Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Politics in the History Classroom

I have really been enjoying the new look of the "Teaching United States History" blog. The new team of bloggers are posting regularly and are offering some thought-provoking content.

In a recent post Blake Ellis wonders about the role of politics in the history classroom. Here is a taste:

But taking graduate classes and teaching undergraduates are two very different things. When I started my teaching career, I often wondered about the appropriate level of political discussion, and I noticed that professors seemed to fall into two camps. Let's call the first camp the neutrals. These professors have deeply held opinions about politics that tend to overlap with their study of history. But they make it a point to never reveal their personal viewpoints to students, preferring instead to play devil's advocate from a variety of perspectives. For example, I had a friend who was incredibly active in local Democratic politics who proudly proclaimed, "My students aren't sure if I'm a Republican or a Democrat." Other professors (let's call them the activists) don't believe in that kind of separation between the personal and the professional. They assume that in a marketplace of ideas, students are capable of interacting with different political viewpoints, even if the person expressing those views is responsible for grading their papers. I don't have a strong preference for either of these approaches, and I think they are each appropriate at times. It's up to the professor to determine which style works best in the classroom at any given moment. A student who might respond well to authenticity at one moment may need the devil's advocate approach in the next. 

Anyone who reads my Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past will quickly come to the conclusion that I fall into the "neutrals"camp. I don't think political activism or even excessive moral criticism have any place in the history classroom. This semester I am teaching the same thing to my future high school teachers and public historians in a class called "Teaching History."

I also realize that many of my colleagues in the history profession will disagree with me on this point. So I ask this question: What role does your own political convictions play in your history classroom? Feel free to respond in the comments or on Facebook.

Thanks to Megan Piette for her help with this post.