Over at Darren Reid’s blog, Mark Cheathem has some interesting things to say about the concept of the ‘Age of Jackson’. In particular, he notes that his students in Tennessee look at the 1820s and 1830s very differently from his former students in New England.
At my current university, the Early Republic course is entitled “Jacksonian Democracy,” which I find a bit limiting. (I prefer “Jacksonian America,” which speaks of more than politics, but changing a longtime course title is a more difficult process than one might imagine.) That course title works at a Tennessee university, because many of our students are state residents and have some awareness of Jackson and The Hermitage. When I taught in New Hampshire, I chose the course title “Republicanism, Democracy, and Expansion, 1789-1845,”
As I finalize my syllabi for next quarter, I have been reflecting on whether teaching in Ohio means that I should give a particularly midwestern flavor to my courses. Teaching a course on Native Americans in the fall quarter, I noticed a particular interest among students when discussing the Shawnee, Mingo, and other nations in the Ohio Valley. Teaching just miles from Point Pleasant, this perhaps isn’t surprising. As I go back over my lecture notes and reading lists, I’ve been reminded of this positive response, and I’m trying to adjust accordingly.
What, though, is the purpose of teaching a course on any aspect of early American history? One of the animating principles in my research and teaching is that the past is complicated. Another is that the key story of American political development is the struggle to fuse together the competing interests of a variety of very different localities. So what is important and crucial in Ohio may be anathema in Georgia or Maine.
The important contributions of comparative and transnational history also have to be considered here. In teaching the survey course, for example, I emphasize the importance of the international context in the writing of the Declaration of Independence, or in the formation of the federal government. Often, this is a necessary counterweight to the use of personal pronouns when writing about the American founding – it is harder to think of something as “our” history when being asked to view events from an outside perspective.
Yet what is the purpose of teaching history if it is not to make students more informed about the world around them? That requires an understanding of local events as much as it does international ones – after all, most Americans did not experience the Revolution as a transnational event, but rather a troubling and fraught local one. That’s even without mentioning the importance of a sense of place in understanding the past (I know my understanding of the Revolution was transformed by walking the streets of many of the major East Coast cities). A notch in favor of a local emphasis.
That case is bolstered by another key objective in teaching – the ‘transferable skills’ of critical thinking and analytical writing. The challenge of teaching history lies in striking a balance between gaining new factual knowledge, and being able to interpret it accurately. Clearly, the higher the baseline of original knowledge, the less time that needs to be spent giving out factual information. It’s much easier to explain Native American warfare when referring to locations close to the home towns of my students!
And yet there is an uneasiness I find in gearing my course too closely in that direction. It seems like it tends towards easy familiarity and safe answers, rather than challenging students to step outside of their usual terms of reference. In terms of my classes next quarter, my hunch is that Native American history will be sufficiently unfamiliar that a concentration on the Ohio Valley will help compensate for some of the novelties and difficulties of the course. For the Early Republic, a wider view will be necessary – to emphasize just how heterogeneous a polity the newly United States really was. Yet at the same time I wonder – if it engages students more readily, is greater localism in teaching material that much of a curse?