I’m more than fortunate to be at the James Madison Seminar in Teaching American History at Princeton University. In the second of a three year program, several teachers from my school and many others from northern New Jersey schools enjoy the Hogwarts ambiance of Princeton and immerse ourselves in the thick content of our discipline. This history teacher’s geektopia is made possible by a federal grant designed to “raise student achievement by improving teachers’ knowledge and understanding of and appreciation for traditional U.S. history.” The James Madison Seminar’s program seems well-tuned to meet the goals of “traditional”, through a foot-and-a-half high stack of readings, and an assembly of wicked-smart professors providing mornings of lecture and afternoons of discussion.
Last year’s emphasis on the early American republic focused on Constitutional history, yet was also leavened by a cultural emphasis on period music and architecture, complete with a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and colonial mansions along the Schuylkill river. This year we are digging through antebellum politics, the system of slavery and the philosophic foundations of the secession crisis. Was the Constitution a pro-slavery document, or did the founders (as Lincoln insisted) mark the institution for eventual extinction with an anti-slavery Constitution? Were Republicans returning to the original intent of the Constitution in 1860 or were they revolutionaries that brought on the Civil War? Sifting through each of the nine opinions written by justices in the Dred Scott case and dissecting South Carolina’s Declaration of Causes against Lincoln’s first inaugural is not for the timid. It’s not easy to wrap one’s mind around the idea that there is a logical argument to be made for the spreading of slavery into the west in an effort to end slavery. (Look at the dates of state abolition of slavery in the north and you will find that the states with the lowest percentage of slaves ended slavery first. The math is simple, the less slaves in a state, the easier it was to end slavery so it makes sense to diffuse slaves across the continent by allowing slavery in the west).
The participants in this program assiduously complete the readings and are focused in the lectures and discussions, exploding the content knowledge behind the instruction provided to thousands of students. Yet, as good as this sounds, the James Madison Seminar was not approved to continue on the grant beyond our class’s final session next year. Although the directors seem bewildered that such a well-respected program was discontinued, I would bet that they were not approved because of the word “lecture”. If they threw words like “collaboration” and “emergent technologies” on their grant application they would have made it. We were told that the Department of Education would want to test our students to assess the success of this program. Translated, this means, “we are going to give your students multiple choice questions to see if they know and have appreciation for traditional U.S. history.” Do you catch just a hint of personality disorder in this? The DOE doesn’t want lecture because that old school rote memorization is out of vogue, but they will test based on just the type of knowledge lecture promotes.
I’m fairly certain that most students would be ill-served if they were expected to process history at this content level. Some could perhaps handle the factual retention necessary, but the complexity of relationships and amorphous, gray areas between one idea and the next are quite beyond their ability. This content knowledge improves our teaching by reinforcing the foundation of our curriculum design, but we should not simply project that content onto our students. In fact, we should use our expanded content knowledge to better judge what to cut. The reading comprehension skills built by comparing South Carolina’s Declaration of Causes and Lincoln’s First Inaugural will serve our students better than the memorization of the British Acts of Parliament preceding the Revolution.
James Madison’s demise is indeed unfortunate, but not for obvious reasons.