[Here are some notes from the first syllabus I wrote for the U.S. History After 1865 survey course. Below them are overly ambitious notes from the first lecture I used to give, the one before the lecture on Reconstruction. I soon realized that merely lecturing bores the students to tears, so I've changed things a bit.]
To study the second half of U.S. history is to study how the world arrived at the present moment. If you’re interested in the present, then you should be interested in the past, which formed the present. If you’re interested in the future, there is no better way of equipping yourself with the tools necessary for acting intelligently than by studying the past. Indeed, the novelist William Faulkner was right when he said, “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.” It lives on in cultural and political traditions, in economic practices, in the ways we think about the world. These are all, in large part, residues. We inhabit a world of residues—we inhabit the past—even as we’re constantly trying to build a new world, to act freely, not dominated by the past. But the most effective way to even partially achieve this goal—this goal of free and intelligent action, free and intelligent thinking—is to understand where we came from, the social context into which we were born, rationally critique it, and thereby rise above it. The alternative is to remain mired in the dogmas, prejudices, and propaganda of the past.
The famous German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) remarked that “what we learn from history is that no one has ever learned from history.” Hopefully by the end of this course we will have proved him wrong.
Every teacher has a particular interpretation of his subject-matter, a particular intellectual background that determines what he emphasizes in his lectures and what he omits. In the first class I’ll describe my own perspective on history, the ideas and interpretations that will guide the lectures. Here I’ll just list some of the course’s main themes:
The importance of class, and of conflict between classes, in shaping history. Examples include the conflicts between slave and master, sharecropper and landowner, wage-earner and capitalist, industrialist and banker, debtor and creditor, tenant and landlord, etc. But the major conflict is between worker and capitalist, over both control of production and remuneration of labor.
The tortured progress of industrial capitalism in spreading its dominion to ever more spheres of life, as the country has evolved from predominantly agrarian to primarily urban and industrial (and finally post-industrial).
The concomitant growth of the federal government, which has been a key element in the relentlessly advancing bureaucratization of life and society. (But at the same time, massive government “intervention” in the economy and society has been absolutely necessary and frequently beneficial—a fact that contradicts popular ideologies exalting “small government” and the “free market.”)
The ever-deepening tendency for the U.S. to project its economic, political, and military power abroad, until by the 1990s it was the world’s sole superpower.
The cyclical nature of U.S. history.
In short, in this class we will not only learn what happened in U.S. history from 1865 to the early 21st century, what some of the most significant economic, political, and cultural developments were, from Reconstruction to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal to the social movements of the 1960s to the rise of information technology. We will also study why these things happened. I’ll suggest certain perspectives and explanations that I find compelling, which you’ll be free to accept or reject. At all times I’ll not only tolerate but encourage disagreement with my suggestions, both in class and in the papers you’ll write. The essence of exciting intellectual interactions is to encounter ideas with which you might disagree but that, at the same time, encourage you to formulate your own opinions in a sharper and more sophisticated way than before.
Why study history? (lecture notes)
We live in an anti-historical time. A culture of instant gratification, material consumption, entertainment, instantaneous soundbites, video games, the internet—the present moment and the immediate future. The past isn’t sexy; it’s seen as boring and primitive. We want the quick fix. All this is the exact opposite of the spirit of historical inquiry, which demands patience, empathy, a capacity for sustained concentration.
So the study of history isn’t fashionable. On the other hand, that makes it even more important. As Santayana said, “those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” And that’s not a pleasant prospect: history is full of horrible catastrophes and injustices. By studying the past, it’s possible we can mold the future in a more positive way
There’s a lot to learn from history. (Refer to first paragraph of syllabus.) More specific lessons, from Paul Street:
History properly and deeply understood is profoundly dangerous to authority. Consistent with Santayana’s oft-quoted remark that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” it warns us about past mistakes. National leaders’ remarkably recurrent faith in splendid little wars that will be concluded quickly with little human cost is one among many examples.
It raises alarms and teaches lessons about the folly of imperial and environmental overreach and the related terrible consequences of the excessive concentration of wealth and power.
It counsels us not to repeat past crimes (not merely mistakes) like slavery, colonialism, genocide, and fascism.
It catalogues, frames, and explains horrors that should never be allowed to recur.
It tells remarkable and inspiring stories of popular resistance, rebellion, and revolution – of people making history from the bottom up, with radical and egalitarian ideals and movements ruling classes and “power elites” natural want consigned to “the memory hole” (Orwell’s phrase).
It is full of lessons about how ruling classes and power elites rule and how ordinary people and activists have confounded masters.
It tells us that humanity survived and often thrived for most of its experience without the hierarchical class structures of capitalism.
It reminds us that the “modern” (and yet pre-historic) bourgeois mode of social and political relations is historically specific and transient, not the “end of history” or the logical destination or culmination of “human nature.” (This helps us imagine and work for a different and much less stratified and destructive society in the present and future).
It points to contingency and alternatives, reminding us that significant, even revolutionary historical change is possible and related to human agency, both individual and collective.
It takes us to the developmental taproots of contemporary problems like sexism, classism, racism, imperialism, militarism, and ecocide, showing how and why all of these evolved over time out of decisions and paths taken by human beings, not the mysterious workings of some dark, all-powerful deity and/or “human nature” – or some other form of imposed destiny. (How understand contemporary racial inequality and oppression in the U.S. with no grasp of the origins, nature, and consequences of Black chattel slavery in British Colonial North America and the United States through the Civil War?)
It helps us recognize and identify deadly developments in the present. It’s useful to know what classic fascism was in Italy and Germany as a neofascist president holds power in the U.S. and as neofascists like Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders vie for power in Western Europe. Those who don’t know what fascism was and how and why it arose in the 20th century may be condemned to live under a 21st century version of it today.
Aside from all the specific lessons that can be learned (which we’ll discuss later), history is, of course, an indescribably vast and rich domain. It should be perhaps the most interesting of subjects, because in a sense it includes everything! Music, literature, the arts, philosophy, science, politics, war, religion—history is everything. Even the U.S.’s relatively short history is far too rich to be adequately summarized in a semester or two.
So it isn’t easy to know what to focus on in a single course. Incidentally, if you have suggestions of topics you’d like me to cover, let me know…
I tend to disagree with the way history courses are usually taught. Usually the past is only described—a bunch of things happened…—and it isn’t made very relevant to the present or to students’ lives. It doesn’t have much intellectual content. But I think it’s also important to try to explain things. Using general ideas that we can then apply to our own time (because, after all, it is the present and future that should be our most immediate concerns). As in the natural sciences, so in history the only way to make sense of enormous amounts of data is to use certain abstract ideas to place the data in comprehensible relations with each other.
So that’s what we’ll do in this course. A pretty different approach than is usually done—in part because if you bring in ideas and try to explain things, the discussion can get somewhat political. And teachers want to avoid politics. But I think that’s a risk we have to take, because ideas are important.
So throughout the semester I’ll put forward various perspectives that might be a little controversial…but I encourage dissent. (Refer to syllabus.)
#1: Class conflict. It sounds Marxist, but it’s important. It can be conscious or unconscious, explicit or implicit. Every complex society is full of such conflicts, such institutional clashes, and they provide the economic infrastructure around which the society is organized. Culture, politics, and ideologies follow in the wake of class, for the simple reason that one needs resources in order to influence culture and politics; and it is class (roughly, occupation) that determines the distribution of resources. Therefore, in the final analysis it is class relations—which is to say the antagonisms, alliances, and differences in power between various classes—that broadly determine social phenomena and the trajectories of history.
Materialism vs. idealism. I’m a materialist; others can be idealists if they want. Loosely speaking: “ideas and culture are largely a reflection of class structures and other social relations” vs. “society is basically a manifestation of, and guided by, ideas.” (A long-running split between the two schools of thought; materialists are often more left-wing, idealists more conservative. Materialists think it’s essential to change institutions; idealists care more about changing ideas. They focus more on culture and so on than economic structures or class. People like Milton Friedman, for instance, like to talk about abstract ideas like “the free market”—or entrepreneurship, thrift, free labor, free enterprise, limited government, etc.—while materialists prefer to examine how institutions actually work. Abstract ideas can obscure how society really functions.) But ideas don’t act by themselves; they need entities with resources (money) to propagate them. Besides, people generally act on the basis of their interests—they want money, shelter, security, power, recognition, status—and interests are basically defined economically. So the economy is most important.
We’ll see how different groups of people, different classes, have different ideological agendas. (E.g., many slaveowners thought slavery was intrinsically moral and divinely ordained—because that was in their economic interest. Businessmen often think of humans as innately greedy and selfish—because that justifies their own activities.)
Of course, class isn’t the only factor that determines history. You need a compromise between materialism and idealism. Other factors include sex (male/female), sexuality, race, and gender. But these are all influenced by class. Like race and racism: as we’ll see, they’ve frequently been propagated by rich and powerful people and institutions (big business) in order to divide the working class. Because working-class unity, organized labor, is a threat to the profits and power of the rich.
Given the significance of class, we’ll find it’s possible to make generalizations that give some sort of coherence to American history. One such generalization, for example, is expressed by the American linguist and activist Noam Chomsky as follows: “The history of the United States is a constant struggle between these two tendencies: pressure for more freedom and democracy coming from below, and efforts at elite control and domination coming from above.” Throughout the semester we’ll see abundant evidence for this statement. It isn’t because the “elite” consists of bad or evil people; it is simply because it’s in the nature of power to try to maintain and expand itself, to become more powerful. This is a fact one must understand in order to grasp history.
Most of it just comes down to capital vs. labor. Intrinsically opposed interests—and that gets you the history of the labor movement, of Communist and Socialist parties, etc.
Sounds political and partisan, but I think we’ll find it’s also true. You’re free to disagree, though, and should say so in papers and in class.
#2, etc.: refer to syllabus…
[It's always hard to tell to what extent students are following what you're saying. They're apt to look pretty bored. So lecture notes are nothing more than guidelines.]