Connecting Audiences to Environmental History: The General Survey Course

On Thursday, January 17, 2019, I had the pleasure of spending an hour with Steven Baumann, host of The Hour of History podcast. He had invited me to join him for a discussion on my research specifically and environmental history generally, and we covered topics ranging from Louisiana’s coastal erosion crisis to the different approaches of environmental management and protection in the twentieth century. One of the more interesting questions Steven asked me during our conversation was why environmental history isn’t more “mainstream.”

Recent polling indicates that even general knowledge about the country’s history is disappointingly low, but most Americans have at least heard about the Civil War or Richard Nixon. Survey courses in college consist of U.S. history, Western Civilization, or world history while modern text books devote substantive coverage to major conflicts, economic cycles, or social shifts. However, stop a person on the street and ask him or her about Alice Hamilton or the Wilderness Act, and you’re likely to get a blank stare. Hamilton was instrumental in the development of industrial toxicology and the first woman appointed to Harvard’s faculty. The Wilderness Act provided a legal definition of “wilderness” and created the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Why do the people, events, and policies that impact the very world in which we live, work, and play get so little attention in the public consciousness? The reasons are varied, but clinical psychologist Mary Pipher offered some insights in her book The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in our Capsized Culture. She found that many of the people she interviewed were distracted by other matters such as economics or crime, disconnected from nature, and too focused on short-term problems or problems that affected their immediate vicinities. Pipher also learned that there was a significant knowledge deficit regarding what people knew about the environment and climate change.

Her analysis rings true with my own personal experiences, and I have often found myself quite frustrated about the “oh and” status that the environment occupies in history classes and among the broader population (“History has been shaped by people, events, ideas… oh, and the environment, I guess”)

How then, as environmental historians, can we go about addressing this issue? How do we better incorporate the environment into higher education or the general discourse?

The answers to those two questions are probably as diverse as the people considering this dilemma, but I’d like to offer one tiny sliver of land upon which we could potentially build a more robust inclusion of the environment and environmental history: the general survey course. Of course, getting more colleges to require students to actually take history courses is another matter and a separate post, but let’s aim for a little positivity today.

Whether you’re teaching history survey courses as a doctoral candidate or as a professional instructor/professor, chances are pretty good you will be doing introductory survey courses at some point in your career. Incorporating the environment and environmental events or themes alongside politics, society, and economics is actually not too difficult, especially considering how much those issues intersect with each other.

  • Need to talk about the Jeffersonian vision of a nation of small farmers? You can include the abundance, distribution, and tensions over land acquisition and ownership in the early republic. You can also discuss how owning land, and thus being economically independent, was central to ideas regarding citizenship and political participation during the United States’ first decades.
  • Need to discuss the development of Romanticism and Transcendentalism in the 19th century? Well, Romantics like Henry David Thoreau idealized nature and considered the natural world to be deeply important both morally and spiritually. You can add those ideas and provide other examples (like the Hudson River School) in your discussion.
  • Need to examine how post-WWII economics affected the lives of average Americans? You can explain how the housing boom, partly facilitated by changes in construction methods, influenced land development patterns and sent more people further away from city centers—which would dovetail nicely into the expansion of the interstate system that eventually gobbled up huge swaths of land.
  • Need to consider how issues of civil rights progressed after the 1960s? You can inform students about the developments of environmental justice in the 1980s in response to the disproportionate burdens that communities of color faced in terms of pollution. And you can assign Robert D. Bullard’s Dumping in Dixie for this particular topic; it’s one of the classic texts in environmental history.

You can also add stand-alone lectures or readings that focus exclusively on the environment (much the same way typical courses devote time to War of 1812 or to the French Revolution). For example, you could include a lecture about how environmental conditions influenced the settlement patterns and the types of economies that developed in the North American colonies. Or you could conduct a lecture about the spread of disease, water contamination, and air pollution when discussing urbanization in the nineteenth century. And, obviously, you could proffer a lecture on the development of environmentalism in the 1960s and 1970s when covering the latter part of the twentieth century.

By incorporating the environment and environmental factors into our survey courses, similar to how we include political or cultural discussions, we can 1) increase the knowledge and awareness that our students have regarding the environment and environmental history, and 2) integrate the environment as part of history rather than as an “oh and” topic.

What are your ideas for incorporating the environment and environmental history into survey courses? You can totally think bigger than survey courses too. We want to hear your thoughts. Talk to us @rhbond_phd and @envhistnow!

*Featured image credit: The Oxbow, a painting by Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.