Meme-o To Myself

Tenured Radical grabbed this meme, “Why I Teach History,”, from Free Exchange on Campus.  She came up with five very cheerful answers, asking, “what better time than the beginning of the semester, in the middle of what is for some of us the dead of winter, to spread such an optimistic meme?”  Then she tagged me and four other bloggers–Clio Bluestocking got her answer in first (what a total brownnoser).  Historiann is not particularly optomistic about teaching, and is feeling grouchily Hobbesish rather than delightfully Lockean these days, and anyway TR and Clio B. took all the good answers.  But, here goes.  I’ve modified the question to make it more specific to one of my major subject areas, which is at the center of several disinfomation campaigns.

god-bless-america.jpgWhy I Teach (Early American) History:

1.         Because I love my country, and know that it is strong enough to reckon honestly with the fact that it hasn’t always lived up to its own ideals, and that that reckoning will only make it better and stronger.  Contrary to right-wing propagandists, most professional American historians have devoted their lives to researching and teaching a subject they love.  Historiann has always thought that the accusation that the Professoriate were a substantial subset of the hate-America-first crowd was clearly a projection.  Only right-wingers appear to enjoy obsessing about people and ideas they hate.

2.         Because there is so much historical woo out there, especially about the U.S. Constitution and the “Founding Fathers.”  You know what I’m talking about-people who insist that the United States is a Christian nation, or that the U.S. Constitution should be amended to conform to God’s laws, or that the Establishment Clause really doesn’t say what it says.  It’s remarkable how few Americans have actually read even their Bill of Rights, let alone the U.S. Constitution.  (Historiann always carries a copy in her purse to settle classroom debates and bar bets.)

I’ve borrowed the term “woo” from WhiteCoat underground, an anonymous M.D. internist-operated blog devoted to exposing medical and scientific misinformation that’s ususally in the service of snake-oil “cures.”  “Pal MD,” as he calls himself, is a very funny and appropriately snarky guy.  “Historical woo” is the use of half-truths and dishonesty to promulgate a highly self-interested version of history.  It’s only a coincidence that John Yoo, which rhymes with woo, is one of the biggest historical woo peddlers in recent American history.  (You remember Yoo?  You know, torture memo Yoo, “unitary executive” Yoo, that guy?)  And yes, it’s an embarrassment to us all that Yoo was a History major.

3.         Because college students need to be exposed to at least one class that allows them to see the longue durée of American history.  The U.S. National period is only 231 years (so far), and contrary to all of that high-falutin’ rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, the United States didn’t invent itself overnight.  All of us live with the consequences of our (multiple, different) colonial pasts.  For example:  the centrality of beef in the American diet, established by the first English colonists, has had enormous impact on our environment, economy, and health, and it continues to drive the misuse of Western lands and exploitative labor practices 400 years after the first cattle set hooves in what is now the United States.  The practice of African chattel slavery, as developed and refined in the colonial period, is at the root of the African American experience.  And the fact that women’s wages still lag significantly behind men’s wages is harder to naturalize or explain away by “choice” if you consider that it’s only been 160 years or so since free married women were themselves property, and could therefore actually own their labor and their own wages.    

Anyhoo, that’s my two cents.  Edge of the American West, Knitting Clio, and Squadratomagico:  tag, you’re it!

UPDATE:  Hey, Religion in American History, you’re tagged, too.

0 thoughts on “Meme-o To Myself

  1. Pingback: Touch the puppet head. « The Edge of the American West

  2. As the one who started this meme and is happily following it around the Internets, I can assuredly tell all who get tagged that it is because you are cool, totally cool!

    We are going to try to catalog all the responses in one place so everyone who participated can see them all in one place, but let me just say that they are great, including the whole set that TR got going. I particularly love reason number one here.

    Thanks for joining in and just in case you missed it Historiann, your wonderful state just got another “intellectual diversity” bill introduced thanks to Lynne Cheney’s group–details are over at Free Exchange.

    Thanks again–



  3. If you’re teaching early American — i.e. before the founding of the United States — how is that nationalist? Am I correct in reading the “love my country” stuff as related to our beloved republic turned empire and not to a country in a more general geographic or maybe metaphysical sense. I am concerned that historiann might be imposing the United States on the history of America. Or should we take the flag waving as a rhetorical strategy to wrest away the claim to patriotism from the right?


  4. Rad–good points. You’ve caught me working that same teleology that I complain about when I have to teach anything after 1776 or 1789. The flag waving is kind of a rhetorical strategy, but it’s also kind of true. I go to the rodeo every summer and cry when they play the national anthem for our republic turned empire.

    Craig–thanks for letting me know. I’ll keep an eye on the bill. It’s good that we’ve now got an all-D house, senate, and governor’s mansion. Schultheis and the other bill sponsor don’t carry a lot of weight with the crowd in charge that want to deal with, you know, REAL problems.

    And, p.s. to Clio Brownnoser: I have only two words for you: Br*wn and N*s*r. Brownnoser!


  5. I love the concept of historical woo. But just for reminding us all, it’s not only John Yoo who was a history major, but his big boss. Alas, the Yale history department has much to answer for. (Although, from what we can tell, they gave him Cs, which means they knew how little he’d learned.)


  6. Pingback: Teaching History « The Edge of the American West

  7. Great post Historiann!

    However, if the English colonists hadn’t introduced cattle, they still would be found in the Spanish colonies–Colorado and everywhere south and west of there.

    Your first point suggests the sort of true patriotism we don’t hear about much in the MSM.

    How do we get from love of America to nationalism? Just because most folks use these terms interchangeably does not mean that they are identical. Ask a few Native American Indian soldiers why they are willing to die, and you’ll quickly run into the idea that the land they defend (even if they do not agree that this particular war has anything to do with American land) was theirs before there was a United States, and still will be theirs when the United States no longer exists (if it ever comes to that).


  8. Thanks, James–you know, as I was writing about cows, I had a sneaking suspicion that the Spanish brought them too…sorry for the Eastern/Anglocentric version of bovine history! And you’re right–Native Americans still serve in huge numbers in the armed forces even today–I think that given their representation in the U.S. population as a whole that they serve more disproportionately than any other American ethnic group.


  9. Even so, your point about beef, the English, and health/environmental issues stands.

    It’s also worth remembering that the English and Spanish raised beef in contrasting ways. The infamous Billy the Kid became an outlaw defending the Spanish way, and then couldn’t adapt when his side lost. In other words, the English way of beef production contributed in no small measure to the expressions of violence that became our Western mythology (including Reagan on horseback, and George W. giving Saddam till noon to get out of town). Your point about English cows goes to the heart of America so deeply that McDonalds and all the evils they represent begin to look like minor footnotes.

    I like beef, but much prefer salmon and bison and venison–all of which are healthier for the human body and for the land. As one example of efforts to mitigate what we’ve lost, hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest have been donating salmon carcasses in recent years to groups that spread the dead fish along the edges of rivers where they once spawned so that MDN (marine derived nitrogen) might continue to support the trees and grasses and critters that require such sustenance.


  10. Historiann –

    Do you really believe in “memes”? Should not human thoughts be imagined as something greater than self-replicating parasites gorging on zombie brains?

    I’ll take Auerbach’s Mimesis over “mimetics” any day.


  11. Oh, I love the ‘historical woo.’ The concept, not the practice. As a Europeanist, I too spend lots of time de-wooing people. Un-wooing? I’m certainly anti-woo.

    Yeah, the bit about our Christian founding fathers always makes me wild. I’d learned that they were primarily Deist, and was befuddled to hear apparently sane US types arguing that Deists were basically Christian. I’d been out of the country for a while, and thought there’d be a historiographical paradigm shift. Glad to know you guys are out there trying to de/un-woo people.


  12. Pingback: squadratomagico » Blog Archive » teaching meme

Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.