Only Yesterday: On Teaching Very Recent US History

Only Yesterday: On Teaching Very Recent US History September 12, 2016

I wrote recently about the problems of defining the major themes in recent American history. That actually gets to a much bigger issue, namely how do we teach that “Late Modern” era in universities and colleges. If I can borrow the title of the classic 1931 book by Frederick Lewis Allen on the 1920s, how do we teach about our own Only Yesterday? Or rather, just why don’t we teach that?

Only Yesterday was a stunningly rich social and cultural history of a decade that Allen was already treating as a historical era worthy of study, and in 1940, he performed a similar service for the 1930s in his Since Yesterday. Those efforts may seem obvious and natural, as we today know the 1920s and 1930s constitute legitimate history. But that differs sharply from how we treat our “yesterdays.”

Let me give you an example I happen to know first hand. For many years, I taught in the excellent History Department at Penn State University, which has an outstanding faculty, and a special strength in US history. The fact that I am discussing it here does not mean that I am criticizing it, but rather because it is an example I am at home with. Penn State offers a range of junior-senior level undergraduate courses in US history, which focus on particular periods. One course for instance covers the period 1877-1917, another covers America Between the Wars 1919-41, and there are also courses on specific eras, like World War II, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and “the Sixties.” All this is pretty standard for large departments.

But just as typical is the odd treatment of the history since 1945, which is the subject of an umbrella course called “Recent American History.” In other words, earlier courses address periods of perhaps 25 or forty years, but “Recent” is now up to seventy years, and (by definition) growing daily. History just keeps on happening. The “since 1945” rubric made wonderful sense when the course was originally designed – in the 1970s, perhaps? – but it is now very questionable. Do many other departments do better here? I doubt it.

As I say, plenty of post-1945 material is covered in specific topic courses, and colleges might for instance have a course on the Cold War. But what about that long and undoubtedly critical era of US history that runs from (say) Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War, and the Bicentennial, through the present day? That is roughly a forty year era, or put another way, one-sixth of the total history of the United States as an independent nation, and most major departments basically ignore it.

I admit to a self-interest here, as I have done a lot of writing on this era, for instance in my book Decade of Nightmares (2006) which covered the era 1975-1985. I have also taught several courses on these years, including the 1975-85 era, and also, separately, “the Seventies,” and “Reagan’s America” (These links will take you to the syllabi). But let’s put that in context. The Reagan presidency ended 27 years ago. Let’s think of Frederick Allen in 1931, and imagine him writing a history of the US that ran only up to 1904, because obviously, nothing interesting or important had happened since then. Unthinkable!

Or to take another analogy, people were already doing courses on “the Sixties” within a few years of the end of that decade. Can we imagine anyone today publishing a new Only Yesterday, about those thrilling days of yesteryear, America since 9/11? I can hear the objections right now: but that’s not history! And moreover, social and cultural history aren’t real history anyway. (In fairness, let me make an exception here: back in 2001, Haynes Johnson did a book on The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years, but that approach was and remains exceptional).

So if we say – as we seem to be saying – that American history effectively ends in 1975, what are we missing? To say the least, there would be ample material for a course that covered the 1975-2010 period, taking in 9/11 and the War on Terror, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the drug war, the financial crises of 2008-2009, the shale oil revolution, the election of Obama, the technological revolutions wrought by computers and cellphones, the cultural revolution manifested in same sex marriage, furious debates over global climate change – and so on. Oh, and did anyone notice that the Cold War ended in 1989-91, and miraculously, without our having blown up the world?

We are telling our undergraduate students that, by definition, history is something that ended long before they were born.

Now, I should say that since 2012, Penn State has included on its books a course that I constructed, entitled Late Modern America, 1975-2008: Society, Culture and Politics. (Full disclosure: I did not do the bureaucratic heavy lifting that actually got the course approved!) Even so, this is a graduate offering, rather than undergraduate, and as such it will reach only a limited audience of at most five to ten students at any given time. Nor is it offered more frequently than once every few years, possibly only once a decade.

Before anyone says it, I know that “Late Modern” is an odd term, almost suggesting that the story is about to come to an end, and this is the closing segment before the final titles roll. It’s rather like the socialists who spoke dreamily for years about Late Capitalism. But we have to call this period something, and that is the best suggestion currently on offer.

Why don’t most universities teach this material, at least not at undergraduate level, and not in any systematic form comparable to (say) the Gilded Age and Progressive Era? Turf wars might be something to do with it, in that Political Science departments might regard anything so current as their terrain.

I also think, though, that there is a political dimension, in that humanities professors tend to be on the liberal Left. To oversimplify, they were and are very happy to talk about what happened in the 1960s and early 1970s, but then America seemed to turn Right and go to Hell, and they just don’t like talking about that stuff as anything serious. Is my view here unfair? Perhaps. But we need some kind of explanation.

I have actually heard the explanation that the recent period is not much covered because the books on it aren’t out there. If that was ever true, it absolutely has not been for many years now. The 1970s through the 1990s are overrun with good historical studies. In no particular order, we look at scholarship by Rick Perlstein, John Patrick Diggins, Meg Jacobs, David Farber, Christian Caryl, H. W. Brands, Godfrey Hodgson, John Ehrman, Gil Troy, and Bruce J. Schulman. Judith Stein’s Pivotal Decade (2010) is subtitled “How the United States traded factories for finance in the seventies.” Hmm, the 1970s as a “pivotal decade,” eh? In Stayin’ Alive (2010), Jefferson Cowie traces the rapid social changes of the 1970s, and what he calls “the last days of the working class.” Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt (2011) is excellent on the interplay of religion and modern politics.

For the Reagan era, we have Steven F. Hayward’s epic two volume study of The Age of Reagan (2001–9) and Doug Rossinow’s The Reagan Era (2015). Much of the writing on the post-1992 period is highly partisan, and must be treated with caution. However, good starting points include Sean Wilentz, The Age of Reagan (2008), which despite its title covers the era up to 2008. For the 2008 presidential campaign itself, see John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, Game Change (2010); and Jeffrey C. Alexander, The Performance of Politics (2010). Halperin and Heilemann also studied the 2012 election in Double Down (2014). Barry Eichengreen, Hall of Mirrors (2014) is an innovative comparison of the twin economic crises of the 1930s and 2007-2008. Charles R. Morris, Comeback (2013) underlines the epochal significance of the recent shale boom in natural gas and oil. On recent social movements, see now Sarah Jaffe’s Necessary Trouble.

There are countless studies of specific aspects of the post-1975 era, going far beyond party politics and mainstream political history. These include hundreds of major books on economics and energy policy, foreign policy and diplomacy, criminal justice and policing, popular culture, social history, gender history, gay history, the history of race and ethnicity, sports history, environmental history, and of course the history of technology and science. And I am just scratching the surface here.

And there is another reason why I think “Late Modern” courses are desirable and essential, and that the whole field demands to be built up. Everyone knows that history jobs in universities are very hard to find, and that situation is not going to change dramatically. In some fields, such as the US Civil War era, the supply of candidates massively and notoriously outstrips demand. Where such candidates still remain scarce is in the Late Modern field. As courses and emphases develop in this area – as they surely have to – could this become the final frontier of academic employment in History departments?

Now, this might be counter-intuitive in one way. I was just reading a provocative op-ed in the New York Times by Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, “Why Did We Stop Teaching Political History?” This notes and laments the sharp decline in US political history jobs. However, the kind of history I am talking about certainly need not be political strictly defined, and should and must incorporate social, cultural, and technological dimensions (again, following Frederick Lewis Allen’s pioneering example). How you could leave the political side of things out of that, I am not sure.

Finally, this is a great example where an offering in one department would be immensely useful for other academic units. If for instance you are doing English and studying Contemporary Literature, then having that social and political history background would be very useful indeed.


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