“Trump in a U.S. History Survey Classroom”


By the time election day came around this past November, the students enrolled in the general education course HIST 142 (U.S. History survey from 1865 to present) at Messiah College were approaching the end of the semester. Final exams and the end of the semester were slowly starting to come into view. But for many students, the presidential election interrupted the normal end-of-semester routine. In looking over the class on the morning following the election, I saw clearly its effects–some happy faces, some despondent, some shocked.

Over the next several days, Messiah College students, along with thousands of students across the country, responded to Trump’s victory with various types activities–panel presentations, speeches, demonstrations, walk-outs, and protests. During this time my co-teacher, Cathay Snyder, and I talked about how we would respond to the election in our class.

On the one hand, we were wary of trying to do too much. This was current events, not history. Sure, journalism has been called “the first draft of history,” but this was quite a first draft to deal with, and on short notice. Then there was the potential for discord and disruption in a potentially tense, polarized environment.

But we quickly decided that it was worth addressing Trump’s election somehow in our class. We hadn’t shied away from intellectual and ideological differences to that point. We’d had our students debate for and against the New Deal of the 1930s. Later in the course, they debated whether either King or Malcolm X was the best guide forward for African Americans in the 1960s. So our students were accustomed to open, lively discussions.

We also decided to address the election because throughout the course we had emphasized the constructed nature of history. In some ways, this seemed a perfect case study for interested students to think hard (albeit in a speculative fashion) about how the dramatic events of the present might eventually be understood, framed, and interpreted. Already, we had given students our customary assignment for the last day of class–Write a paragraph on an event, theme, or trend in the very recent past that will likely appear in future editions of U.S. history textbooks, and explain how it will be viewed, interpreted, and framed.

We also hoped to continue the open, forth-right intellectual environment of the class even in looking at this remarkable, contentious event. Our approach was different than that pursued in some other classrooms across the country. We did not tell our students (either explicitly or implicitly): “Be scared.” “Be inspired.” “Be outraged.” “Be vindicated.” Instead, our message was: “Be curious.”

And so we added a third possible option for our students’ short paper due at the end of the semester. Some chose to write on one of the two initial prompts: the experiences of American Indian children at Carlisle Indian School or Japanese-American internment during World War II. But others responded to our new prompt: “Where did the Trump phenomenon come from? Choose one development in U.S. history since 1865 that seems to you particularly helpful in trying to make sense of the recent rise of Trump, and explain how you see the linkage.”

Below are links to portions of nine student papers that responded to this prompt:

— James B. LaGrand, Messiah College Department of History

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