Teaching us History

History teachers, especially those who teach survey history courses that cover large chunks of time, know that getting students engaged in the learning “the big picture” of history is a challenge. Students tend to get overloaded with dates, people, places, and events and can easily come away from class with a jumbled, disconnected view. Most students just try to remember enough to get through the next quiz and get nothing much from exposure to American History. The key to overcoming this challenge is a teaching approach that: (1) “connects the dots,” and (2) shows how cause and effect influenced just about every significant event in U.S. history.

♦ Connecting the dots

Students may have a difficult time with names, dates, and events as they pertain to some particular lesson. Most students, however, can cope with a bigger view of American history that connects outcomes with beginnings. A few examples follow:

◊ Our country’s flawed beginnings. There is a connection between the compromises our Founders made about slavery – allowing it to exist even though our Declaration of Independence stated that “all men are created equal” – and just about everything else that occurred between 1789 and 1861. Slavery and its tolerance were the “cancer” that infected our “body politic,” and it could only be excised through the “radical surgery” of the Civil War. 

◊ How issues of race were not resolved by the Civil War. There is a further connection between the Civil War and the unresolved issues of race that stemmed from slavery. Reconstruction failed, but the American industrial revolution and rise of capitalism flourished at the expense of resolving the unfinished business of our Declaration of Independence. Even though the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments outlawed slavery, these efforts were trumped by a recalcitrant and unreformed South. The old de jure bounds of slavery were replaced with a de facto set of Jim Crow laws.

◊ How racism in America was both upheld and outlawed by the United States Supreme Court and finally allowed the Civil Rights struggle to succeed.. Finally, there is yet another connection between slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights struggle that transformed our country from its racist beginnings to granting full and equal status to our black citizens. Slavery and racism were made lawful by the Supreme Court decisions (Dred Scott and Plessy vs. Ferguson), but legal segregation was undone by Brown vs. the Board of Education. Each of those rulings spanned generations, but are profoundly connected.

♦ Causes in effects as they relate to major historical events

Closely related to “connecting the dots,” studying a historical event from the perspective of cause and effect is a wonderful way of engaging a student’s interest in history. This approach is not predicated on memorizing dates, rather it is a recognition that all events – personal or historical – stem from some main cause. Here are a few examples:

◊ Event: Ratification of the U.S. Constitution

Cause: Failure of the Articles of Confederation as a viable governing document

Effect: A document of governance that has endured well over 200 years with only 27 amendments

Comment: This is an example of an opportunity to learn two important facts about our country’s beginnings: (1) why the Articles of Confederation were unworkable, and (2) how the U.S. Constitution evolved from a need to correct the weaknesses of a the Articles.

◊ Event: The growth of slavery as an economic institution in the plantation South

Cause: Invention of the cotton gin

Effect: The development of two separate economies in the North and the South and the increased productivity of slaves in harvesting the South’s biggest cash crop: cotton.

Comment: This is an opportunity to teach the growth of slavery as an important economic institution and how that growth began to build up pressures that could only be released through the Civil War.

◊ Event: The U.S. Civil War

Cause: Slavery, the increased separation of North and South, two different interpretations of states rights and the power of the federal government.

Effect: Abolition of slavery, the industrial development of the North and the great migration west.

Comment: By focusing on the importance of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, students can learn how racial equality eventually took a back seat to other higher priority events occurring up north: industrial development, transportation, and the push towards new settlement in the west.

So each of the foregoing events with their cause and effect provide an overview of U.S. history without the encumbrance of dry and by-rote factual learning. Show the student the connection, and the teacher can build upon those connections as a foundation to add the “mortar” of people, places, and dates.