Walking through a mental neighborhood

Severe storms at the USF Tampa campus pushed me off campus this afternoon, and I’ve used it in part to catch up on reading, such as Joy Ann Williamson-Lott’s article “The Battle over Power, Control, and Academic Freedom at Southern Institutions of Higher Education, 1955–1965” ($$) in last November’s Journal of Southern History. It’s an important consolidation of and addition to the literature on academic freedom and the modern civil rights movement.

Part of what makes the article so pleasurable is the way Williamson-Lott layers additional dimensions onto what I know about both the history of higher education and the civil-rights movement, from the ways Alabama State’s administrators turned the other way as Jo Ann Robinson and others planned a one-day bus boycott in Montgomery, to the cross-cutting pressures on both administrators and trustees between 1955 and 1965 (and at all sorts of institutions, public and private, HBCU and historically all-white). From the first to the last page, for me this is an intellectual walking tour of a familiar neighborhood, one in which I get to hear someone I know explain more stories of the neighborhood that I know well.

If you are not an historian or otherwise familiar with the material, what you now know is how one professional experienced this article. What does that really tell you?

One of the difficulties in teaching complex subjects is knowing how one moves from being a novice in a subject to being able to succeed at more difficult challenges. Or rather, we often don’t really know what this entails. A little more than half a century, Jerome Bruner would have asked what about this reading was “thinking like an historian,” and see how to teach those abstract skills to a history student. The problem with Bruner’s claims about “thinking like an X” (such as an historian) is that skills are abstracted from the depth of knowledge in an area, and so attempting to teach a professional perspective gives short shrift to considering what depth of familiarity is needed for “thinking like an historian.” As I noted above, an integral part of my experience in reading Williamson-Lott’s article is my being as familiar with the subjects as I am in a neighborhood where I’ve lived for a long time.

Yet at the same time, I am not happy with the arguments of E.D. Hirsch and others that focus on the accumulation of factual and factoid-ish knowledge, as if what expertise requires is primarily that cumulative store (or the total “apperceptive mass,” if you want to use an older notion associated with Johann Herbart). If I were just a store of collected historical facts, I’d be repeating the errors of objective-wanna-be historians of a century ago or I’d be unable to evaluate broader claims made by my peers. Part of the expertise of historians is a collection of what you might want to call meso-facts, or mid-level generalizations, along with the type of fine-grain detail you’d expect in an historical narrative or dense argument. Beside that is a much more complicated melange of experiences, skills, and interactions with the materials of history, my colleagues, and students (in my case, for the past few decades my students are almost always non-majors in an education college). If I can’t walk back and forth among different level of generalizations or among different types of perspectives and issues, I shouldn’t be doing my job.

What is much harder is understanding how history students develop into people with enough background and skills, develop enough to perform some of the types of judgments that you can expect from a professional historian. If you look at the types of expectations of history students and majors in college–something like the disciplinary core document from the history Tuning project–you see something that is remarkably like a set of abstract skills. Implicit in these skills list is sufficient depth of knowledge to demonstrate them. Otherwise, we might ask history students to write about Westeros, and while that might be an interesting exercise, I would hope it wasn’t the intention of those who are involved in the history Tuning project. Maybe we should look at something like the old early-90s U.S. history standards that Charlotte Crabtree and Gary Nash worked on and that was focused on K-12 schooling. As I have written before, I like the standards on a number of dimensions.

Yet those standards do not say how students develop… and I assure you that if there are only a handful of researchers focusing on anything in this area, we just do not know the answer. “Good teachers and lots of primary sources” is essentially hoping that osmosis does the trick, and it says a great deal about my teachers over the years that I did learn enough, without knowing how I did it. At some point it became interesting to learn enough about a time and place where it did become akin to a neighborhood. When someone mentioned an event, I could think of events that had happened on the same corner over the years (i.e., trace an issue through time), know what else was likely to be advertised in the newspaper the next morning (what else were salient issues in the era, or what would be an anachronism), and so forth. That’s essential to working in more depth, but how much familiarity is necessary, and what type of familiarity is most important? What would be the most likely to motivate students who will not become professional historians?

And then how do we do all this in a world where standards documents are still much closer to an everything but the kitchen sink inventory than to something focusing on meso-facts, big ideas, and their close kin: meso-questions and big questions about history.

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