The Discipline of the History Professor in the Age of Trump

Historians in the News
tags: John Fea, Trump



John Fea is Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College.

In Spring 2017, I gave a lecture to my history students about a man of privilege, wealth, and power who took up the cause of a growing band of disgruntled, poor, fearful, white Americans. These Americans believed that the government was not listening to their concerns. They were angry about their lack of opportunity and political representation. They felt threatened by their encounters with people from another race and culture. The man of privilege heard their cry and led them in a rebellion that temporarily drove the ruling class from power. To the extent that some of the ruling class owned land near major rivers, it might even be fair to say that this rebellion was an attempt to “drain the swamp.”

I have been teaching Bacon’s Rebellion (1676) for twenty years, but I have never seen a classroom so engaged as this one. As I talked about this important moment in the history of seventeenth-century Virginia, I noticed that many students were chuckling and whispering to their friends. Students who usually seemed to be barely alive during class raised their heads and began to listen. I never mentioned Donald Trump. But the current president of the United States seemed to be on everyone’s mind. It would have been easy for me to draw an analogy, but I decided against it. This was a lecture about race, labor, social diversity, and political power in colonial Virginia. Historical analogies must always be employed with caution. The past is a foreign country. Sevententh-century Virginia is very different than twenty-first-century United States. Presentism comes naturally to my students. If indeed, as Stanford educational psychologist Sam Wineburg tells us, historical thinking is an “unnatural act,” then my students needed to work harder at ridding themselves of their presentist mindset and try to understand the colonial Chesapeake on its own terms. But I would be kidding myself if I thought that the teaching of the past does not take place in an ongoing conversation with the present. Though I did not call out Donald Trump by name, his election in November 2016 certainly helped my students connect in a deeper way to the subjects we explored—the founding fathers, slavery, Andrew Jackson, the coming of the Civil War—in this United States History survey class. ...




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