Assistant Professor Michael Schwarz brings youthful energy to undergraduate and master’s seminars in early American history. A specialist in the early republic who earned his PhD from the University of Kentucky in 2008, Schwarz currently teaches American history through the civil war and two seminars on colonial America, one for undergraduates and another for the Master of Arts in American History and Government students through the new Live Online Courses.
Last May, Schwarz was named Outstanding Male Faculty Member of the Year by the Office of Student Leadership Development on campus. The award is made by the Student Life committee of the Faculty Senate, who select among nominations from student organizations. Schwarz was nominated for the award by both the Student Senate and the Panhellenic Council.
We asked Schwarz about rewards both of historical study and teaching in Ashbrook programs.
What do you find most interesting about early American history?
“I’m fascinated by the development of something close to distinct English civilizations in North America. . . . Of course, these settlers did share a common English political tradition, which counts for a lot. Yet in many ways . . . the story of Early American history is that of very different English colonies and regions, particularly New England and Virginia, developing through mutual antagonisms different characteristics and cultures, then coming together through shared political grievances in the third quarter of the eighteenth century to form a nation grounded on the most important principles human beings ever have proclaimed. They then spent the ensuing decades arguing about what exactly they had done before finally drifting toward separation and civil war, where they re-fought the battles of the seventeenth century in an Americanized but not-yet-fully-democratized setting.”
Are there “what-if” stories in American history that intrigue you?
One must ask how it was that the English settlers on the American continent became ascendant. At various given times, the Dutch or the Spanish might have seized dominant power on the continent, and then American history would have taken a very different course.
Then there is the fascinating history of interaction between the settlers and the Native Americans. Who were the “Indians”? Why did they not decimate the early European settlers’ communities?
What do Ashbrook Scholars bring to the classroom? Do they bring any attitudes or mental tools that make them unusual among students?
They bring to class an expectation that we will challenge them primarily through asking them to read original documents. They come eager to engage these documents, and they expect to have a conversation about them, not to hear a lecture on Professors Hurly and Burleys’ views of the historical period—or even on Professor Schwarz’s view of the period!
Instead of a scholar’s biography of Thomas Jefferson, they expect to read Jefferson’s own words and to wrestle with those. When Jefferson in his First Inaugural message says, “we are all republicans; we are all federalists,” what did he mean? We can spend 45 minutes in class discussing this, and still not reach a definitive conclusion. It is difficult to inhabit another person’s mind and world, especially when that world is past and vanished.
But in reading primary texts and attempting to understand historical figures as they understood themselves, Ashbrook Scholars come closer to engaging the historian’s craft than do undergraduates in almost any other program in the country.
How does teaching colonial American history to Ashbrook Scholar undergraduates compare to teaching a similar course, through the MA program, to secondary school teachers?
The experience depends on the composition of the class. Veterans of the MA program come with the same expectations Ashbrook Scholars bring to class. They know they’re not going to hear long lectures on the historiography; they’ll be encouraged to wrestle with the primary documents. And of course, new students see very quickly what we are up to. We don’t reinvent the wheel for the purposes of the Master of Arts program, because our approach in both programs is the same.