21 June 2012

Thoughts on Teaching Early American History

Before I get into the meat of this post, here's an interesting post by Baylor history professor Thomas Kidd on Obama, Romney, and Evangelical voters.  It asks whether politics trumps theology in the presidential election.  Personally, I wonder how much trumps theology in everyday American life, but that's another story altogether.  Politics is only one area of discussion in this realm.

It appears that I will again be teaching a section of the US to 1877.  Some of the course must, of course talk about American church history, but this is not the only major topic for discussion.  There is also ideology, politics, race relations, gender relations, economics, as well as a mixture of all the above.

I try to take a middle-of-the road position when teaching history.  Some historians focus on the political and military (I don't do many battles in my class, to the consternation of some, but I love the reasons for and consequences of wars).  Others focus on what is known as social history, or history from below.  This type of history looks at the indentured servant, the slave, the domestic helper, and the yeoman farmer.  I try to look at both, because I don't think focusing entirely upon one or the other truly gives a complete picture of the past (if such a picture is possible in the first place--it isn't, but looking at all angles gives a better picture of the past).

TJ--Thomas Jefferson
When teaching American history, I am increasingly frustrated by American history texts for a couple of reasons.  There is frequently little on pre-Columbian native cultures, and there is little on the Europe that builds up to the Age of Exploration.  It is almost as if there were a few Indians here, with the exception of the Inca and Aztecs and that the Europeans were just out searching for gold.

The fact is, neither is true.  There were massively important Indian cultures in North America that had integrated trade networks with other native peoples.  Some were quite successful and more advanced than some Europeans.  Also, there were huge religious conflicts that led to exploration--Christians (Catholic and Protestant) wanting to avoid Muslim middlemen, and both groups wanting to claim souls and gold before the other could.  The rivalry was especially intense between Spain and England.  I feel the need to cover these topics extensively.

In fact, I spend much of the first half of class in Europe, because it affected so much of what happened in America.  Many Americans tend to think that the Bill of Rights was something thought up by the founding fathers.  Now, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Hamilton were smart guys, but they merely built upon ideas prevalent in England and other European nations.  Discussing all of these issues makes it very hard to get to 1877--but I shall try.

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