Teaching Innovations

Thinking Historically in the Classroom: Eric Rothschild

Eric Rothschild, October 1995

The best research my students did last year was on the murder of Theodore Roosevelt! As it turned out the October 1912 murder was a conspiracy involving William Howard Taft, Emilio Aguinaldo, and Alexander Berkman. That assignment was only one in a series of seemingly bizarre activities in which my students participated.

There is a reason behind my butchering history. Today's students arrive in class wearing intellectual chains, thanks to the tyranny of textbooks and students' belief in the inevitability of history. Too often, students are passive plagiarists, taking others' ideas without knowing they are doing so. They simply don't trust themselves to think historically.

Thinking historically includes avoiding judging historical figures by today's values. To illustrate the dangers of such judgments I have placed Booker T. Washington on trial for "crimes" against fellow African Americans. Initially, many students dismiss Washington as an "Oreo." But his student defense attorneys, after they read Louis Harlan's works, come to realize the complexity of the man and the context within which he was forced to operate.

To think historically students need to question historical authority. Early on, I have students rewrite a chapter of their junior high school textbook. I also want them to eliminate me as the authority in the classroom. To make them do so, I play a young historian giving his first paper at a professional meeting. Students play senior historians and criticize my interpretation. (Here I argue some sort of one-dimensional thesis; for example, I might claim that Andrew Jackson was a confrontational president because he believed his death was imminent.)

Thinking historically means developing historical empathy. Each year I have one of my classes write a fictional diary. In recent years the best individual effort was based largely on the writing of Virginia Drachman on women doctors and lawyers in the late 19th century. The student's scholarship was excellent and, because she had read carefully, she captured the human dimension of the era. I have also designed an amendment game in which students are placed in a fictional 1860 Senate committee hearing on a set of proposed amendments to the Constitution. Students serve as witnesses before the committee and, in the end, all must write a report in which they recommend that the Senate approve or reject the amendments. They come away from that exercise with a profound understanding of the nearly impossible position our nation had reached just prior to the Civil War. A somewhat similar exercise made students part of John F. Kennedy's transition team in November 1960. In deciding whom to recommend to President-elect Kennedy for each of the Cabinet positions, as head of the CIA, and for the Supreme Court nominations, students once again were alerted to the complexities of history.

Students must learn to recognize bias and the sources of bias. To accomplish this goal I assign 75 primary-source documents on Reconstruction and ask students to write a chapter on that topic. They are instructed not to use additional sources. Not surprisingly, some students come out sounding like William Dunning and some like Eric Foner. The lessons they learn about their own biases and how they are writ large in their own history is a powerful one.

To accomplish the same ends, I also have students pretend they are members of a fictional admissions committee selecting students to United States University at the turn of the century; I have them write state-of-the-union messages for various presidents; and I have them select vice presidents using the 25th Amendment, well before it ever became part of the Constitution.

Thinking historically can bring joy to the classroom. Let's return to the "murder of Theodore Roosevelt." Late last winter the detectives' reports on the assassination were due. My rule is that students have until 10:00 p.m. to drop their papers at my house. At 9:45 p.m. a student, snow-covered and breathless, rang my doorbell. "Anthony," I said, "What are you doing here? I thought I had your paper already." He replied, "You haven't read it yet have you? I want you to read this one instead." When I asked why, he urged me to start reading the new one. I did. One of the clues I had provided, hoping that students might tie the murder to gentlemen of property and standing, was a postcard from Lake Mohonk Mountain House. Anthony had tracked down its location and convinced Mohonk's historians to examine the register for 1910–12 with him. Taft had been there.

Let's return to my reasons for "creating" history. In the assignment described here, students simply could not resort to memorizing the textbook. They could use it, of course. Anthony, for example, used our textbook to learn about Theodore Roosevelt's foreign policy, about some of the ways he may have angered both radical and conservative Americans, and about the election of 1912. And he read a number of other secondary and primary sources. But the textbook could not have told him about the murder. The assassination was not inevitable, and Anthony couldn't have plagiarized.

Fifteen years ago I ran into a Cornell historian while doing some of my own research at the New York Historical Society. He had taught a number of my former students, and he offered a friendly criticism. "Your students think that they can figure out anything in history and that their understanding of it is as good as anyone's, including mine." He was right. They do approach history with confidence. After 32 years in the classroom, it's a criticism I am comfortable with.

—Eric Rothschild is chair of the history department at Scarsdale High School, the 1990–91 Distinguished Social Studies Educator of New York State, question leader of the Advanced Placement United States History Examination, and member of the executive board of the Organization of American Historians.