U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Survey Courses And U.S. Intellectual History


After a three-semester hiatus from undergraduate instruction, I’m returning to the classroom this spring at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU). The plan is to teach a post-Civil War U.S. survey course.

I’m posting today in the hope of gathering suggestions on how to underscore the importance of U.S. intellectual history in a survey setting.

An obvious answer, when using a text such as Faragher, et al’s Out of Many, is simply to dwell longer on the subsections dealing with issues like the Harlem Renaissance, education reform, ethical issues, political ideas, literature, Progressive Era experts and intellectuals (including pragmatism), ideological aspects of WWI and WWII, culture critics, dissent, consciousness raising, the Culture Wars, etc.

But, what specific, practical things do you do? What primary documents have you found most useful? Which issues resonate the most with your students?

How can I subtly inspire another group of NEIU students to think about U.S. intellectual history after May 2008?!

Being fresh from your own semesters of success (hopefully!), I’m looking forward to your replies. – TL

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. One thing that works, in my experience, is to assign and discuss primary material no matter what you’re covering. Any important historical development featured lots of commentary, and consulting those who had positive and negative thoughts can help students to understand the way in which intellectual history interacts with other kinds.

    This is hard in a survey course, because there is just so much stuff to cover that not lecturing feels like falling behind. But in my experience, students like to participate and I often get requests for more discussion on the course evaluations.


  2. Mike,

    Thanks for the comment. Are there any specific primary materials that have worked well for you? I’m using the primary documents CD that comes with the Out of Many text (Faragher et al), but am willing to modify as needed.

    Your teaching tip is duly noted. I assuage my so-much-to-cover guilt by incessantly bringing them back to the text through q/a sessions that address the whole chapter.

    Thus far in teaching surveys I’ve been all about discussion. I rarely lecture, in a formal sense. My informal lecturing comes in the context of discussion when I hear non-correlating answers. I correct the answer by referring them to the major points they missed in the narrative. But I’m willing to discuss contingency or matters of interpretation. When they question the narrative I try and point out where and how their questions are legitimate.

    But, back on intellectual history, my goal is to bend the class toward the subject. I guess the main thing is focus on historical topics, per my original post, that touch upon the life of the mind (philosophy, books, big ideas, etc.).

    – TL

  3. The founding period, obviously, offers a wealth of material from which to draw, and most closely relates intellectual developments to political ones. One can read and discuss the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the Federalist and anti-Federalist papers, selections from Common Sense and other canonical texts.

    Other periods are not as easy, and the selection of relevant works will be more idiosyncratic. But I think great (or, at least, influential or representative) intellectual work characterizes every era of U.S. history. I like Jackson’s bank veto for his eponymous age, or Orestes Brownson and William Graham Sumner on labor, along with the “Declaration of Sentiments.” On slavery and Civil War one can read Douglass, Calhoun, Lincoln, or even Huck Finn or Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Gilded Age and Social Darwinism brings to mind Spencer, Gilman, George, Veblen, Carnegie, etc. For Populism, I like students to read the “Cross of Gold” speech. I’m not as up on Progressivism as I should be, but have my students read How the Other Half LIves and might someday assign parts of The Promise of American Life. I like to have students read Babbitt and to show them Chaplin’s Modern Times. For the Depression and New Deal, I read Studs Terkel’s Hard Times to try to show its human costs, and have students consider a couple of Woody Guthrie songs and FDR speeches. Then one can read foundational Cold War documents like the “Long Telegram” and NSC-68, and consider, say, the Beats or High Noon in that context. For the 60s, one could read “I Have a Dream” or parts of Malcolm X’s Autobiography, the “Port Huron Statement” and Goldwater’s acceptance speech in the 60s. As we get closer to the end, I assign Rawls’s A Theory of Justice and Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia as well as supply-side texts The Way the World Works, Wealth and Poverty, and welfare-reform Bible Losing Ground. I’m having some surprising difficulty finding good texts on multicuturalism, identity politics, canon wars, political correctness, etc., but would someday like to assign something along those lines.

    These suggestions are all tailored to my own interests, and I wouldn’t necessarily expect anyone else to want to assign more than a few of them. There are also far too many things to read in an U.S. history intro course. But hopefully throwing out these ideas will get your juices flowing, so that you can think about new and different kinds of texts to assign. The best thing to do, I think, is to look over Hollinger’s and Capper’s The American Intellectual Tradition for ideas, possibly excerpting some of those readings if adopting one of the volumes seems impractical.


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