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Nothing Wrong with Teaching What's Right About U.S.

Historians have focused on America's weaknesses, not its strengths.

December 30, 2001|ELIZABETH COBBS HOFFMAN

SAN DIEGO — When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, most Sovietologists were caught flat-footed. With their lives' work based on the assumption of an enduring communist state, they were ill-prepared to offer explanations when V.I. Lenin's legacy went poof. Many American intellectuals find themselves similarly empty-handed after Sept. 11.

The fall of the twin towers shook the twin assumptions of a generation of scholarship: that America's relations with the Third World are essentially wicked and that our country's domestic history can only be understood as a continuing battle over race, class and gender. For more than 30 years, scholars on the cutting edge of academe have helped students learn how to identify where the U.S. fell short of its ideals, when it served only its economic interests and how it turned a blind eye to those crushed by its national ambitions.

Then came Sept. 11 and the spontaneous, heartfelt flag-waving that followed. The America that academics had persistently characterized as "wrong" had been wronged. Students returned to their classes changed. But they found minimal guidance if they were looking for an intellectual bridge between love of country and a sophisticated understanding of the nation's place in the world. A lot of intellectuals burned that bridge decades ago.

There are numerous examples of the castigating tendency of American scholars, but my personal favorite is an anthology I reviewed a few years back. This textbook gave undergraduates three articles on World War II. The first was on Japanese internment, the second on segregation of black troops in the South and the third on harassment of Italian Americans. Every article discussed an aspect of the war that was absolutely true, yet, collectively, they made for a portrait of the war that was fundamentally false. No Adolf Hitler, no Emperor Hirohito, no Holocaust--only an imperfect America battling its demons.

Historians who step out of this mold risk censure from academia's ivory tower. Take professional attitudes toward Stephen Ambrose, arguably the nation's most widely read historian, whose books frequently reach the best-seller list. Ambrose is often disparaged as a superficial popularizer, but one senses that what really bugs many fellow academics is his admiring portrayal of the national experienceand virtual silence on topics of race, class and gender.

Or take the critiques of Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis, who for years has suggested that something besides simple "American arrogance" accounts for the Cold War. In conversation, and sometimes in print, other historians often dismiss this careful scholar as an apologist for the powers that be.

I understand modern historians' dilemma. As a fortysomething person, I grew up with Che Guevara, Bob Dylan and the Vietnam War. I come from the activist left, and I am proud of that heritage. I remain a liberal. Like many of my colleagues, I hesitate to write books or give lectures that might appear to whitewash America's character flaws or its choices as a superpower. But it is time to admit that this generation of historians--with some notable exceptions--has yet to deliver to students, and to the public, a usable and balanced interpretation of the past.

Too many researchers have done a better job documenting the republic's weaknesses than revealing its strengths. This lopsidedness ill serves both foreign and domestic audiences. Our academic communities produce most of the world's scholarship on the United States. Too often they implicitly encourage critics in other countries to assume that America is culpable for all that goes wrong. Foreign readers sometimes parrot the very things we have said about ourselves. As teachers, we urge youth to learn from the country's errors, but offer few lessons in what it has done right. How are they supposed to build the future with only the blunt instrument of disillusionment?

I returned to the classroom Sept. 12 profoundly aware that I had not done enough to prepare students to think complexly and comparatively. My dismay deepened when one of them came back from a teach-in I had recommended convinced that the real reason for the U.S. war in Afghanistan is to build an oil pipeline across the country.

Since Sept. 11, I've been editing old lecture notes and asking students new questions. Last week, at semester's end in my foreign-policy class, one student summarized what she had learned by saying that the United States does not help other nations just for humanitarian reasons. I agreed with her and asked if she thought the same statement might apply to Mexico, from which she commutes to school in San Diego.

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