What Do Early Americanists Offer the Liberal Arts?—Part II

Yale College, 1807Last week, in the first part of this post, I argued that we tend to justify the liberal arts in two potentially contradictory ways. First, we assert that the liberal arts offer tools for citizenship. Second, we claim they point our way to human values that transcend any community. I argued that both of these justifications or approaches are necessary. I also suggested that early Americanists have not found it easy to explain what we contribute to the second approach.

Today, therefore, I am taking up the question I posed last week. Does early American scholarship offer anything distinctive to the liberal arts as a way of understanding humanity at large?

In answering this question, I think, it is important first to identify a defining characteristic of early American studies. We need to identify something that unites us (or at least many of us) in one project.

I think we can find this in our study of the intentional making of new communities—along with the simultaneous remaking of old communities as part of those processes.

Of course, I could endlessly qualify that statement. “The intentional making of new communities” does not describe the subjects that all—or perhaps even most—early Americanists specialize in, and it is a concept that can be abused easily. However, as a very general description of what early Americanists have in common, I think it serves as well as any.

With that in mind, today I am proposing five key ways that early Americanists may offer something distinctive and valuable to the humanities as a universal enterprise. All of these suggestions are tentative. I can imagine entirely different answers to my question. These are merely a first attempt.

First, I think we may say that early America is especially useful as a place to study human migration. The population movements that characterized it—free and unfree, African and European and Native American and other, economically and ideologically motivated, involving literal and metaphorical contagions—all make early America an excellent laboratory for examining phenomena that have been universal in human history yet also fundamental to the modern age.

More specifically, the early Americas furnish many opportunities to observe settler colonialism in action. Settler colonialism is not only a feature of many modern societies; it is also a controlling metaphor for modern forms of human power. The conditions that obtained in various regions of the early Americas offer excellent opportunities to observe its operation.

Third, bound up with migration and colonialism is the establishment of new hierarchies of race, class, and gender. In my experience, many scholars who think of the liberal arts primarily in humanistic terms are uncomfortable with “RCG” scholarship (and vice versa), but I think that is unfortunate. These dimensions of human power seem to be almost universal, and they tend to be critical to the ways humans encounter each other; nevertheless, they also take various mutable forms that call for careful study. The early Americas offer opportunities to observe the evolution of such classifications and hierarchies.

Moreover, in several cases—including the most obvious one!—the early Americas offer opportunities to study political revolution. Here, as in the case of settler colonialism, the early United States can be useful for understanding not only subsequent world events but also one of the defining metaphors of the modern age.

Finally, I think, early America may also provide useful insight into the problems of freedom of conscience and religious and cultural pluralism. We do not have to subscribe to certain notorious teleological understandings of early America as a single religious project in order to see it as a crucible of cultural and ideological diversity.

In all of these cases, in fact, careful scholarship in a humanistic mode may complicate and even overturn the political myths that early American studies have been called upon to defend.

I must confess that I do not find this list entirely satisfying. Certainly, it is incomplete. I think it may also stray from my purpose. However, I hope this list at least shows that it is reasonable to attempt to define early American history in humane terms as part of a larger defense of the humanities.

One comment on “What Do Early Americanists Offer the Liberal Arts?—Part II

  1. Lately, I have been reading a lot of pedagogical writing on survey courses, following the discussions around Jim Grossman’s piece in the LA Times about the history major, and, of course, discussions about #vastearlyamerica and the pros and cons of early American history lacking a field-defining set of boundaries (geographical and temporal). Your set of posts and these other discussions all seem to be about devising ways to “sell” the course, major, or field. But I think there’s something deeper underlying these various interconnected discussions, i.e., a growing sense of the need for large-scale re-framing.

    The implicit assumption behind these discussions is that we have content “on our side,” as it were, and, therefore, the main challenge is to frame our endeavors (whether of the survey course, history major, or field of early American history) in such a way as to make them more obviously meaningful and valuable, both on the practical and humanistic level. In that sense, I think your pieces draw on (and contribute to) a critically important meta-discussion that is currently being had in an atomized way.

    There seem to be two main challenges in developing any kind of consensus on such re-framing. First, many fields (and, thereby, the major) appear to be inherently resistant to any kind of broad re-framing, due in large part to decreasing definition and increasing hyper-specialization of all kinds, both scholarly and administrative. Second, achieving such a re-framing in any kind of meaningfully integrated way will require reconciling the practical and the humanistic, itself no small challenge when defining each individually is very much up in the air (and, perhaps, in some ways oppositional).

    I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the field of early American history and the history major itself are concurrently involved in their own identity crises, and, to me, your post suggests that resolving them in a way that is consistent with and complementary to one another may be more crucial (and more difficult) than we might realize.

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