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Let the Questions Guide You

As a high school teacher, the central challenge of teaching a survey of United States history is how to balance the compelling, but rarely compatible, demands of depth and breadth. In an ideal world of unlimited time and attention spans, I might realistically strive to achieve both. However, after several efforts at teaching the survey course as a straightforward, chronological tour de force, I have abandoned the goal of comprehensive content “coverage.”

In the survey format, my attempts to weave contemporary relevance and urgency into an examination of our national past met with occasional success, but, more often than not, I probably confirmed my students’ assumptions about the stale, encyclopedic nature of history. My unwieldy, but comparatively more satisfactory, solution has been to jettison any attempt at an exhaustive survey in favor of a thematic approach that more delicately balances the competing interests of depth and breadth.

Instead of teaching the survey chronologically with one eye on thematic relevance, I now teach it thematically with an eye towards chronology. Each quarter of the school year is framed with a guiding question. “Was this nation conceived in liberty?” compels a study of colonial times, the Revolution and the Constitution, and the Washington and Adams administrations. The question itself constitutes both a compelling essay question as well as a sorting tool for what content to include and what to leave out.

Similarly, “Is our government of the people, by the people, and for the people?” compels a study of the abolition movement, the Civil War, and Progressivism. In the second semester, an examination of Reconstruction, the New Deal, and the restriction of civil liberties during wartime all prepare students to address the role of the federal government as well as the more abstract question: “Does the good of the many outweigh the good of the few?” Lastly, “Do good fences make good neighbors?” leads to the study of U.S. territorial expansion, post-World War II foreign policy, and immigrants and immigration policy.

While this approach inevitably leaves out interesting and important moments of our history, I accept the trade-off because it places a premium on students’ ability to draw a lesson from our history rather than to recite it. It makes history about interpretation and application, not regurgitation.