This is my first “real” blog post for The Junto, though I’ve been a spectral presence each Sunday with a gathering of links on early American history (which the past month or so has revolved a great deal around Lincoln and Django Unchained). One of my aspirations in agreeing to contribute, and one of my hopes for a developing conversation, centered on the opportunity to discuss teaching early American history, from the 100-level survey to upper-level courses. So I offered for this post to write something about teaching primary sources, without at the time knowing quite what I would say.
Then, last week, the National Association of Scholars released a report assailing colleges in Texas (the flagships – UT-Austin and A&M) for teaching too much “race, class, and gender,” and not enough political, diplomatic, and economic history. I wrote about a few of the report’s shortcomings at Publick Occurrences 2.0 on Friday. You can read the substance over there, but as I was writing I realized that I want to extend my thoughts to think more deeply about what we do in the classroom.
In particular, I want to take advantage of the broader audience of this blog to start to open up some of what happens in the classroom and why, even—and perhaps especially—with the “traditional” documents of American history: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and so on. [NB: I teach the first half of the survey, which ends in 1877.] I hope that readers will share in the comments their own experiences teaching primary sources from the survey and what perspectives they aim to bring to class.
The critique at the heart of the NAS report is that social and cultural history have overtaken political history as a means of understanding the past. As a political historian myself, I’m certainly not opposed to the idea of thinking and teaching about politics. But I and many other political historians would contend that asking questions about society and culture only strengthen approaches to political history. And even when we ask political questions, we do so in a way that attends to the concerns of our colleagues rather than those of American mythologists. Treating the classics with dainty reverence does no one any good.
First and foremost, regardless of topic, I want students to ask their own questions about the past, to come to their own interpretations of documents, and not simply to receive some sort of “wisdom of the past.” In fact, I see my role as quite the opposite. Whatever I believe to be true, in many ways I want to be the devil’s advocate, that is, to break my students of the ingrained interpretations and myths they learned as children. If they return to them, that’s fine with me, so long as they do it from an analytical and interrogative standpoint.
Do I try, therefore, to convince students that Jefferson and Congress cynically lied about their commitment to inalienable rights in the Declaration? No, not at all. But by putting the document into a broader context, I suggest that they need to ask questions about what the Declaration meant and why it was structured the way that it was. (This differs, in both verb tense and angle, from the perspective of a political philosopher who seeks enduring meaning. I don’t think that’s my job either, most of the time.)
I do assign the Declaration on the syllabus, and when students arrive, I pull a simple trick to change how they encounter it. I give them a brief synopsis of the early months of 1776 and the push for independence (including the publication of Common Sense and essentially a synthesis of Pauline Maier’s argument about local moves for independence), make one cutting joke about John Adams’ poor prediction skills (I cannot resist, despite teaching in Massachusetts), and then ask students to stand up. Many people first encountered the Declaration, I note, not by reading it in a history textbook, but by hearing it—at their church, in a town square, at a public celebration. And then we read it. What could be more patriotic?
[UPDATE: I seem to have left the impression that I read the Declaration to students, based on a number of comments people have made. Just to clarify, the students themselves read the Declaration, one sentence per person, going around the room. I usually take the last sentence because we're into the second round through and I don't want to miss out.]
Once we’ve finished, though, students invariably notice things they never notice before. The first paragraph, that rhetorical icon passed down as the embodiment of the spirit of American freedom, now seems much more like a brief preface. What stands out in reading the document aloud are the grievances. Many had probably skimmed them (Lord knows I have many a time) because they just knew coming in that that part of the document wasn’t important. Many hadn’t even noticed the final paragraph, which is, of course, the actual act of declaring independence.
In this case, I haven’t invoked race, class, or gender. I suppose it’s a bit of a bottom-up interpretation to ask students to hear the Declaration rather than read it, but not by much. Yet that simple act opens up a world of questions that students can address. Instead of staid language that conveys some inherent notions about America, we can discuss why the Declaration looks the way it does. What purpose does that first paragraph serve? Why so many grievances? Who were the audiences?
Now we don’t get very far in fifty minutes, which includes fifteen to read the whole thing aloud, and the survey moves fast – I’m probably unusual in setting aside a full class period for it. But it opens a series of questions about American politics in 1776 that are far more interesting than simply conveying a narrative about America’s creation. And only once during class do I put my thumb on the scale. As a print historian, I refuse to recognize the parchment copy drafted a month later, hidden for months, and unremarkable for decades as the “original.” No, that honor goes to the Dunlap Broadside, printed on July 4, 1776, and bearing only the names of John Hancock, President, Charles Thomson, Secretary, and John Dunlap, printer.