Introduction to United States History
Tu-Th, 2:15-3:45 pm
This course will explore the main themes, trends, and dilemmas in the history of the United States. In accord with our college’s new policy on trigger warnings, I have affixed a cautionary note to each week’s topic. If the topic threatens to provoke feelings of trauma or panic in you, please inform me beforehand and I will excuse you from class. I’m looking forward to learning together in a safe environment!
I. Puritan New England: Fair warning to Quakers and Catholics: The Puritans sometimes cut off your ears and bored out your tongues, so skip this week if you don’t want to hear or talk about that. Ditto for practitioners of Wicca, who will surely be alarmed by the trials of their sister witches at Salem.
II. The Revolutionary War: Up to one-third of the people in the colonies remained loyal to the British Crown. Hounded mercilessly, they fled north to Canada and took up hockey. Present-day Canadians might want to sit this one out, lest they suffer still more ridicule.
III. The War of 1812: American forces sacked York, Canada, the site of today’s Toronto. Yet another reason to alert the Canadians in the class.
IV. The Civil War: Confederate apologists say this conflict was fought over “states’ rights” rather than slavery. In fact, it was about the rights of states to practice slavery! Some white guys in the South won’t want to hear that. Y’all have been warned.
V. The Gilded Age and “Robber Barons”: Suppose you were the son or daughter of a filthy-rich banker, and you had to listen to a professor malign filthy-rich bankers from a century ago. How would you feel? We’ll never know, because you get a free pass this week.
VI. Prohibition and the “Roaring Twenties”: Al Capone ran a massive crime ring before the Feds arrested him for tax evasion. Trigger alerts: Italian-Americans, accounting majors.
VII. The Great Depression: Made famous by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, “Oakies” made their way from the Dust Bowl to California in search of work. Today, Oklahoma is a fast-growing state with a successful pro-basketball team. So I’m giving Oklahomans (not “Oakies,” please!) a heads-up, if they don’t care to dredge up their painful past.
VIII. World War II: No need for Germans, Italians, or Japanese—or their descendants—to show up. We won, they lost. Any questions?
IX. The Cold War: Not a good week to be a Communist, or even someone who seems like a Communist. You know who you are.
X. The 1960s: The peaceniks versus the hardhats. Neither had particularly attractive hair. If your own style leans towards one or the other, don’t come to class; head to the barber, instead.
XI. The 1970s: Remember the disco hit “Stayin’ Alive”? If you’re not into that, you should think about stayin’ home. Talk about trauma!
XII. The 1980s and the Conservative Revolution: Weaned on liberal heroes like FDR and JFK, left-leaning students have a tough time this week. They’re like, Ronald Reagan? Really?
XIII. The Clinton Years: Let’s imagine that your dad had an affair with a younger—OK, a much younger—work associate. If you don’t want to go there, you don’t want to come to this class either. It’s pretty gross.
XIV. George W. Bush and the War in Iraq: If you thought America was a force for good in the world, you’re in for some shock and awe. Let’s leave it at that.
XV. Obama and Beyond: To those who imagined that utopia was just around the corner: Sorry! And for people who still think the president was born in Indonesia, this class will make you even more bat-crazy than you already are. At least you were warned.
Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, which will be published in the spring by Princeton University Press.