July 4, 2018

Aging Professor Seeks Smart, Fair, Engaging Match (on the 4th of July)

I’m stewing, as usual, as I put together a new syllabus. In the fall, I’ll be teaching 35 undergraduates a history of the United States – the entire history, from the nation’s colonial roots to the present day. This is a difficult task at any time, but it’s especially difficult for me at the moment as the country plunges ever more deeply into a free-for-all over the meaning of who “we” are.

Though I am thoroughly opposed to using textbooks, especially at the university level, I also know it’s helpful to give students something to lay down a narrative. I’ve relied on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United Statesfor the past eight years in the course on early American history I’ve offered at UMass Boston. A sprinkling of students over the years, usually from liberal, private high schools, has encountered the text before my class. For the rest, the book has mostly been a welcome introduction to early America, the subject of the course. I’m not sure Zinn’s overview will be the right fit for the class I’ll be teaching this fall, which will be at a somewhat selective, private college. I’ve tried to find an alternative, but I’m coming up empty-handed.

Zinn wrote his overview of US history in 1980 on the heels of America’s withdrawal from Vietnam and the obscenities of Watergate. A Marxist and veteran of the US military, Zinn’s message was that the country has always been at its best when its peoples embraced racial differences to confront injustice. His view of the Founding Fathers and their revolution was consistently cynical:

“They found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power from favorites of the British Empire. In the process, they could hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.

“When we look at the American Revolution this way, it was a work of genius, and the Founding Fathers deserve the awed tribute they have received over the centuries. They created the most effective system of national control devised in modern times, and showed future generations of leaders the advantages of combining paternalism with command” (59).

One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed using Zinn’s book is that his biases were always clear. He argued that all historians have points of view. Unlike many others, he wrote, he was open about his perspectives and objectives. His aim was to identify what he described as “fugitive moments of compassion” rather than military or electoral victories. Students struggling to pay down debt, earn a degree, and move into white collar jobs – many who are also caring for children and working 40+ hours a week – have often found Zinn’s book refreshing. Some, usually young, white men, have declared Zinn relentlessly negative and incapable of celebrating what they describe as “our great nation.” When others in the class have pointed out that these guys are having pronoun problems (OK, so they don’t usually know that “our” is a possessive pronoun), they are able to draw on evidence relating to race, class, and gender from the text to support their sense of exclusion from standard narratives.

What’s missing from Zinn? His narrative sidesteps an open-minded evaluation of an American middle class. His political philosophy only allows him to find this group important when it augments working peoples’ efforts to resist. In addition, Zinn refuses to reckon with “equality” as a radical concept. I’m not a Marxist, and though I am entirely sympathetic to Zinn’s mission, I think the nation’s history is more complicated than A People’s History lets on. I’ve developed a few workarounds over the years. I’ve had students explore the rise of consumer cultures before the Civil War, examining a variety of primary sources, from newspapers to ceramics. In addition, I’ve lectured on Enlightenment philosophy and the philosophes’ exploration of government as a “social contract” in which all give up absolute freedoms in exchange for security and the possibility (not a guarantee) of relative wealth.

What else is out there, aside from Zinn, that would give students an overview and would not mire them in detail or obfuscatory prose?

My fussing skyrocketed last month when I began exploring other one-volume texts I might adopt in the new course. There are several very good standard textbooks of US history, but each comes in at about 1,200 pages, far too long for my purposes. (I particularly liked David Emory Shi’s America: The Essential Learning Edition, which is truly terrific as far as textbooks go.) Most of these bonanzas are now available in online editions, with all sorts of bells and whistles, from interactive maps and timelines to ready-made quizzes. And they are expensive. A used copy of Zinn runs about $7 and change. The textbooks, used, cost at least $50.

I took a look at British historian Hugh Brogan’s 694-page text, The Penguin History of the USA. The blurbs were encouraging: “lively,” “wide-ranging,” “superb,” “engaging.” I opened the cover and began to read. “Man established himself in all parts of the two continents and in the related islands of the Caribbean. His cultures grew to be many, varied and fascinating. None of them advanced to the use of iron or to complete literacy; by other measures of human progress the achievements were striking, especially those of the Mayan, Aztec and Inca civilizations of Central and South America. But by AD 1492 the New World, in its isolation, lagged substantially, in culture, behind the Old” (3).  Aside from the objectionable gendered language and the uncritical use of the terms “New” and “Old” world, the assertion that native peoples’ “cultures” were inferior — rather than some of their technologies– stopped me in my reading tracks. And that was only the first page.

On, then, to American historian Robert V. Remini’s 350-page text, A Short History of the United States: From the Arrival of Native American Tribes to the Obama Presidency. Two blurbs on the back of the book employed the word “masterful.” One of these described the book as “sprightly.” The book begins well enough, with respectful descriptions of native peoples and their accomplishments. Remini includes the Vikings, as well, avoiding the falsehood that North America was unknown to Europe until the fifteenth century. Remini pivots to the Crusades, Marco Polo, and the rise of Europe’s “capitalistic economy.” But, then, this: “Thousands of Europeans responded and traveled to the East where they were exposed to a different and more exotic culture, a way of life that excited their imagination” (4). Fair enough to write that travels excited European imaginations, but 1) to name a part of the world “the East” (in truth, a direction) is to center geography on Europe, and 2) to describe culture as “more exotic” perpetuates worn-out, racist stereotypes. There’s a section, mid-book, of images. Of 64 representations of humans worth committing to history, but three of these images depict women: suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Jeannette Rankin. (One image of Civil Rights protesters prominently features an African American woman – among others — holding a sign, so maybe the tally should really be 4?) Needless to say, I won’t be assigning Remini.

A mentor suggested The American Yawp (referencing Walt Whitman), a concise, free, online text with links to primary sources. It’s not offensive. I listened to part of radio phenom Kurt Andersons Fantasyland, a funny and lively take on the nation’s longstanding preoccupation with irrationality and religion. Not sure it works as an introductory text any more than Zinn’s A People’s History.

On the Fourth of July, 2018, I am frustrated that my options for a readable, lively, one-volume overview of this country’s history seem so terrible. What am I missing? Surely, the bar needs to be set higher in concisely, inexpensively telling the many stories of the complicated country I love.