November 3, 2006

Letter to the Editor

In defense of American history curriculum at the U of C

As an American history professor and the chair of the American Civilization Core, I welcome further scholarly inquiry into founding American values as promised by the new Center for Study of the Principles of the American Founding. It is splendid that new sources of funding will support historical study at the University of Chicago.

However, it strains the truth to claim, as with much fanfare do the founders of the new Center, that these themes are neglected in the University’s college curriculum. So that the new Center may not simply replicate the very rich existing offerings in the study of founding American principles, it is worth noting that undergraduates venturing into American history classes at the University of Chicago will surely read, among other key documents: the “Declaration of Independence,” the “Unites States Constitution,” the Federalist Papers, and the “Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments”—along with works by Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt , Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Chief Justice John Marshall, Frederick Douglass (a fugitive slave who led the antislavery movement), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (a leader of the women’s rights movement), Henry David Thoreau (a transcendentalist whose democratic theory influenced Gandhi as well as Martin Luther King), John Dewey (a philosopher of democracy), Jane Addams (a democratic reformer and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize), and Martin Luther King, Jr. (a civil rights leader and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize). Are these not founding texts and core authors in the American democratic tradition? Do they not speak to citizenship, civics, and American values?

Let’s look deeper into the evidence. And it is necessary to do so in painstaking detail in order to dispel myths about the neglect of founding principles in the University of Chicago College curriculum. In the American Civilization sequence—History 135, 136, and 137, which is offered annually and in which students may enroll either as an elective or as a Core requirement—these are among the texts that figure decisively: Thomas Jefferson, “Summary View of the Rights of British America”; “The Declaration of Independence”; Thomas Paine, Common Sense; John Adams, “Thoughts on Government”; “Massachusetts Constitution of 1780”; the “Articles of Confederation”; the “U.S. Constitution”; the Federalist Papers, Nos. 10, 49, 84; “Antifederalist Essays”; Abraham Lincoln, “A House Divided Speech,” “Annual Messages to Congress,” and the “Gettysburg Address”; Woodrow Wilson, “The End of a Century”; Jane Addams, “Why Women Should Vote”; John Dewey, Liberalism and Social Action; Martin Luther King, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Do these documents not speak to founding principles of the American civic tradition?

It is puzzling that the founders of the new Center for the Study of the Principles of the American Founding thought not to ask American historians to be among their founders. Is the problem that when historians teach founding civic documents we do so capaciously—also reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, poems by Walt Whitman, tracts by slaves, the testimony of mill workers, Andrew Carnegie’s musings on “Wealth,” W.E. B. Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk,, Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the Students for a Democratic Society’s Port Huron Statement, Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet”?

Is the problem that American historians at the University of Chicago teach college students Thomas Jefferson and Malcolm X; the “U.S. Constitution” and the S.D.S. “Port Huron Statement”; John Adams and Jane Addams—thereby illuminating the development of the American civic tradition? Or is the problem just that the American history faculty does not hew to the perspectives of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute?

Amy Dru Stanley

Associate Professor of History

Chair, America in World Civilization

Chair, College History Concentration