Blogs > Cliopatria > Thomas Bender Responds

Apr 20, 2006 1:36 pm

Thomas Bender Responds

Below is the response submitted by Prof. Bender to our recently held symposium. We thank him for taking the time out to respond.

I want to thank those who took the time to write thoughtful responses to my article,"No Borders: Beyond the Nation-State." I should begin by noting that authors do not provide the titles for their work published in newspapers and magazines, and the publication of this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is no exception. I mention this because the title may have thrown readers off, making them think that I believed, like Thomas Friedman, that borders are vanishing and that we are getting beyond the nation-state, as some of the globalization talk of the 1990s proposed.
The title of the book may be clearer on this point: A Nation Among Nations: America's Place in World History.

I think I have argued for some time that the nation-state is not about to disappear, nor would that necessarily be a good thing. While I lament its capacity for wreaking violence, I also recognize it as the only entity able to enforce human rights and rights of citizenship. I have argued that my intention is not to end national histories, but to write and teach them differently. Contrary to a worry expressed that the larger framing of American history threatens American national traditions and institutions, it only helps us better understand them and from whence they come--a point at issue between Justices Scalia and Alito vis a vis Ginsberg. Where do Scalia and Alito think many of the ideas of the revolution and constitution came from? Some were surely from American colonial experience, but some were from the larger Atlantic world, and recall in the Declaration of Independence Jefferson recognized (as the other founders did, for partly practical political reasons) the importance of a"decent respect for the opinions of mankind." Many of our key ideas were partly of foreign origin, but more important they exist in a world in which international events and influences of other sorts result in reaffirmation or weakening. Those are important historical developments that require an international outlook for adequate understanding.

It was noted that I did not use"transnational" to describe what I am doing. Good point. I am trying to develop a narrative strategy for writing a national history which incorporates transnational and even global aspects by situating American history into the larger histories of global scale in which the U.S. participates. And I argue that we cannot understand that national history without attending to those aspects.

Robert K.C. Johnson says that there is nothing new to this, that we all do it. Sorry I missed it. Having taught an undergraduate course on American history in global perspective, my experience has been that it was novel to upper level students at NYU, including history majors, with the significant exception of undergraduates who in high school had done the international baccalaureate degree in high school. That said, several comments offered examples of major works that do reach in this direction, and want to acknowledge the wider framing that historians like David Potter, for example, always kept in mind, including in his great political history, The Impending Crisis. There are others, and David B. Davis has been global for decades. One could go on, but I note how little their efforts in this direction have been emulated. As for military and diplomatic history, the answer is yes and no. There are many instances of a global approach, but one takes pause with the praise bestowed in the New York Times on John Lewis Gaddis's latest book on the Cold War. (But compare Tony Judt's review in the NewYork Review of Books.) Still, it is true that in the past decade there have been quite a large number of experiments in the direction of international and even global perspectives, with American studies moving more vigorously in this direction than history--though many in American Studies are trying to get beyond the nation state and talk about post-national histories. I am not going there.

The question of comparative history was also raised. What I am doing is not comparative history, but it involves comparative history. In fact, in an interesting way the comparison of different nations is one of the major outcomes of the approach I am proposing. For example, I extend Daniel Rodgers' examination of progressivism beyond the Atlantic to the world, and then compare and contrast the political dynamics of social policy of nations on all continents. By treating American history as part of global history, I am insisting on both a common history that all nations and peoples shared after roughly 1500 CE, but I am also elaborating the local differences. This approach to history is not homogenizing, as much (but fortunately not all) of the globalization scholarship of the present suggests. Rather my framing explores on uniqueness within a common frame. The deepest problem with American exceptionalism and differentiates it from other claims of national distinctiveness is the suggestion that the U.S. does not share the same history as everyone else. This creates an"us" and"them" binary, which in turn homogenizes America and the rest of the world. A common history with local distinctiveness proliferates difference thus constituting a pluralized world. In fact, working title for the book or my north star was the phrase"In the American Province." I wanted to treat the US as one province in the larger historical unit of the globe. A province shares much with the nation of which is a province, but there is also local difference.

Some have worried that political history will suffer from transnationalism, post-Westphalian history. I doubt it, and I think any one will see a good deal of political history in my book, but treated in a way that acknowledges the ways ideas and events beyond the territorial nation-state contributed to the shaping of that political history.

Not everything is illuminated by the larger perspective I am proposing, but many things are. We need to be careful not to overlook those that are better explained by looking in part beyond our national borders. In those instances the territorial space of the nation is not a sufficient context or frame American history. More than that, I would argue that the context is active. American history has been a part of the global history that comes into existence with the discovery that the ocean is not a barrier, which isolated histories, but rather a connector of all the continents, a historical point made, by the way, by Alfred Thayer Mahan in his great book on seapower. In respect to the economy, the point was made by Adam Smith.

And, yes, I think what historians are thinking has a place in the public sphere and in the schools. It bears on our civic life, and one part of the professional responsibility of historians is civic.

Again, many thanks for the comments, and I hope these responses are helpful to the writers and others.

Tom Bender

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More Comments:

Caleb McDaniel - 4/20/2006

I also want to add my thanks to Professor Bender for responding, and for all the comments and posts in the symposium. They've provided a lot of food for thought.

Greg James Robinson - 4/20/2006

I am very pleased with this symposium, and also grateful to Professor Bender for his response. He reminds us, very rightly, that we have a CIVIC responsibility. I am ever-conscious of this, and particularly these days

Robert KC Johnson - 4/19/2006

I can't speak as to how US history is taught at NYU.

But after reading Prof. Bender's comments, I remain uncertain about the full extent of his recommendations. He says that he's "missed" the increasing coverage of US history in a global context. As as example (to quote from his original essay), "The imperial adventure of 1898 was not, as is often argued, an accidental and unthinking act; empire had been on the national agenda for decades. There is a striking continuity in purpose and style from America's westward expansion to its overseas colonization in 1898."

Frederick Merk might have challenged this view 40 years ago, but mainstream coverages of the Mexican War (Hietala, Horsman) explicitly make the connection now, and have for the better part of 15-20 years.

Similar connections exist in mainstream works on 1890s imperialism: Ernest May, Imperial Democracy; American Imperialism; or progressivism: works by James Kloppenberg and Daniel Rodgers

Hietala, Horsman, May, Rodgers, Kloppenberg are all quite standard works. It's not clear to me if Prof. Bender is arguing that such scholarship has had little influence; or that his conception of a beyond-nation/state approach to US history envisions something other than the kind of questions that May, or Rodgers, or Hietala asked.

If it's the former, I agree with him wholeheartedly that such work should inform our understanding of American history. But he didn't list any of these books as the kind of "exciting" scholarship opened by through the transnational lens, and so I assume that his vision of teaching US history falls along different lines than the books I mentioned above.

Melissa Ann Spore - 4/19/2006

Thanks to Prof. Bender and all participatns. I do nopt take part because i'm uniformed about the issues, but I find the forums interesting and informative.


Jonathan Dresner - 4/19/2006

I also wanted to thank Prof. Bender for his participation: these seminars are a lot of fun if people will join in them.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/19/2006

...but it's very important to see these things in practice. Caleb made the point early in the discussion that there's a long tradition of these kinds of "calls for change" that produce, as everyone has noted, relatively little actual scholarship or teaching in this mode.

My own perspective is quite different, coming from Japanese history (which I'll talk about on my own blog in a day or two, when I collect my thoughts), but I think there's a fair bit of honestly transnational history which gets missed because it doesn't call attention to itself, or gets classified as "diplomatic history." (I'm thinking here of my advisor, Akira Iriye, whose transnational diplomatic history requires and enhances our understanding of both international and national histories at deep levels).