The Troubling Assumptions Behind Lamar Alexander's History Project


Mr. Rees is Associate Professor of History, Colorado State University – Pueblo.

Find the lowest price on Books and Textbooks. Use the Internet's fastest price comparison search engine Check the price of your next book purchase at over 10,000 bookstores at

On March 4th, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee introduced the American History and Civics Education Act of 2003. If this bill becomes law, it will allow for the creation of summer residential academies to instruct both teachers and high school students about "key events," "key ideas" and "key persons" in American history. It would also create a national alliance of school teachers "to facilitate the sharing of ideas" and "encourage best practices in the teaching of American history and civics."

According to Alexander, good history teaching helps students understand the core values at the center of our government system. "From the founding of America," he declared on the Senate floor when he introduced this legislation, "we have always understood how important it is for citizens to understand the principles that unite us as a country. . . . To become an American citizen, you subscribe to those principles."

He continued: "[I]f most of our politics and government is about applying to our most urgent problems the principles and characteristics that make us the exceptional United States of America, then we had better get about the teaching and learning of those principles and characteristics."

At a time when the news is littered with stories of basic facts about American history that students do not know, this bill has received broad bipartisan support. In the Senate, it garnered 37 co-sponsors and passed 90-0 on June 20th. The act now awaits approval in the House of Representatives. [Editor's Note: On July 18 the National Coalition for History reported that the bill may not be funded.]

Unfortunately, the Alexander bill has not received the close scrutiny it deserves. The educational philosophy behind it is a relic of the Cold War and even though support for the bill is bipartisan, its passage would facilitate the passage of many partisan policies.

To those of us who teach the history of the study of American history (also known as historiography), the idea that Americans are united by a set of common beliefs is known as "consensus history." Consensus history developed in the 1950s as a way to demonstrate the superiority of democratic ideals in the United States over the communist doctrines of the Soviet Union.

It is no coincidence that Alexander cited perhaps the preeminent consensus historian of the 1950s, Richard Hofstadter, to support his legislation. "It has been our fate as a nation," Hofstadter wrote, "not to have ideologies but to be one." In her book History's Memory, Ellen Fitzpatrick reminds us that consensus history was never the preeminent school of historiography in America, yet presumably Lamar Alexander would make it the guiding philosophy behind all public history and civics instruction.

To Alexander, the years immediately preceding 1960 were a kind of golden age for history and civics education in the United States. Then the educational reforms of the 1960s and 1970s led American students astray by celebrating "multiculturalism and bilingualism and diversity at a time when there should have been more emphasis on a common culture and learning English and unity."

For historians, the 1960s marked the beginning of the so-called "New Social History." Around this time, scholars began to take scholarship in new directions, examining the history of largely overlooked groups like African Americans, women and working-class people with a new sense of urgency. The insights gained from this research have contributed to greater understanding of how these groups affected many aspects of American history in general.

Therefore, Democrats in the House who are considering voting for this legislation should understand that it is an attack on the legitimacy (and therefore the power) of some of their most important constituencies. For example, the resurgence of consensus history would de-emphasize the importance of American labor history. If students do not understand the reasons that workers struggled to gain collective bargaining rights, it will be easier for conservatives to chip away at them, like the Bush administration did last year by eliminating these rights for Department of Homeland Security employees.

By emphasizing consensus over the teaching of African American history, students will not recognize the depth of struggle that people like Martin Luther King, Jr. faced in getting the government to enforce constitutional provisions guaranteeing civil rights for all races. This will make it easier to argue that racism is a thing of the past and affirmative action is unnecessary.

As important as the stories of these groups are to the overall narrative of American history, the problems with the Alexander bill are more than just sins of omission. Even if American students should know more about the founding fathers, the Civil War and other such topics, the kind of patriotic boasting that this bill encourages helps perpetuate an environment of continuous war.

As George Packer writes in the most recent issue of Mother Jones, "Morality, in the form of the universal principals articulated in the Declaration of Independence" is the foundation of the neo-conservative foreign policy that led to the current conflict in Iraq and threatens to cause future wars. "Conservative idealism sees America and goodness as identical. Its logic proclaims, We are righteous; therefore what we do is right. This is a functional definition of zealotry, and it is not given to second thoughts or moral complexity. It leads to hubris and self-blindness; it lacks what idealism most needs, a check on its own tendency to overreach and detach itself from human reality."

It should be the job of historians to provide material to help prevent America from making these kinds of mistakes. Instead, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has offered a controversial take of post-Revolutionary America to argue that Iraq is now doing fine. As Mary Beth Norton explained in the New York Times recently, "the basic interpretation of American history [Rumsfeld] advances is so ancient it creaks." Indeed, "it has essentially been dead for at least 50 years."

No wonder President Bush is so down on revisionists. Recent historical scholarship undermines the consensus he is trying to build for many of his policies. And if the Alexander bill passes, fewer students will be able to use history as a means to question the President's conservative agenda.

If you like the service HNN provides, please consider making a donation.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

josh sn - 8/16/2003

"undermine faith in Republican Government."

I think undermining Republican Government (numerous times in the cold war) and propping up Monarchs and Tyrants (the entire third world) does more to "undermine" Republican Government than a few people pointing out that we are disgusting hypocrites, when viewed from the perspective of most every nation on Earth.

Every UN vote on Israel, for instance, is 2 against the WORLD. USA and Israel, a mystical Republic, one that's religious nature is enshrined in law, which discriminates based on this religion, the USA, against every other sovereign power on the planet.

I hear David Pipes, a notable fascist Israeli apologist and Anti-Republican (, has just been appointed to some Federal Islam-minded project by President Dufus.

Van L. Hayhow - 8/13/2003

Thanks for adding humor to the posts.

cassandra - 8/11/2003

If you are looking for the example of your fitting your research into political needs, look no further than your article posted on the Internet, which has the Bible in lower case, and the "black power" capitalized. If that's not a definition of the secular, anti-Christian slur and political correctness, I don't know what is.
Here's the quote I copied across from your Internet article:
"The Rastafarian and the boy on the bike were central figures in this drama. Apparently the "Rastafarian", the name that many observers gave to him "presumably because he wore the garb and had the comportment of one of that protest sect" was among the main leaders at the forefront of the group. Depending upon the source describing him, he carried a bible, or a petrol bomb, or perhaps a religious totem of some sort; or maybe it was a homemade pipe for smoking dagga (marijuana). Possibly he carried nothing at all. The boy on the bike unbeknowingly added to the police perception of imminent danger. Late for work but not wanting to appear not to support the crowd, young Kwanele Moses Bucwa made some sort of gesture, a Black Power salute perhaps, or simply a raised fist to show solidarity."

Ralph E. Luker - 8/8/2003

I subsequently responded to something you wrote. Doing so, obviously, was a mistake.

Wesley Smart - 8/8/2003

Mr. Luker,

You're ducking the issue, and your observation certainly was directed to something I wote. I believe the phrase you used was "Your post confirms my point." I ask you to clarify that, which you have been unwilling or unable to do. I wonder why.

Ralph E. Luker - 8/8/2003

Mr. Smart, My observation wasn't directed to anything you had said. You hadn't entered the conversation. Read the posts prior to mine to see what I was responding to. I don't care to respond further.

Jesse Lamovsky - 8/8/2003

You know, if the public school system- borrowed from that beacon of freedom, Prussia- was dismantled, we wouldn't be having this argument. People who wanted "inclusive" history would be free to teach at or go to schools that taught "inclusive" history. Likewise, people of other ideological pursuasions- Labor, Afrocentric, pro-Confederate, whatever- could privately fund, teach at, or attend institutions which suited their whims. That's freedom! Than we wouldn't have to have these brouhahas about what certified government history teachers, most of whom are better-schooled in the Run-n-Shoot and the 2-2-1 Zone than in history anyway, "teach" to their captive audiences.

Wesley Smart - 8/7/2003

"Your post then and now seem unsympathetic to apolitical histories, histories about something other than nation-state and extensions thereof. That is my point. I can clarify my meaning ad infinitum. But, if you won't understand, it is a fruitless gesture."

My posts apparently are to be unsympathetic to apolitical history, to any sorts other than those which place the nationstate at the center. By what sort of reasoning do you reach that conclusion?

My postings question your initial posting. I think your argument is weak and evasive. You posit from the beginning that there are people who believe anything but nation-state centered history is unpatriotic and even treasonous. I posit that this is either a straw man or a poorly worded assertion. There is no evidence to suggest that there is animosity towards those who, for example, do international, regional or state-centered history, or intellectual history, or technological history, or religious history, or the history of education . I submit that your premise is flawed and needs to be reformulated in a more meaningful way. Do you disagree?

Ralph E. Luker - 8/7/2003

Mr. Smart, I'm not sure that this conversation is going anywhere. I acknowledged _being_ a conservative in many respects and don't care whether you call me one or not. So there's nothing to withdraw. Your post then and now seem unsympathetic to apolitical histories, histories about something other than nation-state and extensions thereof. That is my point. I can clarify my meaning ad infinitum. But, if you won't understand, it is a fruitless gesture.

Wesley Smart - 8/7/2003

Mr Luker,

I still do not see that you have adequately responded to my posting. First, do you withdraw your suggestion that I was calling you a conservative, and acknowledge that you misread my post? Second, what was my post indicative of that you believed it worthy of noting as an example of something?

As for your original observation, I believe it was worded so poorly that I was correct to suggest you were wrong in thinking that "conservatives" [however you've defined them] are "opposed" to non-nationalcentric history, such as international, regional or state history. In fact, it would seem that you mean to identify race, class or gender-based history. A clarification by you is in order, please.

Bill Heuisler - 8/7/2003

Since you often cite him as evidence of your vast erudition, I'm surprised you don't recognize C. Vann Woodward.
Exact quote: " The past is alterable to conform with present convenience, with party line, with mass prejudice, or with the ambitions of powerful popular leaders." You often refer to black or white Africans and layer them with causal inferences of guilt or innocence based on color or PC. Surely you learned this subtle technique from C Vann. Do your students know?

And for your benefit, I'll explain my reference to Horton. James Horton set aside a jury verdict in one so-called Scottsboro boys trial. The judge realized prosecution's main witness (alleged victim) Price, was a prostitute. Liebowitz was defense attorney sent from NY by the Communist Party. He castigated the jury as slit-eyed bigots after the verdict. One, an apt observation of history, the other an opinion of causality. See Coulter.

Understand the distinction now? Do you understand a reference to Woodward and its connection to Horton? These are all names you dropped during an exhibition of your scholarly enlightenment. Readers of HNN will probably wonder why you'd cite books you've supposedly read and not recognize authors and occupants.

Always happy to help.

Jesse Lamovsky - 8/7/2003

Here's a couple of reasons why liberals such as Mr. Rees shouldn't get their panties in a bunch about Lamar Alexander's proposal:

1) Most students don't care a whit about history, and won't remember anything they learned in their classes, whatever the supposed idealogical slant of it was.

2) Those that do care will wind up being taught history by college instructors and profs who are overwhelmingly liberal and leftist in their worldviews. So why should Mr. Rees worry? History students will still get their required dosage of racesexgender multi-culti babble, they'll still get the standard, wrong interpretation of the Declaration of Independence (Jefferson was not a communist: he mean equality in creation, NOT equality in result), and most of them, having never read the U.S. Constitution, will still casually dismiss it as a compact between a bunch of "dead white males", an attitude which, in my mind, goes a lot further toward undermining the free Republic than anything Mr. Alexander could propose. Not that Mr. Rees and other leftist mind that- after all, a free Republic isn't what they really want, which is a post-Soviet Dictatorship of Equality.

Derek Catsam - 8/7/2003

Thought I'd let Bill, Ralph & co. know that I am off yet again -- this time back east (or to what I like to call "civilization") to see friends, including a wedding, and to do research at the JFK Library. I've got to get good work done there this time -- I'm not gonna be too kind to Kennedy on the Freedom Rides, and so who knows if they'll let me back in when i get to working on the Albany Movement? Bill doesn't think any of this is real history anyway, so maybe he'll be pleased if I am barred from the JFK Library in the future! Take care, be good, and tip your waitstaff.

Ralph E. Luker - 8/7/2003

Mr. Smart, I am, in many ways, a conservative, but I do not identify with what passes for "conservatism" on these comment boards. There is much to be proud of in our national history, but what is truely worthy tends to get lost in the clash of its unloving critics and its uncritical lovers. If you don't understand my observations about seeing the nation-state as the only legitimate unit for doing history, see the criticisms on these boards of doing women's history, African-American history, etc. etc.

Wesley Smart - 8/7/2003

Why doesn't HNN move towards a registered poster system the way that most comment boards now work?

Wesley Smart - 8/7/2003

Mr. Luker,

I found your post confusing and unhelpful. You posit from the beginning, do you not, that "one of the underlying and unexamined assumptions in much of the conservative rhetoric here…" is that the nation state is the appropriate organizing principal for history. Furthermore, anyone who writes history in other ways "is, yes, unpatriotic, even, dare one say it, treasonous." I am led to believe by that statement that your argument is that (a) there is such an belief by conservatives here, and that (b) you believe that these conservatives think non-nationalcentric history is wrong. I do not suggest that you are a proponent of this thinking, only that you have identified it in a particular way.

Please reread my post and see if I suggest that you are a conservative or that you share this "conservative viewpoint" towards the doing of American history.

Since I do not, I should like an explanation from you about the line "your post confirms my point." Is there nothing to celebrate in the history of this country?

Ralph E. Luker - 8/7/2003

Mr. Smart, I don't "assume" or share an assumption by persons who call themselves "conservative" on this site. I seek to understand it. It berates all readings of history which do not cut their data along nation-state lines or derivatives thereof and all history which is not only celebratory of the one nation-state worthy of celebration. Your post confirms my point.

Derek Catsam - 8/7/2003

By the way, Bill, writing a book is actually doing something. Not that anyone who has not done it would know, or be in any position to criticize.

Derek Catsam - 8/7/2003

Bill, you also wrote:
"In other words, you and your ilk will try to fit history to political needs and academic convenience. "
Please, one cotation where I have done this. Just one. Or are you a manipulative liar? It really is one or the other -- you either can cite an example of where I have, in my teaching or writing, "fit history to political needs and academic convenience" or you cannot. If you can, please do, If you cannot (hint -- you cannot) you are engaging in Bellislian sophistry. i await the citation (give page numbers and publication dates, please, just to show you are not making it up. [hint -- you are going to be making it up).

Derek Catsamj - 8/7/2003

You wrote:
"Back to the subject: An icon of yours said the past is alterable to conform with present convenience, party line, mass prejudice and ambitions of powerful popular leaders. In other words, you and your ilk will try to fit history to political needs and academic convenience."
Whioch icon of mine, where and when --in other words, the courtesy of a citation.

Wesley Smart - 8/6/2003

I don't understand Mr. Luker's assumption that conservative rhetoric assumes that the nation-state is the appropriate unit around which to do history. On its face, that seems like a silly suggestion. That would presuppose that conservatives would be opposed to international history, or sub-national history like state or regional history. Yet that is not the case. Historians who write about international or regional subjects are not decried as unpatriotic.

To pick up on something that Mr. Dresner pointed out though: why can't American history be triumphal? If we compare the lot of the vast majority of American citizens today with those from 228 years ago, there's been a trememendous amount of progress towards the ideals upon which the country is based. From voting rights to social standing to quality of life to sheer population and economic output, this country has transformed and grown incredibly. Surely that's something worth celebrating, as the cumulative effort of all of the people of the country?

Bill Heuisler - 8/6/2003

No, Ralph,
Allow me to speak for the Conservatives in my circle of friends.
Triumphalist history is just as ahistoric as the unmitigated negative history so prevalent in some classrooms. The history of the US is far too complex to explain away with political terms like Class Warfare or Shining Cities. Why can't the history of the US be taught without an agenda? Let facts speak to students; give them enough information to make informed decisions and arrive at opinions independent of any teacher's bias. Professors shouldn't be preachers for Manifest Destiny or Marxism and those found preaching should be taken off the public payroll because they are lousy teachers.

Ralph E. Luker - 8/6/2003

I'd like to second Professor Dresner's observations. One of the underlying and unexamined assumptions in much of the conservative rhetoric here is that the nation-state is _the_ appropriate unit around which one does history. Thus, American history is appropriately an undivided history of the United States and anything that cuts the data of history differently is, yes, unpatriotic, even, dare one say it, treasonous. A comparative history which fails to glorify the United States as if it is God's final work in history, its crowning glory, is unacceptable.

Derek Catsam - 8/6/2003

Ahh yes, thumblicking. Which is what I was doing in Northern Ireland and Africa and israel.
No, history is not subjective. Jim Crow was wrong and evil. The CRM was good. They were the good guys. And they were in a struggle.
Out of touch? Name one "theory" of mine that is "out of touch."
So it was not a civil rights struggle? Wow. I just finished writing something aboutthe brain damage Walter Bargman experienced on the Trailways bus out of Anniston that resulted in his death. I guess there was no struggle there. The scars John Lewis still bears from Selma, the FR! No struggle there. If you do not think it was struggle for civil rights, what was it?
Aptheker and Foner? Sure -- have I cited them? fact is, I have read them. You aren't going to name a book on Southern/Af-Am/Civil Rights, hell, modern US that I have not read. Deny any substance to a PhD if you want, we know our books, we know the arguments. No bait and switch -- I mentioned a ton of fine historians, many of whom weer there and did it.
Then you close off by telling me to go read a book. What a bizarre and convoluted post. Have you been drinking?

Bill Heuisler - 8/6/2003

Wrote the above before reading your "Finally...". Perhaps I was a little harsh since you have now more thoroughly explained your thoughts. Sorry.
We actually agree on quite a bit. Is something wrong here?

Bill Heuisler - 8/6/2003

Experience trumps licking your thumb and turning a page. Don't you ever wonder why so many of your warped theories are out of step with real America? You are a wonderful writer who makes the mundane glow. But you pretend concern with diversity and mock real experience for subjective recital. Civil Rights struggle? Get over yourself and stop thinking in titles and headlines. New social historians are merely looking for attention by insisting the US is an unjust hotbed of racism, class hatred and union solidarity. Quite properly, few of us peons listen.

Don't like Zinn and Chomsky? Fine we'll use Foner and Aptheker. Perhaps you feel more at home with a plagerist and a Stalinist. You throw names like Horton and Franklin around and assume only you keep the keys. Fine. My gratitude knows no bounds. Exposure to your gracious erudition will probably educate me beyond my great, great grandfather's expectations. Thank you, kind sir.

Back to the subject: An icon of yours said the past is alterable to conform with present convenience, party line, mass prejudice and ambitions of powerful popular leaders. In other words, you and your ilk will try to fit history to political needs and academic convenience. Sorry, history is what happened. History was Horton's realization Price was a slut, not Leibowitz calling the jury bigots. If the distinction escapes you, go read a book.

Derek Catsam - 8/6/2003

On that note, I will grant you this one thing. I think that distinctly separate histories for various groups is a trend that, even as it expands in some places, has run its course. I am always skeptical of departments whose names end in "studies," because while I very much support the idea of interdisciplinarity/multidisciplinarity, I often find that in reality sch departments are often smatterings of this and that, with no real link and with too much identity politics involved. I absolutely think we must teach the good and the bad, the successes and the failures. We must teach literature written by blacks, and chicanas, and so forth. We should teach a more diverse history. We sould consider black politics, etc. But we should be working hard to do this under the umbrella of more traditional departments -- within history departmnents, or poli sci, or econ, or English Lit, or whatever, whgere these issues and writers and questions fit into a larger framnework rather than provide the framework themselves.
What i am saying in part is something I hope you agree with -- I am uncomfortable with a discipline that has a set political ideology built in. And I do not mean whether or not history departments are liberal -- this is a different question, and one that we have had elsewhere. But what I have a problem with is a discipline with a built in ideologuy -- ie Af-Am studies programs where the statement "Affirmative action is good" is seen as a truism. Now with all of my heart and soul I support forms of affirmative action. But my students are allowed to, encouraged to, disagree with me. They can disagree with me on truman's decision to drop the bomb, on internment, on profiling post 9-11. That is, there is no real litmus test for my students and my discipline. But my two best friends in grad school are both Republican and/or Conservative. They are very sharp, are getting their PhD's in history from a good program, and yet I wonder if they would even be able to complete some of the MA programs we have here at my university, not because they would not be doing the best work in the program -- trust me on this, they would -- but rather because their politics would be seen as wrong -- not interpretively flawed, not factually erroneous, but simply flat out wrong. Dogma is problematic. And I am program faculty in our Ethnic Studies program, so maybe I am talking from both sides of my mouth here, but in that role I see a good deal that I disagree with in addition to some things that I support.
In any case, for all of the shrillness from both sides on this, perhaps it has been instructive in sopme small way as to our various approaches. Maybe not.

Derek Catsam - 8/6/2003

Bill --
Actually, I have been thinking about it, and I am more and more dumbfounded by your response. Something is either true or it is not. An argument has merit or it does not. Does someone from ANSWER have more legitimacy on the merits of a March in DC because they were there and you were not? And if Howard Zinn was also somewhere that you were, does that mean automatically he is equally as legitimate? Since presumably there were white supremacists "there" in Fayetteville, are their views equally as valid as yours and moreso than mine, because they were "there"?
I also take issue with your rather casual and philistine dismissal of books, and thus of knowledge. Books are largely how we capture our history. Oral history can matter, yes, but it is deeply flawed. If you do not agree, than surely you must agree that African historical recounting is far superior to American since it has afar deeper historical tradition and cultural resonance? If not, then the "I was there, you were not, nyah nyah nyah" argument must fly out the window. In any case, I take books seriously. I am sorry if you domn't, and especially if you so casually dismiss books you have not read and yet lump everyone who does a particular kind of work together.
Further, on issues of race and their ongoing resonance, I actually have been "there" if by "there" you mean "here," where I argue that race still matters in so many ways. But also if by there we can mean, say, using my experiences especially in South Africa to deal with questions of race and white supremacy.
Finally, I find it so very peculiar how defensive you get about race, about others raising it as a legitimate area of inquiry in US history. If it is not an issue that mattered, why was there blood and tears and whatever other detrirus on the floors in Fayetteville? I don't see how you can use your anecdotal experience to fight off claims that race matters, but then you've used your anecdotal evidence from the past to show your own experience dealing with race -- if it does not matter, how did it stick in your craw? But you also used a Civil war anecdote (sorry, I displaced a "great" -- I was apparently trying to age you; or merely engage in ageism -- [that was, by the way, a joke]) proclaim that the past does not matter, so maybe I just have not spent enough time on your side of the looking glass.

Derek Catsam - 8/6/2003

Bill -- While it is remarkable that you were on the front lines of the civil rights struggle, suffice it to say that your argument does not convince. Yes, I am a Democrat. And those people were Democrats. And the overwhelmong majority of the white supremacists left the Democratic party over civil rights. The overwhelming majority. The Democratic Party had an impossible to hold coalition that broke over race when the white supremacists overwhelmingly fled into the arms of the GOP.
This will be the first part of a two part lesson on chronology and time: Part 1: I am a Democrat in 2003. You are talking about Democrats in the 1950s and 1960s. The 1950s and 1960s are a different era from today. Is that chronology too complex?
Part 2: Oooohh, your fury is showing again. Very cute. But here's the thing about indicting me for having no role in the Civil Rights Movement -- I was born in the 1970s. Now maybe a clever fellow like you can see where I am going with this, especially one so very responsible for fighting segregation, but you see, it would have been as impossible for me to have been on the ground at the Freedom Rides as it would have been for me to have landed on the beach at Normandy or to have cast a vote for lincoln. You want to know why? I was not born yet. See how that works? But you know who was born during that time period of which I speak? Some of those damned authors you've never read yet sure love to deride. C. Vann Woodward? John Hope Franklin? August Meier? They were there. So too, actually, your favorite straw man and whipping boy Howard Zinn.
So let's see, Democrats in 1960s DIFFERENT from Democrats in 2003, and in fact Southern Democrats in 1960s most likely to be Republicans in 2003. Derek NOT BORN in 1960s, odd to find issue with him for not breaking through the time space continuum. But people Derek has talked to, whose books he has read, whose papers he has studied, well, with corroboration and scrutiny and critical compass, I'll take John Lewis' word, Hank Thomas' word, Diane Nash's word, George Houser's word about what happened, rely on my skill as an interpreter and writer, and be damned curious whether Ann Coulter lived through McCarthy's era, or in fact, having bet that you've said a thing or two about World War II, wonder where you were then? Or does it only flow one way, Bill and his interlocutors as oracles for the past, picking and choosing what is valid history based on a moral righteousness of their glorious lived history, unless they have something to say about history they have not lived? Odd. And I guess I will have more to say about every little thing in 2003 than some scrupulous historian twenty years hence just because I lived it. Which brings me back to my favorite historian, Woodward, who once wrote my favorite lines of all time (and one that makes me look at the documents every bit as if not more closely than the interviews I do or read): "The twilight zone that lies between living history and written memory is one of the favorite breedimng places of mythology." But that's just book larnin' and so not worth a whit in your world, I know.

Bill Heuisler - 8/6/2003

It was great, great grandfather and we're talking past each other again.
Your lengthy appeal for me to consider the Civil Rights Movement and the Freedom Rides is rather bizarre since I was stationed in the South during the actual events and am quite familiar with them. B122 at Lejeune had six black Marines and we desegregated Jacksonville N.C. every time parts of our company went on liberty. Blood flowed and some of us went to the brig, but we lived it - they were our brothers. You on the other hand can only read your damn authors to me and act righteous about something you know nothing about first hand.

You're a Democrat, aren't you? Bull Connor, Ross Barnett, KKK lawyer Byrd and James Eastland were all dems. You say, "In your world we'd ignore them." Well, Derek, I'll ignore one more in a long series of your snotty racial insults and remind you that the Democrats are ignoring these men to this day.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/6/2003

"Our legacy should unite, not divide. There should be no separate history. Women, workers and African Americans are all Americans and their history is American History. What profit is there in fostering division and resentment? Aren't Americans beyond that?"

There is no separate history. All history is a single grand narrative. But it is told in a cacophonous chorus.

History is complex, and it is often useful to look at it from different perspectives, through different lenses. Different groups, and there are differences within the grand rubric of "American" (by which, I assume you mean citizens of the USA, not inhabitants of the two American continents), often experience events and processes differently. These are not quibbles, but fundamental to an understanding of real history.

Yes, women and African Americans are Americans: why, then should the vast majority of the grand unified narrative be the story of a few white males? They were leaders, to be sure, but they did not lead alone, and those who were lead, or who refused to be led, are a crucial part of the history.

A truly inclusive history would unite. It would not be simple, or perhaps as triumphal as you'd like. But it would tell the whole story, with many successes and great growth and progress.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/5/2003


I've said it before, and I'll say it again. You're not helping. You're not funny, or even remotely clever.

If you have substantive comments to make, please make them, but don't clutter up a perfectly serious discussion with low-class ad hominem slurs.

Jonathan Dresner

Stephen Kriz - 8/5/2003

"America's high schools graduate functional illiterates who could not find their country on a map of the world or name the century during which the Civil War took place"

Yeah - Just look at our president!

Stephen Kriz - 8/5/2003


Derek catsam - 8/5/2003

Ahhh yes, I divide. my piece on Israel -- clearly division. On the Red Sox? Division. My book on the Freedom Rides? Well clkearely about division. never moind, of course, that a book has never been written on the Freedom Rides. That the Freedom Rides represent a great victory over tyranny and unfreedom. But no, apparently civil rights victories do not count, because well, they are not the triumphal tale that you think should be told. I'ma divider? really. You support a book in which half of the political population are responsible for "treason," and I'm a divider?
How is it that being an historian of civil rights, of women, of any group automatically makes one a divider? And again, how is it that division is not worth looking at? Worked well for C. Vann Woodward, arguably the greatest of all American historians. It's very easy for you to say that your great great grandfather fought for individual freedom, and I suppose that the Emancipation Proclaimation really freed all slaves, white and black, rich and poor, but in fact if that is your takle on American history, you need to read more of what you deride, not less of it. If race had no role whatsoever to play in slavery, or in Jim Crow, then you'd have a point, but race was the very fulcrum upon which these things turned. And so to ignore that these are important factors is to ignore the brunt of American history.
Meanwhile, get over the past, he says, right after recounting a story from . . . the past! What wondrous hypocrisy! What glorious cheek! get over the past, and when you do so, honor my great granddaddy, who freed all them white folk from chattel slavery and nsubsequently allowed the South to enact jim Crow -- but for the good of both races!
There are sop many aspects of the Civil Rights Movement that havenot yet been adequately covered, and I have to wonder what makes you so defensive about itthat you trhink it is not worthy of exploring. Indeed, it is bizarre why people writing about civil rights, about women's history, do not fit into your schema of American success. But apparently you don't know how the Freedom Rides ended, once the blood was done flowing through the streets (white and black folks blood. But I'm a divider). I'd tell you how it all ends, but I'd as soon have you buy the book, and in any case, I'm a divider, so i guess we'll have to wait for the book about the unselfish Southerners who wrapped themselves in the flag, screamed "communists!" at every turn, and beat young (and old) men and women fighting for that very freedom that YOU not I take for granted if you don't think civil rights was about freedom. It took Americans like John Lewis and Hank Thomas and Diane Nash to ensure that their basic rights and freedoms were protected. that isn't about division or uniting folks, which in either case is largely irrelevent. It is about the fact that someone like James Meredith could serve eight years in this country's military but not be able to attend Ole Miss. I suppose that story of division is one that should not be told either.
You miss thre pouint so very much when you say that it is about flogging, and if you had read any of the very fine, very level headed, very committed, and overwhelmingly pretty moderate historians I mentioned in my last email (read david Goldfield. read Charles eagles, or John Dittmer) you'd realize this. Instead you think that your straw men, Chomsky (not even a historian) and Zinn (a polemescist who has made his contributions but who has not been relevent for two decades or more) speak for the movement. I've at least read your books (Coulter twice, and I'm beginning to think far more closely than you). It is so very, very clear that you have not read a single author that I have cited, you don't know their work, you obviously have no idea what social history is, and instead just want to go on and on about dear old granddad and pretend that Bull Connor never existed. But Bull Connor did exist. Ross Barnett did exist. The KKK did exist. James Eastland did exist. In your world we'd ignore them. In mine, a very real world, it is important to know them, to understand them, and to realize that brave men and women fought against them in very real ways and at great risk to themselves, their families, and their futures. It's a shame that you apparently do not see this as a part of the American past as well.

Bill Heuisler - 8/5/2003

It's all about redemption. The US sinned and social historians can't stop flogging. Well, when is enough? Think about it: if we'd always been perfect we wouldn't need you to remind us.

A better idea would be to notice how, of all the countries in the world, the US has freed the individual first and the most. My great,great grandfather, William Washington Strong, died when the 121st Pennsylvania Vols. broke through the Confederate lines of Gregg and Archer on the Rebel right at Fredericksburg. His death is a symbol to me of our committment to that individual freedom. Cuba was my cause after the Corps and my stepfather won a purple heart at Belleau Wood for French freedom.

You divide, Derek. You pretend to care about people, but you only seem to care about groups or sections of people. We are all individuals, none worth more or less than another at birth, but all blessed with that wondrous birthright that no other people in the world can claim: the best and the worst of us will die as Americans, not as men, women, African or Polish.

So get over the past and celebrate the future that men like William Strong died to give us. Professors who tear down this unselfish country, this finest testament to human freedom in history, make me wonder what barren Utopia they use as model, and what their purpose could be. I pity them.
Bill Heuisler

Derek Catsam - 8/5/2003

Wait a second Bill -- it is a very nice twisted neo-politically correct hallelujah to say that African Americans et. al. are Americans, and their history is American history, but it is what that history is that we should focus on, and that history has not always been good. Social History has, among other things, given us a far greater understanding of slave life, of life under Jim Crow, and of the social conditions under which millions of Americans lived. It is all well and good to say that there should be no "separate history" except that often times ours has been a history of forced seperatism. To have 350 years of slavery and segregation and then to ssay that there is no separate history is to deny the enforced separateness of black and white. To say that there is no separate history begs the question of why women, then, were separated when it came to, say, the ballot. To say that there is no separate history is to make me wonder why I don't know very many native Americans even though I am about 20% American Indian. To say that there are no separate histories is to say that the japanese American or jewish Amnerican or Polish American or Italian American or german American, the chicano/chicana, the gay experiences are not worthy of their own exploration, that to engage in a study of smaller communities clouds rather than clarifies. This is wrong. We teach failure where failure needs to be taught so that our successes resonate all the more clearly.
I do love your line about "dividing oppressed from oppressor" as if it is the historians who are doing this, and not, well, the oppressors.
Your evocation of Zinn and Chomsky reflects not one whit the reality of the people writing history these days and shows how little you know of what you are speaking. First of all, most of the best historians in these areas write not merely social history, but show the connsctions between social and political history, or reject these labels entirely. Further, had you evoked names such as Tim Tyson, J. Mills Thornton, Ronald Takaki, Sara Evans, Linda Kerber, Charles Eagles, William Chafe, Ray Arsenault, Charles Payne, John Dittmer, David Levering Lewis, Jackie Jones, Kari Fredrickson, Glen Eskew, James Horton, Jane Dailey, David Goldfield, Adam Fairclough, Darlene Clark Hines, Barbara Fields, Neil McMillen . . . at least you'd be showing a modicum of relevance. None of us who do what you would perceive as being "divisie" history use Zinn as a serious point of contact. For us, it starts with John Hope Franklin and C. Vann Woodward and moves from there. But C. Vann Woodward doesn't make for good point scoring with those who wpould deny that sometimes bad things have happened in this shining city on a hill and that pointing that out is what historians sometimes do.

Jeff Petersen - 8/5/2003

America's primary public schools are a laughing stock of the world, yet here we debate the political slant of yet another superficial gimmick from the federal pork barrel, a "summer residential academy".

While underemployed would-be pundits at HNN argue over comatose Marxist bogeymen and vast flight-challenged right wing conspiracies, America's high schools graduate functional illiterates who could not find their country on a map of the world or name the century during which the Civil War took place.

Bill Heuisler - 8/5/2003

Professor Rees,
Mr. Safranski put it quite well. Motive is the question: does your "New Social History" seek to inform or to exhort?

Teaching past class-struggles can be informative, but basing whole courses on so-called victims promotes dissatisfaction and more class struggle with no basis but politics. Examining the growth of individual freedom in the US should be pursued to fully understand the concept and pass it to our children.

But you wrote of the desirability of: "...examining the history of largely overlooked groups like African Americans, women and working-class people with a new sense of urgency."

Our legacy should unite, not divide. There should be no separate history. Women, workers and African Americans are all Americans and their history is American History. What profit is there in fostering division and resentment? Aren't Americans beyond that?

Zinn and Chomsky, examine past victims with "urgency" and divide oppressed from oppressor; they emphasize past misdeeds and they undermine faith in Republican Government. Marxism is pessimism. Our American experiment in freedom is based on optimism. Marxist dialectic is destructive of freedom and teaching a failed creed is profitless and even suicidal. Why would competant educators teach students resentment, despair and failure?
Bill Heuisler

mark safranski - 8/5/2003

Not only should students know more about the Founding Fathers and the Civil War, their teachers generally should as well because few of them on a percentage basis have actually earned degrees in any history field. Or at times, even a Social Science field.

The idea that Alexander's History project will churn out right-wing propaganda machines indicates the author has little familiarity with the teaching of history in the public school system. Where the teaching of history is excellent, the instructors are generally quite well versed in American history and firm in their own political opinions. They are unlikely to be swayed in the least by some quickie seminar or offer of free teaching materials. Where instructors are relatively ignorant of their subject their ability to parrot effectively much less use the Alexander material as a basis to create an innovative or exciting history lesson would be limited.

However, if Professor Rees wishes to maintain that a wider dissemination of early American history in the public schools undermines the ability of political radicals to control the debate at the university level I'd have to agree. That however is an argument for popular ignorance made out of self-interest.