Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

Textbooks

Posted by Gerald on August 30, 2007

Let me open with today’s moment of educational triumph.  After throwing the Rochefoucauld and Augustine quotes I mentioned in an earlier post at my high school coop students at the end of our session on Alexander of Macedonia, my question about whether Alexander was indeed a pirate writ large got some thoughtful nods and words of assent.  Not bad for the last ten minutes of our last class before the big weekend (due to our block scheduling we do not meet on Fridays.)

Tomorrow I am leaving for a three-day weekend at the beach with some friends.  This is an annual ritual of ours and has been the only sort of vacation I’ve taken for the last decade.  As I head out I have some things floating through my mind in the wake of two encounters.

The first encounter was in writing.  I was reading the round table discussion in my newly arrived copy of the William & Mary Quarterly.  This featured discussion surrounding some thoughts by Jack Greene concerning the application of post-colonial theory and state-formation theory to American history.  I’m too tired to really go into it, but I’ve been mulling the various ideas he presented and those in the other contributions to the discussion.

The second encounter was in person.  A newly assigned book rep was making the rounds today and we had a long talk about texts for our Western Civ, American Survey, World Civ, and History of Africa courses.

I’m left with several disconnected thoughts I am trying to work through and piece together.

First, the legacy of the Annales school and the idea of “total history” has shaped research and journal publishing in history across the specialties.  Still, when I look at any freshman level textbook all I see is the same set of narrative structures with some social history slipped in around the edges.  Admittedly, I am in the hinterlands of academia, but I am still seeing the same disconnect between what the profession does in its journals and what it publishes in textbooks that I first noticed over fifteen years ago.  Am I missing something?

Should the purpose of a freshman history course be to provide a full and detailed picture of the lives of people in the past or should it be to try to create a comprehensible narrative of how the current world has come to be?  To what extent should I emphasize deep structures and the long duree and to what extent do I emphasize contingency and the consequences of human agency?  I do not see these as opposing goals but as the Heisenberg principle applied to social science.  Of course, this isn’t something I just started thinking about today.  I haven’t had a day I wasn’t thinking about it since I started teaching.  I’m not sure there actually is an answer, but I think I’ve got to keep asking the question.

Thinking about contingency reminds me about this cool article I read in The History Teacher about the classroom use of counterfactuals.  I think there is something there, but I haven’t managed to work out the actual mechanics of using this in a classroom where as much as a quarter of my students might have preparatory needs in reading and writing.  Still I do want to – I think it would be fun.

Any thoughts?

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2 Responses to “Textbooks”

  1. Heidi said

    “Should the purpose of a freshman history course be to provide a full and detailed picture of the lives of people in the past or should it be to try to create a comprehensible narrative of how the current world has come to be? To what extent should I emphasize deep structures and the long duree and to what extent do I emphasize contingency and the consequences of human agency? ”

    False opposition, of course. You do the best you can at both… an alternating current. You’re only limited by time and by what students will grasp. Asking this question shows that you already know that. {{{grin}}}

  2. Heidi said

    Tag, you’re it.

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