Monday, August 19, 2013

Structuring 101

The other day on my Facebook feed someone posted this map:

For those of you who can’t make out the tiny print, it’s a map of the major Native American linguistic groups, though at what point in history is not specified.  Presumably it is sometime after European contact, as I do not recall any such maps being worked out beforehand.  Comparative linguistics as a scholarly field is, to the best of my knowledge, not a Native American tradition.  I could be wrong.

The person who posted it to my feed just thought it was interesting – as indeed it is – but whoever had originally sent it along its way gave it a caption.  “Why isn’t this in our standard history books?” they asked.


Just to get one thing out of the way first, has this person actually read a standard history book recently?  Most American history survey textbooks devote a fair amount of space to the history of the Native American civilizations that eventually get displaced by what comes to be known as the United States.  It’s not like they’re any great secret.  They don’t perhaps get as much space as the original poster wanted them to have, but to imply that there is some massive conspiracy among American historians to deny that there were Native American civilizations here when the Europeans stumbled into the place is a bit rich.

But there is a larger point to the question asked, which is why the standard history class devotes that much space and no more to the Native Americans.  And the answer to that isn’t nearly the parade of ethnocentricity and cultural imperialism that the question implies.

I’m assuming that by “standard history,” they are talking about the usual US survey class – the “American History Prior to 1877” course that most universities in this country list as HIST101 in the catalogue.  Note that this is not an in-depth class, nor is it particularly focused or regulated.  The goal of this class is simply to cover the basic framework of American history up until the end of Reconstruction.  There's a lot of wiggle room there.

Whether this is a worthwhile endeavor is a matter of some debate.  On the one hand, that’s a lot of material to cover and by definition it will be fairly shallow.  On the other hand, it’s supposed to be a survey – to provide a basic framework of events and concepts for the student to use should they choose to go on in history.  It provides some context to the later, more in-depth explorations.

When I teach it, I don’t spend a whole lot of time on the Native Americans.

Why not?

Two reasons, mostly – one of them a rather prosaic sort of nuts-and-bolts thing, and the other a more historically reasoned thing.

For the first reason, you have to consider the mechanics of how these classes work.  This is itself broken down into two things – time and stories.

I start my HIST101 class in 1400 and then go backward about half a century to the Great Plague before beginning to move forward in time toward what will eventually become the United States.  I do this because one of the things that is self-evidently weird about the European colonization of America is that it happened at all.  In 1400 the smart money on building colonial empires over the next three centuries was clearly not on the Europeans but on the Chinese – by far the most sophisticated civilization in the world at the time – or the Islamic world.  We take for granted the fact that the American colonies were founded by Europeans, but that fact is one of the most singularly bizarre things in all of history.  Imagine how different things would be otherwise, after all.

Given that setup, this means I have fifteen weeks to cover roughly five hundred years of history.  Clearly some choices are going to have to be made.  I am not going to have enough classes to give to every subject the space that its partisans feel it deserves – hell, I don’t have enough classes to give to anything the space I think it deserves.  I could spend the entire fifteen weeks just on the 1790s, personally.  Thus: “survey class.”

But how do I make these choices?  How do I decide what to leave in and what to leave out?

One of the things you learn about teaching is that students need stories in order to remember what you say.  You have to construct narratives, tying the evidence together into a coherent structure that gives them something to hang it all from.  This, by definition, is limiting.  The world isn’t a story – or, rather, it is many stories, competing against one another for your attention.  So you have to choose one at a time, otherwise it’s just cacophony.  Different historians choose different stories.

I divide my class into three stories, the first of which – the relevant one here – is Colonization.*  It runs from the 1340s, at the onset of the Great Plague in Europe, to 1763.  The focus of this story is to explain how the Europeans who would set the political, economic, and cultural framework for what would become the United States managed to pull off that trick over a shade more than 400 years.  Not including the introductory class (“What Is History, Anyway?”) and the exam, I’ve got four weeks – 8 substantive class periods – to get through that material. 

No matter what I touch on, it’s going to get shortchanged.

I do spend about half a class on the Native American civilizations that were displaced when the Europeans arrived – just enough, really, to let the students know that a) there were a lot of people living here already when the Europeans stumbled into this place, b) those people had formed themselves into a bewildering variety of civilizations, many of which rivaled those of the colonizing Europeans for complexity and sophistication and some of which exceeded them, and c) those civilizations got the short end of the colonial stick.  I could spend the entire semester just on Native American civilizations and never scratch the surface, but my main focus in the class is on the United States – a successor nation to those Native American civilizations – so I end up giving most of my narrative space to that successor state rather than to those it displaced.

There is a more historical reason for this as well, beyond the sheer nuts and bolts aspects of it, one that makes sense when you are teaching a class on US history in a way that wouldn’t make sense in a class on Mexican history.

Most of what is now the US was colonized by the English.  Not all of it – that’s another complication to the Colonization story that takes about half a class to work through – but in that territory the colonial foundations laid by other European nations were either overwhelmed or obliterated.  This is not to say that English culture was the only one in the mix going forward – the vast continuing influence of African culture contradicts that right off the bat, even if you don’t pay any attention to the French, Swedes, Dutch, Spanish, or other European powers – but the dominant note in that chorus is, eventually, English.

English imperial policy was to drive the Native American back.  Unlike the Spanish, whose imperial policy was to send over a ruling elite to govern the local population (a move copied by the English in India, ironically enough), English policy in America was to send over an entire colonial society and push the Native Americans westward, away from English settlements entirely.  In other words, the people who created what would become the political, economic, and cultural entity of the United States treated the Native Americans as outside Others – something to be interacted with at the borders rather than to incorporate within their own civilization or to embed themselves within.

In a survey class, given the narrative I have constructed for the first unit of the course, I choose to follow their lead.  The Native Americans become an outside power – much like Mexico, really – and while the United States interacts with those outside powers and conquers their lands (about a third of Mexico ends up annexed into the US in the 1840s), they are in this context all foreign powers.

Yes, I get the irony of that.

It’s a lot to think about, just looking at a map.


*Since someone is going to ask: 

The second story, which runs from 1763 to about 1815, is The Revolutionary Era, in which the newly stabilized colonies of British North America (not including those that would eventually become Canada) first grow disenchanted with British rule, then launch and (improbably) win a revolution against that rule, and then spend the next several decades fighting over what exactly that revolution actually meant and who gets to claim the legacy of the Revolution for their own – a vicious struggle that ends with the collapse of one point of view in the aftermath of the War of 1812.

The third and final story of this class, which runs from about 1815 to 1877, is the Rise and Fall of the Slave Republic, in which the US moves away from seeing itself as part of a broader trans-Atlantic civilization and focuses on its own domestic issues – notably slavery.  I chart the power of slavery, how it distorted the economics, politics and culture of both North and South, and how the struggle over the expansion of slavery into the western territories ultimately led to the Civil War and its aftermath.

Now you know.

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