Thursday, September 06, 2012


Every four years, a Presidential election tends to awaken the dormant idealism I nourish for the great democratic experiment which founded the land I call home.  So, to honor the pivotal historical moment that most Presidential elections pose, I post below a course description for a class titled "THE AMERICAN IDEA/THE IDEA OF AMERICA," which I recently developed for Princeton University's Anschutz Fellowship in American Studies.   A course syllabus appears in the post below this one.   Dabble, if you must, among the readings.  But, by all means, savor what you choose. 
“It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.”—Richard Hoftstadter
          About Great Britain’s former colony, Wyndham Lewis writes as follows in his magisterial book, America and Cosmic Man,
“America is much more a psychological something than a territorial something… It is the very opposite of Blut und Boden.  A site rather for the development of an idea of political and religious freedom than a mystical terré sacréé for its sons… You become upon receiving your citizenship papers in the U.S.A. as valid an American as if your forbears had been with Washington at Valley Forge.”  
The observation inspires this class' title.  Because from de Tocqueville to Gunnar Myrdal to Dennis Brogan, foreign authors have rooted America's uniqueness in a formative Idea.  An idea, they have variously called the American Creed, the American “way of life”, or simply Americanism.  The name matters less, of course, than that each author has attributed to it a common set of principles: “liberty,” “equality,” “democracy,” “individual opportunity,” “equal justice,” “due process of law,” “freedom of opinion,” “personal privacy,” “the pursuit of happiness”.  And in their continuity and recurrence lies the suggestion that these shibboleths do more than merely inscribe our founding documents or simply anchor our political tradition.  More importantly, they supply the intellectual inspiration which propelled a remote, fractious British colony nestled in the stark New World wilderness to settle a hostile continent, to integrate a motley population, and to build a cohesive and enduring union that would shine its beacon of promise across the globe.  Even today, in fact, their premises and assumptions generate the dialectic of our culture and seed the collective unconscious out of which every one of us forges, in the smithy of his or her soul, the 'I' of his or her identity.
Our class begins accordingly with the task of defining the American Idea’s content, examining its philosophical origins, and considering its novelty, singularity, and bona fides.  Through the semester’s first four weeks, we will trace its political and religious antecedents, respectively, in the Scottish Enlightenment and Protestant Reformation.  In doing so, we also will frame, and preliminarily probe, some of the questions that will occupy us in subsequent weeks.  For example, how precisely does this ideological heritage inform our nation’s self-image, institutions, domestic conflicts, and foreign policy?  Does its legacy measurably distinguish us from the traditional Old World nations that have sprouted organically from common religious allegiances, tribal lineages, or geographical roots?  And if so, does an “exceptional” origin necessarily imply an “exceptional” destiny?  Is a sense of “Election,” then, a blessing or a curse?
From unraveling the “American Idea,” we proceed in Weeks 5-12 to study what strikes me as its corollary--  the metaphors through which the nation have incarnated "The American Idea" in a concrete and visceral form.  Each week, in the class' second half, we accordingly focus on one of these recurring images, metaphors, and motifs and explore how it has found expression in our politics, law, literature, and foreign affairs.  As Ralph Ellison once wrote, “man cannot simply say ‘Let us have liberty, justice and equality for all,” and have it.  More than any other system, a democracy is always pregnant with its contradiction.”  Thus do the themes heading Weeks 5 through 12 stake out some of the symbolic terrain upon which the nation has struggled to reconcile its inexorable contradictions, while adjusting along the way, to vast changes in its size, composition, and affluence.     
From “The Promised Land” in Week 5 to “The Redeemer Nation” in Week 12, the tropes I've selected roughly describe a historical progression from the antebellum period through the Cold War.   Historical sweep, nevertheless, animated my choices far less than did an aim to illustrate that our culture is, in Lionel Trilling’s words, “a debate or dialectic”.  For example, Week 5’s focus on the frontier’s myth of rugged individualism and unfettered mobility is designed to throw into relief, the following week, Populism’s reverence for small-town virtue and rural permanence.  Likewise, the readings on the “Peculiar Institution” in Week 7 aim to qualify and to dispute their counterpart captioned under the “Southern Idyll”.   Where possible, even the readings within a given week challenge each other.  Week 9 thus will highlight Justice Scalia and Justice Brennan’s constitutional debate in Michael H. about whether we are an “assimilative, homogenous society” or a “facilitative, pluralistic one.”    
By the semester’s end, I hope the course will have imparted two overall lessons. First, is that the democratic ideals with which the Framers conceived the Republic do not merely underwrite our law or influence our politics.  They permeate and encompass America’s entire civilization, its politics, law, economy, society, and culture and not excluding its citizens’ private lives-- fueling their hopes, dreams, and expectations; instilling their morals, manners, and orthodoxies; and inspiring their vision of justice, happiness, and the good life. And secondly, I hope to dramatize the fateful legacy, as Americans, we inherit as a consequence. Each of us has to decide, for ourselves, what “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” practically mean-- "a complex fate" indeed. 

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