White Flag: Time to Surrender to My "Coverage" Failures

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This past weekend marked the twentieth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attack. As I reflect on my personal memories of that tragic day, I find myself, again, thinking about the US history survey and how recent history fits (or doesn't fit) into my semester-long sections of "US II." In a previous blog, Up-to-date? Where to End the US Survey (2017), I discussed the challenge of getting through as much content as possible and my avoidance of teaching topics that I had lived through. One astute reader reminded me back then that just because I witnessed a historical event doesn’t mean that students are familiar with it. So, here I am four years later, and the question still perplexes me. Do I need to get to 9/11 in a course that starts in 1877 and is already bursting at the seams with content? Is it time for me to officially abandon my quest for "coverage"?


As a mom to college-age children it is impossible to escape notice of how dramatically things have changed since 2001. My children have grown up under the cloud of the War on Terror in the same way my youth was influenced by the Cold War. And yet, so much of what I know about the Cold War was learned in adulthood, not as a college student living through the collapse of the Soviet Union. My college history professors ended US II with Watergate and the fall of Saigon, and I’m still ok with their choices. Had they tried in the early 1990s to teach the historical meanings of the Iran Hostage Crisis or Reaganomics, students would have been left with an incomplete understanding of complex topics that had not yet been fully examined by historians. 


The longer I teach the more I find myself wedded to the notion that the passage of time enables a deeper, more thoughtful understanding of events. Not without bias, but certainly with additional data and facts to temper extreme partisan perspectives. That being said, while I don’t see myself incorporating study of 9/11 into my US History II sections any time soon, I do believe that providing students with the tools to begin their own study of a recent event or contemporary topic can be helpful. Over the course of a semester they come to rely on their professors as experts. Offering them a starting point for exploration of topics we cannot “fit” into the time frame of our 15-week courses, therefore, makes sense. 


The knowledge my students gain about how to study history, I’ve concluded, is more valuable than coverage. Finding new ways to train our students to think as historians -- evaluate sources, look for bias, search for contradictions in the written record -- will prepare the college students of today to both analyze events as they occur around them now while also enabling them to think critically in the future about what they have experienced. As someone who teaches mostly STEM and health care majors, the process of learning history feels more important than ever.


In 2021, with US History II needing to cover more and more material, how are you training our next generation of historically-aware citizens?


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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.