Does anyone find value in comparative studies? I know we have studies in the Atlantic World, transatlantic, Pacific Rim, and African Diaspora, to name just a few. But none are comparative, correct? I have a graduate school friend named Derek Catsam who does comparative work on South Africa and the United States (following in the footsteps of George Frederickson), but he also does straight up single nation history. You might know him from his latest book, Freedom’s Mainline about the Freedom Rides.
I ask the question above because I am about to head over to Denmark for a month and I am taking four students from Marian with me (and my family). The course I created for them is entitled, US-DK: Opposites Instruct. A bit too cute of title? Well, I try (and fail). The point of the course is to look at a nation that is almost the photographic negative of the US. The students and I spent the spring semester reading primarily in three areas: education, religion and foreign policy. When we compared the two countries, the students were suppose to recognize what might seem like very distinct and hopefully instructive differences. In Denmark, education is centralized and fully-funded by the state; so, for example, there is free pre-school and all college students go free and get a stipend. In foreign policy, Denmark is part of every multi-national group, otherwise it would be largely forgotten and relatively irrelevant. In religion, the Danes recognize a state church–the evangelical Lutheran church–but only attend services for ceremonial purposes, for baptisms, confirmations, and weddings. Burials are paid for by the national church as well.
Of course, the economic punch-line to these contrasts is that the Danes have a very progressive income tax system, in which the majority of the population pays over 35% of their salaries to the state. The highest bracket is around 65%, though there is a movement to lower that to below 60%. I do tell the students that during the first half of Reagan’s presidency, the highest tax rate in the United States was above 70%, now it is below 35%. The question that the students return to consistently is what do the Danes get for their taxes and what do Americans get for lower taxes.
But I also push the students to consider things that exist beyond the financial and that reside in the mythical. The reading I assign along these lines includes a classic essay from William H. McNeil entitled, “The Care and Repair of Public Myth.” What makes McNeil’s essay especially nice for this course is that he addresses ways to pick up on things in a culture that have no literal documentation. The Danes, as I told my students, will answer many questions about why they do things with the stock phrase: “because it is Danish.” And while that response can be frustrating it is also honest to a degree that one can’t get by pouring through archival sources.
But there is another aspect of McNeil’s essay that I also like. He wrote this in 1982, as Ronald Reagan and his administration were dreaming up Morning in America (and huge tax cuts). This was also the nadir of American exceptionalism–unless one wanted to argue that the United States was exceptionally evil. In light of his era, McNeil noted that America had a need for myths, perhaps they weren’t the ones being peddled by Reagan, but myths had a place in society no matter how cynical the contemporary moment had become. He suggested placing the American experience in a larger global context in order to see that the nation was not unique but embedded in trends that gave rise to both the best and worst aspect of the nation’s history. McNeil contended that doing so was “the best way to start to recognize that the American way of life is no more than one variation among many to which humanity adheres.”
My question for today is this: do others find utility in comparative studies? And if so, how best to we go about doing what McNeil encourages us to do?