Deepening historical understanding in a transnational world: A review essay

Deepening historical understanding in a transnational world: A review essay

Aquila, Dominic A

Deepening historical understanding in a transnational world: a review essay

Rethinking American History in a Global Age edited by Thomas Bender Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. ix, 427 pp. Paper, $22.50^sup USD^. ISBN 0520230582.

Who Owns History: Rethinking the Port in a Changing World by Eric Foner New York; Hill and Wang, 2002. xix, 233 pp. Paper. $13.00^sub USD^. ISBN 0809097052.

Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past by Sam Wineburg Philadelphia:Temple University Press, 2001. xiv, 255 pp. Paper. $22.95^sup USD^. ISBN 1566398568.

Teaching U.S. History as Mystery by David Gerwin and Jack Zevin Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003. xii, 163 pp. Paper. $19.50^sup USD^. ISBN 032500398X.


The importance of understanding and teaching each academic discipline with a deep concern for global and transnational issues is today unassailable. In the 1980s and even earlier the need for such a global outlook weighed most heavily on disciplines that by their nature ranged beyond the confines of the immediate and the local. One thinks here of such subjects as macroeconomics, business, anthropology, area studies and international relations. But a greater appreciation for the reality of global interde

pendence-a reality that has actually existed since the fifteenth century-emerged in the past decade, and intensified following the chain of international crises and wars set off by the events of September 11, 2001. In this context of the need to understand America in a new, complex international system, it is not at all surprising to hear more and more calls from professional historians for a repositioning of American history in a global context.

The LaPietra Proposal

Recently, the most celebrated and influential voices for broadening the study and teaching of American history are the seventy-eight distinguished historians who met annually at New York University’s La Pietra campus in northern Italy from 1997 to 2001 with the goal of examining and discussing a range of proposals for the internationalization of American History. New York University and the Organization of American Historians sponsored the conferences with significant financial support from several prestigious foundations.

Their final products were a collection of essays edited by Thomas Bender under the title, Rethinking American History in a Global Age (2002) and a companion report, “The La Pietra Report: A Report to the Profession,” which is a precis of the important conclusions and recommendations from the entire project. The La Pietra report is accessible to the public at the OAH

website, index.html, and should be read very much as a companion piece to the Bender volume.

Rethinking American History resituates the American past into a broader, transnational context, and calls attention to the massive monographic literature on the many subnarratives that have shaped America. In so doing, its authors hope their readers will come to appreciate and understand “every dimension of American life as entangled in other histories.” But more fundamentally the La Pietra project revisits some long-held and widely accepted assumptions about the nature and purpose of American historiography. Perhaps the most important of these assumptions, which is applicable to the entire field of history, recognizes that the emergence and preeminence of the historical profession intertwines tightly with the growth and triumph of the nation-state as the world’s predominant form of political organization. “Modern historiography,” writes Bender in the book’s opening line, “is inextricably linked with the modern nation-state.”1

The moral responsibility of historians

Besides assessing the historiographical benefits and shortcomings associated with this link, the authors’ reflections lead them to the awareness that the act of writing or teaching history is freighted with moral responsibility. In the book’s first essay, “Transnationalism and the Challenge to National Histories,” Prasenjit Duara writes of a double purpose for the study and teaching of history. “Historical education not only teaches us about the past, it forms the learning subject in ways in which it shapes understanding of the past.” The task ahead of those who teach and write history, he urge, is to balance carefully the ways in which history forms one’s self-identity along with a critical awareness of when and how the formation is occurring. As Duara puts it, the challenge is “to understand how historical education is also about the production of our moral and knowing selves.”

Walter Johnson, another contributor, connects the morality of historical pedagogy with the reality that writing or teaching history is itself an historical event that is part of the nation’s history and does not stand outside it. It is therefore incumbent on historians, writes Johnson, to take stock occasionally of their own “historicity,” and especially of their own “complicity” with events that they often believe they are describing from “a perspective of Archimedean neutrality.”2

When Bender, Duara, Johnson and the other contributors to Rethinking American History refer to the nation-state, they mean diverse peoples living together “grounded in an agreement, partly coerced, partly voluntary, to find significant unity in diverse personal memories and public historical narratives.” Constituted as such, the nation-state has the resources to reproduce itself because it has “the power, partially, not completely, to shape future social practices and identities in the space it claims and seeks to delimit.” Yet while there is much to celebrate in the impulse to forging a common ground among diverse social, ethnic, racial and religious groups through a unifying, unilinear national historical narrative, the process can also ignore, intentionally or not, subnarratives and stories that seem inessential to the national purpose. In the latter case, social enclaves within the nation that are continually brought into contact with one other can be deprived of the imaginative resources necessary for their self-identity.

Moreover, histories that focus solely or mainly on constructing an intelligent, coherent lineage for the nation-state often leave out or underplay certain strains of the past that later turn out to be important, leaving students of history unprepared to confront present realities. For example, in the 1960s the violent disagreements about civil rights, integration and the Vietnam War seemed to have sprung from no place because they had no apparent roots in the histories that had been written to that point. Consequently, the generation of American historians shaped by the civil rights controversies set out to recover the past of race relations; some of them revisited slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction. Those seeking a deeper understanding of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam looked to the past for guidance on how the U.S. had related to other indigenous peoples, such as Native Americans and the native peoples of the Philippines.3

History and nationalism

The contributors to Rethinking American History are not the first to examine critically the close relation between the emergent nation-state and the historical profession. There is a tradition, albeit a discontinuous one, of writing about the relation. Sketching its broad outlines here will help to position Rethinking American History in time and thereby to understand better its advocacy for looking elsewhere besides the nation-state for a locus of historical writing. The immediate antecedent to Rethinking American History, and in part its inspiration, is David Thelen’s 1998 essay for the British-based, international journal of American Studies, “Making History and Making the United States.” Thelen probes the motives of various historians of American history during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, concentrating on the new class of professional historians of the 1880s and 1890s who, like the industrialists of the same period, sought “to create and control national markets.” His criticism of nation-focused history assumes, perhaps too readily, that the motives and the politics of historians writing at the end of the 1990s coincide with those writing a century earlier and that a scholarly interest in the nation-state is the same as holding to the ideology of nationalism. Seeking to break the monopoly of nation-state based histories and to widen the appeal of history, Thelen proposes a more egalitarian alternative to nation-state history, one centered on individuals and families.4

Writing in 1962 for the American Historical Review, another American historian, David Potter, also raised the issue of “the historian’s use of nationalism and vice-versa.” He registered astonishment that historians, including himself, readily assumed that “the 2,500,000,000 people of the world would fall naturally into a series of national groups.” Nevertheless, as David Hollinger notes in his brief discussion of Potter’s essay for the Bender collection, Potter quickly and assuredly concluded that “nations were it.” The title of Hollinger’s own essay “The Historian’s Use of the United States and Vice Versa,” so similar as it is to Potter’s essay of 1962, signals his fundamental alignment with Potter’s conclusion. Yet at the same time Hollinger acknowledges and satisfies his obligation to answer a host of more complicated questions about history and nation-building, questions that did not weigh on Potter.5

Civilizations and history

Just over three decades before Potter’s essay, Christopher Dawson published Progress and Religion (1929), a landmark book in the tradition of probing the partnership between history and the nation-state. Dawson worked in Britain but spent the last years of his life, the 1950s and 1960s, teaching at Harvard University. Like Spengler’s more famous Decline of the West but without its pervasive pessimism and disillusionment, Progress and Religion was powerfully influenced by the way the nation-states of Europe and America during the First World War had dealt the final blow to the multinational empires of Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans. Equally impressive in WWI had been the surprising victory of the nation-state as an international unit of organization over its chief ideological competitor, Marxism. Foundational to Marxian doctrine was the assertion that workers’ loyalty to their class traversed national boundaries. It was proven false when French, German, English, Russian, and American workers, despite constant pleas from the Communist parties of these nations for working-class solidarity, slaughtered each other on the battlefields of Europe. Although the burden of Dawson’s book is an historical analysis of the connection between religion and the idea of progress, the new hegemony of the nation-state and the prospect of a world order (The League of Nations) based on the core value of progressive enlightenment, not only prompted Dawson’s inquiry but figure prominently in his story. Even more so than Bender and his collaborators, Dawson lamented that professional historians in Europe and in America had become preoccupied with the nation-state as the organizing principle of their studies. The powerful influence of nineteenth-century German historians on the fledgling historical profession, according to Dawson, came packaged with their sense of urgency for national unification. The benefit of reading Progress and Religion as a complement to Rethinking American History is that Dawson shows clearly how the turn of professional historians toward the nation-state as the center of their scholarly studies was not at all an inevitable one. The road not taken by historians, according to Dawson’s analysis, would have led them to “the general study of cultures or of civilization as a whole.” But once the nation-state with its overriding interest in political unity took center stage among historians, the study of cultural unity was relegated to the more specialized branches of knowledge-anthropology, archeology, art history and ethnomusicology.6

The weakening of the nation-state system

Just as in Dawson’s study, the status of the nation-state shapes a considerable part of the context for Rethinking American History. But the nation-state’s unrivaled position of power and prestige is today no longer what it was when Dawson wrote. Bender and company write as the vitality of the nation-state and the nation-state system of international relations is being called into question. For some scholars the nation-state as the quintessential political expression of the modern age, is giving way to as yet undefined forms of social organization associated with postmodernity. According to this view, such developments as the Internet and other new technologies have eroded the ability of the nation-state to control the symbols and messages that help sustain its unity and internal coherence. These technological developments and the way they are deployed also intensify the long-standing tension between transnational corporations and individual nation-states, which involves, among other things, questions of capital investment and transfers, labor relations, and environmental regulations.7 Politically, the recent invasion of Iraq by a U.S.-led coalition of forces without the direct authority of the United Nations has dealt a blow to the international system of nation-states from which it is still reeling. And, in the realm of political ideas and policy, the most significant challenge to the current nation-state system is Samuel P. Huntington’s highly controversial book, The Clash of Civilizations: Remaking of World Order. Huntington’s understanding of history centers on civilizations and cultures drawing on Dawson’s work and that of other historians who have looked beyond the nation-state as an organizing principle.

The new internationalism and its limits

Those writing for Rethinking American History are quite aware of the degraded prestige of the nation-state. Their agenda is not so much to depreciate it further, but to recognize its limits as a means of doing history, and to underscore that its very form emerged over time in relation to particular sets of historical conditions, conditions which gave it the shape and substance we see before us today. As Prasenjit Duara argues, certain historical events such as reshaping of large political communities by the expansion of global capitalism, and the rapid reorganization of nation-states in the former Soviet-block following 1989 have “denaturalized the nation form, or at least undermined its claim to be an evolving primordial essence.”8

But not all of the contributors to Rethinking American History are sanguine about the project to historicize the nation-state or to marginalize its importance among U.S. historians. Addressing the concerns of these friendly dissenters to the main thrust of the LaPietra project, Bender writes, “The death of the nation, like Mark Twain, has been announced too soon. It is not about to disappear, and as long as the nation is granted the exclusive power to make citizens and protect their rights and to deploy legitimate violence, it must be a matter of continued and intense scrutiny.” Accordingly, both the book and its companion piece, the La Pietra report to the historical profession, advocate not for a “postnationalist” history, but instead for “an enriched national history, one that draws in and draws together more of the plenitude of narratives available to the historian who would try to make sense of the American past.”9 David Hollinger’s essay does not disagree with this nuanced understanding of the Bender agenda, so long as it still makes a place for traditional nation-state histories. Moreover, reflecting a view similar to that registered by others in the Bender collection, Hollinger worries about the lack of a clearly defined alternative to the current international system. Internationalists’ proposals for “the replacement of the world of nations by a world of something-elses,” he argues, “is of heuristic value at best to the historian concerned with the people who have lived in the United States.”10

Another serious problem with the new internationalism of the 1990s is one raised by Ron Robin, who like Hollinger is a friendly critic of internationalism. Robin is troubled by the “the insistent flogging of American exceptionalism, a long-dead conceptual horse.”11 American exceptionalism has often been associated with American triumphalism and a certain chauvinism based on the conviction that America is unique among the nations of the world, past and present, and therefore exempt from the developmental trajectories of other nation-states. Although most historians concede that American exceptionalism is nowhere to be found among professional historians writing today, the idea that some still cling to it lingers in certain internationalist circles. If American exceptionalism exists at all today among professional historians of the U.S., it does so in the sense Hollinger addresses when he defends the need for continued attention to the nation-state as an historical subject.

If there is any one nation in the contemporary world the history of which, as a nation, requires telling now, it is the one that displays the most successful nationalist project in all of modern history. Despite the failure of some history faculties around the world to register this insight, the United States is of world-historical significance. What marks the national project of the United States as “successful” is not its virtue…but certain simple uncontested facts. Two-and-one quarter centuries after its founding and 135 years after its Civil War, the United States is the most powerful nation-state in the world and the only twenty-first century power that operates under a constitution written in the eighteenth century. Its significance is measured by its sheer longevity, its influence in the world arena, and its absorption of a variety of people through immigration, conquest, and enslavement and emancipation.12

Whatever one may think of the morality of certain actions taken to build the United States, or how its story is told, concludes Hollinger-and he himself is no apologist for America, “the national project of the United States is part of the primal stuff of history to be engaged.”13

Hollinger in one sense is puzzled by his colleagues’ call for the internationalization of American history; for him it is already occurring. Attending to supranational and subnational themes, he writes, requires not a program or a manifesto, but rather sound historical judgment-the indispensable tool of the historian’s craft-about when and how to weave these themes into the national story. For that, Hollinger commends to his readers three books, one each in the fields of political, social and intellectual history: David M. Kennedy’s Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, Daniel T. Rodgers’s Atlantic Crossing: Social Politics in a Progressive Age, and James T. Kloppenberg’s Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920. Until the sort of history emerges that others in the Bender volume have in mind, I agree with Hollinger that these books are a good place to start for those interested in internationalizing their understanding of American history.14

Internationalizing American history

Although the distinguished historian Eric Foner did not contribute an essay to Rethinking American History, he did take part in the 1999 La Pietra conference. His participation produced a seedbed of ideas for his Presidential Address to the 2001 American Historical Association entitled, “American Freedom in a Global Age.” The address also appeared in the American Historical Review and is collected along with eight other essays by Foner in Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World. Foner’s address traces Americans’ understanding of freedom and liberty from the Founding period through to the present, all the time keeping a sharp eye on how America’s interplay with the world helped shape this understanding. Foner’s treatment of the history of a basic American idea-freedom-is another example of what Hollinger sees as an effective way of relating American history to global questions. The benefit it provides, besides enriching our understanding of freedom, is that it constructs a picture of the relation of freedom and globalization as they actually relate today in a world of nation-states, and not in some future unformed world order.15

According to Foner, a certain strain of thinking about American freedom resonates in many quarters of the world; it is one with deep roots in the American past but which nevertheless derives in large part from the Reagan years. Its core is a series of negations, a conception that can be characterized as freedom from restraints and limits-from government interference, from social constraints on behavior and self-definition, from interference in market choices. These notions of freedom have spread widely around the globe because they are congenial to a certain popular idea of globalization, one that borrows in part from a resuscitated and redefined idea of American exceptionalism. America’s “historic purpose,” according to this view, is to promote the foregoing conception of American freedom as “freedom from” toward “the creation of a single global market in which capital, natural resources, and human labor are nothing more than factors of production in an endless quest for greater productivity and profit.” Pushing globalization to its extremes, some known as “hyperglobalizers,” says Foner, envision traditional cultures giving way to a homogeneous world culture and nation-states either withering away entirely or surrendering their economic functions. Foner dismisses this vision of a new world order and insists that the nation-state is here for “many years to come,” even though some of its traditional functions such as regulation have been degraded. Even with the comparatively modest erosion we see currently in the prestige and power of the nation-state, the result, at least thus far, is not a new global homogeneity, but new cultural and politic divisions in the world and the aggravation of others of long standing. The weakening of the nation-state, as Foner himself acknowledges, has caused a “proliferation of social movements and often violent conflicts based on ethnicity, religion and local and regional cultures.”16

Multiculturalism and the new internationalism

Cultural and political fissures in the international system have their corollary within nation-states, suggesting strongly a link between global internationalism and such movements as multiculturalism. Muticulturalism within nations has set off controversies in Britain, Mexico, Japan, Israel, South Africa, and the United States over what the content of a nation’s history ought to be. In the United States, these conflicts became flash points during the quincentennial of the Columbian discovery of the Americas in 1992, and then again in 1995 with the Smithsonian’s exhibit marking the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the first instance, disputes raged over whether or not Columbus’s achievement was a cause for celebration (the establishment of the New World) or regret (for the deleterious effects it had on indigenous peoples). Anxious about exacerbating the conflict, some school districts told their teachers to avoid discussing the quincentennial in the classroom and, just as in cases of questions pertaining to sex, to leave it to parents to decide how to address the issue with their children. The controversy over the Smithsonian exhibit stemmed from veteran organizations’ protests that it was too pro-Japanese. The conflict over the exhibit led to the removal of nearly all the historical information accompanying the display of the Enola Gay. Besides these two major public controversies, the many heated debates over national history standards for primary and secondary school curricula were another feature of what became known as the 1990s history wars.

These so-called wars were what prompted the publication of Foner’s Who Owns History? Insistent on the historian’s responsibility to engage vigorously in public discussions, the book aims to get past the high polemics of controversy and elevate the public discourse on history. It collects pieces Foner had previously published in a variety of mainstream and scholarly media. They cover issues in his field of expertise-the Civil War and Reconstruction, international subjects, including essays on history in South Africa following the dismantling of Apartheid and Russia following the unraveling of the Soviet Union, as well as more personal pieces on his life as an historian and the life and work of his mentor, Richard Hofstadter. Foner’s relation to Hofstadter is itself highly symbolic of the shift in focus of American historians since the end of the Second World War. Hofstadter is perhaps America’s greatest historian of the post-World War II era. He is most identified with the Consensus school of American history, which sees wide agreement since the Founding among Americans across all classes and political parties on the fundamentals of American life and politics. These basics include the inviolable rights of property, wide support for a mixed economy, and human rights. Foner’s lifelong work on the history of slavery and emancipation was inspired by the fact that the Consensus view seriously understated their importance to American life and history.

Taken together, the nine essays in Who owns History? do not address directly the issues raised in the history wars of the 1990s, but rather each of them concerns an essential question that these controversies left unanswered, namely, what is the nature and purpose of historical understanding. The history wars together with Americans’ record attendance at history museums, and their consumption of innumerable popular films and serious books on historical figures, all point to an American public engaged with history. Borrowing Frederick Nietzsche’s distinction among three kinds of history-the monumental, the antiquarian, and the critical, Foner places the current rage for history in the first two categories inasmuch as they are “celebratory and nostalgic.” As Foner notes, Americans’ passionate engagement with their history is not at all determined by one’s politial viewpoint. “It thrives among minorities hoping to foster a sense of group pride and patriots seeking to encourage love of country.” Such interest in history for the sake of forming self-identity or for patriotism is not in itself problematic, but it can become so when its goal is to restrict certain “primordial characteristics” to one’s own group and to no others. These extreme forms of identity history-whether for nationalistic or multicultural purposes-writes Foner, ignore “the interpenetration of cultures that is so much a part of our nation’s past.” So in answer to the book’s question: Who Owns History? He answers: “Everyone and no one-which is why the study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.”17

Understanding historical understanding

Reading the essays in Foner’s volume conveys a persistent presence of mind focused on the problem of historical understanding. His lessons on the fundamentals of historical knowing, such as they might be, are oblique. One finds a more direct address to them in another book inspired in part by the U.S. history wars. Sam Wineburg in Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts begins his book by pointing out that the furious debates of the 1990s about which history to teach obscured a more basic question: “why teach history in the first place?” History in America’s school and universities, he asserts, has always occupied a tentative position. Even during times of concentrated interest in the field, the roots of that interest turned out to be comparatively shallow. The intensity of public debates on history do not add up to the kind of sustained reflection on such foundational issues as the good of teaching history and the reasons why we ought to teach it in the schools. Like Foner, Wineburg is put off by the baseness of the 1990s public debates on history, which he compares to a “bar room brawl.” Many scholars and politicians alike wound up resorting to tit-for-tat attacks and retorts, and hurling around slogans for the benefit of a sound-byte media. “Given the tenor of the debate, some might wonder why history was ever considered part of the humanities, one of the disciplines that are supposed to teach us to spurn sloganeering, tolerate complexity and cherish nuance.”18

For Wineburg the study of history commends itself as a unique and complex way of knowing the world that must, if it is to realize its full potential as a humanistic discipline, embrace a paradox: that of seeing the past as at one and the same time familiar and strange. Familiarity comes easiest and attracts us because it allows us to situate ourselves more easily in time, combining our stories with those who have preceded us. Locating ourselves in time is “a basic human need.” The shortcoming of such a familiarity with the past is that we tend to bring to it our questions and predispositions, which often preempt opportunities for learning from the past. At the other end from familiarity is an appreciation for the strangeness of the past, which “offers the possibility of surprise and amazement, of encountering people, places, and times that spur us to reconsider how we conceptualize ourselves as human being.” But to live solely at the pole of strangeness holds its own perils. Studying the past “on its own terms” can lead to a sort of “esoteric exoticism,” which insulates history from present concerns and shirks its responsibility to inform public debates according to history’s singular way of knowing the world.19

The case of Derek

One of the features of Wineburg’s book that commends itself especially to teachers of history are its case studies, which blend questions of sound pedagogy with a deep concern for meaningful historical content (Wineburg is trained as an historian and in the psychology of learning). A case in point is Wineburg’s illuminating discussion of Derek, a high school student studying Advanced Placement American History, and Derek’s encounter with primary texts on the American Revolutionary War. Wineburg’s analysis of Derek’s historical understanding powerfully illuminates what is lost in the encounter with the past when we fail to fully acknowledge our own presentist predispositions. By Wineburg’s account Derek is a bright, capable and intelligent student whose engagement and reading of the primary sources on the Battle of Lexington meet perfectly the ideals of the Bradley Commission Report, the report that began current reform efforts in history curricula. Derek’s oral narrative based on his reading of these primary sources reflected a sophisticated recreation of the worldviews of the colonists, “their mentalities” as historians say. Faced with battling overwhelming numbers of Englishmen, the Americans, Derek said, naturally resorted to a kind of guerilla warfare. Derek’s reconstruction of the Lexington Battle is plausible according to our current notions of modern warfare, but battlefield etiquette in the eighteenth-century differs significantly from what it is today. Reading modern notions of warfare back to the late 1700s prevented Derek from seeing that guerilla warfare violated the gentlemanly code of conduct in war. As Wineburg points out by way of context for this case study, in the 1600s the Puritan encounter with the Pequot’s use of such guerilla tactics prompted shock and surprise among the Puritans over violations of warring in the prescribed European manner. Unaware of the ignominy attached to guerilla tactics, Derek missed an opportunity to learn from the past. Wineburg:

The colonists’ behavior did not cause [Derek] to stand back and say, “Wow, what a strange group of people. What on earth would make them act this way?” Such a reaction might lead him to contemplate codes of behavior-duty, honor, dying for a cause-foreign to his world. The documents [on the Battle of Lexington] did not spur Derek to ask himself new questions or consider new dimensions of human experience, Instead, his existing beliefs shaped the information he encountered so that the new conformed to the shape of the already known. Derek read these documents but he learned little from them.20

The fact that the sort of deep historical understanding Wineburg is after was not present naturally in Derek’s reading of the past, exemplifies what Wineburg means by historical thinking as an “unnatural act.” Historical understanding, he argues, “actually goes against the grain of how we ordinarily think,” and is one of the reasons schools resort to the much easier route of learning “names, dates and stories.” For knowing these facts is much easier than trying to change “the basic mental structures we use to grasp the meaning of the past.” In his effort to chart “the future of teaching the past,” changing these mental predispositions is precisely what he says must be done. His cases studies and interviews with student and teachers of history in Historical Thinking are meant to demonstrate how it could be done.21

American past as mystery

The idea of history as a bloodless succession of dates, facts, people and events also offers little attraction to David Gerwin and Jack Zevin. Their alternative is a program to teach the history of America as mystery. Like Wineburg, Foner, and the contributors to Rethinking American History. Gerwin and Zevin view the past as living. Accordingly, accounts of it are in no way settled matters. Rejecting the idea of a frozen past, their project proceeds from a recontextualization of historical facts as “truth” to facts as “evidence,” for evidence suggests something “unfinished” requiring further inquiry. The bulk of Teaching U.S. History as Mystery is comprised of detailed case studies that are also lesson plans to assist teachers in leading their students to a deeper, more nuanced appreciation of The Vietnam War, Women in the Old West-Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane, and the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Heming.

The idea of mystery for Gerwin and Zevin suggests the image of the sleuth trying to solve a case. The mysteries they present for their readers arise sometimes because the evidence itself is ambiguous; at other times they emerge because the available evidence does not answer the questions one puts to them. Like Wineburg, Gerwin and Zevin are interested in complicating the past, not of course in a bewildering sense but in a way that produces an appreciation for a multiplicity of perspectives and subtle distinctions. Here again the fault to be avoided is a reductionist view of the past. In each case study, the authors distinguish minor, medium and major mysteries and provide questions for each category. A minor mystery in the case of the Vietnam war, for example, concerns an account of what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin, an incident that was an immediate cause of the escalation of American involvement in Vietnam. A medium mystery emerges from asking whether or not the Vietnam War was constitutional. Finally, major mysteries of the Vietnam War lead to an examination of the Domino Theory, reasons why America lost the war, who benefited from the war, the meaning of the war for America and the lessons learned from fighting it.22

In the quest for deep historical understanding, history as mystery leads students to the construction of informed and supportable arguments. The authors lay out rules of evidence, an element of historical pedagogy that is sadly neglected and typically of interest only to students training to be professional historians. Teaching U.S. History as Mystery is directed mainly at primary, middle and secondary school teachers, but its methods commend themselves to undergraduate teachers of history as well. Disciplined and civil argument is the sine qua non of historical understanding. Historical truth is not objective; one tends toward the truth in history, and such truths are shaped as much by inquiring historians as the subject they have before them. It is difficult to think of a better way to realize Foner’s and Wineburg’s objective for the elevation of historical discourse than to introduce students as early as possible to the art of argument, and to show by example that much of what passes for argument in American pubic life is often no more than verbal bludgeoning, little interested in straining toward understanding.

Reading Teaching U.S. History as Mystery alongside Wineburg’s Historical Thinking, one is aware that Gerwin’s and Zevin’s well thought out set of questions for each case study can be highly effective in encouraging students’ engagement with the past. But the case of Derek looms large insofar as it reminds us that if attempts are not also made to balance present concerns and sensibilities with an interest in entering imaginatively into the past events they are studying, then, students will, like Derek, remain unfazed by their reading of primary historical documents. That said, Teaching U.S. History as Mystery offers a concrete, practical way to introduce students to the great breadth and depth of the past-in Wineburg’s words “to tolerate complexity and cherish nuance,” and thereby elevate history once again to the ranks of a truly humanizing discipline.


1 Thomas Bender, Preface to Thomas Bender, ed., Rethinking American History in Global Age (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2002), vii.

2 Prasenjit Duara, “Transnationalism and the Challenge to National Histories,” and Walter Johnson, “Time and Revolution in African America: Temporality and the History of Atlantic Slavery,” in Bender, ed., Rethinking American History, 26, 161.

3 Thomas Bender, Introduction, in Bender, ed., Rethinking American History, 6.

4 David Thelen, “Making History and Making the United States,” Journal of American Studies 32 (1998): 373-397.

5 David Potter’s essay is referenced in David Hollinger, “The Historian’s Use of the United States and Vice Versa,” in Bender, ed., Rethinking American History, 381. For the original see David Potter, “The Historian’s Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa,” American Historical Review 67 (1962): 924-50.

6 Christopher Dawson, Progress and Religion (London: Sheed & Ward, 1929), 30-1.

7 For more on this view, see John Lukacs, The Passing of the Modern Age (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1970); Lukacs’s more recent, At the End of an Age (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), and Montserrat Guibernau and John Hutchinson, Understanding Nationalism (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2001).

8 Duara, “Transnationalism and the Challenge to National Histories,” in Bender, ed., Rethinking American History, 31.

9 Bender, Introduction, in Bender, ed., Rethinking American History, 19.

10 David Hollinger, “The Historian’s Use of the United States and Vice Versa,” in Bender, ed., Rethinking American History, 382.

11 Ron Robin, “The Exhaustion of Enclosures: A Critique of Internationalization,” in Bender, Rethinking American History, 373.

12 David Hollinger, “The Historian’s Use of the United States and Vice Versa,” in Bender, ed., Rethinking American History, 383.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid., 388-91.

15 Eric Foner, Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002), 49-74.

16 Ibid., 70-1.

17 Foner, Who Owns History?, i-xix.

18 Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), xii, 4-7.

19 Ibid., 5-6.

20 Ibid., 7-9.

21 Ibid., 7.

22 David Gerwin and Jack Zevin, Teaching U.S. History as Mystery (Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 2003)., 27-50.

Dominic A. Aquila

Dr. Aquila is the Assistant Dean of Liberal Arts at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Michigan.

Copyright Schoolcraft College Fall 2003

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