Always Epic

History Fest is always epic, and this year was no exception.

Every August I eagerly anticipate Minnesota History Fest. This year’s, the 8th annual, lived up to my high expectations. The Minnesota Historical Society (thanks, Heidi!) and the Minnesota Council for History Education, of which I am a member, c0-host the event at the Minnesota History Center. Seeing other people committed to history education is always fun and energizing, this year more than ever.

The Third C

Jessica Ellison, executive director for the National Council started the program by noting that many “teachers are hurting,” which many folks silently acknowledged. Jessica always brings heartfelt support for teachers, and this set the tone for a day of connections and learning. There was a lot to celebrate, and the day moved between affirmation and warning.

MNCHE awards the Minnesota History Teacher of the Year on behalf of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. I have known and deeply respected this year’s recipient, Scott Glew, for many years. MNCHE Board President Matt Moore highlighted Scott’s service in the Army National Guard, his dedication to teaching middle school students, and his work with the Bush Foundation and through graduate education to develop peace education curriculum for the soc and a middle peace education and militarism in the the social studies curriculum. Matt used this body of work to observe how Scott’s engages students with more with the third C: civic engagement. Scott and Matt affirm that education is about more than college and career readiness.

Our work prepares student to be right relationship with other people. The social in social studies, the Third C, is intrinsically important. I was thinking of this later while listening to an episode of the Have You Heard podcast featuring Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies Jon Shelton. Shelton explained how the emphasis on college and career readiness is part of an “Education Myth” that over promises what schools can deliver, and thus undermines support for public schools.

In Plain View

Book cover
A History of Racial Exclusion in Minnesota.

Civic engagement and affirmation continued as a Minnesota high school teacher introduced keynote speaker Dr. Chad Montrie. Their Ethnic Studies class read a chapter of Montrie’s book: Whiteness in Plain View: A History of Racial Exclusion in Minnesota. (All attendees received a free copy of Whiteness in Plainview; thanks, Heidi!) Montrie generously engaged with Tostenson’s students, and they in return responded to his truth-telling, one even going so far as to use “counternarrative” accurately in a sentence. More significantly at least one academically disengaged student became much more involved with class reading this chapter in dialogue with the author.

After affirming our work as teachers and congratulating Scott’s focus on civic engagement, Montrie pivoted back to the political dangers facing our society from a “new censorship” that attacks an honest recounting of our past. This new censorship attacks the notion that racism was fundamental to the development of the United States. Montrie connected his scholarship proving that racism was a decisive factor to the late James Loewen’s work on whitewashed history textbooks and historic sites.

In dispelling myths of White innocence Montrie looked for a northern state that exemplified racial exclusion, hence Minnesota. He read these lines from the introduction

The popular rendering of the American South, as historians Matthew D. Lassiter and Joseph Crespino observe, often emphasizes how it is racially exceptional, attributing “episodes of racism and racial violence” there to the regions social and political structures, “while portraying similar events elsewhere as anomalous.” The corollary to this “southern exceptionalism” is “northern exceptionalism,” which, as another historian, Jeanne Theoharis, explains, frames manifestations of racism in the North as “flaws in an otherwise liberal land of opportunity,” rather than as a constitutive element of the regions culture, politics, and economy. And, at first glance, that does seem to describe Minnesota. Located in the upper reaches of the Great Lakes region, the midwestern state has always had a relatively small Black population, one that posed little threat in terms of competition with Whites for housing and jobs, suggesting there was never any material basis for significant racial animosity. Likewise, the state has a reputation for putting forward racially progressive White political leaders, such as Hubert Humphrey, and nationally recognized Black race advocates, such as Roy Wilkins, which hints at a general racial tolerance. On the contrary, however, neither fact allowed Minnesota to avoid a sordid racist past, stained by formal restrictions on rights, recurrent racial violence and other calculated efforts to remove and exclude African Americans from whole neighborhoods and towns–all of that grounds for challenging the “exceptionalist” mythology.

p. 3

Montrie and other presenters, including a recent Gilder Lehrman History Teacher of the Year for Minnesota, pointed to the power of archival documents for combating censorship of our racist past. Montrie noted that although his book aims for a public audience, he nonetheless packed it full of specific examples of Minnesotans creating and maintaining overwhelmingly White spaces in order to record a preponderance of evidence of a “culture of racial exclusion.” Interestingly, criticisms of the book have included both “too much detail” and “we already knew all of this.” The tension impulses represented by these impulses shows how the processes of racial exclusion in Minnesota were and are often hidden in plain view. Many White people acknowledged racism happened, in general, but reckoning with the horror and the implications of this is much harder.

Archives and digitized newspapers contain myriad instances of racial exclusion, and Montrie made clear that this was not accident nor was it the result solely of state action. A variety of methods created an overwhelmingly White Minnesota, and blaming governmental policies exclusively, is “dangerous” (Montrie) because it elides White responsibility. I appreciated this point, because of my experiences teaching in school that was overwhelmingly White when I started there. Students remarking taking for granted the segregation of their school, in fact not even seeing a large school that was 97% White as segregated, was one motivation for my own investigations of residential segregation in the post-war United States.

I created presentation materials for use in the classroom based on this research. I was teaching US History classes at the time. If I was using these materials now, I would eliminate most of the text from slides to help students to build concepts before learning labels. I would also emphasize how a “culture of racial exclusion” included public and private actions, in fact these cannot be neatly separated.

The Future!

The best part of the day was connecting with amazing young people who are entering the profession. I knew that a former student of mine and current preservice teacher would be sharing her experiences at a summer teacher institute at Colonial Williamsburg. She and a classmate presented about their overwhelmingly positive experience at CW. A former student explaining how she had come to love primary sources and wants to use them in her own classes was truly a career highlight for me. This young educator saw the fun and the power of colonial-era texts despite the inconsistent spelling.

Another former student of mine was at History Fest in anticipation of their first year of teaching social studies. Talking with them about teaching was a wonderful surprise. They were one of two new teachers in the workshop session that I led. The other had student taught in my child’s Minnesota Studies class in middle school, where they did an excellent job. Seeing quality young people ready to engage with students was a hopeful part of the day.

Participants in the sessions that I led examined different narratives that historians and history teachers use to explain early English industrialization. This was truly a workshop session, in that I was interested in feedback from participants on the materials and strategies that I shared. I will make adjustments based on this when I present a version of this next week for social studies teachers in my school district. More on this later.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

2 replies on “Always Epic”

Hi! I am a new history teacher. I am interested in teaching a version of your lesson on imperialism in Nigeria. Can I purchase the readings that accompany the available slides by any chance? Or is there another way you would recommend doing this lesson? think it is an awesome lesson! Thank you for posting resources.

Thanks for reading, Amelia! The readings were part of a Teacher’s Curriculum Institute package in the 1990s, before they were publishing textbooks. I’ll reply more by email.

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