Honors | American Century Lives
H204 | 0012 | N. Cullather

This section fulfills COAS topics requirement.
This section meets with HON H228

Summary: "What Rome was to the ancient world, what Britain has been to
the modern world, America is to be to the world of tomorrow," Walter
Lippmann announced on the eve of global victory in 1945. For the
United States, the twentieth century was an era of supreme confidence
punctuated by moments of self-doubt. This course will witness that
turbulent era through the eyes of the leaders, scientists, and writers
who made history. For those who engineered America's rise to global
power and oversaw the defeat of fascism, communism, and colonialism,
the personal was political. By studying the lives of influential women
and men, we will learn how their hopes and fears, their fortunes and
accidents, as well as their decisions, shaped America's place in the

Rationale and Objectives: This course will teach the history of the
United States foreign relations through the use of biographies as
texts. This choice is based on a couple of observations: First,
traditional monographs and texts, because they are episodic, distort
students' sense of the passage of time. Secondly, students are much
more interested in biography than they are in other forms of
historical writing, and I think for the right reasons.

When I first began teaching history survey courses, I noticed an off
feature of many student essays and reports. They tended to define
characters by the events and ideas of a particular time - the
Progressive era, say, or the Depression - without recognizing that
people who lived in those periods very likely were alive to see what
came before and after. In one assignment, I asked students to write
the life story of an imaginary person who lived from 1880 to 1939.
Predictably, few of the students wrote about the ways the memories of
events early in life affected their character's understanding of later
history. But more surprisingly, many of the students were unable to
acknowledge that institutions and ways of life could pass away in a
single lifetime. Their characters accumulated memberships (in the
Knights of Labor, the U.S. Army in France, the stock exchange, and the
WPA) keeping them all until death. Moreover, almost none of the
students gave their character a life, no marriage, family, neighbors,
or friendships, no youth or dotage. Even when looked at individually,
people were just units acted upon by history.

This point of view is reinforced by popular media - movies and
television - but also by historical monographs, many of which use a
narrative form that highlights individual reactions to singular
events. Students quite naturally come by an understanding of the past
that devalues the historical role of such things as hope, luck,
memory, and regret. It becomes hard to explain to students that when
Lyndon Johnson thought of the viet Cong, he pictured the East Texas
farmers he knew during the 1930s who wanted to ride into town to
string up a few bankers.

Biography puts this realism back into history, which is why students
like it. In teaching courses on World War II and Vietnam I have used
biography to show students how people make history while getting on
with the more important business of making a life for themselves. At
first I worried that too much emphasis on biography would cause
students to lose a sense of chronology and knowledge of key events, bu
if anything, placing events in the context of a life makes it easier
for student to remember their timing and importance. Students also
gladly read my weekly reading load from 80 to 100 pages a week and
without hearing any complaints.

Biography is a good way to introduce new college students to a new way
of thinking about history. Adding this rich context allows students to
develop an ability to "think in time," to reason critically about
decisions made in the past. Students can see not just the choices that
were made, but the ones that could have been. They can reason through
a complex chain of causation, calculating the relative influence of
experience, accident, pressure, prejudice, culture, and material
interest upon the policymaker. The connections between domestic and
foreign policy, between business, government, and the academe, are
clearer. Once they undertake this kind of analysis students can begin
to see the limitations of biography as a narrative form and to seek
multiple perspectives.

Methods: I plan a participatory exercise in which students use
biographical research to come at a problem (the Cuban Missile Crisis
or the Versailles Treaty) from multiple points of view. To perform
well, student will have to define their character's core motivations
and to know what positions are negotiable and what interests must be
protected at all costs. Students will also learn the craft of
researching and writing biography by undertaking their own research
project using primary sources, particularly government documents. They
will read and critique each others' work. Class discussions will focus
less on dates and names and more on motives, plans, and outcomes.