A couple of days ago I was asked to answer a supplemental question in applying for a position at Foothill-De Anza Community College District in Los Altos. The framing of the question sparked an insight long buried but yearning to come out. I thank the good folks at FDACC for the following question (roughly): Knowing the diversity of our student body, what is your approach to teaching early American History, particularly to those not traditionally represented in such depictions?  My answer appears below…

I believe the key to teaching the early history of the United States is found in the concept of “uncoverage,” a theory of requiring students to actively uncover history, attach their discoveries to their experiences, and then ably supply their theories and insights in some form, probably written. This concept can be found in great detail in a book Understanding by Design, by Wiggins and McTighe.

This concept, uncoverage, readily conforms to the Historical Inquiry Process (questions well posed, sources well scrutinized, and interpretations well constructed). Uncoverage demands answers to big questions. I supplied in my packet a sample syllabus. On page one of that document are the examples of the great big questions uncoverage demands. For clarity, in the teaching of early American History, I listed six of those big questions that will drive the course and the student’s entrance into the Historical Inquiry Process. Here are those questions:

  • the meaning of “nation”, (what is an American?)
  • of “citizenship” (what should Americans do?)
  • how abstracts such as “liberty” and “freedom” factor into our past as well as our present
  • the “individual” versus the “commonwealth”
  • democracy in a republic: theory versus reality
  • and ultimately, what does it mean to be human in these United States?

It becomes obvious, that such an approach easily conforms to certain truths about the founding of this nation: namely its global roots. The forces of modernity transformed the American continents. Thus, the land that eventually became the United States, provided a stage whereby numerous global cultures collided, adjusted, and settled or unsettled into some sort of precarious normalcy. This process was/is often dirty, ugly, unconfined, and radically complex.

Which is why uncoverage becomes the best method I know of revealing this complexity to students. The concept of uncoverage demands a student’s interpretation of events, a cogent recognition that history belongs to all of us, the underprivileged as well as the privileged, women as well as men.

I waxed poetic shortly after the completion of my master’s degree, but I do believe the following prose answer your questions in an indirect sort of way…

History must be active, because we are. History is necessarily alive, because we are. History is precariously fragile, because we are. History lives in the present, because we do. History will no longer exist, because we will. I cannot go back, just as I cannot go forward, therefore History is always in the present tense, always about me, always about life. And just like us, History, too, has enemies. The greatest enemy of History is a college professor. And just like us, History, too, has friends. The greatest friend of History is you.

Your eyebrows more than likely rose when I stated that the “greatest enemy of History is a college professor,” but this gets back to my belief that students own their own histories. What a great History Instructor must do is allow their students to understand themselves, their histories, and connect the meaning of those histories to their personal experiences. What a good History Instructor does is manage both students and information; place information in front of students and instruct them on how to process it, to give the information meaning, and then add to our knowledge of what our history means. What a good History Instructor must do is build bridges.

Ideal teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross, then having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create bridges of their own.

Nikos Kazantzakis…

Thank you for asking this most important of questions,

Joseph J. Krulder, MA