Montana School of Mines, 1900, by Harry C. Freeman, via Wikimedia Commons
It has never been true that we could separate what happens in our classroom discussions of history from the world beyond campus, but in the past five years it has become impossible to maintain even the fiction that such a separation is possible. The Tea Party, the Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter, #MAGA—the list of major political movements that have sprung up or grown rapidly is dizzying. And then there was the 2016 election. Suddenly the details of teaching the early American republic were newly relevant. The history of slavery and racism (and just beyond the SHEAR timeframe, the Confederacy), of individual figures such as Andrew Jackson and Frederick Douglass, and of the American founding now populate our everyday political discourse. And student responses have become more polarized as they enter the classroom with preconceptions both about American history and the authority of professional historians.
Drawing on these urgent issues, the 2017 SHEAR conference in Philadelphia included a plenary session on “Teaching the Early Republic in the Age of Trump.” Many SHEAR members were eager for the session because the atmosphere in our classrooms shifted dramatically on Wednesday morning, November 9, 2016. Advice on how to proceed in classrooms full of students anxious about expressing political opinions, fearful of the future, or newly empowered to speak their minds, seemed an urgent and necessary topic.
Unfortunately, the session proved to be more disappointing than enlightening. There were highlights—Rodney Hessinger’s talk on teaching the history of masculinity immediately comes to mind—but what we heard in the session overall did not seem to reflect what occurred in our classrooms. Nor did it seem plausible to make the assumptions that the panelists did about the demographics that our students represent. Thus, rather than clarifying and supporting the work we do as educators, the discussion instead frustrated many in the audience. 1 Leaving Philadelphia, scholars of the early American republic still seemed to long for a conversation that centered students and engaged with questions that college instructors face every day. To the extent that we were talking about teaching, questions remained about how to interact in classrooms where the pressing concerns of the world never recede because of work and family responsibilities or where politically conservative students are the norm.
With all of this in mind, a group reconvened for such a discussion in Cleveland last July. As part of the mission of the roundtable, the panel included faculty from institutions with different characteristics from those included in the 2017 plenary session: Participants primarily teach at public institutions, some of them relatively small, where teaching is the primary mission of the college/university. In addition, panelists hail from the “American heartland” of the upper Midwest and Mountain West. To chair the panel, the group invited one “token Easterner” (me).
University of Utah Campus, early 1920s. Utah State Historical Society, via Wikimedia Commons
The conversation was fruitful both for panelists and the audience as it took unexpected turns. Each discussant offered some data on the demographics of the universities where they teach. Given their locations in the Upper Midwest and Mountain West, students are almost exclusively white. Most of them hail from within the states where they attend school, which is common for public colleges and universities. Many are first-generation college students, and few come from elite backgrounds. And in places such as South Dakota and Utah, Republicans outnumber Democrats. Discussions about topics such as race and slavery can thus prove a challenge when contemporary racism is—though certainly not absent—treated as an abstract phenomenon that occurs at a remove from the lives of students.
Among the surprises was the discussion of how students identify with figures from the early American past. Following trends in historical research that suggest a continental approach, and keeping in mind the impetus to draw local connections, most of the panelists emphasize the local history of the Rocky Mountain region, the Badlands, and so on. To be completely honest, I was a bit startled at the reminder that the territories beyond the Mississippi River were never part of British North America—they were at various times claimed by France or Spain, but never Britain (I was also a tad embarrassed to realize I needed to be reminded). Yet despite the local historical connections to other European empires as well as a variety of Native groups, students nonetheless identify most with a deeply traditional American narrative. They see their links to the past through Washington and Jefferson rather than through Shoshone traders, Sioux leaders, French traders, or Spanish missionaries.
The lively engagement of the audience both to ask questions of the panelists and to share their own stories about teaching in the turmoil of the late 2010s suggests that these conversations should continue. As historians, we face a diverse set of audiences when we talk about the early republic, and the more ways we can discuss how to approach questions about contemporary politics and civics, the better. This forum will do just that as panelists reflect and expand on the conversation we had at the roundtable in coming weeks. Their contributions offer a fresh set of perspectives for how historians can confront the vexed politics of American society and still remain faithful to our core job of teaching the American past.
 For responses in the immediate aftermath of the panel, see The Junto’s roundtable, “Teaching Amid Political Tension” https://earlyamericanists.com/category/special-features/roundtables/teaching-amid-political-tension/.