The most famous graduate of the fine university at which I teach is almost certainly George W. Bush’s last press secretary, Dana Perino. This has not always been a fact that made me proud to work here. Back in 2007, Perino admitted that she didn’t know what the Cuban Missile Crisis was when asked about it during a press briefing. At that time, I sent that link around to a few people I knew, along with some snarky comment about the great glory this admission had brought to our institution.
Demonstrating the perils of e-mail, that note got forwarded around and I got back an extremely nasty note from a professor in Mass Comm who had taught her in that department, which had been her major. The gist of his argument was quite obvious when you think about it: Perino had put clearly her mass comm skills to very good use regardless of her knowledge of history. He was right and I was wrong. A college education is no guarantee that you know everything about everything.*
There was at least one colleague in my department who wanted to check to see if she had had a history course in college, but think how unfair that would be to her former professors! First of all, there is no guarantee that she would have had modern American or world history even if she had been a history major. [I remember my undergraduate distribution requirements as a history major at the University of Pennsylvania were geographical, not temporal.] More importantly, even if someone had taught her what the Cuban Missile Crisis was, it’s not the professor’s fault if a student remembers some parts of the course and not others. Why should we privilege one fact over another that way? Which facts do you have to know in order to be “educated” (whatever that means), and which are you safe forgetting?
I already tell my survey students that the wonderful thing about college history is that you get to decide which facts to study. My ID quizzes have choice. My essay questions are extremely broad. I’ve never pulled a fact out of a giant textbook and said, in effect, “You were supposed to read about that fact when you read the text therefore I’m allowed to test you on it!” That’s why people complain that history is just one damn fact after another and oftentimes it is.
A post-coverage history survey course would say no more to this whole paradigm. Toss the textbook, and there’s no need to apologize for what you don’t cover. Perhaps the most mind-blowing thing about that Sipress and Voelker article on the demise of the coverage model is the notion that the new social history has actually made trying to cover everything worse rather than better. That doesn’t mean that the new social history has been a net negative to scholarship, it just means that history teachers have to start making choices.
Toss the coverage model and you can decide what you want to cover. Obviously, your coverage choices should be emblematic of the important developments and trends of history as the profession understands them, but if you try to cover everything you’ll end up with students who remember next to nothing.
A few years ago, I heard Lapham’s Quarterly editor Lewis Lapham talk about his middle school history teacher. Apparently, the guy did nothing but the Trojan War for two solid years and Lapham loved it. He credited those courses for his love of history because his teacher’s love for the subject shined through all the detail he provided.
While nobody would want to do the Mexican American War in every course regardless of its title, I think there’s something to be said for emphasizing the parts of history that you find most interesting as long as you can explain why they’re important. Your love for history will keep your students interested, and your attitude towards work might improve too!
So I’m imagining this new post-coverage model of a history survey class as a series of broad themes, chronologically arranged and loosely tied together, with special emphasis on some details in order to illustrate important historical principles like race, class, gender and politics. There are still facts in this set up, but you get to pick the facts worth covering; not the textbook publishers, who keep churning out mammoth tomes that all look exactly the same to me.
Yes, perhaps future presidential press secretaries will miss the Cuban Missile Crisis if your history course is set up this way, but new pedagogical tools can make what students do learn so much more useful. Wait a second! That’s where I promised to start this post today, wasn’t it?
Looks like I’m doing a three-part series.
* Yes, you’d hope she might have picked up that knowledge working in D.C. for a decade and a half or perhaps by reading a book on presidential leadership while working in the White House, but don’t stop me while I’m on a roll.