Teaching History in Texas: The New Questions We Should Be Asking
By Penne Restad
How are we teaching US history in Texas? Based on my experiences at the recent AHA Texas Conference on Introductory History Courses, I would say we are teaching it with a strong commitment both to the discipline of history and to supporting the longer-range success of the students we teach. But, oh the variety of concerns, methods, and goals! I led two breakout sessions to discuss American history, attended two others, and engaged in many rewarding casual conversations.
In the US history sessions we had enough time (just) to learn that despite broad similarities, we teach as individuals responding to complex learning environments. Nearly all emphasized the importance of teaching students to be better writers. But while some used primary source readers to move students beyond “time, people, and places” facts, others aimed at helping high school students become “college literate.” Some, hired to teach US but trained in other fields of history or the social sciences, are themselves learning new lessons. And, although featured speakers underlined the importance of articulating a variety of outcomes for our courses, we maintained our allegiance to a more complicated if less clearly explicated goal of improving critical thinking.
Circumscribing this conversation was a broader one. The two phrases “academic rigor” and “marketable job skills,” though not by definition antithetical, ran as a tension-set throughout the two-day conference. In the US history breakouts, we accepted the importance of each, but we did not explore how one affected the other in our own practices.
Reflecting on these sessions, a series of questions arises: What should we establish—and defend—as our discipline’s boundaries, and on what should we yield? Can we find a way to assess fairly and equitably the accomplishments of students’ abilities to analyze the facts and often competing narratives? Should we attempt to determine the content and “moves” that denote a foundational knowledge of US history? Should we honor the historian’s ways of knowing as useful in its own right, or seek to articulate and emphasize the parts of those skills specifically recognized as valuable in the marketplace? In our collective experience of teaching history in Texas, we are faced with a wide spectrum of learning situations that challenge these very questions. I might state it this way: What shall we establish as a standard of disciplinary rigor that meets the abilities of a 14-year-old who has just begun to dream of going to college and seeks dual -credit for the US history he has studied in high school? What about a fifth-year engineering student in a top university who desperately needs, at the final moment of her college career, three more required credits of US history?
The problem, I think, is not of our own making, although each of us, along with the programs and systems in which we teach, should always be asking how we can better convey the content of history and methods of thinking like a historian. The problem is in the state’s mandate that a degree in post secondary education requires six hours of college- level US history. This law was conceived in 1955 under very different social and political conditions. It has become the focus of politicized debates that keep instructors puzzling over how to train a richly diverse young population to understand how they fit within the nation’s historical narrative and to prepare for a world never imagined 60 years ago. The basic history requirement is sound, but historians should take a much more assertive stance in deciding when, where, and how it will be taught. Facing critics and policy makers outside of the academy more openly will lead us to the types of conversations that we need to hold within our discipline and across the diverse and creative ranks of the many who teach history throughout the state.
Penne L. Restad regularly teaches US history surveys as distinguished senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin. Her scholarship explores the formation of American cultural identities and behaviors, the history of consumer culture, and the scholarship of teaching and learning in higher education.