On the first day of class – also known as “syllabus day” – I always set aside time to discuss historical thinking and historical inquiry. I am sure most of you do the same.
I often begin with the question, “Why are we here?” Or, more specifically, “Why, in its infinite wisdom, does the State of Texas require that every single student who graduates with a BA or a BS from this university, no matter their course of study or their professional aims, either take or test out of two semesters of United States history? I mean, wouldn’t some of you rather spend those six semester hours on something else? What could be the purpose of spending so much time studying the American past?”
Students are eager to discuss this issue – perhaps because it doesn’t have an easily identifiable “right answer,” perhaps because they themselves have been wanting an answer to the question, “Why the hell do I have to take this damn class?” However, the answers that come, semester after semester, generally fall under a few headings: learn from the mistakes of the past so that we don’t repeat them, learn how our current conditions came to be; become well-informed citizens who can participate in democracy; and – occasionally – learn about people whose lives would otherwise be lost to memory and forgotten by time because they mattered in their own right, not just for how they shaped the world we live in.
It’s always a fun discussion for me, and I think the students for the most part enjoy it as well – or at least they pretend to. They are always so anxious to please, bless their hearts. And no matter what responses they come up with, they always touch upon questions of deep relevance for the work of the historian: what is the relationship between the present and the past? What do we owe to the people we study? If history is not predictive, in what sense can it be instructive?
So last week, on the first day of class at the university, I kicked off the discussion as I usually do. And I drew from their responses to touch upon the usual issues that I like to foreground: history is not a nomothetic discipline, history is a humanistic inquiry, and so forth.
But I also tried something new. After I hit all the usual notes (or tried to) in that introductory discussion, I attempted to create an “immersive metaphor” to highlight two different approaches to historical inquiry and historical explanation that the students will encounter in the course. The past is vast (and the rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain), and in our selection and juxtaposition of particular details, particular developments, we are always aiming for some sort of (artificial?) coherence.
We historians – since Hayden White, or since Herodotus, or maybe somewhere in between — generally conceptualize that move toward coherence in terms of narrative. I decided to try to get my students to conceptualize the move toward coherence in terms of music.
One of the benefits of teaching at a public institution in the state of Texas is that a solid majority of the in-state students will have studied music in the public schools (at least up to their freshman year of high school). Football may be king in Texas, but there is no Prop 13 here either, and public school students here still get a basic musical education.
Of course many of my students do not hail from Texas, or even from the United States. But when I asked for a show of hands – “How many of you have ever tried to learn a musical instrument, or sang in a choir, or played in a band?” – most students raised their hands. Then I asked, “How many of you enjoy listening to music sometimes?” And then the rest of the hands went up.
So, I explained to them, as we study the past in this class, we’re going to be trying to manage two different kinds of orchestration. One kind of orchestration involves hearing the simultaneous expression of different instrumental voices and groups of voices that are following different melody lines (and sometimes different time signatures). So, basically, countermelody.
I told them I was going to play them a song that would be familiar to those of them who had studied music in school or happened to hear music while out shopping in December, and I wanted them to call out to me what instrument(s) had the melody, and what instrument(s) had the countermelody. That song, of course, is “Sleigh Ride” – a personal favorite of mine for many reasons, not least of which is that it has a great trombone countermelody, answering those martial trumpets with some deeper-voiced devil-may-care jazz.
Thank heavens the students followed along – laughing with me or at me, I’m not sure, but in any case hollering out with me the names of the different instrumental voices that were contending with each other for the listener’s ear.
That’s what the past is, I told them – a world of voices, of tonalities, of timbres, of tempos, a world of passions and people and social groups and political movements. Think of each group of voices as having its own sound to contribute, its own history. Singling those voices out over the course of the semester – tuning in sometimes to culture, or politics, or immigration, or gender, or class, or race – is going to feel a little bit like sitting in on rehearsal for a band or orchestra. We’ll play a few bars, as it were, then we’ll stop and work on understanding what was happening in popular culture, or what was happening in the fine arts, or what was happening in politics. And then we’ll try to bring those together and do a rough run-through of that movement of time, before heading on to the next one.
So that’s one way to think about what we’ll be doing in the course, I said.
But there’s another way to think about what we’ll be doing, what we’ll be seeing, as we look at the past. That way involves following one question, one problem, one conflict, one idea, through different eras, through different circumstances, through different registers of the American past. So, basically, theme.
As you might have guessed if you’re still reading this (Lord bless you!), at this point I went back to the console and pressed play so that we coud listen together to that soaring, soul-soothing section of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” based on the Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts.” At different times, or simultaneously at different tempos, first one instrumental section then another takes up the refrain.
I told them the words as the orchestral voices began singing their round:
Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.
We can study history that way too, I said – we could follow one idea, one question, one hope, one problem, through time. And so we talked about some examples, some “American themes”: freedom, democracy, justice, equality, enterprise – but also, sexism, greed, racism, plunder. Any of these could be a theme singled out and followed from pretty much the beginning of American history to pretty much the day before yesterday.
But then we get to today, and we find that the composition isn’t finished. The music is still unfolding. We have been listening to it, we have been studying it, we have been trying to make sense of it – and yet we are in it, and our own voices too are part of the symphony, and we don’t know how it will end.
I asked them, “So what comes next? A tempo change? A caesura? Do we move from a major to a minor key? Are we heading into harmony? Will all the parts play something in unison? Will there be dissonance? Some wild percussion part? Who has the melody, who has the countermelody? None of that is settled,” I said. “And whatever the future holds, however our section of the composition ends, it won’t be up to me; it’ll be up to you.”
To turn, turn will be our delight
‘Til by turning, turning we come ‘round right.