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The Best Classroom is the Struggle: Teaching Imperialism

A student once asked—after a classroom discussion of how 19th-century westward expansion connected to the ongoing injustices of American military bases in the Pacific—what she was supposed to do with this knowledge. Her question was as genuine as it was perceptive. It also felt like I had, again, failed.

As a historian and an educator of college students, my experience teaching about US imperialism is one of disappointment. I have largely failed to engender in my students a deep engagement with America’s imperial past and present. I believe in the importance of education and history. Yet, what the past years have shown me is that the classroom alone is insufficient in teaching the social and psychological realities of US imperialism.

When I ask students to define what an empire is, they typically picture Rome or the British Empire, not the United States. Imperialism, expansion, and colonialism have been integral to every period of America’s existence, including the present. Much of my work as a historian and an educator focuses on conveying and exploring this fact. Every year, however, I witness students struggling to internalize it.

Some deny it completely or make comforting historical comparisons. “At least we aren’t like the Nazis or the Belgians in the Congo,” a student told me during class. Generally, the responses—and this is particularly true of white American students—are powerfully emotive. Their cultural memory tends to place them on the side of empire’s agents. The idea is threatening to their very egos, their identities, and their ways of relating to the world. They are often empire’s beneficiaries. Many immediately bring up their families’ achievement of the American Dream in response to what they are learning. They generally don’t do this to provide counterfactuals to the horrors and continuing injustice of empire about which they are learning, but more to evidence their inability to place this data within their own experiences and political frameworks.

Even those who overcome the cognitive dissonance of American empire have few resources through which to imagine and work toward a more just future. Many students do not have anywhere near the experience or vocabulary to reconcile this history with their core image of America and their corresponding identity.

Here, I chronicle my ongoing attempts to find the right teaching tools to break this impasse. I have tried teaching through historical facts and through mixed media sources (such as photos of crushed Latin American revolutions and videos of bombed out Pacific islands subjected to nuclear testing), and I have even assigned works of speculative fiction and postmodern literature. Nothing worked until, unexpectedly, something did. Finally, during the protests that began in the spring of 2020, I saw my students draw connections between domestic issues of racism and social inequality and the historical legacy—and present realities—of American empire.

Read entire article at Public Books