Another Free US History Resource to Put Textbooks to Shame: PBS’ “The Presidents”

He wins in a Democrat landslide. Hopes are high for a progressive agenda unseen since the New Deal, and he delivers, in the first days of his presidency, an avalanche of legislation meant to fulfill those hopes.

But he also inherits a military conflict that his advisers are counseling him to escalate – with a “surge,” we might say – and the president follows that advice. Things go downhill from there.

“He,” of course, is President Lyndon Baines Johnson – LBJ. But the parallels with President Obama are obvious. Just substitute “Afghanistan and Iraq” for “Viet Nam.”

LBJ on PBS (click image for larger view)

LBJ on PBS (click image for larger view)

What an amazing time to be a US History teacher – especially with resources like the “American Experience: The Presidents” documentary series from America’s Public Broadcasting System (PBS) available, free and online (and many available for free download, with close captions ideal for ESL students – get ‘em while they’re hot!).

I just watched the LBJ episode and can’t wait to watch more. Coupling Obama’s presidency with LBJ’s in a compare/contrast discussion would surely enliven any US History classroom this year.

Whether you’re a teacher, student, or life-long learner, you can’t go wrong with this adventure in education. It beats the pants off of textbooks.

(And teachers, be sure to notice the teaching resources and podcasts also available for free on the site.)

‘Nuff said.  I hope it puts the emotion in history for you as it did for me. It’s tragic how emotionless schools can make such an intense subject.

6 thoughts on “Another Free US History Resource to Put Textbooks to Shame: PBS’ “The Presidents””

  1. Emotionless – that’s it. “I hope it puts the emotion in history for you as it did for me. It’s tragic how emotionless schools can make such an intense subject.”

    I’ve got two advisees who are tanking in US History, and I think the problem is that there is no story there for them, nothing to connect to, no emotion or passion. Yes, it’s important to be able to write a well supported Document Based in-class essay about Hamilton and Jefferson and strict vs loose reading of the Constitution, but seriously? Is that it? One young man told me today that, “History is boring.” Again I ask, “Seriously? Boring?” That’s got to take some work to suck the life out of US history.

    Now, I just have to be careful to not suck the emotion out of American Literature…

    1. Kate, did you see the post I linked to in this one about “emotional objectivity”? (Loewen’s term.)

      I’ve always been partial to chronological instead of thematic course design, but using Obama’s candidacy as a year-long reference-point in a chronological syllabus seems a good hybrid way to add contemporary relevance to the chrono approach.

      I always tried to do the same with literature, by having themes arching over the chronological surveys I designed, hoping they’d serve as an “evolution of ideas” relevance hook to the individual texts.

      Goodness knows it’s never going to satisfy everybody, but I think it worked pretty well, by the end of the year. Lots of students caught on toward the end that the “Great Conversation” intertextual approach was mind-blowing, a forest-and-trees experience they weren’t used to.

      Damn it, this is making me miss the classroom ;-)

      1. I need to read Loewen’s book, clearly. I also like a chronological approach to the study of literature- and I try to find novels that are written in/near the time that they are set, but because of the Community Connections work that we do, connecting US History and American Lit with contemporary social issues, we also have some shared texts that we all work with (Scarlet Letter, Grapes of Wrath, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, The Port Huron Statement).

        Who is part of your “Great Conversation”? Who have you found is a character that (most) everyone wants to engage in a conversation with? I love Daisy Miller, but some years the room doesn’t like her. They see her as a pretty flirt, and she bugs them. They usually love Gatsby and dislike that other Daisy. Richard Hunter (the boot black Ragged Dick in the Horatio Alger books) is a hands down favorite character. I’m imagining a dinner party with all of these characters, and I just wonder, what would they all say to each other in their great conversation?

        Students arrive in 10 minutes – must get ready! Thanks

        1. I was unclear about “Great Conversation.” I meant it in the sense that the UChicago “Great Books” series editors (I forgot those old dons’ names, and don’t care) meant it, if I recall correctly: the evolution of ideas from earliest literature to today, books themselves being the conversationalists.

          So: Gilgamesh – The Hebrew Bible – Homer – Socrates/Plato – Aristotle – Lucretius – the Christian NT – maybe Virgil or Cicero – Augustine – Dante – Petrarch – Shakespeare – Swift – Voltaire – Blake and Keats – Nietzsche – Wilde – Beckett….

          That’s a weird list, and incomplete (eek, all dead white males), but it’s a line of evolution about questions of life/death/god/morality/heroism/pleasure and more that speaks, as Nietzsche put it, “from mountain peak to mountain peak” across the centuries, in an unbroken conversation.

          Battery about to die. Bye!

  2. Clay, I love this series. All the president’s portraits are so humanizing. I got a little teary when I watched the one on LBJ, the man who really got the civil rights agenda through, yet failed to keep us out of a tragic war.

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