The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
– L. P. Hartley
I have two major goals in the classroom. First, I encourage my students to recognize the strangeness of the past. They are predisposed towards presentism, mapping their personal experiences and values onto the past. This gives their view of history a deceptive clarity. Alexis de Tocqueville’s caution to Americans during the Early Republic—“a false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex”—applies equally well to college students today. Through classroom discussion I challenge students to confront the ways in which the past fits poorly into contemporary conceptual boxes. The resulting cognitive dissonances are incredible teaching moments.
For example, in the second half of the US History survey I have the students read a 1922 debate between first-wave feminists Elsie Hill and Florence Kelley over the Equal Rights Amendment. Hill and Kelley argued about whether the drive for civil equality superseded support for paternalistic legal protections, a disagreement shaped by class privilege and economic security. Later in the semester, I have the students read a 1972 speech by Phyllis Schlafly attacking the renewed effort to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment using several arguments from that 1922 debate. During the class discussion, I ask the question, “Was Phyllis Schlafly a feminist?” By this point the students know that Schlafly framed herself in opposition to feminism, so some will say no, but other students recall the earlier Hill and Kelley debate and a spirited discussion ensues.
My second goal in each class is to teach students how to exercise historical empathy. To continue the metaphor, the past may be a foreign country, but it is populated by people with whom we have a great deal in common. When students catch a glimpse of familiar cultural trends and human emotions in the past that is often the moment when they discover the power of historical empathy. The ability to empathize with people in the past is a learned skill and one that our discipline is uniquely able to teach. It is also a useful skill beyond the limits of the academy. Historical empathy helps us be better thinkers, citizens, and human beings.
For example, my capstone group project for Civil War and Reconstruction asks students to examine our cultural memory of the Civil War. They can choose from a wide variety of topics, but one group last year chose the Confederate “Stars and Bars” battle flag. A member of that group was a white male student from rural Alabama, who explained that he was raised a neo-Confederate. But the class and project helped him realize that the battle flag, which he had previously seen as merely a symbol honoring Confederate valor, also had white supremacist connotations. The experience left him “feel[ing] somewhat cheated” in regards to his pre-college education but “more aware when it comes to race relations as well as how my actions could be taken.” The group also included a member of Penn State’s Black Student Union, who said that being a black student at an overwhelmingly white school often made conversations about race uncomfortable. The group project, however, enabled an open and honest conversation about historical slavery and its continuing social ramifications. Previously, she had assumed that people displaying the Confederate flag were motivated simply by hate, but the project helped her realize that flag wavers were as likely to be ignorant of the flag’s history as they were to be bluntly racist. In learning historical empathy, these students also learned to better understand each other.
Course Proposals, or, If I Could Teach Anything…
As American as Apple Pie: Conspiracy Theories from the Founding to Donald Trump
Revolution, Prohibition, and Roe v. Wade: Religion and Politics in American History
From Old Right to New Right to Alt-Right: Modern Conservatism from the New Deal to Donald Trump
From Hippies to Yuppies: America in the Long 1960s
From George to Billy: the History of American Evangelicalism