[Note: In a previous post in this series, I discussed how certain personal eccentricities helped me construct a “classroom persona,” one “Dr.,” beard, polyester suit, and awful pun at a time. In this entry, I’d like to offer a few examples of how the likes and dislikes that helped shape that persona also dictated some of the choices I made in designing my Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH) course over nearly four decades at “Atlanta’s Finest Prep School” (AFPS). And, yes, these examples also grew out of my teaching mantra, “Never let ’em think you’re boring or predictable,” mentioned in that earlier post.]
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“Nothing important has happened in the American past since 1800.”
This catchphrase became a staple during what I like to think of as the “Federalist Period” of my classroom persona. After all, my dissertation treated the political history of a single American state from the American Revolution through 1806, when the state’s first “party boss” died, so when I began to teach at AFPS I knew more about those years than any others. I greatly admired—and still do—our first two Presidents, George Washington and John Adams, both Federalists. I wasn’t as much of an Alexander Hamilton fan, though I did appreciate his “financial plan” designed to put the nation on a firm financial footing following adoption of the Constitution. And, because I was such a fan of Washington and Adams, I of course had to denigrate Thomas Jefferson and all his works after the election of 1800.
Obviously, one cannot teach an American History survey course, especially on the AP level, without going beyond 1800, so, in case you’re wondering, I didn’t stop the course with Thomas Jefferson’s election. I did, however, develop a fairly histrionic explanation of my reluctance to go beyond that point in the nation’s history, a presentation that never failed to puzzle my students and produce multiple eye rolls in the peanut gallery.
As I began research on a second book, which completed the topic I had begun in my dissertation, carrying the story of political party development in that same southern state from 1807 through the mid-1840s, I learned more about the periods of the Early American Republic and the Antebellum decades. While doing so, I eventually came to admire Jefferson’s political wizardry, Andrew Jackson’s stand against Nullification (though not his Indian policy or the Bank War), and Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War.
So, in the end, I only continued to dislike the period from Reconstruction through 1945, or claimed I did, for a while (see below). Who says you can’t teach an old history teacher new tricks?
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“The News from Indian Country: Elias Boudinot and the Cherokee Phoenix”
I originally prepared this lecture for an interdisciplinary program on Native American cultures that the school offered one year. I was eager to do it because the topic of Indian Removal was central to the ongoing research project I’d begun in 1990, on the second phase of party development in that southern state, from 1807 to 1845. Once I’d used the talk in the interdisciplinary program, it seemed natural to incorporate it into the APUSH course when we reached the Age of Jackson. I did that, and the presentation became an annual feature for my students. (And my discovery of the Cherokee Phoenix and its founding editor, Elias Boudinot, provided a Native American perspective on the otherwise dispiriting campaign to remove the Cherokees from Georgia.)
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As noted earlier, I decided, midway through my career at AFPS, to avoid glamorizing war in all my courses, whether I was teaching Ancient, Medieval, Modern European, or American history. I applied the same formula to each conflict, requiring my charges to become familiar with a) causes; b) turning points; and c) short and long-term consequences. Given that my APUSH seniors were in Atlanta, the home of Margaret Mitchell of Gone With the Wind fame, they came to my class predisposed to hear a “drums and trumpets” version of the Civil War, but I refused to give them one. A child of the Vietnam Era, I saw no need to stress the “glory” of martial conflict; and, besides, I had over the years developed a keen interest in life on the “home front” during America’s various wars.
I began our unit on the “the Wah-uh” with the first episode in Ken Burns’ memorable documentary series, The Civil War, “The Cause, 1861.” I followed that episode a few classes later with episode five, “The Universe of Battle,” which had as its focus the Battle of Gettysburg. My own contributions to our study of the nation’s central conflict were two lectures, one on the home front, contrasting accounts of the War in the autobiographies of Unionist George Templeton Strong and Confederate Mary Boykin Chesnut; and another I called “The Civil War in Fifty Minutes,” which sketched the military “highlights” of the conflict, absent trumpets and drums.
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“The Age of Jim Crow” and the Blues
Years before I inherited an elective course on the History of the Modern American Civil Rights Movement, I had decided that one way to make the (to me) dreary period after “the Wah-uh” interesting was to spend time “‘splainin'” to my charges how the “Age of Jim Crow” came to be and why it was important for them, residents of the modern, post-Civil Rights Movement South, to understand where the system of racial oppression the Movement had fought against had come from.
A regular supplement to our study of Jim Crow in the post-Civil War South grew out of my love affair with the African American musical contribution, the Blues, which I managed to work into my APUSH course each spring. This approach proved so effective, not to mention popular, that I subsequently included it in that elective course on the Civil Rights Movement and in a series of “mini-courses” I offered for several years during an annual “Back-to-School Night” event for alumni and have subsequently published on this blog– see for example, here, here, and here.
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American History in the “Age of Lamplugh” (1944 ff):
[Eventually, I modestly converted the nation’s history since the end of World War II into the “Age of Lamplugh,” because it pretty much coincided with my time on earth. As I grew older and settled into my role as an “Old Head” at the school, I began to see where I “fit” into that swath of time. This was not really an attempt on my part to speak autobiographically, believe it or not; rather, it enabled me to give my sometimes jaded APUSH seniors a chance to see that history “happened” to real people, not simply to the “usual suspects” they had been learning about since elementary school. Below are some examples.]
World War II
The most interesting topics (to me, remember) between 1941 and 1945 were life on the American home front, including the internment of Japanese Americans, and the still controversial decision to drop the atomic bombs on the Japanese homeland in hopes of bringing a quicker end to the war.
Regarding the latter issue, I was, as I annually explained, of two minds about President Truman’s use of that ultimate weapon in August 1945. The destruction was terrible, but it did bring the war to a rapid close, which, in retrospect, was important to my family. My father was among those American soldiers sent to Japan as part of what was expected to be an invasion force that would, by best estimates of military leaders, face fierce resistance and probably suffer large casualties during the assault. Because of what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that landing–and the concomitant American casualties–were unnecessary, and, after a brief time in American-occupied Japan, my father returned home.
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The Modern Civil Rights Movement
A logical follow-up to the “Jim Crow” unit, this brief look at the highlights of the modern Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s also provided some needed context to help explain the rise of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as the “face” and voice of the Movement. Of great assistance here were a few excerpts from Henry Hampton’s magnificent documentary series, Eyes on the Prize. And, as mentioned above, what I’d learned about the period from “Jim Crow” through MLK over the years also prepared me for the junior/senior elective course I inherited a few years before I retired, The History of the Modern American Civil Rights Movement.
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Springtime and Vietnam
As I’ve explained elsewhere, though unwilling to do so at first I eventually found that I must come to terms with the history of our involvement in Vietnam. Having done so, I then incorporated a fifty-minute lecture on that topic into my APUSH courses (1989-2009) and even delivered it a few times to the entire senior class as a contribution to a series of “senior lectures.” [That lecture also has been published on this blog–see here, here, here, and here.]
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“Popular Music as Social Commentary”
I enjoyed this unit, and my APUSH seniors did as well. A colleague and I created an audio tape of topical songs, mostly folk and folk rock pieces, and we took a couple of days to play through and discuss the tape with our classes, stressing the importance of listening to–and, most importantly–trying to understand, the lyrics. And, unlike a lot of the music my students normally listened to, the songs on the tape actually had lyrics that were worth paying attention to and told a story, if one listened closely, a story that could be related to a number of key issues and episodes in the nation’s post-World War II history.
Discussion was a key element of this assignment, which we first offered in the late 1980s and continued to use for the next decade or so, periodically revising the play list to keep up with current events. Among the topics covered were: ‘60s counterculture; Vietnam; the Cold War, including, during the Reagan years, the always uplifting prospect of nuclear annihilation; drugs; urban unrest; the decline of manufacturing and agriculture; modern American religion; small-town America and its discontents; and several anthems that raised even broader questions about the mood of the nation itself (e.g., Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” and “American Tune”; Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’Changin’”; and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” which Republican politicos who thought the title would aid their “patriotic” cause never quite understood).
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The Best Thing to Come Out of New Jersey (Other Than the Turnpike)
Speaking of Springsteen, in the 2000s I let my fondness for the music of the “Bard of New Jersey,” come to the fore each spring, when we looked at the Great Depression, believe it or not. First, I used an excerpt from the classic movie version of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and photos from the Depression era to illustrate the plight of “Okies” and other migrants during the 1930s. Next, I asked my classes to consider the plight of the modern “dispossessed,” showing the music video version of Springsteen’s powerful, angry ballad, “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” which transports Steinbeck’s character to the first decade of the twenty-first century, with words, music, and images courtesy of “The Boss.”
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: