Acquisitions, 10/09

To be honest, the last thing that I need to be reading is another book on Abraham Lincoln given everything that has been published over the past few years.  However, I have to say that I am thoroughly enjoying Eric Foner’s new book on Lincoln and slavery and I suspect that it will quickly establish itself as the standard study – highly recommended.  I will also have quite a lot to say about Earl Hess’s new book on the Crater, which is by far the most thorough study of the battle.  Hess adds quite a bit to our understanding of the racial aspect of the battle.

Shearer Davis Bowman, At the Precipice: Americans North and South During the Secession Crisis (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

Paul A. Cimbala and Randall M. Miller, The Great Task Remaining Before Us: Reconstruction As America’s Continuing Civil War, (Fordham University Press, 2010).

Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and Slavery (Norton, 2010).

Earl J. Hess, Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg, (University of South Carolina Press, 2010).

Kate Masur, An Example For All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle for Equality in Washington, D.C. (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

Louis P. Masur, The Civil War: A Concise History (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Even More Liberal Lies About America

Well, we are getting down to the final few weeks in my AP American History course.  It’s always a mad rush in the last few weeks as I have to make sure that I’ve covered most of the major events into the 1990s.  Over the past few days we’ve been talking in detail about the rise of the modern conservative movement and given my recent posts [see here and here] on the supposed left-wing conspiracy in our college and high school classrooms I thought I might share a few thoughts about what we specifically look at.  According to some I am playing my own small part in this conspiracy as I spew my hatred for America and my denials of American Exceptionalism in front of my students.  I guess one need look no further for evidence of this than my use of Eric Foner’s book, Give Me Liberty!: An American History (Norton)

As I was reviewing the chapter it dawned on me that Foner offers a very rich overview of modern conservatism.  The title of the chapter in question is “The Triumph of Conservatism” and covers the period from 1969 to 1988.  Sub-chapter headings include “The Rebirth of Conservatism,”  “The New Conservatism,” “The Conservative Sixties,” “The Rising Tide of Conservatism,” “The Religious Right,” “The Tax Revolt,” “Reagan and American Freedom.”  The chapter covers a number of concepts and movements associated with conservatism, such as Libertarianism the Religious Right and includes references to Milton Friedman, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, William F. Buckley, “Young Americans For Freedom,” “neo-Conservatives,” Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly, Jeane Kirpatrick.  Court cases that favor a conservative reading of the Constitution include Milliken v. Bradley, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Bowers v. Hardwick, among others.  The chapter includes a full-page reprint of “The Sharon Statement” (1960)

Consider Foner’s own interpretation of the “New Conservatives” for yourself:

The “new conservatives” understood freedom as first and foremost a moral condition.  It required a decision by independent men and women to lead virtuous lives, or government action to force them to do so.  Although they wanted government expelled from the economy, new conservatives trusted it to regulate personal behavior, to restore a Christian morality they saw as growing weaker and weaker in American society.

Her lay the origins of a division in conservative ranks that would persist to the end of the twentieth century.  Unrestrained individual choice and moral virtue are radically different starting points from which to discuss freedom.  Was the purpose of conservatism, one writer wondered, to create the “free man” or the “good man?”  Libertarian conservatives spoke the language of progress and personal autonomy; the “new conservatives emphasized tradition, community, and moral commitment.  The former believed that too many barriers existed to the pursuit of individual liberty.  The latter condemned and excess of individualism and a breakdown of common values. (p. 1026)

That seems to me to be an incredibly thoughtful, albeit brief, description of the modern conservative movement that gives students a framework for understanding a great deal of recent political and cultural history.  It led to a very interesting class discussion today that I hope to continue tomorrow as we move further into the 1980s.

On the rise of the Religious Right, Foner has this to say:

The rise of religious fundamentalism during the 1970s expanded conservatism’s popular base.  Even as membership in mainstream denominations like Episcopalianism and Presbyterianism declined, evangelical Protestantism flourished.  Some observers spoke of a Third Great Awakening (like those of the 1740s and early nineteenth century)…. Evangelical Christians had become more and more alienated from a culture that seemed to them to trivialize religion and promote immorality.  They demanded the reversal of Supreme Court decisions banning prayer in public schools, protecting pornography as free speech and legalizing abortion.  (p. 1050)

As I said above, the chapter’s focus on conservatism is incredibly rich and benefits immensely from Foner’s commitment to looking beyond the major figures and most prominent organizations in the movement.

Now, of course, there is room to disagree even with the brief excerpts that I’ve provided here, but can we agree that there is nothing that is blatantly anti-American or biased in favor of a liberal/Democratic view of American history?  Actually, if you gave me this book without the author’s name I’m not sure I could nail down the political identity of the author.  Than again I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about the political affiliation of historians.  I tend to judge the quality of their work based on the principles of good history.

Anyway, I hope this alleviates the concerns among some of you that I am feeding my students anti-American ideology. 😀

Does Your Dentist Teach History?

A couple of years ago I had a parent contact me about the textbook I was using to teach my AP American History course.  I had just switched from The American Pageant to Eric Foner’s new book, Give Me Liberty! The parent was concerned about the political bias of Foner as well as the overall narrative that his child would learn over the course of the year.  I am a huge fan of parents who take an interest in their child’s education so I agreed to meet with him at his earliest convenience.  We never met in person to discuss his concerns, but we did exchange a number of emails.  The first thing I did was ask the parent to give me an idea of what exactly he found troubling.  Shortly thereafter I received a response that focused on the amount of coverage on issues of race.  I read the response carefully, but had difficulty pinpointing the exact problem so I followed up by asking for specific references.  His response was interesting.  The parent pointed to two sections, one on Reconstruction and the other on Jim Crow, which he believed constituted too much attention.  In addition, he also made it a point to remind me that he was not asking me to swap Foner for a book by Rush Limbaugh.  This last comment took me for a bit of a loop.  It concerned me that Rush Limbaugh would actually be considered as an alternative to Foner or for that matter any trained historian. I thought about how to respond to this last comment as I did not want to offend the person, but I finally decided to assert myself since I was hired to teach the course and my school gives me complete freedom to choose appropriate texts for my students.  I said that it was good to hear that he was not making such a suggestion since Rush Limbaugh is not a historian and Eric Foner is one of the most respected scholars in the field.

In addition I asked if the parent’s concern about Foner’s coverage of race extended beyond the number of pages.  In other words, was there a problem with the interpretation itself.  I went on to offer an explanation as to why I chose this particular book.  In fact, one of the reasons I chose this particular text was the amount of coverage of racial issues, which I explained was important to understanding crucial aspects of American history, including the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement and countless other subjects.  As a historian, however, I understand that thoughtful people can and should disagree about the way in which information is presented and interpreted.  Unfortunately, our conversation never addressed these issues.  I should point out that this parent is well educated and a very successful lawyer.  We eventually met a few weeks later during a parent-teacher night.  We chatted for a bit, but the topic never came up.  I encouraged the parent to contact me at any point regarding concerns about the textbook or any other materials covered in the course.  That never happened and his son went on to score a 5 on the AP Test.

Continue reading “Does Your Dentist Teach History?”