The Secret Syllabus

Tags: Aqua Teen Hunger Force; all Rauchway, all the time; is it good? Sir, it is pie.

Doesn’t that have a nice ring to it? The Secret Syllabus. It sounds like one of those erudite, but not too erudite, thrillers by photogenic Harvard undergrads who somehow score million-dollar advances for their first novels. Alas, it’s really just a blog post by me.

Every course we teach has two syllabi, I think. There’s the visible one, the actual list of readings and topics we assign to our students. And then there’s the secret syllabus, made up of whatever assortment of books and articles we also happen to be reading while teaching the course. These are the various bees and bats in our belfries and bonnets, the things we’re chewing on as we walk into the classroom, the new interpretations and the rediscovered classics that get us fired up about a topic we may have taught several times before.

Ideally, one syllabus will bear some resemblance to the other. In my first year of grad school, a Certain Eminent Historian sometimes came to our methods seminar more interested in talking about the previous night’s Chicago Hope than The Rosicrucian Enlightenment or Time On The Cross. I don’t think our Eminent Historian had any particular affinity for Mandy Patinkin, but it was the 1990s, and that’s what people watched on Wednesday nights. Unless of course they were dim-witted graduate students busy plodding through Fogel and Engerman. His Eminence was pretty disgusted with us when he realized nobody was prepared to discuss last night’s hospital drama. Was he more up to date with pop culture than his twenty-something grad students? What part of “Must-See TV” didn’t we understand? I mean, it was a given that he’d be smarter than any of us, but he seemed a little put out by the indignity of being cooler than us too.

Truth be told, I always enjoyed that seminar. And who am I to cast snark at someone of that stature? When I win a wall full of Bancrofts and Pulitzers (do Bancrofts and Pulitzers hang on a wall, or sit on a shelf?), then maybe I can turn my seminars over to discussing Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Until that day, I try to keep the extracurricular material I bring to class in the same general area as the topic at hand.

A friend told me not to put the books and articles I currently find most interesting on my syllabus. I probably find them interesting, he said, because they build on, complicate, or reverse the standard histories I’ve learned. My students are still learning that basic history. So the thing to do is to assign them the foundational works as reading, let those sink in, and then save the cool twists and surprises for the classroom. Best of all, he added, my students might give me credit for all those brilliant new ideas.

Three weeks into my new seminar on twentieth century U.S. history, the secret syllabus is pretty simple: all Eric Rauchway, all the time. Because this is my secret syllabus, Eric isn’t getting any extra book sales or royalties. But he does deserve some kind of teaching credit for making me look so good. Our very first class was on the September 11th anniversary, which occasioned talk of the twentieth century’s historical “bookends.” As events near the start of the century that offered possible pairings with the 9-11 attack, I mentioned the explosion of the USS Maine, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, and the assassination of William McKinley in September 1901–the latter suggested and explicated, of course, by Rauchway’s ferociously readable Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America.

After that, we moved on to the United States’ place in the world around 1900. The students read primary sources from the debates over American imperialism in the Philippines, debates that feel excruciatingly current today. My favorite piece is probably Mark Twain’s sardonic “To The Person Sitting In Darkness,” and not just because I’ve adopted the phrase “Is it good? Sir, it is pie” for any and all occasions. That part near the end about the vacant seat in the trinity of national gods? “Washington, the Sword of the Liberator; Lincoln, the Slave’s Broken Chains; the Master, the Chains Repaired.” It gives me genuine chills. “It will give the Business a splendid new start,” Twain concludes darkly. “You will see.”

But the science I dropped on our discussion came from Rauchway’s new Blessed Among Nations: How The World Made America, which I pestered our librarians into rush ordering in time for this semester. Thomas Bender’s similarly-titled A Nation Among Nations, which we discussed at Cliopatria back in April, uses transnational history to argue against American exceptionalism. Rauchway, on the other hand, finds in transnational history the most plausible explanation for America’s exceptional qualities, and more importantly, for its own fervent belief in American exceptionalism, that I’ve yet seen. The idea that America might actually be that way for a reason hit my Canadian students like a clap of thunder.

Next week, our class will get back to domestic politics, tackling that old standby, “who were the Progressives?” And what do you know, Eric’s obliged me with this post. “What [the Progressives] could agree on,” he writes, “was the need … not for progress toward anything in particular, but progress away from something–away from the existing political-economic system. … The sense of progress as movement-away as opposed to movement-toward may not seem like much of a basis for anything, but it provided the foundation for the most fertile period in American thought since the Revolution … and for the most successful of third parties since the Republicans.” At the end, Rauchway promises to explain more–how did Republican Progressives end up to the left of liberals?–in his “next book but one” (so in addition to being brilliant, he’s got his next two books planned out, at least). But he’ll give us a sneak preview in a blog post if anyone asks. Well, I’ll bite, Eric. But what would really help me out would be if you blogged about Progressivism next week, and then about World War I the week after, and then spent a couple of weeks on business and culture in the 1920s, and then did a post or two on the New Deal…

1 Comment

  1. What a great post. I think Bancroft prizes amount to a pat on the back, no? I’ll bust out my Aqua Teen DVD’s and be ready just in case.

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