The Discipline of the History Professor in the Age of Trump

John Fea

The Burning of Jamestown (1905) by Howard Pyle. From Harper’s Encyclopaedia of United States History: from 458 A.D. to 1905 (New York, 1905).

In Spring 2017, I gave a lecture to my history students about a man of privilege, wealth, and power who took up the cause of a growing band of disgruntled, poor, fearful, white Americans. These Americans believed that the government was not listening to their concerns. They were angry about their lack of opportunity and political representation. They felt threatened by their encounters with people from another race and culture. The man of privilege heard their cry and led them in a rebellion that temporarily drove the ruling class from power. To the extent that some of the ruling class owned land near major rivers, it might even be fair to say that this rebellion was an attempt to “drain the swamp.”

I have been teaching Bacon’s Rebellion (1676) for twenty years, but I have never seen a classroom so engaged as this one. As I talked about this important moment in the history of seventeenth-century Virginia, I noticed that many students were chuckling and whispering to their friends. Students who usually seemed to be barely alive during class raised their heads and began to listen. I never mentioned Donald Trump. But the current president of the United States seemed to be on everyone’s mind. It would have been easy for me to draw an analogy, but I decided against it. This was a lecture about race, labor, social diversity, and political power in colonial Virginia. Historical analogies must always be employed with caution. The past is a foreign country. Sevententh-century Virginia is very different than twenty-first-century United States. Presentism comes naturally to my students. If indeed, as Stanford educational psychologist Sam Wineburg tells us, historical thinking is an “unnatural act,” then my students needed to work harder at ridding themselves of their presentist mindset and try to understand the colonial Chesapeake on its own terms. But I would be kidding myself if I thought that the teaching of the past does not take place in an ongoing conversation with the present. Though I did not call out Donald Trump by name, his election in November 2016 certainly helped my students connect in a deeper way to the subjects we explored—the founding fathers, slavery, Andrew Jackson, the coming of the Civil War—in this United States History survey class.

Several months earlier I was teaching a much smaller group of students in my upper-division American Revolution course. Again, the spirit of the Trump campaign hovered over nearly every lecture and discussion. As scholars in our field talk more and more about “vast early America” and the recovery of oppressed voices, I realized as the semester progressed that many of my students needed a serious refresher on the ideals and values that shaped the founding of the nation. The more “traditional” narrative—founding fathers, political ideas, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—seemed important again as students around campus began talking more and more about the relationship between Donald Trump and the values that have long defined what it means to be “American.”

I am no Trump supporter, but I have a hunch that some of my students (or perhaps their parents) were part of the 81 percent of American evangelicals who would eventually pull the lever for the Republican nominee. So I treaded lightly. But as I prepared for class on November 9, 2017, I could not avoid being explicit about what had happened the previous night. I was horrified by the election of Donald Trump, but the classroom was not the place for a political rant. Instead, we talked about historical thinking, the difference between history and nostalgia, and the way Trump’s campaign had used the past as a tool to win supporters in the present. We talked about the limited, but important, contributions that historians make to political discourse. Historians, I reminded my students, are concerned with the “again” in the phrase “Make America Great Again.” We can tell the public what America was really like in the early republic or the 1950s, but it is not our primary goal to tell them whether such an era was “great.” Since many of my students are Christians, we talked a lot about the “Christian America” declension narrative that Trump and his evangelical supporters used to win voters. We discussed “fake news” and the importance of learning how to evaluate sources critically. (I even approached my usually boring and mundane session on how to write footnotes using the Chicago Manual of Style with a sense of moral purpose.)

History is a discipline. History teaching requires discipline. For many of us, the election of Donald Trump has infused our teaching with new meaning. But let’s always remember that the moral critique we bring to society is always more implicit than explicit.

13 September 2017

About the Author

John Fea is Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College.

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