An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Teaching of American History

Oct 8, 2018 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Recently, there was an article posted which caught my attention that I wanted to discuss with you (and the readership). Here is it below:

Americans Have Almost Entirely Forgotten Their History

History blindness, and a lack of basic civic knowledge, is unhealthy for a free country. Today, we are too busy tearing down our history than learning from it. That needs to change.

I guess my first question is: Do you agree with this? I know you and I have done several books together on American Presidents and Famous American Heroes. But overall, do you think Americans have “almost entirely forgotten their history”?

Frankly, this report did not surprise me. I have taught introductory US History courses on the collegiate level since 1989, and every year I find that my students have less knowledge about their nation’s past than did the individuals that preceded them. I don’t get the sense that they don’t care about US History; instead, I get the sense that they have not had the same time of instruction that their predecessors had.

This may have resulted from a decline in the quality of the instructors tasked with teaching US History in our nation’s schools, but as a person who helps prepare college students to become educators I believe that they have a much better grasp of effective teaching strategies than I did when I graduated with a teaching certificate from the University of Northern Iowa in 1974. To me, the lack of knowledge about US History has resulted from a de-emphasis on that subject in our nation’s schools.

2) In your mind, and this is probably one of those perennial questions: why study American history?

Going back to the birth of our nation, individuals charged with developing a curriculum for our schools insisted on including courses in US History. They did so for a number of reasons, but primarily so that future generations of Americans would have an appreciation of the people and events that had shaped us into the greatest nation on the face of the earth.

But it also included cautionary tales about mistakes that we had made, in attempt to help the nation avoided heading down a path that had resulted in misfortune or tragedy. I would suggest that those reasons have the same applicability today that they did in the 1700s.

3) How far back should we really be going in terms of our American History? Do students of today need to know about the Gettysburg address?

I definitely believe that students need to examine US History from its colonial origins up to the present day. And to me, the Gettysburg Address can serve as a perfect example of why I feel this way. Just the famous words about “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” illustrate in a short, easily comprehensible phrase what our experiment in representative democracy has, and should continue to, involve.

But why did Lincoln feel the need to speak on the subject? That calls for US History teachers to put the Gettysburg Address into the context of the American Civil War, where thousands had already died for that ideal. Without US History, Lincoln’s words lose their purpose.

4) What is the old saying: if we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it?  Your thoughts on that one?

I will answer your question by giving an oft-quoted remark by Henry Ford that people often use to discredit studying the past: “History is all bunk.” We historians, when confronted with this sentiment, point out that with his disregard of the past, Ford thought that the American people would always buy his iconic Model T automobile.

A quick examination of the past would have revealed that no product had ever remained popular if a newer, shinier, and more innovative competing model came along, and that was exactly what happened to Ford. He almost went bankrupt before he relented and began to offer customers options. Ford thus proves what Santayana said about people who did not learn about the past.  

5) Let’s talk real heroes, like Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Teddy Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King. Why do we need to know about this people who have given so much to American culture and our nation?

I am firmly of the opinion that US History has to include a study of not only the events that molded us into what we became, but also the people who played a crucial role in that process. I do not think, for example, that the United States could have as successfully dealt with the problems caused by urbanization and industrialization if Theodore Roosevelt had not served as president when he did.

Likewise, the Civil rights movement might have eventually gained momentum in the twentieth century, but the courage of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. certainly expedited the process. And even a person like Davy Crockett, who Americans remember much more for myth than for the actual man, tells us a great deal about who we idolize and why. I thus try to help students understand that people make a difference, and thus they should know about famous Americans.

6) I personally taught social studies for a few years, and tried to teach about geography, economics, a bit of politics, some history and about some basic governmental issues. Has “social studies” replaced history?

The teaching of US History has changed a great deal since the two of us stood in public school classrooms, and you have identified a major reason why. Most educators used to consider US History as simply a record of the military, political, and diplomatic events that had taken place in the past.

Today’s teachers, on the other hand, try to incorporate the other Social Studies into their methodology. We feel now that students must have a fundamental grasp of the principles of subjects from Geography to Sociology to truly understand how people lived and coped with all that transpired around them. It is still the study of the past—just a more well-rounded one in today’s classrooms.

7) For a while it seemed like there was a resurgence in the study of History, as there was a flurry of books by leading scholars. Has history become the smaller study of a few leading Presidents or events in American history?

During the last 30 years, the list of best-selling books compiled by The New York Times has included quite a few works that deal with US History. Biographies of famous Americans have appeared on the list, as have works that deal with events ranging from 9/11 to D-Day. But clearly, the range of books written on US History in general has narrowed appreciably during that period of time. This trend may have resulted from changes within the publishing business, as a number of academic presses that catered to works of non-fiction have gone out of business since the 1980s.

Many observers, however, place the blame for the decline in the number of books devoted to US History every year on the fact that fewer people have a deep interest in the subject. It seems likely, therefore, that biographies and works on selected topics in US History will continue to find an audience, but we will never see the sheer numbers of books on US History that graced the nation’s bookshelves prior to the 1980s.

8) Your area of study has been the Civil War. What has drawn you to that period of American History?

As I look at US History, I see times in our past when our nation faced significant divisions. Every time but one, cooler heads prevailed, and we managed to peacefully resolve our differences. The only exception to this came in 1861, when two groups of Americans came to blows with each other because they could no longer compromise. This resulted in the costliest war in terms of lives lost that ever beset the American people.

While this alone would make the study of the Civil War important, the fact that the conflict changed in mid-course from merely a struggle to reunite the nation into a war that would decide the fate of millions of human beings gives it a significance that has made me want to know as much about the Civil War as I possibly can.

9) Any thoughts on the future of American History?

I am afraid that the study of History will never again play as big a role in the nation’s curriculum as it did as recently as the 1970s. Our nation’s leaders have clearly indicated that they want a much greater emphasis placed in our schools on Science, Mathematics, Reading, and Writing, and this leaves little time during the day for any of the Social Studies.

But I do feel confident that History will never entirely disappear from our nation’s schools. For teachers, the goal will then be to more actively engage their students during the time allotted to that subject in the subject matter, helping them realize why it is in their best interests to know something about their nation’s past.

10) Anything I have neglected to ask?

While I believe that our nation’s students should know the people and events that helped us become the United States, I try to never lose sight of the fact that we as educators must never lose sight of the fact that we are primarily striving to help our youthful charges develop the ability to think critically.

Merely giving our students a familiarity with names and terms, no matter how important we may think they are, will not help them with higher level learning skills. History, therefore, must serve as a learning method for our students, rather than as an end in and of itself.

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