I don’t normally spend a lot time thinking about essential, or fundamental, tensions in American history. I think positing these tensions is a bit cheap—a reductionist way of sweeping a lot important details, or contingencies, under the rug. I suppose I should think more about these tensions, however, since they are useful. Many well-known historians resort to them. And many solid historians respect others who resort to these shorthands.
For a long time Hegel, for instance, was important—a force to be reckoned with—in terms of theorizing about history. In case you’re forgotten (or are unfamiliar), Hegel discussed a dialectic, or a tension, around the idea of freedom in history. He saw a dialectic of transition, progress actually, in relation to our increased consciousness of freedom. Hegel forwarded the theory that the idea of freedom was coming into being by grades—that there was a teleology of the realization of human freedom in history. See his Philosophy of History for more, or read more about his thought here. I think this is a fair, shorthand way, of characterizing his thought. He saw a tension, and believed it should characterize accounts of Western history. It’s whiggish, but past historians of the United States have applied it in their accounts.
But I’m not here to dwell on Hegel. My present thinking about fundamental tensions has arisen because of some side reading in Reinhold Niebuhr.* This past week I started reading Niebuhr’s 1944 book, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. This is a work of political philosophy, infused with Christian theology, that covers democracy, fascism, cynicism, and optimism in relation to liberal Christian and secular thought. Ray Haberski referenced this work in an earlier UISH post. Ray used Niebuhr’s Children in a discussion of the 1949 film noir classic, The Third Man, to analyze fascism’s success in the context of the growth of democratic liberalism.
I’m intrigued by a fundamental tension Niebuhr attributes to Western societies in Children. He argues that you can view the history of Western political philosophy, and American politics by extension, through the lenses of excessive optimism and extreme cynicism. The former is linked to political liberals (particularly the twentieth-century American variety) through their sharp focus on general welfare. These are the naive “Children of Light.” The latter, the “Children of Darkness,” use our inherent self-interest to manipulate politics through cynicism—playing factions off each other.
This resonated with me. But I probably would’ve held Niebuhr’s theory in tension had I not seen an immediate application this week in the classroom. I’m teaching “The History of American Education” this term, and our first applied reading—after a two-period discussion of the nature and philosophy of history—was in William J. Reese’s America’s Public Schools: From the Common School to “No Child Left Behind” (Johns Hopkins Press, 2001). The book is part of a series edited by Stanley I. Kutler called “The American Moment.”
Normally I don’t dwell on forewords from series editors in my readings with students; even in an academic press series, these are usually puffery—an academic’s attempt at salesmanship. But I decided to have them look at this one. Kutler’s foreword offered at least one intriguing point relating to “fundamental tensions” in American history:
“Schooling also reflects the eternal quest for the proper balance between individualism and community—both “values,” deeply ingrained in the American character, with substantial merit and appeal. Americans, Reese notes [on p. 8], vacillate between the two, yet constantly search for a useful, meaningful reconciliation of any tension between them, favoring an education system that will promote and serve both values” (p. ix).
Just to be painfully explicit, I’m connecting individualism to self interest, and general welfare to community (or the common good).
Just before the crush of the term began, as I was attempting to finish my recent manuscript chapter on Mortimer J. Adler, the great books idea, and reactions to the Sixties, I was dwelling a lot on feelings of alienation in relation to the common good. I was thinking a great deal about how our institutions (public, private, and in-between) navigate the individual-community divide, and how they get off-track and require reform—or even revolution.
In other words, my reading, research, and teaching are coming together to underscore the notion that fundamental tensions, especially this one between self-interest and the general welfare, are not just cheap, reductionist shorthands that ignore contingencies. Indeed, some dialectics and dichotomies are representative of historical realities—the historical contingencies at hand are about these tensions. These tensions feel simple, but have an explanatory power that can’t be denied. Maybe Niebuhr, Kutler, and Reese are right? And maybe I need to take Hegel more seriously than I have in the past?
What “fundamental tensions”—or dichotomies or dialectics—guide your thinking about intellectual history, or American culture generally? How do you work around the problems they present? How do you reckon with their explanatory power in relation to other valid tropes? – TL
* Have you heard about the recent posthumous release of John Patrick Diggins’ Why Niebuhr Now? (University of Chicago Press, 2011)? I’d be interested to hear any early scuttlebutt on the book’s quality, contents, or potential for controversy. – TL