U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Teaching Intellectual History in the U.S. History Survey

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.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Lots to chew on here, Andrew. In this post, you seem to be equating “Intellectual History” with “History of Intellectuals.” Thinking on my own survey, the “History of Ideas” is integrated a lot–from Progressive notions of democracy to connections between the CRM and Black Power–but I now deal very little with the public intellectuals you mention, at least AS intellectuals. I say “now” because, when I started, I used to lecture directly on Niebuhr and Mills; they were the first to go, though, when I decided to make more space for Paul Robeson and Elaine Brown.

  2. In this post, you seem to be equating “Intellectual History” with “History of Intellectuals.”

    That remains my constant question of this enterprise.

    I now deal very little with the public intellectuals you mention, at least AS intellectuals. I say “now” because, when I started, I used to lecture directly on Niebuhr and Mills; they were the first to go, though, when I decided to make more space for Paul Robeson and Elaine Brown.

    Exactly. Cornell West or Al Sharpton…?

  3. Hmm, an excellent blog post, and quite thought-provoking. I think the comments that have come in so far from Mark and Tom are also very interesting.

    I haven’t had a chance to teach my own course, yet, but when I do I want to incorporate an intellectual history component to it. But in terms of emphasizing, as Tom noted above, Cornel West versus Al Sharpton, this is a very important question. If it were me, and again just take this with a grain of salt, I think folks like Sharpton are important, while West at least has to be mentioned when, say, discussing race during the Clinton years. But, above all else, the ideas have to be put in front of students.

    Then again, if we think race and the postwar world of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Robeson’s important for several reasons: showing the embattled state of the American left during this era, as well as the changing conversation on race during the same time period. There’s no easy answer here, but as long as the students understand the creation and ferment of big ideas, and how they relate to American history, I’d be happy.

    • Thx, Robert. Me, I think WEB vs. BookerT is the unfinished conversation. And just because WEB has been the victor for the past 100 years doesn’t mean the debate is settled forever.

      Let’s check back with each other in another 100. ;-0

  4. Andrew,

    [Customary comment about intellectual history better understood as a methodology, rather than as a particular kind of source, or as a particular set of authors.]

    Now that that’s out of the way, I’ll toss in my very shiny new two cents — part of my remuneration for teaching the survey for the first time ever.

    This summer, I have had my students read short essays/addresses by (among others) William Dean Howells, Andrew Carnegie, Jane Addams, Margaret Sanger, FDR, Henry Luce, and James Baldwin. We looked at book excerpts by Jacob Riis and William Walling (links on my blog). We have also looked at some poetry. Tomorrow we are listening to LBJ’s fabulous Haggar pants phone call — but also to MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and to some rock music (still tweaking the playlist; I’ll report back later). Next week we’re looking at LIFE magazine coverage of the Civil Rights movement, the ’68 elections, the moon landing, and newspaper coverage of Watergate, the Patti Hearst trial, the 1976 election (thank you, Lord, for relatives who save newspapers and magazines!), some film clips (mostly from “They Live!”), etc. We will also be reading some speeches by Ronald Reagan — perfectly suitable texts for intellectual history, as Daniel Rodgers so aptly demonstrated. And we may spend a minute or two talking about curricular battles in higher education in the 1980s and 1990s.

    This is in addition to the archival research they are doing on their own for their papers, using various online periodical databases available through our library. I set a date limit for the sources they are to seek out for each class meeting, and then they bring in what they’ve found and we interpret and frame some examples together. It’s a lot of fun.

    • Wow that sounds fascinating–and provides some good ideas for what is being discussed.

    • I want to take your class, it sounds awesome! Looking forward to read about the rock music and how you plan to integrate it, thinking about our past discussions. Also, what poetry are you using, and how are you integrating it? (Insert customary comment about separating ideas and aesthetics).

  5. Thanks for the comments, all. I knew the methods-versus-content question would arise in comments. I should have addressed it in the original post. The intellectual historical approach ineluctably shapes how I teach all of my courses, including my survey courses. What this means in practice is very similar to how LD describes (above) the course she is teaching this summer. To give a specific example: early in my post-1945 US History survey, I have students read segments of George Kennan’s 8,000 word “long telegram” that purported to explain all Soviet behavior, which (in)famously helped to shape containment policy. I don’t *merely* have them read it as a political document, with its attendant policy implications, although reading it as such is important. I also ask them to read it with intellectual currents in mind. For instance, Kennan wrote about how the Soviet obsession with “capitalist encirclement” was a fear rooted in a “neurotic view of world affairs.” In this Kennan deployed one of the most pervasive intellectual frameworks of the time: he used a crude form of psychoanalysis to explain political behavior and ideology. The Soviets, he reasoned, would not come to terms with the West because they were crazy. As part of my lecture on Kennan, I also discuss Schlesinger’s “Vital Center,” which articulated non-liberal political ideologies similarly.

    So there’s that. But I think it’s perfectly reasonable when teaching to make distinctions in the types of sources we assign to our students, even if we support blurring such distinctions in our research and writing, if only because we need to be aware of what type of sources our students can make sense of. In other words, I’m trying not to reopen a notorious can of worms. I’m not arguing Cornell West is more important, or more of an “intellectual” than Al Sharpton. I’m merely contending that my survey students have had an easier time making sense of texts akin to Al Sharpton.

    But I’m optimistic that my Danish students, whom I’m told are theoretically attuned, will be able to make sense of difficult texts. Cheers.

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