Students have little difficulty placing themselves in the shoes of Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot), despite the historical gulf between them. Figures such as Tecumseh, Pueblo berdaches, and Lowell factory girls provide a greater challenge to their conceptions of American identity. Images courtesy www.ushistoryimages.com and Wikimedia Commons.
I teach classes in early American, race, and religious history at Utah State University. USU is a public land-grant university with approximately 16,000 undergraduates in residence on the main campus, in Logan, a small town of 50,000 inhabitants in northeastern Utah. My students are significantly whiter and more male than national averages; while women form a slight majority of the university’s population, this ratio is lower than nationally. Four-fifths of our students are local, from the state of Utah and southwest Idaho. A significant majority of our students are religious, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As befits Utah’s status as a politically conservative state, most of our students are reflexively Republican. My experience teaching early American history, and specifically the history of the early American republic, in this environment is not particularly unusual, and likely matches up with the experiences of large swaths of my colleagues at state or parochial colleges in the American heartland, if we conceive the heartland as the nation between the coasts and outside the major cities.
The history of the early republic has been, and largely continues to be, a narrative of nation-building. Much of the scholarly work of the past two generations has contextualized and challenged the idea of that nation: to show political boundaries as contingent and permeable, as borderlands; to unpack the idea of citizenship as mutable, and contestable, a concept containing both high ideals and base exclusion; and to expand the range of actors to include all races, genders, sexual beings, including those on the global stage. But at the very heart of it all, we are talking about how “we” became a nation.
Geographically my students have little problem understanding the layout of early national history. They seem to easily imagine themselves in the line of Caucasian Americans who framed the Constitution, traveled West across the continent, and fought the Civil War. Indeed, I believe they take history classes in part to find themselves in the narrative. For example, for years I have sketched the differences between Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian visions of political economy in the 1790s; at the conclusion of the lecture I open discussions by asking students to identify with one or the other camp by a show of hands. When I began teaching at USU eight years ago, Hamiltonians held a slight majority, representing a far stronger presence than when I taught classes in Colorado, California, or Maine. I assumed that with the popularity of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical Hamilton, that such a percentage would increase, but in the last several years it seems the Jeffersonians have increased in number. In part such a shift may reflect a change in the Republican Party nationally: the party of George W. Bush, more Hamiltonian in its projection of military power and big economic ventures, was still largely dominant through the re-election of Barack Obama; but with the rise of Donald Trump, Republicans, including some of my students, apparently moved toward a Jeffersonian vision that at least rhetorically attacked political and economic elitism. A political scientist might test this more thoroughly, but for me it indicates that as a history instructor I am dealing far more with issues of identity than with ideology, per se.
Students in my classes appear to be at ease with some political revisionism, especially as it is contained within the actions of elite white men. They seem comfortable when I offer sympathetic vignettes on Loyalists, despite that group’s rejection of a Declaration of Independence that my students generally celebrate. Most students readily grasp that Andrew Jackson’s democracy was tainted with ideologies of racism and patriarchy. And almost all recognize the victory of the Union in the Civil War as a good thing, Fourteenth Amendment and all. Generationally, this may suggest a larger shift in our student body’s political allegiances, but I believe it also suggests that our primary issues are not connected to the historical narrative.
The difficulties lie in the conceptual areas that cause students to question their basic categories of identity. Students sometimes question the extended time we spend on, and significance of, Native American history. Others have complained at what they see as too much coverage of women, or of any coverage at all on sexual identities they deem as alternative. On the surface, this is surprising to me: In the survey, Native American materials do not comprise much more than one-eighth of the course and are heavily weighted toward the colonial era. Women fare even less prominently, as I relegate Abigail Adams to “remembering the ladies” and the Lowell factory girls to a piece of a single lecture on the Industrial Revolution. As for sex, same-sex and otherwise, I remain fairly conventionally prudish (or maybe Victorian) in my materials in addressing it very rarely. But I recognize the discomfort with many students on these things. In contrast, I have experienced little student pushback on issues of race and slavery. Such issues seem to have been so successfully ingrained into the national civic narrative, and big politics, that our students easily recognize their importance, and do not balk at their coverage. But getting them to consider questions about the very foundations of identity—the political ownership of this country given the dispossession of Natives, or the gendered identities they see as fixed and basic in themselves—causes greater anxiety.
Given these issues that revolve around identity, I recognize a heavy responsibility falls on me. A college professor, I am a beneficiary of great privilege, educationally and economically. And within the university setting, as a white male I reap added benefits. Our students, raised in a culture rooted in patriarchal religion and conservative politics, tend to reflexively respect authorities, especially white and especially male. They tend to listen to me, and weigh heavily what I say. Such a setting requires I choose my words carefully, create safe spaces for women to feel empowered, and to recognize the often-isolated position in which our students of color find themselves. Also, I cannot take anything for granted. I see firsthand that some of my female colleagues receive much more pushback, and unfair judgment, reflected in experiences ranging from complaints in classroom conversations to unfair teaching evaluations.
In some cases it is students who are openly progressive who struggle with analyzing the historical narrative in a historical way. Some such students seem to assume that I am automatically sympathetic to their position, and that what we are discussing proves their assumptions about contemporary politics, which occasionally has them miss the past-ness of the past. (As much as I enjoy Hamilton, for example, I don’t want them to see Hamilton’s Federalist Party as the forerunner to modern Democrats!) But more generally, all our students read a piece of themselves back into the material on the early republic. Further, they all see a piece of who they want to become when they look to the front of the classroom and listen to their professors. It is a humbling realization, and one that I feel I must treat very carefully as I teach.