Teaching US History in the Trump Era

So the first semester is coming to an end, with its three different preps and an ELL class. Up next: three trig classes. Normally, I kvetch at the idea of teaching three classes in a row. By time three, I’m improvising just to relieve the sense of deja vu (which isn’t as bad as it sounds, since it usually leads to insights into the next day). But I’m unlikely to complain anyway, since this semester I came perilously close to burning out. I managed my Thanksgiving break effectively, getting in sleep, grading, gardening, and holidaying in equal measure. I welcomed Christmas in the normal fashion, without the sense of needing it as I did going into Thanksgiving. So apart from the tedium of grading a hundred plus tests at a time (as opposed to 35 each time now), there’ll be no complaints from this quarter.

And! I’m teaching US History again. Whoo and hoo. I never thought I’d see another year when I’d use all my credentials.

When I last taught it, the big challenge was balancing content. I like teaching history in a semi-linear fashion, but there’s always something interesting in the past to bring up, and I forget all about the time. (Ha, ha.) I forgave my failings because we don’t have state tests and all evidence shows kids never remember the details anyway. You know how all the curriculum folk like E.D. Hirsch, Robert Pondiscio, Dan Willingham all say “Teachers today don’t teach knowledge?” They’re goofy. We do. Trust me. We do. But they tend not to remember. That’s another story.

Anyway. I wanted to get past World War II while still teaching my favorite topics of the past, and have been mulling possibilities in my copious spare time without much progress until The Election Happened. That, coupled with some breathing room over Thanksgiving, gave me a framework.

Five Questions:

  1. Wait–the Candidate With the Most Votes Didn’t Win?
  2. Why Black Lives Matter?
  3. What does “American” Mean?
  4. How Will You Contribute to the US Economy–aka, How Will You Pay Your Bills?
  5. What do Fidel and Putin Have to Do With Us?

I’ll continue to wordsmith the questions, but I do want them to be instantly relevant to a high school junior.

Question One

Main Idea: The Electoral College plays an important role in balancing regional tensions, a role that’s remained constant even as we’ve dramatically expanded the voting pool.
I.   History of colonial development
II. Brief (I said BRIEF, Ed!) history of Revolutionary Era
III.Constitutional Convention
IV. Rise of sectionalism and the role the electoral college played in balancing power (Hartford Convention, Missouri Compromise, Nullification Crisis, Compromise of 1850).
V. Expansion of franchise: all property holders, all men (technically, all women (technically), all citizens (really).
VI. Popular Vote/EC Splits a) Jefferson-Adams (Jefferson only won EV because of slave headcount) b) The Corrupt Bargain; c) Compromise of 1876; d) Cleveland-Harrison e) Gore-Bush f) Trump-Clinton, which I’ll probably defer until later.

Question Two:
Main Idea: “Black Lives” matter because the US violated its fundamental values to achieve and maintain unity, and our African American citizens paid the price.

I.   Development of slavery (I go way back to Portugal and kidnapping, the Papal Bull and so on)
II.  The evitable roots of American slavery and its development: Jamestown, South Carolina, Bacon’s Rebellion.
II.  The rise of Cotton
III. Deeper look at sectionalism from slavery standpoint: rise of abolition, range of reasons for opposition, free black role in movement, etc.
IV.  Civil War, Reconstruction
V.    Rise of black intellectual debate (Booker T, WEB, Garvey, MLK,).
VI.  Post-Civil Rights era–I see history past the Voting Rights as rather gloomy. Maybe examine riots in 60s/70s and compare to today?

Question Three:

Main Idea: From the first Beringian wanderers to the desperate migrants hoping for a miracle in Turbo, everyone wants to find a home here. At some point, the United States imposed its will on the process. What does that mean to the world? What does the expanding definition of “American” mean to its citizens?

I.    Early Americans and Corn Cultivation (one of my favorite topics!)
II.  Age of Exploration (again, brief, Ed!)
III.  Immigration Waves and Westward Expansion
IV.   Restriction: 1888, 1924
V.   Expansion: 1965
VI.  I’m still figuring out how to organize this.

Question Four
Main Idea: The United States’ economy has changed in many ways over the years. Many people think Trump’s victory was due in part to regional dissatisfaction with those changes. How do the transformations in the past help us understand the future–or do they?

This is a big section and I’ll have to chop it down. But it’s my favorite, so I’m listing everything to see if I can find any synergies to improve coverage.

I.    Colonial Mercantilism
II.   Hamilton vs. Jefferson (again, a favorite of mine)
III.  Rise of Industry (Eli Whitney! McCormack! Industrial espionage! and so on)
IV.  The “Worker” as opposed to the farmer or merchant (Jackson Kills the Bank will make an appearance)
V.    The Rise of Mechanization and the Industrial Era (immigration will show up again here)
VII. America as Industry Giant (Ford, impact of WWI/WWII on our dominance, the automated cotton picker & Great Migration, etc), including the rise of unions (thanks to Wagner Act)
VIII. Early Computing through the WWW and Information Age
IX.   Globalization and Automation, coupled with the fall of unions.
X.   Growing–and reducing–the work force

Question Five

Main Idea: How has the United States interacted with its neighbors near and far?

As I’ve written before, I’m a big fan of Walter Russell Mead’s Special Providence, and will use that as a sort of syllabus to outline key events in American foreign policy: neutrality, acquisitions, native American screwovers, world wars, and cold wars. I don’t have this one fleshed out, but the topic will definitely include the important international alliances that occurred before and during the Revolution, Founding Fathers, John Quincy Adams (you can get a hint of my thoughts here ). Then I’ll pick key events of interest in the 19th century, limiting my scope. Again, some talk of America’s position post-WWI/WWII, but bulk of time will be spent on Cold War and beyond, is my hope.


I have a lot of these lessons done already. I didn’t like to lecture the last time I did the class because it was too tempting to just lecture the entire time. But with this structure, I think I’ll be able to give lectures as well as do a lot of readings and analysis. That’s the hope, anyway.



About educationrealist

22 responses to “Teaching US History in the Trump Era

  • davidgriswoldhh

    This looks like a great structure!

  • Retired Man

    IMO a key aspect is the philosophical and cultural roots of the catastrophic 60’s. And the tragic aftermath. Hard to teach to kids. However the hippies in our family and town were great object lessons for our son.

  • Mark Roulo

    You haven’t asked for suggestions, but you also haven’t explicitly said that you don’t want any … but, first … you are teaching one SEMESTER of US history? Did the current teacher drop out? Or is the goal of this class to cover US history in one semester? Your “Question Three” suggests the scope is all of US history. In five months? Well, the Great Courses covers US history in 84 lectures, so I supposed it is do-able, but …

    • educationrealist

      Our school teaches a year in a semester. Our classes are 90 minutes long daily. I’m not too worried about question 3–I have the lessons on that, and will cut down a lot of it to lectures. It’s basically the immigration question. Question 4 has me worried.

      • Mark Roulo

        Ha ha! I have something to contribute (about Trumps’s win)!!!

        “Many people think Trump’s victory was due in part to regional dissatisfaction with those changes. How do the transformations in the past help us understand the future–or do they?”

        My suggestion to you is that you try to make the time to read “The Road to Wigan Pier” by George Orwell (yep, that guy). It covers mid-1930s England, the desperately poor coal miners in the Liverpool/Manchester region and WHY theystubbornly vote Tory instead of voting socialist as they ought to. The parallels between this and today are striking.

        What you do with this for your course is a whole ‘nuther question, but this perspective from the past should help folks understand today (should, but mostly won’t).

        Wigan Pier is off copyright in Australia. Hint, hint.

        And also, of course, Carthage must be destroyed you should at least mention the granger movement and folks like Mother Jones.

      • Mark Roulo

        “You know how all the curriculum folk like E.D. Hirsch, Robert Pondiscio, Dan Willingham all say ‘Teachers today don’t teach knowledge?’ They’re goofy. We do. Trust me. We do. But they tend not to remember. That’s another story.”

        “Our school teaches a year in a semester.”

        I know that you don’t control scheduling, but the second quote (with the implied “and the kids don’t see this material again for almost a year, but probably ever”) explains a lot of why the kids don’t remember … which leads to the curriculum folks saying what they say. I’d phrase it as, “the kids were taught it, but didn’t learn it,” and add, “because topic scheduling is such that the kids WON’T learn it.”

      • educationrealist

        I’ve written before about my mixed feelings on full-metal block, but I haven’t seen much better retention in normal schedules. Plus, I often teach kids directly afterwards–again, no better retention.

      • Mark Roulo

        “My suggestion to you is that you try to make the time to read…”

        My kingdom for edit capability. By you, I mean “you,Ed Realist.” Not your class.

      • Roger Sweeny

        Mark, I realize this is one of my hobby horses but …

        Unless they are intrinsically interested, or they use it again and again, most students will forget most of what they have learned in high school (defining “learned” as passing a test on it).

        This will start happening as soon as the day after the test and will get worse as time goes on–but much will have been forgotten in a month and even more in three months. That is the major reason for all that is forgotten over a summer. A similar amount is forgotten in three months during the school year.

        (And as for the first part of the “Unless …” statement above, most students are not intrinsically interested in most of the things they are told they have to learn in high school. So a good deal of what a teacher does is to try to “motivate” students to be interested. There is so much stuff in the business promising to do that. Almost none of it has much effect. Which just fuels a demand for more of it–like weight loss plans.)

      • anonymousskimmer

        “most students will forget most of what they have learned in high school (defining “learned” as passing a test on it).”

        I wonder what percentage of students could actually remember most of what they learned (your definition) even if they were intrinsically motivated to retain it?

      • Roger Sweeny

        Hard to say, especially since there is so much “colinearity”: smarter students tend to be more interested in academic subjects, and people who are more interested tend to use that knowledge and pursue further knowledge like it.

        It is amazing how much some young people can remember about sports–because they care. The most animated discussion ever in my physical science class was whether LaDamian Tomlinson or Sean Alexander was the best running back in the National Football League. It was Bloom 6, quickly getting into questions of what makes a good running back, why X accomplishment was important, why Y accomplishment could be more important, etc.

        My excuse for allowing the discussion was that we were supposed to be developing “critical thinkers” and this was a case where many of the students wanted to be critical thinkers (and, yes, I tried to direct the discussion/argument somewhat with questions like, “Why is that important?”).

  • cthulhu

    For your question 2, you could use Tom Wolfe’s essays “Radical Chic” and “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” to illustrate salient features of the late ’60s / early ’70s and contrast to today’s environment. Wolfe remains the most perceptive viewer of America in the last 50 years.

  • DensityDuck

    I know that “game theory” is a punchline right now, but it’s important to understanding international relations and how we didn’t all blow each other up with A-bombs in the 1960s.

  • HI

    For Q3, see Huntington’s “Who Are We?” from 2004.

  • katemul

    For Question 2, may I recommend John Lewis’s “March”. I’m not sure your opinion of graphic novels, but it is excellent. A book that I found fascinating about immigration within the US is “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson

  • anonymousskimmer

    “The Electoral College plays an important role in balancing regional tensions, a role that’s remained constant even as we’ve dramatically expanded the voting pool.”
    – comparison to the same in parliamentary systems?

    “V. Expansion of franchise: all property holders”

    Whether citizens, or not, in some cases. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_of_foreigners_to_vote_in_the_United_States#No_citizenship_requirement_for_suffrage

    “all citizens (really).”

    ->”Beginning around the end of Reconstruction – about 1870 – many southern states significantly broadened felony disenfranchisement and began focusing on crimes believed to be disproportionately committed by African Americans.”

    On Question #3 I think it’s important to highlight the disproportionate effects of the tiered quota systems.

    I’m very happy about the bullet points you’re including in Question #4.

  • Roger Sweeny

    Interesting way to structure things. It looks promising. If I were 16 years old, I’d love to take that class.

    But if I were teaching it, I’d be terrified trying to fit all that into ninety 90-minute classes.

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