Producing Ethically Engaged Students: Using the Classroom to Teach Social Activism

Michael Todd Landis

“This class will make you dangerous,” I tell my survey students at the start of every semester. “You will learn to ask questions, challenge the status quo, and think critically about the world around you.” Such skills and habits, I explain, will upset their friends, families, and neighbors, especially since they live in Texas, a state where the culture tends to emphasize conformity. “The people in your life don’t want you to ask questions or challenge their views. Instead, they want you to act like everyone else and accept society as it is given to you.” That’s not what my classes are about.

Aside from being good opening-day dramatics, my warnings are real. I firmly believe that our history classes should produce ethically engaged students—students who have an individually developed sense of justice; students willing to challenge and protest; students willing (and capable) of asking tough questions; students who will be leaders but who will also question leadership. Pursuing such a pedagogical strategy can be risky for the teacher. Many of my colleagues will say that we should “stick to the material” and not indulge in podium proselytizing. I agree, but only up to a point. I believe it is possible to inspire an activist spirit in students without indoctrinating them with our personal values. We can talk about justice, race, and rights—all the big issues—in ways that respect everyone’s viewpoint but also instill sympathy, passion, and a sense of urgency. We can, in short, help students develop their own ethical standards and inspire them to act according to those standards .

More worrisome than the nay-sayers is the problem of balancing discussion of deeper meanings with explanation of chronology (good, old-fashioned names, dates, and numbers). There simply isn’t enough time in a fourteen-week survey to cover the material and have debates about responsibility and judgement. Thus, every semester instructors must carefully choose which issues need to be emphasized and dissected, and which need to be set aside for an upper-level course. For instance, in the first half of the U.S. survey I have to choose between covering the battles of the Civil War and discussing the nuances of emancipation. For the past several semesters, I have favored the latter approach, though, as a Civil War scholar, it pains me to skip the exciting and gruesome details of war. I asked myself, “What do I want my students to come away with? What is more important to their education as an adult capable of thinking critically: a firm knowledge of Civil War battles, or an understanding of how millions of people achieved freedom and broke the grip of slavery?” If I spend time on the former, it would consist of names and dates that bore students. If I devote time to the latter, I can challenge their views of “freedom,” strike some blows at tired myths, and better train them to consider agency. In particular, attention is focused on slaves’ agency to perceive opportunity, take action, and effect change. Agency is a vital lesson that students can apply to their own lives. Individual action matters. Hence, a lesson on activism is tucked into a lesson on the Civil War.

I have carried my enthusiasm for student activism into a new upper-level course I debuted in the fall of 2015: “Slavery and the American South.” At the same time that protests of police brutality were occurring in Ferguson, Missouri, my class spent time discussing social justice, white supremacy, and resistance to authority. As a significant extra credit opportunity, I encouraged the students to research Historians against Slavery (HAS) (, make connections between class material and today’s news, and form a new student organization devoted to that end. The result, I am proud to say, was Texans against Slavery (TAS). Run entirely by students, their stated goal is to raise awareness of slavery and combat myths about slavery in American history. In addition, the students applied for and received a grant from The Free Project ( to bring to campus Dr. Stacey Robertson, a leading scholar of nineteenth-century U.S. history and co-director of HAS. Dr. Robertson met with individual students and addressed a large gathering of students, faculty, and administrators on the work of HAS and how knowledge of history can be used to combat injustice. More important than Dr. Robertson’s visit, however, is the activist spirit the student organizers exhibited. They were excited about the possibilities for campus action and national coordination (with groups such as The Free Project and Allies against Slavery (AAS), In April 2015, two members of TAS traveled to the state capitol to attend a major conference hosted by AAS and to learn ways to educate the public about unfree labor. They came to understand that the study of history can be far more than names and dates; it can be a vehicle for change and a weapon for justice.

My experience with TAS brings me back to my original point: using the classroom to produce student activists. Yes, it will irk some of your colleagues, and yes, it will require you to make painful cuts in the chronology, but creating ethically engaged students should be our goal. We should train them to think for themselves, make independent judgments about their own lives and the world around them, and act on their critically-examined values. In the words of Dr. James Stewart, founder of HAS, “What are the facts and the study of violence for anyway and why is it important to get them right unless it is to confront some deeper truth that resonates with our present concerns?” We should be producing thinkers, doers, and leaders—not memorizers and followers.

Dr. Michael Todd Landis, assistant professor of history at Tarleton State University and board member of Historians against Slavery, studies the intersection of slavery and politics in the nineteenth century United States and is the author of Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis (2014 ).