Tenured Radical grabbed this meme, “Why I Teach History,”, from Free Exchange on Campus. She came up with five very cheerful answers, asking, “what better time than the beginning of the semester, in the middle of what is for some of us the dead of winter, to spread such an optimistic meme?” Then she tagged me and four other bloggers–Clio Bluestocking got her answer in first (what a total brownnoser). Historiann is not particularly optomistic about teaching, and is feeling grouchily Hobbesish rather than delightfully Lockean these days, and anyway TR and Clio B. took all the good answers. But, here goes. I’ve modified the question to make it more specific to one of my major subject areas, which is at the center of several disinfomation campaigns.
Why I Teach (Early American) History:
1. Because I love my country, and know that it is strong enough to reckon honestly with the fact that it hasn’t always lived up to its own ideals, and that that reckoning will only make it better and stronger. Contrary to right-wing propagandists, most professional American historians have devoted their lives to researching and teaching a subject they love. Historiann has always thought that the accusation that the Professoriate were a substantial subset of the hate-America-first crowd was clearly a projection. Only right-wingers appear to enjoy obsessing about people and ideas they hate.
2. Because there is so much historical woo out there, especially about the U.S. Constitution and the “Founding Fathers.” You know what I’m talking about-people who insist that the United States is a Christian nation, or that the U.S. Constitution should be amended to conform to God’s laws, or that the Establishment Clause really doesn’t say what it says. It’s remarkable how few Americans have actually read even their Bill of Rights, let alone the U.S. Constitution. (Historiann always carries a copy in her purse to settle classroom debates and bar bets.)
I’ve borrowed the term “woo” from WhiteCoat underground, an anonymous M.D. internist-operated blog devoted to exposing medical and scientific misinformation that’s ususally in the service of snake-oil “cures.” “Pal MD,” as he calls himself, is a very funny and appropriately snarky guy. “Historical woo” is the use of half-truths and dishonesty to promulgate a highly self-interested version of history. It’s only a coincidence that John Yoo, which rhymes with woo, is one of the biggest historical woo peddlers in recent American history. (You remember Yoo? You know, torture memo Yoo, “unitary executive” Yoo, that guy?) And yes, it’s an embarrassment to us all that Yoo was a History major.
3. Because college students need to be exposed to at least one class that allows them to see the longue durée of American history. The U.S. National period is only 231 years (so far), and contrary to all of that high-falutin’ rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, the United States didn’t invent itself overnight. All of us live with the consequences of our (multiple, different) colonial pasts. For example: the centrality of beef in the American diet, established by the first English colonists, has had enormous impact on our environment, economy, and health, and it continues to drive the misuse of Western lands and exploitative labor practices 400 years after the first cattle set hooves in what is now the United States. The practice of African chattel slavery, as developed and refined in the colonial period, is at the root of the African American experience. And the fact that women’s wages still lag significantly behind men’s wages is harder to naturalize or explain away by “choice” if you consider that it’s only been 160 years or so since free married women were themselves property, and could therefore actually own their labor and their own wages.
UPDATE: Hey, Religion in American History, you’re tagged, too.