Running out of Time: Current Problems in Organizing the American History Survey Course

David Gerber and Mary Sheila McMahon, March 1989

Like anything that is simultaneously compulsory and sustaining, the survey course—and for our purposes here, we refer exclusively to the U.S. History survey—is regarded ambivalently by faculty. It is the "bread and butter" of many service-oriented departments at large, vocationally and technically grounded universities such as our own.

As with most undergraduate programs, the American history survey at SUNY-Buffalo is on the short list of courses from which all students must choose in order to fulfill general education requirements. Moreover, high enrollments in these introductory surveys serve to justify requests for more resources and new appointments for a discipline outside the mainstream of applied and grant-getting fields. We share with colleagues at smaller and private institutions, however, a sense of the obligation to offer students a broad introduction to their nation's past, an obligation heightened by the knowledge that many of our students will never take another history course.

There are problems with the survey though, that feed the ambivalence about it. The problem of coordinating and giving intellectual coherence to numerous sections that are taught by different, independent-minded faculty and frequently graduate students to large numbers of undergraduates who are more likely to be captives than volunteers, is a constant in the situation. In addition, individual instructors all face the difficulty of compressing multilayered historical experiences into neat packages for the usual fifty-minute hour. Moreover, in our department the enrollments for the introductory course have been increasing steadily since 1981, so that we are now at the point where we face two hundred or more students, a fact which makes difficult any experimentation with techniques which stray too far from the lecture format.

Small wonder then, that hard-pressed history professors often greet the perennial question "Whither the U.S. Survey?" with shoulder shrugging resignation. In the press to get through the material, there seems little time to wonder whether changes in the organization of the survey would offer any assistance in teaching or learning American history.

Whether prompted by the logistical problems or by the intellectual difficulties encountered in teaching, however, this question will not go away. Of course, historians have asked it before, and have produced various answers. At the turn of the century, when few went on to higher education, high school history requirements included an introduction to American history. Created at a time when there was broad cultural consensus in the elite ranks of the history profession, this introduction was intended to provide an historically grounded civics lesson from a patriotic viewpoint that was informed by a desire for cultural unity and a faith in a progress based on the American version of democratic capitalism. Somewhat paradoxically in light of the celebratory ethos, it was also intended to teach the critical thinking deemed necessary to make democracy work.

The college survey course, conceived in the 1930s and adopted by virtually all American institutions of higher learning by the 1940s, built from that secondary school base. It assumed that students had learned the basic facts of national history in high school. Its role, then, was to paint the contours of the American experience and identify, while teaching something of an introduction to the discipline itself. After mid-century, the tensions latent in this approach became increasingly obvious. The consensus of understanding about American experience and identity shattered, and relatedly, so did the confidence that the survey could discern and explain a unitary, let alone an optimistic, meaning to American history.

In place of one confident perspective, there are now many perspectives, reflecting competing ideologies, attitudes and moods. In place of one subject--the development of the democratic state in a liberal capitalist society, there are now many subjects. Where there were once only elites who spoke to us from the past, there are now many voices which we hear, thanks to the mediation of new varieties of cultural and social history.

Attempts to make sense of the mission of the U.S. Survey under the successive blows of political dissent, cultural criticism, and ideological fragmentation have not been wholly satisfactory. Some say that the course should be taught to demonstrate that the past is different from, and irrelevant to, the present. For others, the past must be taught to debunk official ideologies and national myths—"hangups from way back," as a 1960s textbook once had it—that stand in the way of achieving the freedom that is thought to come from knowing the truth. Some have conjured up an epidemic of historical ignorance among our youth, and have used this to advance a particular politico-cultural agenda which is based not on the demand for more history, but for more of a brand of nationalist history. Still others eschew completely the discussion of purpose, and deal with the confusion of goals that now troubles the survey by focusing exclusively on methods and materials. They suggest, for example, comparative studies, family and community experience, and oral history, to vitalize teaching, strategies which counterpose the excitement of the new fields and methodologies in history against the weaknesses in the conceptualization of the course. This is a strategy that also often gives evidence of the disciplinary defensiveness born in those days, now rapidly passing, when history enrollments were constantly declining.

Most professors today common-sensically and eclectically embrace a variety of options. They hope to demonstrate that history in all its pluralism and sophistication is an exciting discipline. In the current survey structure, however, this seems to require cultivating an entertaining style while rather superficially imparting information, attacking inherited prejudices, and explaining the sources of continuity and change. This approach is the best that can be hoped for under current circumstances, but we think it is reasonable to ask whether even this approach can deal with the problems of the survey while maintaining our general commitment to give students a solid introduction to their national past.


For us, the purpose of the survey can be culled from this common-sensical position. For a variety of reasons, we no longer assume that our students enter our classrooms with the consensus-based knowledge of American history learned in high school. We need to provide students with information, and from it, an understanding of both the experiential realities and the structure (chronological sequences and large processes) of the American past. We also need to make them aware that history is a way of organizing knowledge that can explain things as they have become: a sort of developmental archaeology of human beliefs, values, and behaviors that has the potential to clarify a world that seems to the uninformed mind hopelessly fragmented at the first instance of inspection.

The students' expectations at our university seem to complement this perspective. They end up wanting information as well as entertainment. Moreover, since they are presentist to the extent, vulgar or subtle, that they wish the present to be the baseline for thinking about the past, they want insights which will help them to understand the here and now—explanations, in other words, of what they are up against as they emerge into adulthood and enter the world. In fact, polling hundreds of our survey students in 1987 and 1988, we found consistently that in both semesters of our two-semester sequence, what they found lacking in the course was coverage of the material that came at the end of each semester, at the time when professors usually have to hurry to get through the material. It is the experiences, events, people, and processes that point the way toward the present that they want to have more represented in the survey. Whether they ponder the Civil War or Watergate, they want to have the more recent material explained, for that seems to them most relevant and hence most intellectually and existentially sustaining.

Presentism, of course, has its difficulties, and the students' formulation of it is often unsophisticated. But the fact remains that much of the teaching in the U.S. History survey implicitly, and productively, has always been somewhat presentist, to the extent that faculty try to explain what they think is more important, and the calculus for that is not insignificantly based on what perplexes and vexes us (or to our minds, our students) about the world in which we live. It is not presentism as such that we should resist, but a vulgarization which tailors the past to fit the purposes of consolation or propaganda. We share with the students a belief in the need to explain developmentally those things that assist us in anchoring ourselves, as we stand in the present, in times past.

When we approach this relation between past and present, though, we increasingly run into seemingly intractable problems that make organizing the survey within the current time-frame difficult. One of the most important facts about today's students is that they were born after 1967. As products of the post-Vietnam, post-Civil Rights Movement decades, they begin to recognize the past not in World War II, but in the Carter Administration. Yet the recent past is unknown to them in any systematic way. So too, if our students' complaints are taken seriously, are the origins of modern America in what Charles Beard called "the second American revolution' of the 1860s.

This provides us with a starting point in confronting the latest crisis of the U.S. survey. The American past grows, as does the increasingly rich literature on the subject-matter of history. Yet the time seems lacking to explain especially those recent things that come at the end and point the way to the here and now. The problem is most acute, of course, in the second-half of our two semester sequence. The twentieth century lengthens, but not so the sixteen-week semester. Routinely, some instructors do not get beyond 1945; others, 1968.

Just as pressing, however, is the growing scope of what historians consider the past and that which explains it. The new social and cultural history both illuminate daily private life, and from the bottom up, the older concern with past politics. However, the broadened scope of history also makes planning for the semester and then accomplishing that plan, while fielding questions, explaining readings, and discussing examinations, that much more difficult.

Neither part of the sequence is free from one or both of these difficulties. The first half does not face an expanding time frame, but in the context of its vast chronological obligation, it too has to deal with an expanding subject-matter in such significant areas as slavery, women, demography, townmaking, and political ideology. Under any circumstance, a survey that reaches only 1945 or 1968, or for that matter, that neglects the multivarious experiences—especially slavery and race—of nineteenth century Americans, that culminated in the Civil War, has not fulfilled its function as an introduction to American History.

As teachers of the survey, we are being victimized by our opportunities, some of which, as scholars, we ourselves have created. We have more to explain and more tools in our new methods, concepts and literature by which to do the explaining. In the history we are now writing, we are bringing together social, political and cultural history and creating the basis for a powerful, new and multilayered synthesis of the American past.

But for all of the energy that goes into thinking about how to introduce this excitement into the U.S. survey, we are running out of time within the context of the conventional academic calendar to do the course in an intellectually and pedagogically satisfying way. To what extent are history departments cognizant of these problems? To the extent that they are aware, what are they doing about them? What models exist to guide us as we search for answers? For example, the Western Civilization survey course has faced similar problems. Are the various reformulations of Western Civilization models for Americanists? In order to get some perspective on what other departments of comparable size, in comparable institutions, have been doing to deal with the problems of the U.S. survey, we surveyed 26 departments, of which 21 replied.


We have used these replies as a point of departure for discussing the American Survey's current dilemmas. This poll is skewed, of course, to the extent that it does not represent the experience of smaller institutions, especially four-year liberal arts colleges and smaller departments. If anything, the problems of confronting these issues at such institutions are probably even greater, to judge from the sort of practical difficulties which we have found are involved in facing complex curriculum revisions. We simply intend the poll at this point to help stimulate discussion.

While we found a considerable diversity of ideas about the survey, departmental behavior is for the most part predictable on the organization of the survey and constrained on the willingness or ability to accomplish a revision of it. At present, 18 of these departments offer, or are about to offer, the standard two semester sequence broken chronologically at 1865 or 1876–77. (Those which are beginning the two-semester sequence are in the process of switching from a quarter to a semester system.) One department offers a two-quarter sequence with the same point of division. Of these departments currently offering the traditional two-semester sequence, 11 professed to be concerned with a lack of coverage, thematic or chronological. The measure of this concern is not entirely clear, but we imagine at least that it has involved discussion in a general department or in an Americanists' meeting.

One department reported a good deal of individual, as opposed to institutional, concern about the failings of the survey as presently organized. Nevertheless, few have gone beyond the discussion stage in seeking remedies. The reasons for either this difficulty in acting or unwillingness to act are quite complex, and deserve attention before we begin a discussion of what is actually being done about the American survey in the profession.

Some departments seem to have reached a concensus that while the survey does face difficulties summarizing U.S. history, they nonetheless feel secure in their traditional reliance on advanced courses that break American history into smaller time-periods to give students sufficient depth. One department, for example, voiced special pride in its variety of twentieth century offerings. But, of course, just how many undergraduates may go beyond the survey to take these courses remains an open question. In any case, the existence of a variety of advanced courses does not address the issue of the general course aimed at a survey of American history.

Only four departments apparently have been able to move from concern to actions of various types that involve a degree of reformulation or reconfiguration of the survey. Of these four that have legislated or informally systematized a change in organization, the solution of one of them—truncating the chronological scope of the survey—probably speaks to another strategy informally adopted by other departments that do not recognize their actions as, or are not yet ready to declare them to be, policy. We speak here of departments which, on an ad hoc and individual basis, accept that vast periods of time will have to be lopped off the survey. Thus, one department stated that it gave "minimal attention to the colonial period and the post-1945 period." While such a strategy codifies the very defect that plagues the survey, institutional constraints, of which we shall soon speak, make these decisions almost inevitable in some departments.

Of the other three departments that have formalized, or near-formalized, changes in the survey, each has pursued quite distinct solutions. One of them offers a one quarter lower division survey and three-quarter upper division survey in the hope of providing a neatly packaged introduction to American history for those freshmen and sophomores who may never go beyond that one semester, but a rich and intense sequence of courses for those who do. The context of one quarter probably does not allow for much depth, but since this one-quarter course is characterized by four or five lectures a week, it probably is not as thin as it might appear at first glance.

In sharp contrast is a department that offers two types of surveys simultaneously, one three-semester sequence in social history, and the other a two-semester sequence in political history. The self-described difficulty with this model is that given the structure of requirements at this institution, students are able to pick and choose among these five semesters of introduction completely randomly. As a result, we are told, "there is very little student sequencing." The monopolization of faculty resources in smaller but even relatively well-staffed departments would be another problem militating against adoption of this approach.

Finally, one department noted the "tendency" of its individual lecturers to borrow techniques from the Western Civilization survey. We were told that the faculty was deliberately moving increasingly "toward stressing broad interpretive themes and selecting treating more detailed narrative in order to elucidate those themes." While recognizing that in effect this had meant the omission of "certain traditionally important events," this department has been willing to accept the trade-off involved for two reasons. First, it has rejected creating a new, expanded three-semester alternative to the present two-semester survey because students would not take the whole sequence, and many of them consequently would miss too much American history. Second, however, it is the belief that, given the pace of development in American historiography, it is time for the American survey to model itself consciously off the wisdom and the rewarding experience of the Western Civilization survey. "As the literature of American history begins to approach in quality and complexity the literature of European history," the department noted, "we are beginning to treat the American survey more as our European colleagues treat the Western Civilization survey."

Departmental innovation largely seems to have been plotted on an "either/or" basis. One can change the content of the survey, treating content either as separable into social and political components, or as subsumed under a more thematic, "Western Civ." approach. Alternately, one can limit the time-frame. For the remainder of this article, we briefly consider two options, culled from within the concerns and the strategies articulated by various history departments. Both options address the current problems with the survey, but each presents its own difficulties.

The first of these options is based on an expansion of the survey to three semesters, an option which Americanists in our own department have discussed. As a pedagogical solution, the three semester sequence provides time for both discussion of the full range of American history, and for the development of some synthetic structure which can encourage students to look forward and backward. Rather than dividing the sequence at the Civil War and Reconstruction, Americanists in our department who were in favor of this option generally divided the three semesters at some time between 1880 and 1820, and at 1900. This division seemed to be in keeping with current historiographical conceptions of major watersheds, and to provide enough material to fit comfortably in each of the three semesters. Seventeen of the 21 departments responded to our inquiry as to whether a three-semester sequence had been discussed, and of these only 2 answered that they had formally considered this option. However, all 17 of the chairs, assistant chairs and heads of undergraduate program committees who did respond had firm ideas about the viability of such a proposal. The vast majority foresaw considerable difficulties in implementing this change within their institutions. The difficulties anticipated were both pedagogical and resource-related, and together they emerge as powerful reasons for not expanding the survey beyond its usual two-semester framework.

Staffing problems are perhaps the most self-evident for those who have to map out departmental priorities. A number of departments, some of which were already experiencing a shortage of faculty, feared that whatever its pedagogical merits, an expansion to three semesters would absorb too much faculty time and particularly take resources from upper-division courses. In addition, in institutions in which students have to take a history survey for a general studies requirement, there was also a fear that students would flood into the two-semester European survey and leave the three-semester American survey underenrolled. The thought of the massive task of revising both surveys at once to alleviate such a possibility was understandably rejected.

Beyond such situationally dictated concerns is the frequently expressed doubt that the change to three semesters in fact would serve the relevant pedagogical goals. Is a three-semester survey really a survey, said one departmental spokesperson, or is it by its very nature something more extensive, ambitious, and detailed? Under any circumstance, would students take advantage of the expanded survey to learn more American history? We were told that so many students at a number of institutions already only take one out of the two semesters, that there is a widespread fear that there would be even greater attrition in an expanded three-semester survey. Bulking especially large here is the fear that the colonial period, which seems at present to be less popular than the second half of the survey, would be even further singled out for rejection by students. Closely related to this concern is the belief that the semester system itself is not conducive to a three-semester sequence. Students, the logic of this argument assumes, plan their courses in year-long groupings that are dictated both by the demands of their various requirements and by sequencing. They would not be likely, therefore, to want to carry the concerns and obligations of one academic year into the next. Finally, there is the fear of what one respondent called "content fragmentation." Though this idea was not spelled out, we take this to be the belief that there would be considerable difficulty in providing continuity between the three parts of an expanded survey. It is unclear, however, why this should be any more insurmountable for three semesters than it is for two. Surely historians, whose time is spent finding way to express ideas about change and continuity, ought to be able to find ways of typing together the United States before and after say, 1820, in the way they currently do for 1865 or 1877.

Regardless of the strengths or weaknesses of the objections voiced to the notion of the expanded survey, however, it is clear that almost everyone who has entertained the idea has come to the conclusion that this is a case in which the solution poses as many difficulties as the problem it addresses. Indeed, though our own discussions of the matter are not over, this seems to be the tentative conclusion we have reached in our own department. The second option, and seemingly the only one which has not been considered and rejected previously by many Americanists, is a more deliberately thematic survey.

Of course, there is an extent to which every lecturer in charge of the survey adopts a thematic approach. In writing lectures, all of us pick and choose among subjects on the basis of their intellectual significance as well as their dramatic potential. The subjects we choose doubtless fall broadly into general categories, such as shifting partisan alignments, social reform, race relations, or the nature of American foreign relations. However, this sorting process does not often, if at all, lead to an abandonment of chronological development as the organizing principle of the survey. Just as is the case with the organization of our scholarly writings, almost automatically we seek to bring the thematic and chronological structures of the narratives we create into balance with one another. When one works with a very long time span, however, concision often demands that the balance be struck more toward the thematic than the chronological.

As the span of American history lengthens, it is not surprising that a thematic organization of the survey is being more widely considered. One should also add that the expansion of what is deemed legitimate subject matter in historical scholarship and history teaching reinforces this tendency by adding the challenge of thematic breadth to that of chronological coverage. The admitted intellectual excitement of working familiar material into broad themes must be tempered, though by acknowledgement of certain difficulties. A thematic approach which deals only with the central organizing symbols of an age may by its nature ignore the unusual, the dissonant, and the non-conforming, and put us back on the road to rehabilitating a consensus model of our past. Such an approach also runs the risk of treating history as choppy and discontinuous, lurching from one master symbol to another.

A more common approach today, in organizing the Western or World Civilization surveys, adopts a broad, interpretive theme, such as "modernity." Indeed, there are a few textbooks in American history which have begun to work within this approach, using the theme of modernization. Potentially, this approach does offer a creative alternative to the American history survey. By treating a process as an organizing concept, one may be able to fashion the survey around understanding the nature of process and change in the past and the varying responses to change, looking for example, at how people thought about and organized themselves to master processes that seemed to threaten to engulf them in chaos. Yet too much can be made of one them; like the "symbol of the age," it can acquire its own dynamic, oblivious to competing themes, and end up recapitulating Kenneth Burke's "principle of perfection," that there is some sort of "terministic compulsion" about the relation between present and future. A solution of sorts returns to the notion of "unavoidable contradictions" between certain themes--localism/nationalism, or consensus/conflict, for example—but this itself runs the risk of treating history as a philosophical dialogue among opposing positions. It is possible that other faculty and departments have been discussing or perhaps even experimenting with the options outlined above.

The goal of this article has been less to offer solutions than to let those struggling with the dilemmas we have outlined become aware that they are not alone in seeking answers. Strategies do exist for giving the American survey intellectual and pedagogical coherence, but there are no neat prescriptions for resolving its problems. Too many competing and constraining institutional and pedagogical realities mitigate at present against the adoption of one formula that will satisfactorily help us to reclaim the goal of chronological inclusiveness and topical breadth.

—David A. Gerber is professor of history at the State University of New York at Buffalo. His interests are in the field of American social history. Mary Sheila McMahon is a lecturer in history at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Her interest is the cultural context of American foreign policy. Both authors teach the second half of the American survey.