National Greatness Is a Moving Target

It is this appreciation for change and multiple perspectives that makes the U.S. history classroom a poor place to inculcate or beat back patriotism. ‘How great are we?’ is simply not the question history seeks to answer. ‘How did we get here?’ is closer to the mark.

The point of history is not to list all the good things or bad things that have happened, nor to strike some desired balance between them. It’s to understand origins, persistence and change. We teach it because we hope that knowing how slavery ended or the Second World War began will equip students to think intelligently about the present. History helps them to see why and by whom their world was built. It shows them how visions have had consequences — sometimes far-reaching, sometimes unintended. It gives them the intellectual tools to act on their society: a complex, dynamic place that is theirs to change or conserve.

The aim of history class isn’t to get students to love or loathe their country. It’s to prepare them to live in it.

Daniel Immerwahr, “History Isn’t Just for Patriots,” Washington Post, Dec. 23, 2020

75 Years of “Inner Liberation”

steinmeier-endofwwii

Today marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of V-E Day, when German armed forces surrendered, ending World War II in Europe. Public celebrations in various countries have been dampened by the pandemic.

You should definitely take fifteen minutes of your day to listen to this extraordinary address (dubbed in English) by Germany’s current president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

We had made enemies of the entire world. Today, seventy-five years later, we are forced to commemorate alone. But the difference is, we are no longer alone. And that is the happy truth of the present day. …

It has taken us three generations to admit it whole-heartedly. 8 May 1945 was indeed a day of liberation. But at the same time, the vast majority of Germans did not perceive it as such. … This country had descended too far into the evil and the guilt. …

It is a struggle, though, that continues to this day. A remembrance can never end. There can be no deliverance from our past. For without remembrance, we lose our future. …

This country can only be loved with a broken heart.

Watch the whole speech here.

(Update: The advance text of the speech is available in various languages directly from the Bundespräsident’s office.)

American Narratives and Identities: A Primary Source Activity

For my new introductory course in American studies, which began last week, I wanted to explain the concept of American cultural narratives—a term fundamental to my framing of the course—through a discussion activity rather than a lecture. So for our second class meeting, I prepared a slate of four primary sources for us to examine together.

I wanted this discussion activity to establish (or begin establishing) several ideas at once:

  • Concepts of American national identity take the form of shared narratives.
  • Narratives of national identity and of personal identity are interrelated.
  • Contrasting, even contradictory, narratives of American identity are nothing new.
  • Narratives can be read in sources that do not appear to take the form of a story.

To make my argument for these ideas—or ideally to help my students make the argument on their own—I combined a simple slideshow of images and a stack of photocopy handouts. I entitled the slideshow “The Stories We Tell: Setting an Agenda for Study.”

In class, to set a scene, I explained that we were going to be visiting the era of the American Revolution today. In some cases, we would be focusing on the region around Philadelphia, the new (sometime) national capital, which also happens to be the city in which our course is happening in 2020.

Source 1: Winthrop Chandler, Homestead of General Timothy Ruggles, 1770

I wanted to begin with a source that might shake up preconceptions a bit, and which would require virtually no background historical knowledge.

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