as a college instructor on that issue—fighting what I saw as a naïve assumption that U.S. history is a story of inevitable progress. To be sure, my conservative students, students of color, and foreign-born students often had a better grasp of the concept than white liberals did. But it was difficult, on the whole, to get my classes to understand how contingent and fragile human achievements were.
I just don’t have that problem anymore. My students, of all political stripes, know that history is made through struggle and that the struggle often goes poorly. Some of this awareness dawned before the election; the Great Recession had a lot to do with it. But Trump has helped dispel a lot more illusions.
Reason 3: Academics want to talk about teaching.
In the wake of 2016, it seems to me, American academics have learned more to appreciate teaching history as a public act. This means not only that they appreciate teaching as a contribution to politics, but also that they realize their teaching is under public scrutiny.
To a degree, in other words, the anxiety that some professors express about the Trump-era classroom is a good thing. It means they realize how much their teaching matters.
Once again, this is the silver lining to a dark cloud. Yet it too is a blessing for which I am thankful. The more the academy understands that teaching is fundamental to its mission and identity, the more prepared it may be to survive its long-brewing general institutional crisis.
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To teach American history during the Trump presidency, with everything that presidency has meant for public life, can be exhausting. In its better moments, it can also be exhilarating. In any case, it is meaningful.
Two years into this presidency, I’m grateful to teach at such a time of clarity. Happy Thanksgiving.