What Are The Most “Important” Topics in American History?

What Are The Most “Important” Topics in American History? July 14, 2015

I recently spoke at the annual conference of the Association of Classical and Christian Schools, as part of a panel on “What in American history is most important for teachers to pass on to our students?” The audience was largely from private Christian schools, including administrators and history teachers. I found the exercise quite challenging and thought-provoking, especially because I don’t think that history professors or teachers often give much thought to why they teach what they choose to teach. I also composed my thoughts with some trepidation, knowing that high school history teachers have different challenges than I do, especially since I only have to teach the first half of the American history survey course at Baylor. In any case, here are my thoughts on the topic:

“Choosing what to teach in history is perhaps the most daunting selection exercise in all of education. The reason is that if history is simply the study of the past, then theoretically anything that has happened in the past is fair game. You do need a documentary record of any past event in order to teach it, which winnows your options a bit. Still, the content of any history class is highly selective.

Most people have a fairly intuitive sense of what counts as “important,” though. For instance, if I was telling the story of my high school years in South Carolina, you probably would not want to know much about the long hours I wasted playing video games. You especially would not want to learn about me playing video games at the expense of learning that I interned for U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond, the longest-serving member of the Senate ever (and a fascinating and controversial figure, for numerous reasons). For the sort of audience I am addressing here, you would certainly want to know about how I put my faith in Christ after my senior year in high school. My video game habit might be representative of a broader sociological trend in the 1980s, but there’s nothing significant about what I played, nor were those games especially formative in my personal development. Working for Senator Thurmond was perhaps the most important experience I had in a civic sense. Of course, my conversion is of preeminent importance in a spiritual sense, and the turning point of my entire autobiography.

War Comes To School- Life at Peckham Central School, London, England, 1943 – Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Although I likely will not ever become a subject taught in history classes, my autobiography illustrates the process by which you make decisions about what to include in American history classes in a Christian environment. At the top of my list would be those things that are most significant in a spiritual sense, and then those most significant in a civic sense. The most “significant” topics do not only include the good and ennobling, but also the dark and cautionary.

Basic knowledge of American history, then, includes the people, episodes, and documents that have profoundly shaped American culture and politics. Here good Christian education and good secular education would hopefully overlap. What do Americans need to have in their history toolbox to be intelligent participants in American civic society? In spite of the chaos in the discussion of American history standards, I suspect many Americans could still agree that adults should ideally have a basic working knowledge of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Fourteenth Amendment, and major Supreme Court decisions such as Dred Scott and Brown v. Board of Education.

Where it gets tough is the extent to which you include the experiences of the full range of Americans – not just the Thomas Jeffersons and Ronald Reagans of the world, but regular working men, women, African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, and other ethnic minorities. We Christian educators should not dismiss this issue as mere political correctness, because there is a profound Christian way in which the life of the lady working the factory night shift is just as valuable as that of the president. But in a historical sense, her work is not as influential as that of the president. One of the easiest ways to address this dilemma is to highlight moments where regular people, including women and racial minorities, have influenced civic life in America – like the Dred Scott decision, or the women who supported and opposed the failed Equal Rights Amendment of the 1970s. “Civic” education is necessarily skewed toward powerful white men, however, and I don’t know that anyone has solved the dilemma of fully representing all kinds of Americans while providing an adequate civic education.

The second major focus for American history in classical Christian education is the spiritual legacy. Again, you’re looking for people, episodes, and documents that have profoundly shaped American religion (for good or ill), as well as any specific Christian tradition with which the school identifies. There will not be much overlap here between Christian and secular education, at least at the pre-collegiate levels, where public schools are often skittish about how to handle religion. Still, as with civic education, it is not that difficult to think of spiritual topics that are essential in the American Christian history toolbox: the role religion played in the founding of the colonies, the Great Awakenings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the debates over evolution and the authority of the Bible beginning in the nineteenth century, and the advent of modern evangelical Christianity in the post-World War II era.

Although Christian and secular approaches to the Constitution might look fairly similar, I would expect quite different approaches to American religious history – for example, in a Christian context we can recommend the brilliance of Jonathan Edwards’s theology in a way that one is unlikely to hear in a secular environment. We might also find it easier to represent a range of Americans in the study of Christian history – for example, women have almost always represented the majority in the history of American congregations, and the story of the mass conversion of the African American population to some kind of Christian adherence in the nineteenth century is arguably the most significant transition in all of American religious history.

There’s no one right answer to American history content you should see in Christian education – in other words, there is no one master list of topics to which you can point and say, “all of this, and nothing else.” But civics and spiritual heritage are the top two priorities. And within those two areas there are certain subjects, such as the Constitution and the Great Awakening, the absence of which would make a student’s knowledge of American history fundamentally deficient.”

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  • stefanstackhouse

    I’d suggest three major themes:

    1) How did we get to here? What are the main events that shaped the nation and formed it into what we are today?

    2) Why are we where we are at today? What were the underlying trends and forces – and individuals or groups – driving changes in American history and culture?

    3) What differences have Christians – acting deliberately as Christians – made? What opportunities to make a difference did they fail to make?

    This does cut it down a little and provide some overall organization to things. It is also helpful to students to see that the history being taught is not just a random collection of people, places, events, and dates.

  • MesKalamDug

    Qua history the most important single event in US history post-Constitution is
    surely the Civil War. And that war was surely the result of a profound flaw in the
    nation’s creation. There is plenty of scope here for Christian lessons even though
    I fear the main lesson will be that Christians do not always agree with one other.
    I, for one, favor strenuous values clarification. Others might not agree.

  • SJ

    They are trying to goof with Christians right now by introducing the Noahide Law into American government.

    Chirstians have always fallen under God’s Law though….We’ve followed the Ten Commandments for the last 2,015 years.

    Beware the Noahide Laws.

    These laws along with those who promote them, are telling people there are two sets of laws. One for the Jews (Yahudim) and the other for Gentiles (goyim). We know this is not Scriptural because we are told:

    “There is one Torah for the native-born and for the stranger who sojourns among you.” (Ex. 12:49)

  • John C. Gardner

    What an interesting discussion. We must all begin with the idea that humans have always been infected by the Fall since Adam and Eve. We are both simultaneously saints and sinners until the Second Coming of Christ. What do we need to know about American history as citizens and Christians? The past is a strange country which we inhabit indirectly through documents, diaries and letters. I would think that your consensual documents like the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence would be minimal sources including great works such as the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. We also need to be able to view the lives of those at the margins of society such as slaves, yeomen farmers, and immigrants who experienced bondage and marginalization. My wife is part Irish and her family came in the 1840s at a time when signs said no Irish need apply. I taught at two all black universities and know that everyone there should learn about
    Frederick Douglass as well as Grant and Lee. . I am not better as either a sinner or citizen than men and women in the past. Our culture and historical perspectives are different and we should not be chronological snobs. I can appreciate great Christians who were abolitionists and also heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr., a flawed sinner and also a worthy man. Thanks for this post.

  • Like other topics on history, American history is also a very interesting topic though it is much smaller than the other important historical topics like European History, History of Middle East etc.


  • Thomas Kidd

    thank you John!