Reimagining the U.S. History Course

What’s the most important course that your department offers?

In my discipline, the answer is obvious: The U.S. history survey.

If we have any hope of attracting majors or of ensuring that our students achieve a basic level of historical literacy and an ability to think historically, master the skills characteristic of history as a discipline, or connect past to present in a nuanced, evidence-based manner, the survey is generally our one and only chance.

But many students detest survey classes in general, and introductory U.S. history courses in particular.  They consider these sweeping introductions a colossal waste of time and money, a diversion from their real interests, and little more than a box checking exercise taken only to fulfill a requirement.  Typically large and impersonal, and, in the case of history, repetitive of classes that students took in high school, these are courses to ”get out of the way.”

Rather than dismiss students’ enmity out of hand, we should empathize with them.  If we can’t bolster a stronger argument for these classes than that they’re essential for a well-rounded education or to produce informed citizens, then we shouldn’t be surprised that many of our students are disengaged and resentful.

What should we do?  The first step is to clarify, in our own minds, what students ought to get out of these survey courses.  Some of the learning outcomes will, indeed, be narrowly disciplinary.  By the end of the U.S. history survey, a student should be able to:

  • Demonstrate mastery of essential facts, chronology, and periodization and a familiarity with major historical controversies and conflicting interpretations.
  • Exhibit the methodological skills characteristic of history, including the ability to locate, weigh and evaluate evidence, appreciate opposing points of view, and construct logical, compelling, evidence-based arguments.

But the value of an introductory class lies, I think, in instilling a particular way of thinking.  In history, that means recognizing:

  • That everything – every concept, activity, institution, and social role — has a history.
  • That “we can’t escape history”  — that our lives are caught up in long-term historical processes and that many of society’s most pressing problems are rooted in the past decisions and actions.
  • That judging the past fairly is hard, since it requires us to recognize that the past is another country, with its own culture, circumstances, and moral frameworks.
  • That “nothing is inevitable until it happens,” that history is contingent and key events are the consequence of chance, personality, mindsets, individual and collective choices, and circumstances.
  • That “History is problem solving”; understanding the confluence of factors and conjuncture of forces that contribute to historical change, whether this involves the role of racism or fear of the Soviet Union play in the decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan or the influence of geography on the outcome of the Civil War.

History offers few clear-cut lessons, but it can be a source of wisdom.  It reminds us that:

  • Political decisions and policies tend to have unexpected, unintended, and, sometimes, uncontrollable consequences. 
  • Human beings tend to exaggerate present-day problems out of all proportion and frequently assume mistakenly that this time is different.
  • People make history, but, as Karl Marx put it in 1852, “they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

How, then, might this view of history’s value help us rethink the American history survey courses?

  • It should encourage us to climb out of Benjamin Bloom’s basement – of recall of basic facts, terms, and concepts– and emphasize higher order thinking skills: analysis, synthesis, and application.
  • It should motivate us to explain why a knowledge of history matters, demonstrating, for example, that contemporary battles over politics, policy, and values are only the most recent iteration of an ongoing moral civil war about the role of government, equality and inequality, and the rights of the individual; and reminding us that just as we are the beneficiaries of this country’s past achievements and wealth, we bear responsibility for this country’s past errors, inequities, and immoral acts.
  • History should encourage us to reflect in a nuanced way about progress: That while genuine progress has been achieved in many areas – in scientific knowledge, the average life span, and, to a certain extent, in moral consciousness  — we need to recognize  that historical change inevitably produces new problems and leaves many earlier problems unresolved. 

How, then, should the U.S. history survey be taught?

As undergraduates, many of us encountered a strictly chronological account of American history that reflected what’s known as the Presidential synthesis.  U.S. history was reduced to a succession of Presidential administrations, some great (Washington, Lincoln, the Roosevelts), some less consequential (Harris, Fillmore, Arthur). 

The survey’s focus — on federal politics, public policy, foreign affairs, and war – and its lecture-driven pedagogy surely turned off as many students as it turned on.

Today, the Presidential Synthesis is only one of many approaches to teaching the U.S. history survey.  Over the course of my career, I have encountered twelve alternative strategies that I have seen work successfully.  Here they are:

1. A “Problems of our Past” Approach
This is an inquiry approach that is organized around questions that can only be answered through research into primary and secondary sources.  This approach emphasizes big questions posed by the nation’s history – Why, for example, did the colonists rebel? Or was the American Revolution a real revolution? – and more specific problems – such as how do we know how many people lived in the area that is now the United States in 1492?

2. A Comparative Approach
The United States is not the only nation to that originated as a series of settler colonies.  Nor was it the only country to achieve independence from colonial rule or rely on slavery as a labor system or to undergo an industrial revolution or expand into a frontier region or to experience mass immigration.  This approach looks at how the U.S. experience resembles and differs from that elsewhere.

3. A Multimedia Approach
This approach uses a wide range of sources – textual, audio, and visual – to allow students to encounter the past (for example, through gravestones, fashion, and architecture) – and, through film and paintings, to see how later generations reflected on the past.

4. A Rights-Focused Approach
This approach looks at the origins of the American preoccupation with rights and liberties, and then at how specific rights, including freedom of speech, religion, assembly, gun rights, and the rights of criminal defendants, evolved over time.

5. A Case Study / American Characters Approach
One of the most effective ways to engage students in history is to focus on a pivot point, a crucial decision, or a complex individual.  A specific person’s life, a critical juncture, and a fraught decision can bring history to life in ways that few other approaches can.

6. A “Modernization” Approach
Over the past three centuries, every facet of American life has undergone far-reaching transformations: Families, including their composition, structure, roles, and dynamics; the economy; education; entertainment; and the roles and responsibilities of the federal government. This approach traces the process of societal and cultural transformation and examines losses as well as gains.

7. A Multicultural Approach
The history of the United States is in large part the story of the interactions of diverse peoples.  The United States is unique in the diversity of its population, an idea summed up in the phrase E Pluribus Unum.  But these interactions often involved conflict, exploitation, and violence, and this approach to history focuses on group interactions over time. 

At its best, this approach explores the interrelationships among various groups, for example, the connections between the growth of the cotton textile industry, the removal of Native Americans from the Old Southwest, and the forced movement of hundreds of thousands of enslaved African Americans into the Cotton Kingdom.

8. A Gamified, Role-Playing Approach
This approach, exemplified by Reacting to the Past, an active learning pedagogy in which students adopt roles informed by classic texts, gives students the chance to reenact the Constitutional Constitution, the debates over slavery and the Constitution, Cherokee removal, the protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention, and other pivotal events in U.S. history.

9. A World Systems Approach
This approach, which places U.S. history within multinational systems of exchange, production, and distribution, helps us see how American events are inextricably connected to broader international developments.  It reminds us that the American Revolution was part of the Age of Revolution and reveals the ways that the Civil War was linked to a wider trend toward national consolidation and to various movements for emancipation across the Western world.  This approach draws connections between the displacement of Native Americans in the United States and somewhat similar developments in Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and Russia, and the impact of events in mid-19thcentury China, Germany, Ireland, and Scandinavia and their consequences for U.S. history.

10. A Hands-on, Digital History Approach
New technologies hold out the prospect of making history learning a more active, engaged, and collaborative process.  Simple and free software can make it easy for instructors to transform the survey courses into an active process of inquiry and analysis, in which students learn how to craft narratives, develop arguments, and present their findings in innovative ways.

Students can collaboratively annotate texts, visualize and map data, trace chains of events, construct timelines, record oral histories, create digital stories, infographics, podcasts, and virtual tours, and contribute to virtual encyclopedias, and class websites.

11. A “Connecting Past to Present” Approach
Many students crave a relevant past.  They look at the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, and today’s intense political partisanship and polarization and want to understand the backstory as well as past parallels, analogies, and differences.  We shouldn’t dismiss a “Connecting Past to Present” approach as presentism.  Rather, it represents an effort to understand the origins of today’s biggest challenges – including our long-overdue reckoning with racial and gender disparities or climate change – and see if there are lessons that we can draw from the past as contemporary society makes decisions that will shape the future.

12. A Struggles for Equality Approach
With racism, sexism, classism, nativism, homophobia, ageism, and other forms of bias, discrimination, and targeted violence very much on students’ minds, this approach examines the institutions, ideologies, structures, and practices that have underpinned inequality and exclusion over the course of American history, government policy’s role in reinforcing and contesting inequalities of wealth, power, and privilege, the movements that have sought to combat injustice, exclusion, displacement, and exploitation, and the contemporary debates about how best to undo historical injustices.

There is no single best way to teach the U.S. history survey.  The best approach is surely the one that best engages and motivates your students.

Let’s not treat our introductory or survey courses simply as a gateway into a particular discipline. Let’s instead, without apologies, treat these classes as an unmatched opportunity to introduce them to new ways to make sense of the ambiguities of progress, the dynamics of social change, the complexities of human nature, and the tragedies, crimes, and struggles that shaped our world.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin

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