Teaching American History – My 20th Century Syllabus

6 Jan

Just the other day, I sent my students (and hello to any of you reading this!) the syllabus for this semester in American History 2 (the second year undergraduate survey course that I’m a teaching assistant/tutor on.) Now that we have covered the broad sweep of American history from the Colonial period to the end of Reconstruction, it’s time to move into the twentieth century.

One thing I am very keen on is giving students the chance to take classes that appeal to them, as long as they fit within the overall course. So at the end of last semester, I offered some choices in what classes to take. Populism was quite roundly rejected in favour of a more detailed study of Progressivism. Which is something of a shame, as I had just managed to pick up a bargain priced second hand copy of The Populist Vision by Charles Postel!  Both tutorial groups were almost universal in their desire to have a class each on the early Cold War abroad and the early Cold War at home, as opposed to the somewhat challenging task of rolling the two into one. Classes on Nixon and Reagan were also universally popular.

Although there was some demand for a class entitled ‘the Nuclear 1960s’ (which I ran last year), there wasn’t quite enough demand to make it worthwhile dropping something else. Although it would be personally great to have a class in my own specialised area, there’s also very little chance of anything to do with nuclear issues coming up in the exam! It was therefore my feeling that the students would be better served by not having this particular class.

The tutorial list below manages – quite successfully I think, although you may have other opinions – to combine the wishes of the students, the key learning areas of the course, and my own personal likes in terms of teaching material.

1) American Imperialism – The Spanish-American War, the Phillipines, and Race

2) Progressivism – Social and political reform movements

3) The 1920s – Women in America post the 19th Amendment. There was some demand for a class that looked solely at Prohibition (gangsters seemed to be a very popular topic!) The greater demand, however, was for an examination of the place of women in American politics and society post the 19th Ammendment. For me, this is the more valuable area of study for a second year undergraduate class. But, to appease those who like Prohibition and bootlegging, I’ve included some readings on the role of women in Prohibition, both on the pro-temperance side and on the illegal alcohol dealing side.

4) The New Deal – The implications and effects thereof. This week includes a debate on the notion that the New Deal was an unfair and unreasonable interference by the Federal government in the affiars of individuals and businesses. In order to allow the students to see both sides of this argument, I’ve listed some fairly contentious historiography, including the widely criticised (but also widely praised in some quarters) The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, by Amity Shlaes. This class will also enourage the students to think about how the political leanings and biases of the historian might influence their interpretation of events.

5) The Early Cold War Abroad – The formation of early Cold War foreign policy. Yes, I get them to read (parts of) NSC-68. Of course, I don’t force them to read the entire thing. That would be crazy. NSC-68 is such an important document that it is vital that they have a basic understanding of where it came from, what it said, and what events surrounded it.

6) The Early Cold War at Home – Anti-communism, McCarthyism, and scares of various kinds. I’m thoroughly looking forward to this class, as I am very keen to see what they make of one of the assigned readings, the classic ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics‘ by the late Richard Hofstadter. I also hope to bring in – within the broader discussion of the times – how homosexuality was positioned alongside the anti-communist crusade in the so-called ‘Lavender Scare.’

7) The Civil Rights Movement – Successes, failures, and impact

8) Vietnam and Dispatches by Michael Herr – The Vietnam War, protest, and journalism

9) Richard Nixon – Nixon, his successes and his manifest failures. Every single student wanted class on Nixon. I think that many have seen films such as Frost/Nixon and have a desire to learn more about the man and his times. Or maybe it is just that this ‘most peculiar and haunted of Presidents’ casts such an attractive spell?

10) Ronald Reagan – The resurgence of conservatism, and did Reagan ‘win’ the Cold War?

So, there you have it. I’m sure that there are many other areas which could be brought into the syllabus and many different ways of teaching the history of twentieth century America. In broad terms, though, I feel that this set of tutorials – accompanied by our excellent lecture series – provides a good foundation for future study.

6 Responses to “Teaching American History – My 20th Century Syllabus”

  1. Soren at 2:44 pm #

    I think part of the Nixon fascination is just how unique a figure he is in American political landscape. He’s a transitional figure in the restructuring of the party system (as well as one of the principal instigators of the shift), a completely amoral centrist who was quite possibly the most hated president since Buchanan – and unlike Buchanan, he was actually good at the job.

  2. alasdair sinclair at 3:20 am #

    Seems like a pretty good line-up. 🙂

    I’m a little surprised that the space race wasn’t also popularly requested. I guess gangsters > astronauts.

    • malcolmcraig at 4:09 pm #

      You know, they never even mentioned it! Although I would personally find it very interesting to do a class on the space race, there’s so much other stuff to cover that – like the potential class on nuclear issues – it has to fall by the wayside.


  1. Teaching American History: My pre-20th Century Syllabus « theatomicage -

    […] I’ve mentioned before when talking about my 20th century syllabus, I currently teach on the highly regarded American History 2 (AH2) course here at the University of […]

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