In June 2015, Humanities Texas held a professional development institute for Texas teachers in partnership with the College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin and the LBJ Presidential Library.

The topics, covering the American presidency and U.S. history from 1970 to 2000, focused on standards in the state's eleventh-grade U.S. history curriculum. Lectures and workshops addressed the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, as well as economic issues, the women's movement, and the Persian Gulf.

These institutes were made possible with major funding from the State of Texas and ongoing support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Below are excerpts from faculty presentations delivered at "American Presidents and the Nation, 1970–2000."

"Nixon/Kissinger Diplomacy"

Jeremi Suri, The University of Texas at Austin

Every foreign policy decision that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger made was to some extent influenced by their concern about the disruption and disorder within their societies occurring at this time. . . . And what détente was—what the foreign policy of the 1970s for the Cold War was—was not an end to the Cold War, nor an alternative system, but an effort to relax the most dangerous parts of the Cold War; An effort to get societies that had been long-term adversaries to work together again.

. . .

Détente was a huge breakthrough. It had its problems that I myself have criticized as a historian. It underplayed the importance of ideological differences. It took morality, to some extent, out of the discussion, but it made the situation for many people who had been divided by the Cold War more livable. It made the world more peaceful and, from the perspective of all of us as educators, it allowed us to work with our colleagues in other societies as we never did before.  What détente did is that it allowed for more travel. Teachers, scholars, scientists were able to actually connect with their counterparts—build relationships, build knowledge—and some of the major breakthroughs in the 1970s in science, history, and education occurred in this period.

. . .

What should we say about détente then? Détente captures what I think makes studying history so interesting, which is that it is filled with contradiction and paradox. The bad works of history are those that try to make everything simple: "It's a straight march and one damn thing happens after another." Good works of history help us to see the complexity of the human experience and help us to see agency and opportunity in that complexity. The 1970s was a messy period for American foreign policy, but détente opened new opportunities for many people as it closed off opportunities for many others.

"The Environment and Public Policy"

Martin Melosi, University of Houston

The National Environmental Policy Act was passed in 1969 and implemented in January of that year. It seems somewhat ironic that it's Richard Nixon who signed this and other environmental legislation, because our memory of Nixon takes these issues outside of the realm of what we thought he was and what we believed. Nixon certainly was very much a pragmatist. I think what you find with Nixon in the case of environmental issues was a very real belief: first, that he could control the issues if indeed he got on board, and secondly, that there was political opportunity for him in some way to define them and to lead them. It's again a curiosity of Nixon. On the one hand, there is this cynical view that he got on board because it was politically expedient, and the other is that he appoints some of the most impressive individuals that we've seen in a long time—bureaucrats, like Bill Ruckelshaus—to the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]. Real substantive leaders.

The act itself, proclaimed by many people as the Magna Carta of the environment, really was far less than that in terms of what it really was able to accomplish, but it did a couple of things that sustained environmentalism on the federal level for some time. One, it set in place a mechanism for evaluating projects that would be built, or considered to be built, through the use of environmental impact statements (EIS). There had to be a formal evaluation of these places and the environmental risks before any work could be done. This was started on the federal level, then it worked its way down. At first, these were sloppy documents that were unimpressive. The Army Corps of Engineers, which had been the backbone of building a lot of infrastructure in the country, put together flimsy documents. But, ultimately, the real advantage of the environmental impact statement was to infuse the system with public access. You have a number of public hearings with citizen participation, and in many ways, local groups used the EIS's as weapons in order to stall development. In fact, one reason why nuclear power begins to fall on its face by the late 1970s, after these bandwagon years, was that grassroots groups continued to put new demands in front of leadership all the time in the form of EIS's. So they were a tool that empowered groups of people that had not had that power. I don’t think anybody really understood how what seemed to be a fairly rational process could have that kind of bite.

The other [accomplishment of NEPA] was the establishment of the Council of Environmental Quality at the executive level, which put advisers that dealt with the environment in the executive branch and gave the president some kind of feedback.

"The Richard Nixon Presidency and Watergate"

Luke A. Nichter, Texas A&M University-Central Texas

[Nixon altered] the role of the president and the role of Congress. Some people will say, "That's just because Nixon was giving Congress something to do while he was going to Beijing, while he was going to Moscow, while he was spending most of his time on foreign policy." I think there's something to that statement, but at the same time Nixon knew that with the veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate many of these domestic policies actually had a good chance of becoming law. So he must have at least gone along with them and been willing to see them become law for many of these policies to actually be signed into law. You look at the list, and it's just staggering—whether it's the EPA, Earth Day, Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, really the beginning of an energy policy, the fifty-five mile-an-hour speed limit. Title IX, the Equal Rights Amendment—even though it was not finally signed into law—these were all things that Nixon at least nominally supported.

. . .

There is no shortage of records to document Nixon's involvement in crimes and improprieties that ultimately had to lead to his resignation in disgrace. One of the things I'm struck by is, had Nixon gone to the Senate for a trial to remove him from office, or had he been tried later once he was no longer president in a criminal or civil proceeding, it would've taken an enormous amount of classified information, either in his prosecution or in his defense. I think this is one of the reasons why Nixon had to be pardoned. It was not possible to do that. That would have been unacceptable to the government, to the intelligence community, to the continued operations of the government at that point. The Ford administration was extremely constrained by Watergate.

"The Struggle for Equal Rights, 1970–2000"

Albert S. Broussard, Texas A&M University

African Americans made perhaps their most impressive gains in the 1970s and beyond in the political arena. Buttressed by black activism, but also by the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, black political influence was widespread. Southern communities, in particular, strove to mobilize their people for full representation. Basically, black leaders were trying to move from protest to empowerment. They began to understand that it's necessary to attain power if they're going to make the kind of gains and bring about the kind of changes that we saw in the rhetoric of Dr. King and others. They continued to be sure to support the Democratic Party in national elections, but they also increasingly ran candidates for local, statewide, and national office. We see these gains were especially impressive in the South, where the number of black officers soared to about 1,200 in 1972 from about eight hundred the previous year. Civil rights veterans, for example, gained half of the seats, 50 percent of the seats, on the Selma, Alabama city council. Two African Americans, Barbara Jordan of Houston, Texas, and Andrew Young of Atlanta, Georgia, were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, marking the first time in seventy years that blacks from the Deep South—the former Confederate states—sat in Congress.

By the end of 1974, fifteen hundred African Americans held public office in the South. Some were elected as a result of the tremendous enthusiasm of black voters, while others were elected largely as a result of reapportionment ordered by federal courts and the Department of Justice. Birmingham, Alabama, perhaps the most violently racist city in the South, added fifteen African Americans to its state legislative delegation. By 1990, a staggering eight thousand black elected officials were recorded throughout the nation, of whom 60 percent resided in the South, where African Americans composed a sizable voting bloc. Black people were voting. They were putting people like themselves, whose interests they believed represented themselves, into office.

"Economic Forces, 1970–2000"

Michael Brandl, The Ohio State University

President Ford had no idea how to deal with [inflation]. He comes up with the idea that wage and price controls are just too rigid. So instead we are going to have voluntary wage and price controls. So you are going to voluntarily agree to freeze your wage or salary while the cost of living is going up and up and up. You can see how successful this thing is going to be. So he comes up with a program, honest to god, it's called WIN—Whip Inflation Now. If you agree to freeze your wages and salaries, you will be rewarded with a little red and white WIN button that you can proudly affix to your lapel. Or if you so choose, it also comes in a sticker format that you can put on your lunch pail to proudly take to work to say to people, "I am voluntarily freezing my wages or salaries!" You might as well have "Idiot!" written across your forehead! This is what happens when you focus on the symptoms and not the causes. You wind up with really bad policies.

It’s not until 1979 that President Carter appoints a guy by the name of Paul Volcker, who is actually the hero of this story. Paul Volcker [is this] six-foot-five, cigar-smoking, bald-headed, no-nonsense economist who comes in and says, "Problem is your money supply is increasing too fast, so we are going to decrease the growth rate of the money supply." The problem is that that will work to control inflation, but when you decrease the amount of money, the price of money is going to go up. The price of money is interest rates, and if you own a house, then you know that higher interest rates are going to make buying a house almost impossible because your monthly payments are going to go up. When the money supply decreases, interests rates increase. Businesses are not going to be able to borrow money to hire people. What's going to happen is, in order to get rid of inflation and deal with stagflation, you actually have to make the stagnant part worse. The economy is going to enter into the most severe recession since the Great Depression, up until the most recent one in 2007. And it's going to be deliberately caused by the Federal Reserve. They are going to do it to deal with the inflation.

"The Ford and Carter Presidencies"

James T. Patterson, Brown University

It was Ford's particular misfortune, of course, to be the only president in American history, before or since, who had not been elected either to the presidency or to the vice presidency. Andrew Johnson and others had moved up to the presidency, but they'd all been vice presidents. Ford had been appointed vice president, so he had no popular mandate. He could not claim that anyone had elected him to any office on a national scale. On the contrary, when he came in there were a number of Democrats who were sure that Ford had worked out some kind of private deal with Nixon's chief of staff, Alexander Haig, in the last days of the Nixon administration, whereby Nixon would resign and Ford would pardon him. There's no solid evidence for this because people aren't talking, or maybe nothing happened, but the rumor was there. In other words, to some people he was not only an unelected president, he was a tainted vice president. And when Ford did give Nixon a full, free, and absolute pardon in September 1974, a month after becoming president, and before Nixon, who had of course resigned, had been formally charged with anything in the courts, rumors of a deal accompanied widespread public outrage. Ford's press secretary resigned in protest on the spot. Ford's approval ratings—which had been a high of 71 percent a month after he took office, mainly because of relief that Nixon was gone—plummeted down to 41 percent almost overnight, and Ford never had 50 percent or better job approval ratings after that.

. . .

[Carter] granted a lot of unconditional pardons to Vietnam-era draft evaders. He, with congressional help, established, for better or worse, the Department of Education and the Department of Energy. He pushed through a bill to limit strip-mining. He had a good record in terms of appointing women, which Kennedy hadn't done, to the Cabinet and elsewhere, and African Americans, including Andrew Young—one of Martin Luther King's right-hand people—to be his UN ambassador. He had an active role in environmental issues. He also tried to moderate Cold War tensions by negotiating the SALT treaty with Brezhnev and the Soviets. He rejected the development of a controversial neutron bomb. He got the Panama Canal Treaty though, which led to the takeover of the canal by Panama in 1999. He brought the Egyptians and the Israelis together in his famous so-called Camp David Accords, which ended up ending thirty years of hostility between Egypt and Israel. Egypt got the Sinai, Egypt recognized Israel, and so forth. But economic matters also gave him a lot of trouble.

Both Ford and Carter had a very rough time because of the very difficult context in which they were trying to run things. Both therefore had only one term—in Ford's case, of course, even less than that. They left many Americans yearning for a kind of magical, strong president, such as they thought Kennedy had been, and they knew Johnson had been. And the answer, of course, to many of their prayers was Ronald Reagan.

"The Women's Movement"

Janet Davis, The University of Texas at Austin

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) goes out to the states in early 1972. In one month, fourteen states have ratified. In one year, thirty states have ratified. Eight more states to go. From 1973 to 1977, only five more states ratify—three states shy. The amendment, in 1978, is due to expire in less than a year. So what happens? A group of members of Congress decide that we need to extend the ratification period. They sponsor legislation. It passes by simple majority, so that's a little controversial in itself. President Carter reluctantly signs it, because he's uneasy with it on procedural grounds. But he signs, saying, "Yeah, we can extend the ratification period to 1982." Well, guess what happens? No more states ratify the ERA. None. So how did that happen? We can think about the ERA—and its journey, if you will—and think about how a movement crystallizes to oppose it and really think about how important the activism of women was to essentially defeat the ERA amendment.

. . .

One woman I'm going to talk about in particular is Phyllis Stuart Schlafly. . . . In 1972, she creates an organization called Stop ERA, single-mindedly devoted to defeating the Equal Rights Amendment.

Schlafly and her supporters very effectively deployed in a society that was suffering the shocks of ending the bitterly divisive war in Vietnam, the shocks of an oil embargo, the shocks of inflation, the shocks of so much upheaval. The ERA seemed to be this manifestation of all of the social upheaval that had been going on in America over the last decade. And thus in the twilight days of the ratification process, there was an incredible kind of display. In Illinois, which had not ratified, women chained themselves to the statehouse. Women held a hunger strike. Florida, about a week before that June 30 expiration date in 1982, decided not to ratify. So the ERA died. The ERA then was a kind of dividing line in the sand. In 1980, the Republican Party platform, in contrast to its 1976 platform, now stated, "We respect the positions of people involved in this debate, but we do not support it." And so with that moment, we have a watershed in American history at which a really nonpartisan movement, the women's movement, has become very partisan by 1980.

"Ronald Reagan"

H. W. Brands, The University of Texas at Austin

I'm going to give you the image of a pendulum in American politics and American life that sits between the two principal institutions of American public life: democracy and capitalism, the public sector and the private sector. It seems to me that presidents who have the greatest impact over the longest period of time, the ones who change the direction of American politics and public life, are the presidents who move the pendulum in a different direction than it is going. [Franklin] Roosevelt inherited a conservative status quo and gave this pendulum that sits somewhere between democracy and capitalism a strong push. The pendulum is over in the private sector, capitalist side, and Roosevelt gives it a strong push towards the public sector, toward the sector of politics, toward the sector of liberalism. The pendulum starts in that direction during the 1930s, and it continues in that direction during the 1940s, even through the 1950s—although Dwight Eisenhower's a Republican, he's a pretty liberal Republican—and into the 1960s, where if anything it accelerates through the Great Society. The pendulum keeps moving toward that side until sometime in the 1970s, when it seems to run out of steam for a couple of reasons. Some people would say [it has to do with] the overreaching of the Great Society. Many people would connect it to the American defeat in Vietnam. Many [would connect it] to the Watergate scandal and the disillusionment of very many people with government.

In any event, the president who comes along and gives that pendulum a push back in the opposite direction is Ronald Reagan. In this regard, Ronald Reagan seems to be a president more emblematic of the big thing that happens in the second half of the twentieth century. I would go so far as to say that if the era from the 1930s to the 1970s is the age of Roosevelt, then the era from the 1980s until even now is the age of Ronald Reagan.

I focus on the federal government, because that's the essence of modern liberalism: what's the federal government doing? You are a liberal in American politics if you believe that where there is a large social problem, the federal government is the solver of first resort. So you've got a big problem—whether it's poverty, whether it is poor race relations, whether it's that education needs to be improved—you look to the feds to fix it. This makes you a modern liberal, whether a New Deal liberal under Franklin Roosevelt, or a Great Society liberal under Lyndon Johnson. On the other hand, you are a conservative if you believe that the fixer of first resort is the private sector and individuals.

So it's Reagan who pushes things back in a conservative direction. I would say that we're still in the age of Reagan in that there have been some new federal programs since the 1980s, but they have come infrequently and with great difficulty. If you count up the programs of the New Deal, add up the programs of the Great Society, we're talking scores depending on how you count them. But the number of important new federal programs since Reagan you could probably count on one hand. And it is still the case that most people look askance at the federal government.

"Ronald Reagan's Presidency"

Jeffrey A. Engel, Southern Methodist University

This was a period of tremendous inflation and tremendous interest rates. This is really why the Reagan legacy becomes very complicated: it's simply impossible to judge whether or not Reagan's programs worked, because he's not the only one making decisions. The Fed has a vote, and Congress has a vote. That's democracy. Everybody has to work together. In fact, we see that about 1982, there is a tremendous recession that occurs. Now, Reagan and those around him were absolutely convinced that this was the Fed's fault. [Chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul] Volcker had slammed the door on investment by dealing with interest rates. However, unemployment rises to levels not seen since the Great Depression, and this causes essentially a return to more traditional fiscal spending—that is, more of it. Essentially, as Reagan had cut deals with Democrats to get the first series of legislation through in 1981, by 1982 the Democrats were saying, "We need to spend more. We've gone too far." By the way, a lot of Republicans were on top of that as well. So, there is by 1982, ninety-eight billion in new revenue enhancements. By the way, revenue enhancements means "a tax, but I'm against taxes, so I'm not going to call it that," but it's the same thing. In fact, they take back some of the tax reduction that Reagan had passed. The effective corporate tax rate had been reduced from 33 percent to 4.7 percent in 1981. Then Congress took two steps back in 1982 and said, “We went too far. Let’s raise taxes from 4.7 percent to 15.8 percent.” Here’s a good example where you can see that Reagan has essentially managed to get taxes cut 18 percent, from a 33 percent rate to a 15.8 percent rate, but he was not able ultimately to get corporate taxes as low as he originally wanted, down to 4.7 percent. It's very difficult, consequently, to understand whether or not he is the one who is effective in getting his economic agenda through, because he is not the only actor.

The overall bottom line of this is that the tax revenue was, according to budget director David Stockman, four times more than the spending takeaway. It's always easier to cut taxes than to cut spending. And Congress, even in an era of renewed conservatism, is not willing to go as far. In fact, Reagan is not willing to go as far as his own rhetoric suggests. Congressman Trent Lott said, "Dead in the water," that's like a "no way, period, end of discussion, not a prayer." That's on the idea that they were going to reduce spending further. In fact, Congressman Dick Cheney said at this point, "Well, you know, the deficit isn't the worst thing." So you have a period of lower taxes, but not necessarily lower spending.

So, this is really crucial, I think, for understanding the long-term legacy of Reagan, because one of the things Reagan was willing to do was, frankly, to negotiate and to compromise. If he got 50 percent of what he wanted, he was happy. If he got 75 percent, he was happier.

"George H. W. Bush's Presidency"

Mark Updegrove, LBJ Presidential Library

It's because of George Herbert Walker Bush's humility that the Cold War ends with a whimper and not a bang. That was a very potentially explosive situation that we had at that time. There was no guarantee that the Cold War would end peacefully. But George Bush had reached out to those leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev. There is an enormously important partnership between those two men. They trusted each other. So what Bush does not do when the Berlin Wall falls is metaphorically dance on the wall. He doesn't give one of these speeches about the triumph of America in the Cold War. Rather, he works very, very quietly behind the scenes to ensure that the leaders in Eastern Europe and Mikhail Gorbachev are supported, and he makes sure that there's a peaceful transition. I think that's one of the great contributions that George Bush made as president. I think it's his greatest contribution, honestly. And it's due to his humility.

"Bill Clinton's Presidency"

James T. Patterson, Brown University

Clinton could be determined an extraordinarily effective leader on certain occasions, when he knew what he was doing and took his time to do it well. This has to do with economic policy, which was his forte. He was a wonk. He could talk all day and all night about the ins and outs of policy, driving people crazy. But he really knew what he was doing. He decided in early 1993 to switch gears. He had promised during the campaign, in a kind of classic liberal sort of approach, to seek tax cuts, but also to promote a thirty-billion-dollar stimulus package. The economy was then pulling out of a serious recession, which, more than anything else, had harmed Bush's chances for reelection. So Clinton was going to do his medicine. But he found himself running up against a lot of opposition from conservatives and moderates, especially by Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan, who was a much-admired figure. Greenspan and others said, "You've really got to tackle the deficit, Bill. Until you control this runaway spending and the deficits it results in, you're never going to get the support of Wall Street or the bond managers or other people and get this country moving and lower interest rates." So Clinton changed his mind, and instead he backed a plan in early 1993 that called for modest cuts in spending and for considerable increases in income taxes, particularly those on people in the upper brackets. Also for modest increases in corporate taxes. To give you the figures, the top bracket—people earning at that time over 250,000 dollars a year—would have their taxes raised from 31 percent to 39.6 percent. This of course became a big issue in the George W. Bush administration, when there were a couple of tax cuts to bring this down. Clinton's administration, in this effort, raised it up.

Most of Clinton's aides, even though they admired him, [thought that he] was a guy who wasn't tough. Bill would get into a meeting and he would compromise. This time he didn't. He hung tight. There was a terrific battle that resulted later in the summer of 1993. Clinton prevailed by a margin of 218 to 216 in the House and the result of a tiebreaking vote in the Senate by Vice President Al Gore and got this legislation through. Partisanship was fierce. Not one Republican in either house voted in favor of this plan. Historians, I think, would agree that it was probably the most important single accomplishment of his first term—if not, in fact, of his entire domestic presidency—in that it did begin a long and difficult effort towards creating smaller deficits. And in the last three years of Clinton's administration, the United States federal government actually ran a surplus. That was the first time that had happened since the 1960s, and it hasn't happened since. One reason for this, of course, was the greatly improved nature of the economy. Whether this balanced budget agreement had to do with that is a big question as to whether you think the federal government or the market is more important in determining ups and downs in the economy, but most people give that 1993 budget agreement some credit for this. In any event, this was quite a considerable achievement, of course, which all Democrats and their opponents pointed out about the Clinton administration.

. . .

When the Republicans refused to approve, in November of 1995, a continuing resolution to provide appropriations to keep the government functioning beyond November 15th unless he agreed to more cuts, Clinton refused to back down, and there was a temporary shutdown of the government. A little bit later, [Speaker of the House Newt] Gingrich and his Republican allies passed a bill which provided big tax cuts for the wealth, and slashed funding for Medicare. Clinton refused this. There was another shutdown that lasted twenty-one days, over Christmas, into 1996. Eight hundred thousand federal workers were furloughed and didn't go to work. No passports were mailed, the national parks were closed. It was quite a time.

Now it turned out that Gingrich miscalculated. He became known as "The Grinch who stole Christmas," and people rallied to Clinton. One reporter, I think accurately, pointed out the importance of this turning point. He said, "If Bill's preaching in Oklahoma City [following the 1995 bombing] installed him as the nation's comforter-in-chief, it was his battle with Newt Gingrich that cemented his place as protector of average Americans against the depredations of extremism."

Clinton then goes on to again try to appeal to the center. In his State of the Union address in 1996, one of his most famous speeches, he made it clear that he was not going to allow the Republicans to cripple some key measures like Medicare, education, environmental stuff, but he did say twice, "The era of big government is over." There was again a sign of Clinton, the middle-of-the-road guy, seeking the maximum kind of political coalition. Liberals were especially annoyed when Clinton, after rejecting a couple of earlier measures, signed welfare reform into law that August. This was a very tough measure [that] abolished the sixty-one-year-old aid program for families with dependent children and replaced it with a program to be done by the states. It caused a lot of dissension within his liberal advisers, including some of his very close friends. But he signed it. It wasn't that Clinton was opposed to welfare. What he really was opposed to was long-term dependency on welfare. So the key element in this law was to limit to two years the amount of time that a person could continuously stay on it. But there were other equally harsh aspects to it. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was the Democratic chairman of the Senate's finance committee, said the measure would be "the most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction." It passed, as did NAFTA, primarily because it had Republican support.

"The End of the Cold War, the Balkans Conflict, and the Persian Gulf"

Mark Atwood Lawrence, The University of Texas at Austin

You see tension between old ways of thinking and new ways of thinking, and you see a mishmash of approaches: sometimes using international institutions; sometimes using a U.S.-led NATO approach; sometimes rationalizing and justifying, publicly, American decisions on the basis of broad principles, nothing less than a new world order; sometimes falling back on older rationales which would have been very familiar from the heyday of the Cold War. A lot of this mishmash—this ambiguity, this complexity of American motives and rationales in this period—gave rise in the 1990s to a lot of criticism of the Clinton administration for a lack of strategic vision. There was a sense that the Clintonites really didn't know what they were doing. They would do one thing one day and another thing another day—intervention in the Balkans, but nothing in Rwanda. But it does seem to me that, as time passes, you gain more perspective, and you can see things that you might not have been able to see at the time. It does seem to me that the Clinton administration deserves credit—whether we agree with it or not is a different question—for a certain continuity in its thinking. I want to invoke an important Anthony Lake speech, where Lake—Clinton's National Security Advisor—speaks of the core American goal under the Clinton administration as being one of enlargement—essentially enlarging the area of the world that conformed to American political and economic preferences. So you see across the Clinton period great attention to trade agreements—getting China into the World Trade Organization, NAFTA. You see NATO expansion, which is nothing if not the expansion of American political and economic preferences, and you see greater attention, always rhetorically, sometimes in practice, to human rights. And, of course, it was a Western conception of human rights that prevailed.

"The 70s, 80s, and 90s on Film"

Donna Kornhaber, The University of Texas at Austin

I am not someone who has expertise on the presidency or public policy, but I am here to speak with you about teaching in the classroom and, in particular, the use of film as a pedagogical tool in your classroom. I teach film studies in the Department of English at UT Austin, and in my job, I teach students how to "read" films as artistic texts. And by read I mean interpret.

In Invigorating History: Using Film in the Classroom, Robert Brent Toplin notes, "Classroom instructors can find diverse ways to arouse student interest in history by focusing on the moving image. . . . The study of film involves much more than simply asking students to watch a motion picture and answer some questions about it on an exam. An investigation of film can serve as a useful springboard for engaging students in intriguing studies of the past."

Jumping off of this, I will say that films aren't just artistic texts—they can also be historical texts. That is to say, films can be representations of particular historical moments. They can also be attempts to tell stories about our history. It's often said that movies bring the past to life, but I think this isn't exactly correct. I think that movies can bring an interpretation of the past to life. The key is to identify and understand that interpretation as part of the story that's being told in the film. Films are authored texts, and form and content are inseparable when you choose to look at film and filmmaking in this light.

Every film tells a story. Working with film can be a powerful way for students to begin to understand that history is always packaged, selected, and presented in some kind of narrative. Learning how to "read" a film can give them tools for learning how to read any historical text.

Chase Untermeyer, former U.S. ambassador to Qatar and Humanities Texas board member, gave a luncheon presentation at the "American Presidents and the Nation, 1970–2000" institute about the West Wing of the White House. His talk, which drew on his own experiences working in the West Wing during both the Reagan and Bush presidencies, provided an insightful and entertaining look into the heart of the White House. A full transcript of Untermeyer's remarks was published in our July e-newsletter in the article "Location, Location, Location: The West Wing of the White House."

Five U.S. presidents and first ladies attend the funeral of Richard Nixon, April 27, 1994. White House photo office. William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum.
"American Presidents and the Nation, 1970–2000" institute participants at the LBJ Presidential Library.
Jeremi Suri, Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin, delivers a lecture on Richard Nixon's and Henry Kissinger's diplomacy during the Austin institute.
Jenna Rosen of Memorial High School in Houston asks a question following a lecture on the Nixon presidency at the Austin institute.
Martin Melosi, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen University Professor of History at the University of Houston, delivers a lecture on environmental policy from 1970 to 2000 at the Austin institute.
William Ruckelshaus being sworn in as the first EPA administrator. Nixon Presidential Library and Museum photo.
"American Presidents and the Nation, 1970–2000" institute participants enjoy a reception at the Byrne-Reed House, Humanities Texas's headquarters in Austin.
Luke A. Nichter, associate professor of history at Texas A&M University-Central Texas, discusses primary source documents related to the Nixon tapes with teachers during a seminar at the Austin institute.
President Gerald Ford announcing his decision to grant a pardon to former President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office, September 8, 1974. Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library photo by David Hume Kennerly.
Albert S. Broussard, professor of history at Texas A&M University, examines civil rights in recent American history through presidential speeches, news articles, and the congressional record in a primary source seminar with teachers. LBJ Library photo.
Victoria Garrett of North Shore Senior High School discusses documents relating to civil rights with Albert Broussard during a primary source seminar.
Michael Brandl, associate clinical professor of finance at The Ohio State University, delivers a lecture on economic forces from 1970 to 2000 during the Austin institute.
Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Paul Volcker, right, has a word with Senator Paul Sarbanes, a member of the Senate Banking Committee, prior to appearing before the panel in Washington, DC, October 15, 1979. Photo by Charles W. Harrity. AP Images.
James T. Patterson, Ford Foundation Professor of History emeritus at Brown University, delivers a lecture on the Ford and Carter administrations.
James Patterson examines documents related to the Ford and Carter administrations with teachers during a primary source seminar at the Austin institute.
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin during a joint session of Congress in Washington, DC, at which President Jimmy Carter announced the results of the Camp David Accords, September 18, 1978. Photo by Warren K. Leffler. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Janet M. Davis, professor of American studies, history, and women's and gender studies at The University of Texas at Austin, delivers a lecture on the women's movement at the Austin institute.

Janet Davis examines the text of the Equal Rights Amendment in a primary source seminar with teachers.
Activist Phyllis Schlafly demonstrating against the Equal Rights Amendment in front of the White House, Washington, DC, February 4, 1977. Photo by Warren K. Leffler. U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
H. W. Brands, Jack S. Blanton Sr. Chair in History at The University of Texas at Austin, delivers the keynote lecture on Ronald Reagan at the Austin institute.
President Ronald Reagan at a White House press conference, October 1981. Photograph ID C4237-6. Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library.
Jeffrey Engel, director of Southern Methodist University's Center for Presidential History, delivers a lecture on Ronald Reagan's presidency at the Austin institute.
Nicole Chaplin of Godley High School asks a question about Ronald Reagan following Jeffrey Engel's lecture at the Austin institute.
Jeffrey Engel examines Ronald Reagan's presidency using declassified National Security Council documents during a primary source seminar with teachers at the Austin institute.
Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Presidential Library, examines documents related to the first Bush presidency with teachers during a primary source seminar at the Austin institute. LBJ Library photo.
Jared Manuel of Davis High School asks a question after James Patterson's lecture on the Clinton presidency.
Keina Cook of Killeen High School asks a question after James Patterson's lecture on the Clinton presidency.
Ramon Silva of Southside High School discusses primary source documents related to the Clinton presidency with James Patterson during a seminar at the Austin institute.
Al Gore and Newt Gingrich applaud President Clinton during the 1997 State of the Union Address. White House photo.
A teacher tours the exhibitions at the LBJ Presidential Library during the Austin institute.
Teachers tour the LBJ Presidential Library.
Mark Atwood Lawrence, associate professor of history at The University of Texas at Austin, delivers a lecture on the end of the Cold War, the Balkans conflict, and the Persian Gulf. LBJ Library photo.
President Bill Clinton meets with Chinese President Jiang Zemin in October 1997. William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum.
Donna Kornhaber, assistant professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin, discusses methods for using film in the classroom to teach history during primary source seminar at the Austin institute.
Chase Untermeyer, former U.S. ambassador to Qatar and Humanities Texas board member, gives an inside look at life in the West Wing during the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations during a luncheon at the Austin institute.