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Several months ago, a reader left a comment on my post (“Teaching Corroboration in the Age of Information Overload”) about teaching students to evaluate sources, interpret bias, etc. In his comment, this reader made reference to several sources from the website Socialism Realised, which I had not seen before. Shortly thereafter, I was contacted by someone affiliated with the website and asked to write a review, which—after spending more time exploring the site—I was happy to do.

Socialism Realised is an educational outreach project of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (ISTR), an agency funded by the Czech government. According to the website, the ISTR was “founded in 2007 as part of the [Czech Republic’s] process of coming to terms with the past,” and Socialism Realised is designed to “present content aimed at a deeper understanding of the lives of the people in these regimes and a comparison of these experiences to the present.”

This last point caught my attention. Although drawing comparisons between past and present always carries some risk (a topic I hope to expand on here in future posts, as it is one I have been contemplating a lot recently), I generally believe the benefits outweigh the costs, especially for teachers of secondary students. Though uncritical “presentism” may lead students toward a distorted, ahistorical understanding of the past, I believe that before we can teach students to think like historians, we must actually capture their attention. For too many students (as it was for me at their age), history is a dry and dusty discipline, and they can’t imagine why they should have to learn it. By helping them first see its potential relevance in their own lives, teachers can spark students’ curiosity and help them begin to ask questions about the past. From there, the ahistorical comparisons can be corrected as students are guided toward more sophisticated historical thinking.

History teachers who visit Socialism Realised will immediately note its emphasis on video sources, and on visual sources more generally. Of the 38 resources available, 27 are videos. Of the remaining 11, five are images, leaving only six text-based sources on the site. Perhaps this is to be expected of an English-language site about the history of Czechoslovakia, and it is certainly not a fatal flaw. The videos and images are likely to be more engaging for students, though as a teacher who stresses close and careful reading of text, I must say that I would like to see additional texts to complement the visual sources.

One element of Socialism Realised that I very much appreciate, however, is its flexibility. There are a variety of ways to explore the site, organized by “Eras,” “Perspectives,” and “Pathways.” Eras, not surprisingly, organize the material chronologically, and “Perspectives” offer visitors the opportunity to “Choose the angle from which you’d like to look at a given era”: ideology, memory, oppression, or personal stories.

“Pathways,” meanwhile, are thematic groupings of resources in which “Experts and teachers have prepared their own choices out of the material on the portal.” At present, there are only three (“The Basics of Communism,” “The Life and Times of Milan Kundera,” and “Women During Socialism”), but this would seem to be an area ripe for future development. I, for one, would love to see an interactive element of the site which allows teachers—or even students—to develop their own “Pathways,” even if those were subject to editorial review prior to publication.

It is worth noting here that the site could be more user friendly. Though the design is clean and visually appealing, it offers little direction for the visitor with limited time to explore. It is akin to walking into a museum consisting of a single large room with many artifacts. For visitors familiar with the site’s resources, there are a variety of ways to reach what they seek. For the first-time visitor, it might be a bit overwhelming. In this sense, the site’s flexibility is also a potential downside, especially for harried teachers who are looking for more direction or a ready-to-use “packaged” set of materials. More prominent placement of the “Pathways” could be helpful for those types of visitors by serving as a more structured “gateway” into the site and all it has to offer.

Those who do take the time to explore Socialism Realised, however, will be rewarded with a rich and coherent set of resources. More or less at random, I selected three sources to examine, but I quickly realized how interconnected they were—an opportunity for a thoughtful teacher to guide students toward historical thinking.

“Class Cleansing” offers an excerpt from a 1952 document titled, “A recommendation on how to ‘cleanse’ agricultural high schools.” The commentary provided below the source (a seemingly minor point, but one which will encourage students to read the source itself before having someone else explain it to them) explains that “The children of people who originally owned a large farm or disagreed with collectivisation – referred to in the document as the ‘village rich’ – were unable to attend secondary agricultural schools during the collectivisation era. The regime was therefore not content with just forced collectivisation; the purpose of this measure was to overturn the agriculture system as a whole and limit the career prospects (even in the cooperatives) of the potentially disloyal descendants of big farmers and landowners.” Students will need some background knowledge in order to make sense of this document, but it is a rich source illustrating the point that schooling in a socialist society served political ends. (Of course, one might argue that schooling in any society serves political ends.)

“Rewriting History” is a clip from the 1990 film Lenin, the Lord and Mother, in which a teacher in the 1950s instructs her students to physically remove an image of Rudolf Slánský from their textbooks in the wake of his 1952 show trial. Again, to extract the most meaning from the document, students will need some background knowledge, but the source itself is intriguing enough to create questions among even younger students: Why is the teacher making them tear apart their textbooks? Who is the man whose photo they are tearing out? (Also, I love the bit at the end where one student accidentally tears out the photo of Stalin…) This would make an excellent source for a standalone “inquiry” lesson centered on question development and research, and once students understand the context, it would pair well with the source described above to illustrate the ways in which schools reinforced the existing political structure.

Finally, “Education for All” is a 1987 “documentary” touting the benefits of the Czechoslovakian education system, which supposedly provided high-quality education for all citizens from nursery school through university. According to the commentary, “This clip is from a film that was meant to prove that Czechoslovakia upholds human rights as set out in the Helsinki Accords. In regards to the right to education, knowing the period context allows to uncover a large degree of manipulation in the film.”

Though I did not select these three sources with such a goal in mind, I could see them forming the basis for a “Pathway” on the role of education in a socialist society—not only its “official” role according to the party line, but also the ways in which particular education policies reflect a particular vision for society. In my experience, students are always fascinated when teachers “peel the onion” around educational policy and practice, helping them understand the larger system in which their day-to-day existence unfolds. I could see this sort of exploration serving as a launchpad for a wider consideration of education policy, both historically and today.

The sources, of course, are the cornerstone of the site, but the authors of Socialism Realised are not content to be merely a “web archive.” Rather, they have carefully considered pedagogy in their curation of historical materials, stating boldly on the site’s “Pedagogical Approach” page:

The dominant image of the Eastern bloc is focused on conflict and political history. . . . To overcome the established dichotomic image, we offer a more complex look at the period through innovative kinds of sources and how we enable users to think about diverse and even contradictory interpretations of the past and the perspectives of different actors. At the same time, we’ve tried to lessen the amount of raw information, taking emphasis away from names and dates and instead focusing on key general phenomena, like the relationship of people to power and societal transformations. . . . For us, the fundamental principle of cognition is the analysis of historical sources, and the accompanying questions and texts guide this cognition process. [emphases mine]

This ambitious vision for history education largely matches my own, so it is not surprising that I find Socialism Realised a valuable resource. Furthermore, we should not be surprised that the site rejects a traditional view of history in which the important “facts” are handed down from on high.

Some teachers and students might be frustrated by a sense that Socialism Realised is long on questions and short on answers, but I suspect that this is a function of its authors’ anti-totalitarian vision. Unlike the subjects of the three sources described above, the site does not seek to define the terms of the past or circumscribe the inputs and outputs of the educational process. Good history, as Socialism Realised elegantly demonstrates, requires critical thought about complex issues, considered from varying perspectives. Those, not coincidentally, are the hallmarks of democratic societies, and often the first targets of nascent totalitarian regimes.

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My new school has a regular “Talking About Teaching” professional development opportunity for teachers. Essentially, it’s a scheduled time for teachers to come and share thoughts and ideas about the craft of teaching. It’s one thing that drew me to the school. Today’s topic was “Student Motivation”—a topic I’ve thought a lot about.

The conversation was wide-ranging, but it left me thinking for much of the day about the interconnection of two topics that form the title of this post: intrinsic motivation and the relevance of history. We talked a lot about the role of grades and other extrinsic motivators in school, though there seemed to be general agreement that we’d like for our students to be more intrinsically motivated to learn—to play with ideas, to inquire and explore their interests.

I pointed out that, as Daniel Pink notes in his book Drive, we all tend to be more intrinsically motivated when we a) have some measure of autonomy in the task at hand; b) can observe ourselves progressing toward mastery of it; and c) appreciate its larger purpose. Unfortunately, the infrastructure of schools often serves to undermine autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

At this point, a colleague raised the concern that few students—and even some teachers—don’t necessarily understand the purpose of their studies in school. Why, for instance, do students need to know a particular equation in math class? Or (to reference one of my own lessons from today) why do they need to know the significance of itinerant preachers in the Great Awakening?

We batted that idea around for a while, and there were a variety of ideas. In the end, though, we seemed to reach a general consensus: at the end of the day, students probably don’t need to know all of those things. Many agreed that much of the “stuff” that we teach in our courses is not absolutely essential for students to learn. (This brought to mind my recent post on “The Siren Call of Coverage.”)

This has me reflecting on curriculum. Once we acknowledge that the sky would not fall if some things were cut, then paring back the content of the curriculum would seem to be a logical step toward remedying any perceived deficiencies. In our case, if we find that our students suffer from a lack of intrinsic motivation and don’t see the purpose of what they’re studying, we need to address that. Trimming the content covered would kill two birds with one stone:

  1. It would provide time for self-directed learning, in which students—under the supervision of teachers, to be sure—could pursue topics of interest to them, hopefully learning to ask questions, pursue their interests, and discover meaning for themselves. Even in a field that is not necessarily a student’s true passion, he or she may find a particular topic or question that is intriguing, perhaps sparking a lifelong hobby.
  2. By covering less material, teachers would have the opportunity to pursue deeper learning, which would helpfully hope students understand the value of their studies. For my part, I want my students to consider why history matters today—how historical narratives (even historically inaccurate ones) shape our contemporary worldview and how historical thinking skills can help us make sense of the time in which we live. When I feel pressure to get to chapter 15 by Christmas, though, that’s difficult to do.

It is admittedly something of a cliche, but I have nevertheless long appreciated Yeats’s famous adage that “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Particularly in history, if the approach is just “one damn thing after another,” only the rare student will have their “fire” stoked. (We history teachers all know these kids—the ones who geek out over trivia while the other students slump in their seats and roll their eyes.) In the traditional coverage approach, everyone’s pails get filled… but most are unceremoniously dumped out later, after the extrinsic motivation (the test) is removed. Whatever small fires we managed to start along the way, most are extinguished in the deluge.

This post has been brewing for a while now, since the heady days of summer when I was free to spend my time reading to my heart’s content: books, magazines, blog posts, random news articles, the newspaper… you name it. And while I was doing all of that reading and thinking, something occurred to me. It’s not a particularly original thought, but rather one of those simple ideas that hits you square between the eyes.

As I read article after article about the 2016 presidential campaign, I reflected on the fact that my professional raison d’etre—like many history teachers—centers on preparing my students for active and engaged citizenship. I would love for just one of my students to pursue a career as a historian (or history teacher), but I know that most of them won’t. All of them, however, will become citizens.

To that end, I try to teach them how to think historically—which is to say, how to think critically about social issues, mindful of matters like context, causation, change, complexity, and contingency. I also try to think them how to read sources—whether 400 year old primary sources or contemporary op-eds—with an eye for bias and to corroborate the information they gather.

As I found myself drowning in reading material this summer, though, it occurred to me how difficult it is to corroborate in this age of information overload. Once we teach students how to corroborate—and why it is so important—we set them loose into a world with an overwhelming surfeit of information. Moreover, our “sources” are simultaneously proliferating and becoming ideologically fixed (or, at the very least, they are coming to be labeled as such by parties which disagree with their conclusions).

This leaves us more open than ever to the problem of confirmation bias. Worse, we may even fool ourselves into thinking we have corroborated our information by locating it in several different sources. This is a serious problem in the age of information.

Sam Wineburg

As I ruminated about this and contemplated this post, I came across this article from Sam Wineburg of the Stanford History Education Group. (It is actually an excerpt from his keynote before the American Association for State and Local History last year.) As with just about everything Wineburg writes, it should be required reading for history teachers. Here are a few key quotations from the piece, along with my brief thoughts about each one:

It was obviously never the case that just because something was printed meant that it was true. At the same time, we often ceded authority to established publishers. We relied on them to make sure that what we read was accurate, that it had gone through rounds of criticism before it reached our eyes. . . . The Internet has obliterated authority. . . . We live in an age when you can practice historiography without a license.

I suspect Wineburg is playing to his audience here, but I love this notion of practicing historiography “without a license.” His point, of course, is about the decline of authority in the internet age, but in fact, Wineburg’s scholarship seeks just this outcome. If he had his way, all students would become adept at thinking like historians, which would make a “license” (by which I assume he means a formal credential) even less relevant.

The first thing that historical study teaches is that there is no such thing as free-floating information. Information comes from somewhere.

A simple but often overlooked point. Wineburg has a knack for the pithy phrase, and if we had to sum up the value of a history education in ten words or less (an absurd idea, of course), this last sentence would put us on the right path.

[We] are living in an age where technological changes of how information is disseminated and distributed far outpaces our ability to keep up with it. The tools we have invented are handling us—not us them.

Echoes of Thoreau here. We’ve built systems for developing content and making it readily available to the masses, but without tools for critically assessing that content, we risk losing sight of the idea that “Information comes from somewhere.”

As the journalist John H. McManus reminds us, in a democracy the ill-informed hold just as much power in the ballot box as the well-informed. The future of the republic hangs in the balance. Reliable information is to civic intelligence what clean air and clean water are to public health.

It may be semantic, but I would challenge Wineburg to go farther here. I would change “reliable information” to “an engaged and critical citizenry,” and where he writes of “civic intelligence,” I would use “civic health.” After all, the goal here goes far beyond simply “intelligence,” and as Wineburg himself makes clear, that doesn’t depend on reliable information so much as on citizens’ ability to assess the information they encounter.

The fact of the matter is that Wineburg advocates for serious reform of the way history is taught in this country, much in the same way that Rachel Carson (author of Silent Spring) and others called for environmental reforms. To hope for “reliable information” is naive—akin to Rachel Carson asking pollution to clean itself up. Instead, what we need are mechanisms for dealing with all the information out there. Just as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act paid dividends for public health, teaching students how to navigate the rising tide of information will improve civic health.

The new school year is underway, and so far, I’m really enjoying my new school. My colleagues have been welcoming and supportive, my students inquisitive and hard-working, and there is a strong culture of learning that aligns nicely with my own approach to education. All in all, I’ve felt very good about my decision to come to Tampa.

That said, as one might expect, there have been a few things that have required some adjustment. This being a much larger school than my previous two (more than double the size of my last school, for instance), it marks the first time in my career that I’m not solely responsible for the courses I’m teaching. In fact, in both my preparations (World History I in the 9th grade and U.S. History in the 11th grade), I’m one of three people who teach the course. Though we’re not required to be in lockstep, there is an expectation of general alignment across sections.

I’ve grown accustomed to having near complete control over what and how I teach (within reason, of course), but this year, I’ve had to recalibrate to the fact that my colleagues have different approaches than I do. For the most part, I think this will benefit me. The opportunity to get back to the classroom and continue honing my craft as a teacher was a major motivation for me to pursue this position, and collaborative planning and informal conversations with colleagues about what works and what don’t will only make me better. I’ve already noticed this in small ways.

However, in my last few years of teaching U.S. history (prior to this year, I hadn’t taught it since 2013-2014) I had adopted a thematic approach. I could write a post—or several—on why I now favor themes over chronological units, but my colleagues here were less enthusiastic. After some conversation, we settled on what I believe is a completely reasonable compromise: interspersing more traditional chronological coverage with intensive “modules” which consider some historical issue in greater depth. (For example, after lectures/textbook readings covering prehistoric America through the Puritan migration, we’re now considering the question of why history matters. By considering various portrayals of Columbus, Pocahontas, and John Winthrop, we’re examining the relationship between past and present and the ways in which history shapes—and is shaped by—our contemporary worldview.)

Of course, making room in the curriculum for these intensive mini-units requires sacrificing some coverage, and this brings me to the crux of my post. What has challenged me most this year is not the collaboration, as new as that experience is. It is, rather, the gravitational pull of the coverage model. In other words, by adopting a “textbook” (we’re using The American Yawp) and working through it chronologically, I find myself tempted to try to assign the entire thing. I volunteered to plan our first unit, which spans prehistory through the Revolution, and it was a constant battle with myself as I decided what content to pare back in order to make more room for the “deep dive” sections.

When I adopted the thematic approach around 2011 or 2012, I essentially dispensed with any semblance of coverage—and I was completely OK with that. The reality is that, even in American history (which is among the briefest of national histories), we can’t possibly cover everything that might be deemed significant. History is just too big, and if we try to cram it all in, we run the risk of turning history into “one damn thing after another,” which is exactly what led me to hate history as a high school student. In choosing a thematic approach over a chronological one, I abandoned the notion that I could cover it all, which was incredibly liberating. My students didn’t learn everything—they certainly would not have earned a 5 on the APUSH exam, for instance—but they definitely learned how to think about important ideas in American history and draw connections across vast spans of time. And they did learn a fair amount of “content” along the way. I felt good about it.

This year, though, as I’ve compiled lists of “Key Terms” for my students, I’ve found myself identifying many people and events that would never have seen the light of day in my thematic course (or come up only in passing). So how “Key” are they, really? And more importantly, why am I finding this so difficult? Is it the textbook? The chronological organization? I’m not sure, but this struggle has me reflecting on how the most seemingly basic decisions about curricular design can profoundly shape our conception–not to mention our students’ conception–of the discipline.

On Monday, I came across this article on The Atlantic website: “A Better Way to Teach History.” It should be required reading for all history teachers. The author describes an undergraduate class at Harvard taught by Professor David Moss, who does most of his teaching at the Harvard Business School.

In a spacious classroom in Aldrich Hall on the Harvard Business School campus, 100 students are passionately discussing a case called “Battle Over a Bank.” But these aren’t MBA students deliberating over how much the government should regulate the financial sector. This group of mostly undergraduates, guided by the award-winning Harvard Business School professor David Moss, is diving into the fierce 1791 debate over whether the Constitution could be interpreted to allow the fledgling U.S. government the power to form a bank at all.

This class, “History of American Democracy,” is no pedestrian historical survey course. It uses the case method—the business school’s signature teaching technique—to immerse undergraduates (as well as a limited number of HBS students) in critical episodes in the development of American democracy.

The article was a revelation. As someone who is committed to a more constructivist classroom, I am always looking for tools and techniques to add to my toolbox. The Harkness method forms the cornerstone of my pedagogical approach, but students (and I!) sometimes need a change of pace. The case study approach looks like a wonderful way to bring the concept of contingency alive for students–to illustrate the present is profoundly shaped by each decision made in the past. By extension, the decisions we make in the present will shape the future.

Along those lines, the case study method offers a way to engage students in the learning process and also, as the article states, “help students develop an instinct for how to respond even to problems—whether they be furor over same sex marriage or a massive financial crisis—that feel unprecedented. Through sheer repetitive exposure to problems and problem-solving, students learn the art of decision-making.” This is very much in keeping with my vision of history education as a key to civic preparation.

Last fall, I discovered the National History Center‘s Mock Policy Briefing Program, which has the potential to do much the same thing: illustrate for students for students how the study of the past can, in fact, have relevance in the present and influence the future in important ways.

I wrote the following in the wake of the historic 2008 presidential election. For obvious reasons, the events of the last few days have caused me to think about these issues all over again, so I went back and re-read my thoughts from four years ago. By and large, I stand by what I wrote. I do believe that many Americans society have shown a willingness to “set race aside” and focus on common concerns and values, and I still believe that is an important development in our nation’s history.

That said, I also recognize that such a claim could easily be exaggerated or even adopted by opponents of equality. In retrospect, perhaps I was too optimistic (on a number of fronts) in 2008. I notice now that my quotation of John McWhorter foreshadowed, in some ways, the claims of a “post-racial society” that peaked with Obama’s inauguration. But the “post-racial society,” however attractive it might appear to some, is a myth.

Dyed-in-the-wool racists may have been pushed to the fringes of society, but America is not “post-racial,” never will be, and–I would argue–should not be. Socially constructed though it may be, race is one important part of human identity, just as our genders, religious beliefs, political affiliations, etc. are part of our identities. To ignore race would be to ignore a part of who we are as individuals, and to ignore our racial history would be to ignore a part of our collective identity. That is not to say that our future should be determined by our past, but as a historian, I do believe that–whether we like it or not–our present and future are shaped by our past. Thus, it’s important that we understand it.

To claim that we are “post-racial” is to claim that we have moved beyond the influence of our history. I’m not sure if that’s even possible (I doubt it), but as this post shows, in the case of American politics, it’s simply not true. (For what it’s worth, take a look at a county-level map of 2012 returns. Obama’s support throughout the “Black Belt” remained strong, even as Mitt Romney swept most of the former Confederacy.) Think our history no longer matters? Think again.

Yes, we can.

Obama’s signature line, which clearly resonated with so many Americans, sums up what his campaign was all about. With his promise of “change,” he managed to turn out millions of new voters, most of whom seem to view him as the last great hope for a much-needed national revitalization project. Political buzzwords aside, many Americans–especially the ones that did support Senator Obama–expect a change not only in policy, but in the relationship between the American people and their government. “I’m asking you to believe,” reads the quotation from the top of Obama’s campaign website. “Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington… I’m asking you to believe in yours.”

Yes, we can.

To many in the African-American community, it seems that “we can” represents the logical culmination of “we shall”–as in “We Shall Overcome.” To see John Lewis and Jesse Jackson choking up and shedding tears on national television makes this link obvious. With that said, I was actually rather surprised by the media’s extraordinary focus on race in the immediate aftermath of the election. Of course, it’s to be expected given that we have elected the first African-American president in our nation’s history. The magnitude of that fact simply cannot go unrecognized. It is an extraordinary event, and as such, it deserves extraordinary coverage.

But at 11:00 pm on Tuesday night, just after they called the crucial West Coast states for Obama, the media (MSNBC, at least) chose to portray the victory celebration in a curious way. Immediately, they cut to Atlanta, flashing scenes of all-black crowds at Spelman College and Ebenezer Baptist Church across the screen. In doing so, they seemed to portray African-Americans as a group still somehow “apart” from American society. Perhaps it’s naive–especially for a historian of the South–but to me this seemed somewhat amiss.

I certainly don’t mean to imply that race was not a factor in this election. To anyone who understands “the arc of history” (in Obama’s words) in even the crudest of terms, it is undeniable. If you doubt it, take a look at the maps below.

slavery

exitpolls

The first map (courtesy of the University of Virginia’s Historical Census Browser) is of slave population by county in 1860. The counties in the darkest shade of green all had more than 5000 slaves just prior to the Civil War. The second map (courtesy of the New York Times) is of counties in the Deep South where Obama won a majority of votes on Tuesday. The connections should be apparent, and we know from exit polls that Obama received upwards of 95% of the “African-American vote” nationwide. Of course, Obama won none of these Deep South states, and perhaps that says something about American society in the 21st century, but I’ll leave that for another day.

Nevertheless, Obama ran not as an “African-American candidate,” but as an American candidate who happened to be of African descent. (I could make a tenuous claim about the political necessity of such a strategy and what that might say about American society, but I’ll leave that for another day as well.) Instead, at the risk of sounding more controversial than I really intend to, what I will say is this: those shots of Spelman and Ebenezer are not indicative of the “change” that Obama really represents.

I certainly understand the symbolism of Obama’s victory to African-Americans, and they have every right to celebrate this victory as their own. They have overcome, and so in a sense, we have all overcome. For that reason, November 4th, 2008 will go down as an important day in American history.

But the true genius of Obama’s campaign–and the reason for its tremendous success–could be seen not in Atlanta, but in Chicago’s Grant Park, where nearly a quarter of a million people celebrated victory. The crowd in Chicago included many prominent African-Americans, but it also represented a true cross-section of the American electorate. Citizens of every race, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and age showed up to show their support.

Unreconstructed rebels may take issue with this next claim, but it’s only fitting that in a park named for a man whose military efforts helped end the Civil War and made it possible to put our great nation back together, Obama promised the American people–in terms that sounded not unlike Martin Luther King, Jr.–that “we will get there.”

In an interesting op-ed from earlier this week, John McWhorter suggests that of all the issues facing the United States today, racism is relatively low on the list in terms of urgency. “America has problems,” he writes, “and our new president knows it. However, is America’s main problem still ‘the color line’ as W.E.B. DuBois put it 105 years ago? The very fact that the president is now black is a clear sign that it is no longer our main problem, and that we can, even as morally informed and socially concerned citizens, admit it.”

McWhorter’s intent is not to deny the existence of racism in the U.S. Instead, he argues that American attitudes toward race have changed such that racism has become socially unacceptable, that out-and-out racists, while still around, have been pushed to the fringes of society. “[Y]esterday,” he writes, “we saw that this ‘out there’ brand of racism cannot keep a black man out of the White House. . . . Sure, there are racists. There are also rust and mosquitoes, and there always will be. Life goes on.”

He points out that when asked for his immediate reaction to Obama’s victory, John Lewis described it as “amazing–almost unreal.” McWhorter, however, concludes that “There is nothing at all ‘unreal’ about this. It is, after all, what we were supposed to be working toward. We must embrace it.”

Should we acknowledge that, even with the election of our first African-American president, racism still exists in our nation? Of course we should. But can we also say that the election of Barack Obama is proof that we, as Americans, have the capacity to set race aside and come together in the best interest of our shared future? Can we say that racial differences no longer define our nation?

Yes, we can.

A couple of years ago, I read an article that has greatly impacted my teaching. Written by two history professors from Cal State-Northridge, the article–“What Does It Mean to Think Historically?”–explains what the authors refer to as the “five C’s of historical thinking.” They are:

  • Causality
  • Change over time
  • Context
  • Complexity, and
  • Contingency

As the authors state:

[The five C’s] stand at the heart of the questions historians seek to answer, the arguments we make, and the debates in which we engage. These ideas are hardly new to professional historians. But that is precisely their value: They make our implicit ways of thought explicit to the students and teachers whom we train. The five C’s do not encompass the universe of historical thinking, yet they do provide a remarkably useful tool for helping students at practically any level learn how to formulate and support arguments based on primary sources, as well as to understand and challenge historical interpretations related in secondary sources.

Since reading the article, these terms have become part of my classroom vernacular, and I ask my students to incorporate one or more of the five C’s into their questions and arguments, particularly in their major research paper.

Even if they don’t have the vocabulary yet, my students tend to come into my class relatively familiar with the first two concepts, and after some discussion, they tend to grasp context and complexity as well. For many, though, contingency remains elusive.

According to the authors:

Contingency may, in fact, be the most difficult of the C’s. To argue that history is contingent is to claim that every historical outcome depends upon a number of prior conditions; that each of these prior conditions depends, in turn, upon still other conditions; and so on. The core insight of contingency is that the world is a magnificently interconnected place. Change a single prior condition, and any historical outcome could have turned out differently.

Over the last week or so, though, the presidential campaign has offered an opportunity to explore the idea of historical contingency. Let’s examine.

A look at Gallup’s daily tracking poll gives a sense of the trajectory of the campaign.

To make sense of the graph, recall that Obama’s big lead came in late summer, when Romney’s campaign seemed to be making gaffes on an almost-daily basis, and many Republicans were lamenting what was sure to be an embarrassing loss. To Romney’s credit, though, he got things back on track, and after the first debate in Denver on October 3, the momentum swung decisively to the Romney campaign. (That’s where the graph starts to get messy.) Although Obama fought back in subsequent debates, it continued to look as if Romney would carry strong momentum into Election Day. As late as October 28–just over a week ago, remember–Gallup had Romney with a slight edge among likely voters, 51% to Obama’s 46%. So what happened? How might historians explain this in the future?

Well, in a nutshell, along came Sandy. Hurricane Sandy did not cause Americans to vote for President Obama. The storm did, however, alter the “frame of reference” for voters, forcing them to rethink the issues and their evaluations of the president. In the end, I would argue, it was a chain of events stemming from Hurricane Sandy that allowed Obama to recapture momentum and project leadership–and obvious advantage for any incumbent.

Hurricane Sandy came ashore in New Jersey on October 29, leaving a trail of destruction throughout the Northeast and even into the Midwest. Both campaigns shut down their partisan events and adopted a “Americans-first, partisans second” tone. While Romney struggled to stay in the spotlight (even a more muted spotlight), Obama raked in tons of free media. He visited the devastated areas, assured those affected of the government’s full support, and even received high praise from ultraconservative New Jersey governor Chris Christie. In essence, he continued campaigning as an effective leader simply by doing his job–and he didn’t have to spend a cent on ads.

On top of this, the aftermath of the storm also raised thorny questions for Romney on one of the central issues of the campaign: the role of government. It didn’t take long for media outlets to begin reporting Romney’s statements from one of last year’s Republican primary debates (in which he worked desperately to market himself to the party faithful as a true conservative). Romney’s comments, which suggested that he might consider cutting federal disaster relief funding, played quite poorly as Americans struggled to stay warm without power in the wake of a late season storm.

If Sandy had dissipated at sea, never making landfall, how different might this election have been? If it had struck a month earlier, how might the Romney campaign have worked to recover?

These are questions for which we’ll never have answers, and there are plenty of others. But Sandy struck when it did and where it did, and although the storm didn’t cause people to change their votes, it did shift the narrative of the election in Obama’s favor at the eleventh hour.

That’s contingency.