Sunday, January 11, 2015

Progressivism Continued: One way to Tame the Tyranny of Coverage...Plus, a few thoughts on Paris

For ideas about how to teach about the last week's events in Paris, scroll down to the bottom of this post.)

James Loewen, in his book, Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited about Doing History, gives outstanding advice to history teachers in chapter 1 which is titled, "The Tyranny of Coverage." In it, he compares the content of history to forests, trees and twigs. He points out the danger of students not being able to see the forest through the trees, i.e. the big ideas of history vs facts. It is a thoughtfully written chapter which I have used when teaching the methods class for student teachers (and I have mentioned in one of my earliest posts).

But the one thing I can't figure out about it is how he could support eliminating the Progressive Era altogether. If you read my previous post on Progressivism, you will understand why I think that it is a big mistake.

But I do agree with Loewen's premise: that you certainly cannot cover every little thing that is in the textbook.

So how to solve this problem for Progressivism?

If you define Progressivism broadly and simply, as seen below, you can carefully pick 1 or 2 "case studies" for each of the three points.

Progressivism is the attempt to make government more responsive to the public by

1. making government more democratic (examples: expanding the suffrage, cleaning up corruption)


2. government regulation of the economy (e.g. trustbusting)


3. government action to solve social problems (e.g. settlement houses, prohibition, food safety)


One other thing I like to do in the Progressive Unit is to "continue the story" of blacks and women. Because I don't have separate units on these groups, I teach lessons throughout the year where it makes the most chronological sense. And because Progressivism is about (3) solving social problems and because women were involved in organizing solutions to those problems, it makes sense to include them here. Plus, the fight for women's suffrage reaches its climax at this point in history. For African Americans, I focus on social activists Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. (I will do a separate post on this).

So here is an example of how an approximately two-week unit on Progressivism might look:

Day 1 - Introduction to Progressivism
Day 2 - The Urban Environment: American Cities, the Settlement Houses & Political Machines
Day 3 - continued
Day 4 - Theodore Roosevelt takes on Big Business
Day 5 - Roosevelt and Progressive Reforms
Day 6 - The Battle of Hetch Hetchy: Progressives and Environmental Reform
Day 7 - continued
Day 8 - Women during the Progressive Era
Day 9 - Racial Segregation and Black Leadership during the Progressive Era
Day 10 - The Election of 1912
Day 11 - Roosevelt v. Wilson: Comparing and Evaluating Progressivism


This Election of 1912 group activity is one way I have approached the politics of the Progressive Era. It involves dividing your class into 5 groups, one for each of the major candidates of this election and one to be reporters. You could eliminate the reporter group, but I include it because (1) otherwise the groups are too big, and (2) it is a good place to put kids who really prefer to work alone.

In the interest of making shorter posts and getting them "out there" more quickly, I will conclude here for now.

But one last thought....

 I have been wrestling with what happened in Paris last week and how one should handle it in the classroom. Though this blog is designed for U.S. history teachers, I think it is our duty as "social studies" teachers to probably say or do SOMETHING when a news story like this happens. Students don't care that you haven't gotten to your unit on the Middle East yet. And if yours is the only social studies class they are in at the moment, where else would they discuss it? So I would urge you to--at a minimum--provide a forum to allow students to discuss or ask questions about what happened and why this is such a big news story.

So here are a few ideas/questions to raise in a discussion (depending, of course, on the ages and maturity of your students):


  • Most of the victims of Islamic fundamentalism over the last 10 years have been Muslim, not white Western Europeans or Americans.  See this editorial from Vox and this article, about the eulogy given by the brother of Ahmed Merabet, the French police officer of Algerian descent and a Muslim, who was murdered by one of the Kouachi brothers as they fled the office of Charlie Hebdo after their attack there. Both pieces raise some interesting questions about whether or not Muslims around the world, and particularly in France, have a responsibility to condemn the attacks of Islamic fundamentalists. This concern has been raised in other contexts--the extent to which an individual of a minority group represents the larger group. And what happens when a society blames the entire group for the evils of a few individuals or off-shoot of the group? See this map which shows attacks on French Muslims since the attack on Charlie Hebdo.
  • Freedom of Speech. One of our most sacred rights in the U.S., and in France, came under attack last week. This provocative op-ed piece by David Brooks in the New York Times raises some interesting questions about the connection to speech codes and censorship in the U.S. I would not recommend using this piece with students (for starters, the vocabulary is likely to be beyond most high school students, and for sure, middle schoolers). But it is worth reading for you, and you can address some of those questions. Clarence Page, of the Chicago Tribune, wrote a piece with a similar theme, which you can read here. It raises some tough questions about the appropriateness of racist cartoons.
  • When I read the paper on Saturday, there was a front page story, just under the article about France, about the rampage of Boko Haram in Nigeria (Read more here). I was struck by the fact that I hadn't heard much about the 2000 dead in Nigeria and--even as I read the article about it--I was still much more emotionally involved with the events in Paris. Proof of my own ethnocentrisms, I suppose, and this disturbs me. Have your students heard about Boko Haram? About the recent events in Nigeria? Is it "natural" for us, as Westerners, to be more concerned and pay more attention to events in Paris? Does this make us racist or ethnocentric? 
  • What connections can we make to the events in Ferguson and the shooting of the two NY police officers in Brooklyn in December?
  • This is a broader question/topic, but what connections can we make about the place of Muslims in French society to the place of the "new" immigrants in the U.S. at the end of the 19th century? Following the Progressive Era, we will see a rise in prejudice, nativism, anti-Catholic feeling and anti-Semitism, culminating in the 1924 Immigration Act that will severely limit immigration into the U.S. from areas other than Western Europe. France, and other Western European nations have only recently been dealing with questions about assimilation that the U.S. has been grappling with for over a century. The attacks in Paris bring this issue once again to a head. What lessons could the French draw from the United States? And, given problems we still have in the U.S. regarding racism and prejudice against minorities, including our own rising Muslim population, what lessons do we still have to learn?




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