Why Historians Should Not Abandon a National Narrative

three-immigrantsIn my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America, I wrote:

Philip’s “way of improvement” was by no means a smooth one.  His passion for “home,” which I use broadly in the title of this book to encompass not only his longings for his Cohansey homeland but also his desire for friendship with his future wife (who lived in Cohansey) and his deep sense of evangelical Calvinist piety (which informed the culture of Cohansey and his Christian calling to the ministry), frequently got in the way of his attempts at Enlightenment self-improvement.  In the messiness of everyday life the Enlightenment ideal was often impractical.  It demanded a style of living that only a handful of elite intellectuals could attain.  Max Hilbert Boehm, writing in 1932, reminded us that cosmopolitanism has always existed in “compromise with nationalism, race consciousness, professional interests, caste feeling, family pride, and even egotism.”  However, it is precisely these tensions that make Philip’s story so interesting.  His attempt at easing them is the focus of this book, the very essence of what I have described as Fithian’s “rural Enlightenment.”  My study of this ordinary farmer argues that an Enlightenment life was complex and complicated.  It could be lived locally–even in rural and remote places where the dominant social institutions were churches, where modern and naturalistic explanations of the world often merged with theological convictions held by people of faith, where the lines between ambitious self-improvement and Christian vocation might sometimes be blurred, and where circles of friends improved themselves through conversation amid the regular demands of the agricultural calendar.

As some of the readers of this blog are aware, The Way of Improvement Leads Home argued that people living in the eighteenth century could not easily separate their cosmopolitan ambitions from their local attachments.  In an earlier piece I published in The Journal of American History (2003) I wrote:

Fithian’s story reminds us that the abstract, urban, and elite-centered republic of letters that has so captivated early American historians over the past two decades had a real impact on individual human experience. While the Thomas Paines and Benjamin Franklins of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world could move freely within that republic, there were others who struggled with the implications that citizenship in this imagined community might have for their commitments to family, friends, faith, tradition, and place. Throughout his short life, Fithian asked not only how he might improve himself but also what might be permanently lost in the process. He rarely acted without considering carefully the answers to both of those queries.

On one level, Fithian’s attempt to live Enlightenment values in a given place define24172-fithian2bbookd by a given tradition resonates with recent theoretical work on contemporary cosmopolitanism. Today, scholars have largely rejected the notion that a true “citizen of the world” exists without some connection to a specific locale that might be called home or a specific set of beliefs that might be informed by tradition. Theorists now realize that even amid advances in air travel, the rise of international markets, and the technological creation of a “global village,” a pure cosmopolitanism, or a truly “placeless” individual, does not and cannot exist. Yet those who write about such issues of self-identity today always make the cosmopolitan ideal their point of scholarly departure. They begin with world citizenship–the highest of all moral values–and then make the necessary concessions to the particularities of region, nation, and family. The result is what has recently been described as “rooted cosmopolitanism,” a cosmopolitanism that “is there,” or an “actually existing cosmopolitanism.”

Many middling, relatively unprivileged, and educated early Americans living in places teetering between the medieval and the modern, however, understood local attachments–not world citizenship–as the necessary starting point in the construction of a modern self. Rather than rejecting commitments to the particularities of place and tradition, as Wood has suggested, good patriots and republicans such as Fithian strove to participate in the eighteenth-century equivalent of intellectual and cultural globalization in the context of their locales. Fithian’s Christianity, networks of friends, letter-writing circles, admonishing societies, and reading groups were all means of being cosmopolitan in a given place. He thus pursued a “cosmopolitan rootedness” over a “rooted cosmopolitanism.” In the end, Fithian’s life challenges us to be ever more mindful that the ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment could have a profound influence on the remote precincts of British America and the social worlds of the people who inhabited them. For him, “rural Enlightenment” was not an oxymoron.

I have been thinking a lot about this in light of some minor push-back I have been receiving on my recent post “Is There a Tension Between History Education and Identity Politics?” Some of that push-back has come in response to my suggestion that American historians should not abandon a national narrative.  Here is what I wrote in that post:

I also still believe–old fashioned as it might sound–in a national narrative. As an American historian I think it is more important than ever that my students understand the story of the United States and the ways in which the values put forth by the founders have and have not been applied in our attempts to create “a more perfect union.” If political jealousy is indeed a laudable passion, then citizens need to know what to be jealous about. Yes, I understand the way that the liberal identity politics of race, class, and gender, and the internationalization of American history, has shaped my field.  I have learned much from this approach.  But I am coming around more and more everyday to the civic role that U.S. history plays in the strengthening of our democracy.

This, of course, raises a lot of questions about how the field of American history is moving. Don’t get me wrong, I think that some of the resistance to a neo-Whig view of American history is useful, especially when we are teaching students that a civic-minded approach to history can often result in a form of presentism.  For example, I spend an entire week every summer at Princeton trying to get K-8 teachers to think about British-America on its own terms rather than as a forerunner to a “revolution” that no one in the eighteenth century really saw coming until the 1760s and 177os.

But the American Revolution did happen and I think it goes without saying that it triggered a conversation about American national identity that we are still having today.  It seems like those of us who teach broader surveys of American history cannot ignore a national narrative.  (I say more about this in my exchange with California history teacher Leslie Smith).

I have also been thinking about the relationship between national history and globalization/cosmopolitanism in light of historian Johann Neem’s 2011 Chronicle of Higher Education essay “Why We Should Teach National History in a Global Age.”  Here is a taste:

neem

Johann Neem

Is it a good thing for our identities to be globalized? I would argue no. Progressive politics, including the redistribution of wealth between the well-off and the less so, is predicated on a coherent and vibrant nationalism. Paradoxically, in an age of globalization, our schools must make Americans more aware of their connections to the world while reinvigorating the teaching of our national history.

History’s power is its ability to shape our collective identity. By teaching national history, we help create nationals. All identities are premised on shared stories. To be a member of a community is to identify with its past and to seek to sustain that community in the present to better it in the future. That is as true for nations as for religious, ethnic, and professional communities. As the political scientist Rogers Smith argues in Stories of Peoplehood (Cambridge University Press, 2003), national identities are based on the vitality of shared narratives that place us in the stream of history. Stories make us who we are.

Teaching national history is vital to ensuring a public that is capable of sustaining our democracy. National history promotes patriotism. Readers inclined to dismiss patriotism as a regressive and aggressive ideology may be inclined to dismiss national history for that very reason. We all know the violence that has been committed in the name of nationalism over the past two centuries.

National stories should be both celebratory and critical. Teaching national history does not mean promoting a glorious narrative of America, nor does it mean focusing exclusively on its worst moments. Like the history of any nation-state, American history is full of glory and high ideals as well as their all-too-frequent betrayal. Celebratory stories foster love for one’s nation, while critical stories ensure that love does not become blind devotion. It is the combination of love of one’s nation and awareness of its failures that makes acts of citizenship possible. Without love, who cares? Without critical awareness, how will citizens ascertain the truth about their nation’s actions and seek to make things better?

Read Neem’s entire piece here.  I think his final paragraph is on the mark:

The nation is not the only source of one’s personal identity. We each belong to religious, ethnic, professional, and other communities that shape us and to which we feel responsible. These communities make us complex beings, capable of balancing our obligations to our nation with those to others locally and around the world. But even as we Americans become more aware of our responsibilities to the larger world, democratic politics relies on our shared responsibility to each other.

2 thoughts on “Why Historians Should Not Abandon a National Narrative

  1. “Cosmopolitan rootedness”–I like it. Reminds me of a friend of mine’s phrase for a Christian spirituality: walking trees (the blind man healed in 2 stages by Jesus–and Ps. 1, about trees rooted AND God’s way/path).

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  2. This is what I got most from Barry Shain’s “Myth of American Individualism” thesis, that early America was far more communitarian than we give it credit for. For instance, the Puritan experiment was not about religious liberty per se, it was to live as a religion-based community, or as Shain puts it, “Christian” liberty. They didn’t give up everything and brave a hostile ocean just to create a haven for hedonists and heretics.

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    Google Books preview here

    https://is.gd/shain

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