Dr. Lendol Calder wins history prize for article on teaching history

Staff Writer
Aledo Times Record

Rock Island, Ill. – Dr. Lendol Calder, professor of history of Augustana, has been awarded the 2014 William and Edwyna Gilbert Award for the Best Article on Teaching History by the American Historical Association (AHA).

His article, “The Stories We Tell,” was published in the Organization of American Historians (OAH) Magazine of History in 2013. It focuses on the role of narrative in the study and teaching of U.S. history, particularly U.S. history survey courses.

In the article, Dr. Calder uses stories told by his students for an assignment he gives to determine what young people know and how they makes sense of what they know. In the first week of class he asks them to imagine that while traveling in a foreign country, a stranger asks them to tell “the story of American history.” Since 1994, he has collected more than 800 one-page histories of the United States.

In the beginning, three out of four students believed in a “glory story” of American history. “Their stories emphasized progress, positive achievements, patriotic lore, and the steady advancement of the nation toward democratic ideals,” said Dr. Calder.

The number of students understanding the American past in this way has steadily declined, and last spring only one in 10 students made sense of the American past with a “glory story.” In fact, last spring eight in 10 stories had no plot.

“My data suggests that students today don’t think the past has any meaning at all,” he said. “They can tick off endless facts, but don’t know how to make sense of them.”

Dr. Calder hopes his article will move teachers and historians to think about the importance of stories in history education.

“Since the dawn of humanity, storytelling has bound people into communities, given heroes their courage, and enabled everyday folk to keep on keeping on. Stories have also set nation against nation, fueled murderous intent, and deflected communities from attending to real problems in their midst,” he said. “Without great stories that situate ourselves in the past, we lose the ability to know who we are, and what we, as individuals and members of communities, should do with our lives.”

Dr. Calder received his bachelor’s at the University of Texas at Austin, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1980. He earned his master’s and doctorate from the University of Chicago and began teaching at Augustana in 1996. Dr. Calder was named Illinois Professor of the Year in 2010 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. His book, Financing the American Dream: A Cultural History of Consumer Credit, continues to be the authority on the subject, even after a decade.

When Dr. Calder receives his award, he will be thinking of the 800+ Augustana students who wrote the stories his article examines. “Every single one of them had a part in helping me answer my question,” he said. “I love them and salute them, as I wouldn’t be receiving the award if not for their willingness to go along with my eccentric request for a one-page history of the United States—in the first week of class!”

The $1,000 award will be presented to Dr. Calder at the American Historical Association’s meeting in January. The OAH Magazine of History, which published his article, also will receive $1,000.

The American Historical Association is the largest professional organization in the United States devoted to the study and promotion of history and historical thinking. The William and Edwyna Gilbert Award was named in memory of William Gilbert, a longtime AHA member and distinguished scholar-teacher of the Renaissance at the University of Kansas, and his wife.

About Augustana:

Founded in 1860, Augustana College is a selective four-year residential college of the liberal arts and sciences. Augustana is recognized for the innovative program Augie Choice, which provides each student up to $2,000 to pursue a high-impact learning experience such as study abroad, an internship or research with a professor. Current students and alumni include 153 Academic All-Americans, a Nobel laureate, 13 college presidents and other distinguished leaders. The college enrolls 2,500 students and is located along one of the world’s most important waterways, the Mississippi River, in a community that reflects the diversity of the United States.