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History? What is it good for?

The summer semester draws to a close and thank god for that. It’s been a long and grueling semester for my students. Since we have half the time to cover a 16-week’s semester’s worth of material, I ask a lot of them. I don’t dumb down or dilute the intellectual work of the class. Just like my regular academic-year students, my summer charges write four papers, take three tests, and complete 28 quizzes (a quiz and a chronology for each of fourteen chapters).

This is American history, an oft-neglected and frequently demeaned subject in the education curricula at all levels of our educational system. I tell people I meet all the time that I teach American history. Almost to a person, they say, “Well, that’s great. American history is very important.” They say that, but at the same time, I wonder at their acuity of the subject. Are they remembering the tales of the great white men of American history? Are they romancing the battles and the victories? So they think it’s important to know American history or just their interpretation of a subject as wide and varied as any you will find in high school or college?

I wonder, at the same time, why history—and the other humanities—gets the short end when it comes to funding. If all these people think that American history is so important, why are most Americans historically illiterate?

But my task is not to change the world. (Well, it is, really, but I can only do so much.) My task is to make sure that my students leave class with a modicum of understanding of the great arc of American history. They should know that Reconstruction was America’s failure at ending racism finally and forever. The Second Industrial Revolution produced the economic (fault) lines and that would last well into the 1970s—and that reemerged in the 1980s and last through today. The Progressive Era brought us social priorities that we would recognize in our time. World War I lead to conditions that would ultimately produce America’s first stab at creating a consumer economy, and that economy’s demise in the Great Depression. Post World War II internationalism gave us the longest period of peace but created new economic terms that some American resist today.

And so on.

Oh, and they have to develop discipline and writing skills that will help them function and succeed in any four-year college or university they go to after they get out of community college. I tell them, “You are going to Johnson County Community College. The operative word is ‘college.’”

Along the way, I teach them the work of a historian—telling coherent stories with context built from primary documents and the work of other scholars. For their first reading assignment, they have to read two primary documents and write a four-page paper. I do not tell them what to write. I do not give them thesis or argument. I expect that they will use their innate powers of analysis to find something interesting in the documents to write about. They have to cite their sources, organize a good essay, follow through with their arguments, and use good logic.

The second and third assignments lead them through the work of scholars writing about the same subjects the primary documents cover. For my pre-1877 class, the primary documents are slave narratives that show resistance to the slave power. The scholar’s work deal directly with slave resistance and the forms that took. For my post-1877 class, the students read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and George Wallace’s “1963 Inaugural Address.” The students then read scholar’s work on the roles of King and Wallace in the Civil Rights movement and reactions to it.

Some students bristle at facing the issues of race and economics that the documents present them. Too bad, I say. W.E.B. Dubois stated that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” I argue that the color line is the problem, too, of the 21st century. It has all the earmarks of Americanism at its core—the rule of law, the primacy of capitalism over its alternatives, the economic dream of access for all, the problem of freedom and oppression, the changing nature of the American dream, and relations between government and the consent of the governed.

While some students don’t want to have to deal with race, most are malleable enough that they research and write papers related to the subject of race in America without issue. But they don’t want to do the work, because it is work. I have students who will put off writing their papers until the last minute, which I don’t blame them for, as I used to do the same. Others resist the work to the point of not doing it at all. Since 40 percent of the class grade comes from writing assignments, almost all who don’t do the work fail the class. Those who pass without having done the writing assignments have to do everything else perfectly. They get a D-. Period.

While all this has to do with history, higher education, I believe, has more to do with self-exploration, developing self-awareness, and maturation. I’m trying to make these students adults. While this may not be my job, I work in an environment assailed on all sides by small-minded politicians, Main Street Babbits, and employers who believe that the job of higher education is to produce workers. I want these students to get along the path of thinking for themselves, rather than being slaves to those who would exploit them.

Producing workers? I think not. I want my students to rebel. Their parents and grandparents benefited from a well-funded system of higher education. Their parents got theirs and don’t see any reason to pay for anyone else’s. That’s right. The boomer generation is the most selfish and self-centered that the nation has ever produced and my students suffer for it. At a time when higher education is more important than ever, the states and federal government, dominated by Baby Boomers, find they can cut education more easily than they can other aspects of their budgets. At the same time, they are deathly afraid of raising taxes, and this in an era of the lowest tax rates on Americans since the 1940s.

Where are the creative thinkers among boomers? We have a governor in Missouri who thinks that funding dancers and musicians is folly. Arts and humanities funding loses more money every year. Meanwhile, the cost of education rises, forcing those who sustain debt to lives of working whatever job happens to pay the loan bills. And these bastard boomer politicians and their supporters think that’s just all right.

I ask myself if this is what I want for my children. I don’t want them to slave away at some meaningless job in an atmosphere that demeans them and their creative abilities. I want them to choose another way. I want them to feel like they can choose something else.

I know I did. It’s served me well, and while I need more income, I will not work for anyone else on anything but my terms. No more will someone raise their voice at me because I am not doing their bidding. Call it arrogance if you like. But this is my way, and I don’t apologize for it.

That’s what I want for my students. I want them to be self-aware. I want them to cut through the bullshit they get on social media and from the biased web sources that allegedly report news. I want them to see through the politician who promises to govern when, in fact, he or she has gone into government to represent social and economic power at the expense of the people.

So my students get stuck with a lot of work. But I would feel badly if they walked out of my classes with better grades and less of an idea of how to function in an academic environment. I want them to know that many things—not everything—is possible with hard work and practice. I would feel I hadn’t done my job if they don’t know themselves a little better than when they started.

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