Alan Singer: U.S. History – What is Important to Know and Why”

Jul 20, 2017 by

“An Interview with Alan Singer: U.S. History – What is Important to Know and Why”

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Professor Singer, can you first tell us a bit about what you do and your education and experience?

I attended the City College of New York (CCNY) in the 1960s and got caught up in the wave of protest against racial injustice and the War in Vietnam. At the start of my junior year, I began to think about what I would do after I finished college. My long-term plan was to become a revolutionary. My short-term plan was to be employable. My father persuaded me to get my teaching credentials as a back-up plan.

At some point, and I am not sure when, I started to become a serious student. If I was going to change the world, I had to understand it. I began to read history, study, do research, and think about the world. An unanticipated result of my changed attitude toward studying was that I was accepted into the U.S. history doctoral program at Rutgers University and offered a teaching assistantship. As an undergraduate my focus was on European history. I switched to United States history in graduate school because of my language inabilities. I never considered studying the history of the non-Western world. I am not even sure many courses were offered that focused on these regions of the world when I was in school. My doctoral dissertation focused on radical movements in the American coal miners union during the 1920s and 1930s. I taught high school social studies in New York City schools for approximately fifteen years. This forced me to broaden my scope and to study global history on my own. Since I transitioned to teacher education at Hofstra University in the early 1990s I have written a book on Teaching Global History (Routledge, 2011) and produced curriculum guides on the Great Irish Famine and New York City and state’s complicity with slavery. I am now completing a history of New York’s ties to the abolitionist movement that will be published by SUNY Press.

2) Now, how long have you been teaching U.S. History?

The start of my teaching “career” followed a very circuitous route so “how long” is actually a difficult question to answer. While an activist in college I was a community organizer in Brooklyn and “taught” in afterschool programs and a summer sleep-away camp. I student taught in a Bronx middle school 1970-1971. When I started graduate school in 1971-1972 I was a teaching assistant and adjunct for undergraduate classes in the United States history. I became a middle school teacher in 1974-1975 and a high school social studies teacher in 1978. The entire time I continued to “teach” history in community-based programs. I started teaching history to teachers in 1990 and to undergraduates a few years later. At Hofstra University I have taught general U.S. history survey classes, and classes on immigration to the United States, the Great Irish Famine, and New York and slavery. I guess you have to pick your own start date.

3) In your mind, when does United States History actually begin – with Columbus, or Plymouth Rock or 1776 and why?

I used a variation of this question as an opening lesson when I taught United States history in New York City high schools. I still use it as an introductory lesson in my social studies methods classes for teachers. The difference is I ask, “When does American history begin?” My goal has always been for students to reconsider their underlying assumptions about history and historical connections, the criteria they use to make their decision, and the evidence that supports their position. I don’t believe there is one correct answer.

I provide students and prospective teachers with these choices. Approximately 20,000 BC: People first migrate from Asia across the Bering land bridge; 985-1000 AD: Vikings from Scandinavia explore the western North Atlantic; 1492 AD: The first voyage of Christopher Columbus; 1565 AD: Spanish settlement is established at St. Augustine in Florida; 1607 AD: The first permanent British settlement at Jamestown, Virginia; 1619 AD: The first enslaved Africans are brought to Jamestown; 1620 AD: Pilgrims arrive in what will become Massachusetts; 1776-1783 AD: Declaration of Independence followed by a successful war for separation; 1787-1789 AD: The Constitution is written and a new government is formed; 1861-1865 AD: The U.S. Civil War; Another date/event. Most students eliminate the Vikings because they left such a light footprint.

The real debates are over whether we are discussing/teaching American history or United States history (or if they should be thought of as the same), whether the indigenous population is part of American/U.S. history, and should a course on American/U.S. history spend time on the Columbian Exchange, including the trans-Atlantic slavery, and the colonial era, or start with the move to independence and the creation of a new government. My position is that whether we call it American or United States history, there are multiple historical streams that flow into the “American River,” including indigenous, African, and European, (Asian later on) and we cannot understand historical events unless these tributaries are included at the start. Much of late 19th century American imperialism has its roots in the treatment of native populations and the enslavement of Africans continues to shape race relations in the United States up until the present.

4) Many historians revolve around historical figures and people. How important is it for student at the high school and college level to become knowledgeable about the Presidents and leaders of the U.S.?

Before I can answer this question, readers need to take a little test. Name the Presidents, sequentially between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln and between Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. The answer is at the end of the interview. My point is that every President and every “leader” did not have a major impact on history, and many were not even very important during their own time. Between Jackson and Lincoln most Presidents were compromise candidates and important decisions were made by the United States Senate where sectional leaders like John C. Calhoun (South), Henry Clay West), and Daniel Webster (North) debated slavery national expansion, and federal authority, and essentially blocked each other’s political ambitions. In the Lincoln to Roosevelt era the nation’s real leaders were financiers and industrialists, rather than politicians, including Presidents. One hundred years from now, will students learn about Gerald Ford, George Bush (I and II), and Bill Clinton, or about Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos? We will have to wait and see.

5) Now, there have been many events in U.S. History – wars, and other events, such as the transcontinental railway, the gold rush, Louisiana Purchase, etc. How much emphasis should be put on these events?

I recommend organizing United States history curriculum around themes and essential questions rather than around specific people and events. The people and events then fit into the themes and become the evidence students cite as they explore and try to come up with answers to broader questions. In 1993, my high school United States history class identified four essential questions, which I believe pervade the entire history of the country, whatever starting point you choose. Can the United States become a more just society? Is government responsible for people? Should the U.S. act as the world’s police force? Does technological change improve or damage the world? I promised students I would organize the year’s curriculum to answer their questions, but the reality is I did not have to change anything. These were the essential questions then and they remain the essential questions twenty-five years later.

Eric Foner has written numerous books on United States history. I strongly recommend The Story of American Freedom (Norton, 1998), where Foner offers a thematic overview of the history of the United States as he discusses the evolution of the meaning of freedom. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (Harper Perennial, 2015) is also a thematic approach to the study of United States history. Zinn’s concern was writing in people traditionally left out of the historical narrative through a focus on movements for social change and struggles for equality and rights.

The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS 1994) has a list of key concepts or thematic strands that should be repeatedly reexamined in social studies lessons, units, and curriculum. They include Culture: Ways that human groups learn, create, and adapt, in order to meet their fundamental needs and beliefs they develop to explain the world; Time, Continuity, and Change: Ways that human groups locate themselves historically; People, Places, and Environments: The influence of geography on human cultures and history; Individual Development and Identity: Relationships between the ways that people perceive themselves and their membership in social groups; Individuals, Groups, and Institutions: Roles played by social institutions like schools and families in a society and their impact on individuals and groups; Power, Authority, and Governance: Ways that individuals and societies make decisions about rights, rules, relationships, and priorities; Production, Distribution, and Consumption: Ways that individuals and societies make decisions about the things people need to survive and how they will be provided; Science, Technology, and Society: Methods and tools used by people to produce and distribute what they need and want within an economic system; Global Connections: The increasingly important and diverse relationships between societies; and Civic Ideals and Practices: The relationship between the expressed beliefs of a society and the implementation of these beliefs in actual practice. Secondary school and college students also need to examine concepts like injustice, racism, and imperialism, and to decide when they are operating. Although continuity and change are significant concepts, students also need to examine different theories about change and compare concepts like progress, reform, reaction, and revolution.

6) Transcending U.S. history are a number of documents – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Amendments. How does a good history teacher weave these things into classroom presentation?

 A major component and social studies education and historical study is always primary source analysis. One of my most memorable experiences in high school was when a United States history teacher proclaimed the Declaration of Independence the most “perfect” document ever written and challenged the class to discover any inaccuracy or vague point in the document. That night I poured over the Declaration, probably one of the few times I actually did my homework. The next day I argued that the phrase “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it . . .” was intentionally vague because the authors of the Declaration did not define who they meant by “the People.” They did this because many “People” were not included in their concept of “People” (women, enslaved Africans, and native tribes) and because they didn’t even know how much support they had amongst the colonists.

The teacher, Mr. Strom, accepted my argument, and bought me a copy of The Declaration of Independence by Carl Becker to read. I think it was one of the first books I personally owned. A major focus in my classes is becoming a historian, which means reading, analyzing, questioning, and critiquing primary source material. Routledge, which publishes my book Social Studies for Secondary Schools, maintains a companion website with activity sheets for teachers organized so students can evaluate primary source material. I also have document-based activity sheets for use by teachers on my Hofstra University website.

I know this is the long way around to answering your question, but I think close analysis of the U.S. Constitution is fundamental and opens students up to reevaluate many of their assumptions. In New York State this is usually down in a separate high school Participation in Government class. How much does the elastic clause allow us to stretch the Constitution? Does the 14th amendment clause “nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” ensure rights for undocumented immigrants? Does the 2nd amendment allow for the regulation of individual gun ownership? One of my favorite questions is whether under the Constitution corporations are entitled to the same rights as people?

7) Sadly, there have been negative things in American history – the treatment of American Indians, the entire question of slavery, the treatment of women, and even our dropping the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  How much time and emphasis should be spent on these negative occurrences?

These are all issues raised by the essential questions students define at the start of the school year and there are many fundamental documents students should analyze as they decide how significant “negative things” were in shaping the United States. The Declaration and the Constitution are not the only documents that define the United States.

In recent Huffington Post column I introduce readers to Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech in Rochester, New York where he asked, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” His rhetorical response, “a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” Students should also be familiar with speeches by Sojourner Truth, Eugene Debs, Martin Luther King, Dwight Eisenhower, and William Brennan.

In his farewell address to the nation, Eisenhower warned about the growing influence of a military-industrial complex that he feared was growing to powerful in shaping government policy. Good sources for “negative” documents are Voices of a People’s History by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove and The American Spirit, a more traditional document collection, edited by David Kennedy.

8) The history of America is replete with various political parties (Republican, Democrat, conservative, Populist, Bull Moose Party). How much time and emphasis should be given to these different perspectives (and the fact that some have changed over the years)?

Rather than political parties, I prefer to focus on social movements and transformation points. The abolitionists, the labor movement, civil rights activists, and women’s groups never had their own “political party,” but these movements helped transform the political landscape and many of their ideas were adopted by mainstream parties. While at Rutgers in the 1970s I was a teaching assistant for Richard McCormick. McCormick was a political historian who focused on what he called changing “party systems,” an organizing principle I find very useful as a teacher because it helps to explain voter shifts, party coalitions, and why, for example, the New Deal tolerated racism. The first party system emerged very early in the new republic and pitted Federalists against anti-federalists or Democratic-Republicans.

It was essentially a battle over national versus state authority. In McCormick’s schema, the second party system, or alignment, was Democrats versus Whigs and starts with Andrew Jackson’s ascendency to the Presidency. New transformations occur with the Civil War, the Great Depression, and 1968 Nixon Southern Strategy that starts to bring White working class voters from the South and West into the Republican Party.

9) Now, there are various dates – the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War and other various dates – do students just need to have a global timeline, or should they really be held to some accountability to know when the Civil War occurred for example?

You are really asking about the importance of chronology and cause and effect, which are at the core of historical study. Without an understanding of chronology, there is no understanding of cause and effect. I like to focus on dates and events that have long-term impact. The War of 1812 redefines the nation, not just politically, but culturally. You see the shift in American art and literature. The Spanish-American War marks the emergence of the United States as a global and imperialist power. As a global power, it can no longer hide behind ocean barriers. One of the primary source documents I like to examine with students is McKinley’s explanation for the annexation of the Philippines. He wanted to Christianize “Filipinos” and apparently did not know the Spanish had introduced Christianity to the archipelago centuries before.

10) What have I neglected to ask? 

  1. H. Carr, author of What is History? (1967), argued that thinking about the past and present are part of a continuum that stretches into the future. He believed that concern with the future is what really motivates the study of the past. I admit I have hopes and many concerns about the future and this shapes what I study, ask, and think about the past. Right now, many of my concerns have coalesced around attention to the impact of Donald Trump and his supporters on the United States and the world. Capitalist imperialism produced colonialism, World War I and II, and contributed to genocide. Its latest iteration, unrestrained corporate-led globalization, has escalated climate change and global warming, generated increased inequality within and between nations, and produced excess industrial capacity and new forms of financial manipulation that threaten another global economic collapse. The United States was instrumental in the creation and maintenance of this globalized system after World War II and its reorganization at the end of the Cold War.

In Trump we have a Presidential administration blind to inequality, opposed to corporate and financial regulation, committed to international competition rather than cooperation, and in denial about the human causes of climate change. To quote a favorite Presidential tweet, “SAD!” The Trump administration’s attacks on voting rights, immigrant communities, urban minorities, and the press also read as threats to the future of democracy. Howard Zinn called history a weapon, a weapon in defense of truth and social justice. I guess the last question we have to ask is “How can teachers wield history as a weapon to defend democracy and social justice in the United States and human civilization?”

Presidents Quiz

United States Presidents from 1829-1861: Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, James Tyler, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan United States Presidents from 1861-1901: Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland again, and William McKinley.

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