Why I Teach American History


Why do I teach American religious history? This is a tough question to answer since I do not teach a specific course on the subject. (American religious history at Messiah College is taught by my colleagues in the religion department). I have always preferred to think of myself as an early American historian whose work focuses on religion, so I hope readers will not mind if I tackle the original meme: Why do you teach American history?” Here are three random thoughts:

Teachers of American history usually do not have to start from scratch. Since most of the students I teach know something about American history (granted, I teach mostly white middle-class students), my lectures and discussions do not always need to engage in the preliminary work of identifying basic facts as much as my colleagues who teach world history, a subject that is largely unknown to my students. Most of my students know something about (or at least think they know something about) George Washington or Abraham Lincoln or Ben Franklin or democracy or capitalism, etc… Since many of them share a very basic common narrative I can spend more time on the work of interpretation, conversation, and debunking.

History offers a rebuke to our collective narcissism. Christopher Lasch’s scathing critique of American culture—The Culture of Narcissism—is probably more relevant today than it was when it first appeared in 1979 and became an important influence on Jimmy Carter’s famous “malaise" speech. History serves as an antidote to our innate desire to think we are dealing with issues and problems that no other society has had to confront. And when we become aware that we are part of a larger human story we are not only humbled, but we gain a much richer and more thoughtful response to contemporary issues. We may even get inspired to become agents of social change.

Historical thinking instills virtue. In his award winning book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, Stanford education professor Sam Wineburg suggests that history “holds the potential, only partly realized, of humanizing us in ways offered by few other areas in the school curriculum.” In every encounter with the past, he argues, there exists a “tension between the familiar and the strange, between feelings of proximity and feelings of distance in relation to the people we seek to understand.” Historical thinking forces students to encounter the past on its own terms and avoid the temptation of pillaging the past in search of examples that support their view of current events. An honest encounter with the past instills in students the virtues of hospitality and empathy. It forces them to understand people who they would not keep company with in their everyday lives. It teaches them what it has meant and what it means to be human in this world. It sharpens judgment and produces wisdom. As Wineburg puts it, “Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it (history) is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology—humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of human history.”

I am sure I could come up with some more reasons for why I teach American history, but these are the ideas that are at the core of my vocation.