Does American History heed to get back to basics?

In this article, historian C. Bradley Thompson has several complaints about the way American history is taught and about the direction in which academic historians have gone. He asserts:[ul][li]American children know very little about the history of their own nation. []the history they do know is utterly subversive of American culture and values. []Of the roughly 200 panels at the American Historical Association meeting, there was virtually nothing on subjects such as the American Revolution, the Civil War or America’s involvement in the two world wars.[]without question the dominant theme of the conference was sex.[]Academic history… seeks to elevate the history of ordinary men and women doing ordinary things at the expense of great men and women doing great things. Thus, the history department at Harvard University no longer offers a course on the American Revolution. In its place, it now offers a course on the history of midwives and quilting. []mainstream historians are driven by a pernicious political agenda that seeks to elevate “group rights” over individual rights. By sanctifying the stories of oppressed and “marginalized” groups, historians subtly indoctrinate students with the idea that justice and rights are synonymous with one’s group identity, be it one’s race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. []Ultimately, academic history is driven by a hatred of America and its ideals. It is common these days for students to be told that the colonization of North America represents an act of genocide; that the Founding Fathers were racist, sexist, “class- ist,” “homophobic,” Euro-centric bigots; that the winning of the American West was an act of capitalist pillage; that the so-called “Robber Barons” forced widows and orphans into the streets; that hidden in the closets of most white Americans is a robe and hood. []American children once learned about honesty from George Washington, justice from Thomas Jefferson, integrity from John Adams, independence from Daniel Boone, oratory from Daniel Webster, ingenuity from Thomas Edison, perseverance from the Wright Brothers and courage from Sergeant York. They learned and memorized the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address. American history was taught as a grand story of epic scale and heroic accomplishment. America’s history was the history of freedom.[]Today, our children are being taught to be ashamed of America.[/ul]So, what do you think? Is there a problem? Are these allegations true? Are they exaggerated? How should be problem be addressed?[/li]
My own POV is that the United States has done more good for the world than any other country in history, but many Dopers have contempt for the US. This disconnect suggests to me that the accusations are indeed true. In particular, I am stunned that Harvard does not offer a course on the American Revolution. I have no idea how to fix the problem.

Um, this was “myth”, not “history”.

And, um, I had a Chicago white-bread-suburbs good-school American education during the presumed Glory Days to which Mr. Thompson refers (the “Eisenhower Era” and the “Kennedy Years” and the “Great Society”), and I don’t remember hearing anything about Sergeant York and his courage. I’m still not sure who he was.

And I don’t remember hearing anything about Jefferson the Lawgiver–“justice”? What’s up with that?

And the only reason I know who Daniel Webster was is because of the short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster”, which was “fiction” not “history”.

Um, nope, sorry to burst his bubble, but history was taught as something you had to get through. Maybe in C. Bradley’s school, he had teachers who made him memorize the Preamble and the Gettysburg Address, but it wasn’t generally done when I was in school.

Which makes me think that perhaps C. Bradley Thompson is a generation older than me, which would put him in his seventies, and he’s lamenting the decline of the educational system from the 1930s to today.

Which, beg pardon, but I can’t get too cranked up about.

And anyway, I can remember all kinds of “history report cards” way back to the 1970s, lamenting the fact of how little American students knew about history and geography and whatnot.

Speaking of having pernicious agendas, what price the pundit and his soapbox which needs regular maintenance?

Well, to be honest there is always a lot of research on these. But they’ve been done so much for so long no one is really shocked by anything. I mean, we’ve been poring over documents and photos and footage so much, its not like there a great deal of new idea about it.

IF true, this is wrong.

I learned history in the good old days, and this seems pretty accurate, to me.

This appears to be bullshit. American history up through High School hardly mentions the Robber Barons–and when it does, I have never seen any references to the displacement of widows and orphans. Similarly, I have never seen a claim that most whites are Klan members (although a reference to the 1920s may correctly identify the enormous size that that group briefly achieved), or even that they all espouse racial bigotry.

The cherry tree was myth. I don’t know if it’s a myth that he was unusually honest. Even a myth can help train children to seek the virtue of honesty.

I’m older than you, and I don’t remember Sgt York, either. However, I did get educated in all the others.

Jefferson was also instrumental in devising a major revision of the criminal code, although it was not enacted until 1796. His bill to create a free system of tax-supported elementary education for all except slaves was defeated as were his bills to create a public library and to modernize the curriculum of the College of William and Mary.

It was still being done when I was in junior high and high school 1954 - 1960.

If he’s 75, he was in junior high and high school in the 1940’s. Perhaps we need another thread on the decline of mathematics education. :wink:

Should crappy history education be tolerated just because it’s been going on for a long time?

I remember them too. History education started to decline a long time ago.

Why should a University offer a course on the American Revolution?

When I was in grammar/high school, we studied American history up through the Civil War about four years in a row. I don’t believe we ever even got to WWI.

Moreover, why would C. Bradley Thompson equate University courses with “children”? Universities are institutions that are supposed to teach more esoteric subjects in depth. Why should students pay to study a subject that they should have covered in depth repeatedly in in grammar school? Should a mathematician be chagrined that Harvard doesn’t have classes that cover basic math? No. Indeed if a student doesn’t have a grasp of long division, then they have no business taking mathematics at Harvard. This is easily extrapolated to history.

I must ask, why do you feel that Dopers who question American policy “have contempt for the US”? Isn’t questioning government policy exactly what the Founding Fathers did with the British? Isn’t this precisely what history is supposed to teach us? Perhaps you should go back and study Samuel Adams again.

This only has relevance if we know what the themes are from year to year. In any given year, certain themes will tend to predominate. If you have evidence that nothing of substance (in your humble opinion) is discussed, provide that, but looking at a single meeting for an annual event is fairly silly.

*Originally posted by december *
[li]Academic history… seeks to elevate the history of ordinary men and women doing ordinary things at the expense of great men and women doing great things. Thus, the history department at Harvard University no longer offers a course on the American Revolution. In its place, it now offers a course on the history of midwives and quilting.[/li][/QUOTE]

Here’s the program of the 2003 annual AHA meeting. You can decide for yourself if sex was the “dominant theme” of the conference. I’ve found 6 or 7 sessions (out of 168) dealing directly with sexual matters, with some others dealing with gender roles.

I have some more comments, but I’ll have to share them later.

I do not agree. If the meeting had only a handful of presentations, you might be right. If a single organizing committee assigned all the topics, you might be right. But, the way these meetings operate is that participants present the stuff they have been working on. So, the panels are something like a random sample of the areas historians are currently working on. Furthermore, 200 panels included a great many historians, so the sample is of significant size.

light strand, universities teach subjects from a more advanced, more sophisticated POV. E.g., I re-learned arithmetic in college, based on the Peano axioms. We actually proved that 2 + 2 = 4. Surely there are many aspects of the Revolutionary War that are not covered in high school.

Everything I learned about history that does not involve white people oppressing ethnic, religious, or sexual minorities, I learned before or after college. I had to quit going to a political science class once, being out of drops and quite sick of regurgitating Marxist claptrap to get a good grade.

I had one - one - conservative professor, since retired. He actually presented a balanced curriculum. Read a Marxist, read about capitalism, so on and so forth. That was the last class I ever had in college with a balanced political curriculum, a limited access honors seminar, in my Freshman year.

The NEA has been doing the same thing to high schools for years. I managed to escape some of that influence in high school. But, I saw it at the other high schools. The “Who do you let starve after Reagan’s nuclear war?” - paraphrasing the gist of it - module comes to mind. The pervasiveness of political indoctrination over education is what is so significant, not any one module or movement. The anti-war rallies staged by the faculty during school hours at some high schools would be a recent example. I have an idea, when the students can find the nation on a map let them have an opinion about it.

Define “course on the American Revolution”. One can argue that this course at Harvard is on the American Revolution for Spring 2003.

From what I’ve seen in graduate courses, there are a set of courses always given, and other courses get added and dropped as professors’ interests change.

december is is a list of the American History courses at Harvard:

-History 1602. The Frontier in Early America
-History 1603. The Cultural History of the First British Empire
-History 1610. Confronting Objects/Interpreting Culture
-History 1620. History of the Old South
-History 1622. Readings in the History of Slavery
-History 1623. Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1860-1877
-History 1625. The Coming of the Civil War, 1820-1861
-History 1626. Reform Movements in America from the Jacksonian Era through the Progressives
-History 1632. Gilded Age America: Economy, Society and Politics
-History 1635. Race and Race Relations Since Plessy
-History 1638. United States Social History, from 1929 to the Present
-History 1640. The United States since World War II
-History 1644. Reconstruction, 1865-1877
-History 1645 History of American Immigration
-History 1647. The United States and East Asia
-History 1648. Communication in the Early Nation
-History 1649. The American West: 1780-1930
-History 1651. History of American Capitalism
-History 1653. Baseball and American Society, 1840–Present
-History 1655. Abraham Lincoln: Conference Course
-History 1656. The 19th-Century Bourgeoisie: Western Europe and the U.S
-History 1659. U.S. Cultural History, Turn of the Century to Present
-History 1660. Using Primary Sources in African-American History
-History 1661. Social Thought in Modern America
-History 1662. Men, Manhood, and Masculinity
-History 1663. The 1950s: American Cultural Politics in the Cold War
-History 1665. Crime and Criminal Justice in the U.S., 1776-1999
-History 1667. Imagining America, 1776-Present
-History 1668. Southwestern America: Indians, Hispanos, and Anglos
-History 1669. Historical Approaches to the Hispanic Southwest
-History 1670. The New Deal: The United States During the Roosevelt Years
-History 1672. The United States in the 1960s
-History 1676. Social Movements in the United States from Populism to the New Right
-History 1678. Postwar America, 1945-1968

Nothing here seems subersive (except maybe the Baseball class). I believe that over 30 American History classes is more that sufficient for a University.

Thus, the entire premise is flawed. Perhaps your author should have looked up the Harvard class offerings before he jumped to a bogus conclusion.


Because the events leading up to, through, and after the Revolutionary War were more complicated then you were led to believe in grade school. I don’t see how a college that teaches American History could ignore the Revolutionary War.


Unfortunately we teach our students so many historical lies and half truths that a college course is needed if you really want to understand some things. This isn’t even taking into account parts of history that have been ignored. Black history anybody?


Hey, december, you been in a high school or college history class recently? I went to grad school in history at a public university, and now teach history myself–albeit in the setting of a museum. It may be that in a few places, “students are to be told that the colonization of North America represents an act of genocide, etc,” but it wasn’t true in any of my courses. It’s damn sure not what I teach the students who come to my museum.

What I did learn, and what I do try to convey, is that American history is full of complexity. It’s not black and white, good guys and bad guys. The Indians weren’t all noble savages in tune with Mother Earth, but the pioneers weren’t all brave and pious explorers out to civilize a new land. The truth lies somewhere in between the stereotypes.

As for the quilts and midwifery class, it sounds like you’re speaking of the work of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. She’s a well-respected colonial historian who has done some fascinating work. I encourage you to check her out.

Marc, apparently I’m not making myself clear. I believe when a University teaches a subject that should have been covered previously, it is the University’s job to delve more in depth into that subject. It is much like december says, when he had to prove that 2+2=4. Since proofs aren’t generally covered in lower mathematics, this delves deeper into the simple equation. It is a fallacy therefore, that he actually is re-learning that 2+2=4.

Thus it is far too simplistic to believe that a University should cover the American Revolution per se. There are far too many aspects of the American Revolution than can be covered in a six week class. So Universities break it up into class teaching the American Revolution from the view of women, men, slaves, southerners, northerners, colonialists, natives…etc. So to me it clear that when the C. Bradley Thompson claims that Harvard has replaced the American Revolution (wrong, as Captain Amazing shows) with a class on the history of midwives and quilting, he is propagating a lie. Even if it were true, wouldn’t Harvard just be replacing a general class on the American Revolution, with a class on the experience of women in during the Revolution?

Society meetings are often constructed around themes. A historical meeting themed around sex doesn’t seem any more narrow-minded than an ecological meeting themed around mutualism.

Except, again, sessions that were sex related only made up a small portion of the recent AHA annual conference.

I’m a little unclear on the second point regarding “the history they do know is utterly subversive of American culture and values.”

Would the argument here be that exposing the horrible reality of the Trail of Tears, for example, is subversive because the event itself does not square with the “noble idea” of the United States?

Or is it the idea that a teacher/professor would teach the incident of the Trail of Tears solely along the lines of “Look, America sucks, has always sucked and absolutely nothing good can come out of it unless you’re white!”

I mean, if you’re lecturing on such an controversial moment and cover all the angles, I would not think that as being subversive. The event did happen after all, and serves to show how we have not always lived up to our ideals. But if such a moment is being put forward from only one vantage point–e.g., the US just sucks and is evil–then I can understand how it can be considered subversive.

Or does subversive mean something altogether different?

When I took high school history, the biggest problem was that the class was taught by the football coach. Actually, that was World History; the following year was U.S. History – taught by the swimming coach.

This was about 15 years ago, so we watched Ken Burns’ “The Civil War.”

BTW - one course on offer from Harvard this year (2002-03) that was missed above:

History S-1607 (an extension course), offered for undergraduate and graduate credit - The American Revolution

After reading the polemic, err, article by Mr. Thompson, I think it is safe to say that this is one older professor who is all in a twist about the way that the general state of education is going down the tubes; just like many believe, his idea is that education in the “good old days” is what kept America strong. And, surely, things have changed over the decades: historians (and sociologists, and mathematicians, etc.) continue to research, to study, and to bring new bits of information to light. So why wouldn’t the focus of classes change as well? I minored in history in university; it has always been a love of mine, since I was very young. And, it is usually remarked that I have a good grasp of the subject; however, it must be pointed out, the history classes that I took throughout my formative years in primary and secondary school did not stand out. In fact, what stuck the most was the insistence of many of my teachers in reading for ourselves, getting us into the library, and fostering our own abilities to think critically.

I was a language instructor at university for a while, and I enjoyed teaching immensely; however, most of my students were freshmen, and I was appalled at the lack of historical and geographical knowledge that was routinely on display. This was 15 years ago: my classes were about 25 students each, and many couldn’t find the US on a world map; about half couldn’t identify all 7 continents; and just over half thought that the English language was the official language in at least 75% of the world. I taught for 2 years, and ran informal surveys in each class, at the beginning: I had about 100 students a semester, so my sample wasn’t very large (nor particularly scientific). My main point, though, was to see just how bad the damage was: I had heard it discussed many times, and didn’t really believe that it was as bad as some had stated. I will admit to being quite surprised, though.

However, as part of my classes, I mixed bits of history, geography, poli sci, sociology, etc into the daily courses; I had a lot of leeway as a language teacher. And if I was amazed at the dismal results at the beginning of class, I was almost always equally amazed at the end of the course: many of the students made it a point to broaden their knowledge throughout the semester. They would pointedly discuss current events, international affairs, historical precedents; they would pick such topics as orals, and we often had to get back on the class topic after class-wide discussions would fly off on tangents.

My point in this long-windedness is that instilling a need for each and every one to think for themselves is much more important than the topics covered; the best teachers and instructors are those that teach you how to learn, not what. This was true 100 years ago, and still true today. Mr. Thompson misses the point, and I’m sure he always has: for those that are interested in learning, the myriad topics discussed at the AHA convention would have been enlightening, and the “trickling down” of that effect would lead to a higher diversity (if any effect at all were perceived) in the classroom. Granted, it is a great idea to focus on certain topics, like the American Revolution, but it can also be a tough time for a lot of students. If teachers can find ways to make it more real, point out the human aspects while addressing the fundamental bases of our current society, then at least something is accomplished. If you have read any current primary or secondary history texts, you will find that precious few have significantly changed from what they were 30 or 40 years ago; the way some of this is taught in the classroom, it can seem like just so much drudgery to many students. So how much of it sinks in? I think the obvious answer is, not much.

Sorry for the hijack: as for the OP, the article is simply an over-exaggeration. Most of what Thompson spouts is unsubstantiated; as was said by one poster before, he didn’t even take the time to check the Harvard course listing before making such an erroneous statement. And judging by the amount of 25 and under posters to the SDMB, I think there are a good deal of educated college and high-school students that can hold their own in a debate.