When I teach survey courses, intellectual history is a common lens through which I contextualize the content. This summer, while teaching a survey of post-1945 U.S. History, my lectures included a healthy dose of intellectual history. For instance, I dedicated a large chunk of one lecture to New Left ideas, as expressed by thinkers like Paul Goodman, C. Wright Mills, Kate Millett, Stokely Carmichael, and William Appleman Williams. How did their thought represent the political culture of the time? How did New Left ideas shape the various movements of the New Left? And vice versa? How does this collection of ideas signify shifting cultural sensibilities? My students generally respond well to such an approach, not because intellectual history is pedagogically superior, but rather because students tend to respond well to teachers passionate about their subject matter. And I’m nothing if not passionate about intellectual history!
Despite my enthusiasm for bringing intellectual history into the classroom, I am reticent to assign too much intellectual historical reading in survey courses I teach. Sure, my students read and analyze plenty of primary sources, some of which can be categorized as intellectual history, broadly conceived, such as excerpts from canonical writers like Betty Freidan and Martin Luther King, Jr. But for the most part, my survey students read primary sources that might more typically be categorized as political history, such as NSC-68. When I assign secondary sources I typically have students read social historical monographs such as Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound or straightforward political narratives like Michael Kazin and Maurice Isserman’s America Divided. My students seem to do better with such texts. They’re more familiar with the landscape. The first time I taught the post-1945 survey, I assigned longer and more complex intellectual historical readings, including excerpts from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Vital Center and Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. But it didn’t work as well as I had hoped. Many students were confused by the parameters of the arguments, even after I spent time in class explaining and discussing the texts. So I abandoned such ambitions.
But this coming year in Denmark, where I’ll be teaching on a Fulbright at the University of Southern Denmark’s Center for American Studies, I am renewing my commitment to teaching intellectual history in my survey courses. During the fall semester, I’m teaching a U.S. History survey with a post-Civil War focus to American Studies majors in which the central text will be David Hollinger and Charles Capper, The American Intellectual Tradition: Volume II: 1865 to the Present. For a basic narrative, I’m assigning Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty (abridged version). And, of course, I’ll provide my students the fundamentals in lectures and class discussions. But I want the likes of W.E.B. DuBois, William James, Jane Addams, Reinhold Niebuhr, James Baldwin, Lionel Trilling, and Joan Scott to be a major component of their introduction to U.S. History.
My questions to you, dear readers: Do you teach intellectual history in your survey courses? If so, how? Do you assign Hollinger/Capper? Moreover, which texts in the Hollinger-Capper anthology do you recommend I assign? Which readings do you consider essential? (If your copy is not handy, here’s a Table of Contents.)
I fly to Denmark tomorrow night. I hope to blog regularly about my experiences there. Stay tuned.