Nothing Wrong with Teaching What’s Right About U.S.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, most Sovietologists were caught flat-footed. With their lives’ work based on the assumption of an enduring communist state, they were ill-prepared to offer explanations when V.I. Lenin’s legacy went poof. Many American intellectuals find themselves similarly empty-handed after Sept. 11.

The fall of the twin towers shook the twin assumptions of a generation of scholarship: that America’s relations with the Third World are essentially wicked and that our country’s domestic history can only be understood as a continuing battle over race, class and gender. For more than 30 years, scholars on the cutting edge of academe have helped students learn how to identify where the U.S. fell short of its ideals, when it served only its economic interests and how it turned a blind eye to those crushed by its national ambitions.

Then came Sept. 11 and the spontaneous, heartfelt flag-waving that followed. The America that academics had persistently characterized as “wrong” had been wronged. Students returned to their classes changed. But they found minimal guidance if they were looking for an intellectual bridge between love of country and a sophisticated understanding of the nation’s place in the world. A lot of intellectuals burned that bridge decades ago.

There are numerous examples of the castigating tendency of American scholars, but my personal favorite is an anthology I reviewed a few years back. This textbook gave undergraduates three articles on World War II. The first was on Japanese internment, the second on segregation of black troops in the South and the third on harassment of Italian Americans. Every article discussed an aspect of the war that was absolutely true, yet, collectively, they made for a portrait of the war that was fundamentally false. No Adolf Hitler, no Emperor Hirohito, no Holocaust--only an imperfect America battling its demons.


Historians who step out of this mold risk censure from academia’s ivory tower. Take professional attitudes toward Stephen Ambrose, arguably the nation’s most widely read historian, whose books frequently reach the best-seller list. Ambrose is often disparaged as a superficial popularizer, but one senses that what really bugs many fellow academics is his admiring portrayal of the national experienceand virtual silence on topics of race, class and gender.

Or take the critiques of Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis, who for years has suggested that something besides simple “American arrogance” accounts for the Cold War. In conversation, and sometimes in print, other historians often dismiss this careful scholar as an apologist for the powers that be.

I understand modern historians’ dilemma. As a fortysomething person, I grew up with Che Guevara, Bob Dylan and the Vietnam War. I come from the activist left, and I am proud of that heritage. I remain a liberal. Like many of my colleagues, I hesitate to write books or give lectures that might appear to whitewash America’s character flaws or its choices as a superpower. But it is time to admit that this generation of historians--with some notable exceptions--has yet to deliver to students, and to the public, a usable and balanced interpretation of the past.

Too many researchers have done a better job documenting the republic’s weaknesses than revealing its strengths. This lopsidedness ill serves both foreign and domestic audiences. Our academic communities produce most of the world’s scholarship on the United States. Too often they implicitly encourage critics in other countries to assume that America is culpable for all that goes wrong. Foreign readers sometimes parrot the very things we have said about ourselves. As teachers, we urge youth to learn from the country’s errors, but offer few lessons in what it has done right. How are they supposed to build the future with only the blunt instrument of disillusionment?


I returned to the classroom Sept. 12 profoundly aware that I had not done enough to prepare students to think complexly and comparatively. My dismay deepened when one of them came back from a teach-in I had recommended convinced that the real reason for the U.S. war in Afghanistan is to build an oil pipeline across the country.

Since Sept. 11, I’ve been editing old lecture notes and asking students new questions. Last week, at semester’s end in my foreign-policy class, one student summarized what she had learned by saying that the United States does not help other nations just for humanitarian reasons. I agreed with her and asked if she thought the same statement might apply to Mexico, from which she commutes to school in San Diego.

But tinkering with classroom dynamics is not enough. We need to change our approach more fundamentally. To begin, intellectuals should think harder about how to apportion responsibility for world problems and stop reflexively blaming America. That Saudi Arabia is undemocratic or that Israel and Palestine have yet to resolve their conflict is not the fault of the United States. Those countries are the primary actors in determining their fates. Our country can answer for its friends no more than it can answer for its enemies, sovereign nations all. We do not control the world, nor should we aspire to.

Second, we need to recognize that the United States often has played at least a decent hand in the game of world politics. Our country made its debut in global affairs in 1917, when the intractable dilemmas of the Third World were well advanced. Even so, Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which culminated in the formation of the League of Nations, gave hope to colonized peoples that self-determination was possible. During World War II the United States led the effort to create the United Nations, the first body to give a voice and vote to every country, no matter how small or poor.


These accomplishments do not obviate the fact that U.S. foreign policy has on other occasions been hopelessly stupid, arrogant and even destructive. (The ongoing punishment of Cuba is an example.) And, internally, issues of race, class and gender have certainly fractured our society--but we work on them. Many nations do not. We need to examine the U.S. within the context of world history, comparing the nation not only with its ideals, but also with its contemporaries.

Third, we need to be more self-critical if we want to exert the best intellectual leadership. A few weeks ago, a conservative group associated with the vice president’s wife and former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Lynne Cheney, published a list of quotes by academics about the war in Afghanistan. The organization charged professors with being insufficiently pro-American. Intellectuals have scorned the broadside as “Cheney’s blacklist.”

It is easy to write off inflated, patently partisan criticisms made by people we do not like. But that is a poor way to learn. It is far better to examine why the critique resonates with the public. If some American intellectuals are not as prepared to defend the nation as they are to criticize it, they may deserve the accusations of “unpatriotic” that we have parried for 30 years. The political right will capture the American flag only if we hand it to them.

Lastly, it would not hurt for professional skeptics to meditate--only briefly, if it hurts too much--on the nature of American goodness. What the nation does right is typically underrated, underreported and underappreciated by academics. When I interviewed him for a book I wrote a few years ago, Canada’s top TV and radio regulator gave me a lecture on American cultural imperialism through TV and radio airwaves. He surprised me by what he said next. “Don’t get me wrong,” he interjected emphatically. “I have no doubt that the Americans will always be the first to go to the mat for freedom in the world.”


This is a lesson that scholars can embrace and share. An open-minded examination of America’s historical willingness to defend freedom might help those students with flags pinned on their backpacks to fit their newfound patriotism with what they also learn about the nation’s flaws.

The tragedy in New York and at the Pentagon rekindled respect for our country. Academics who ignore this risk becoming as irrelevant as yesterday’s Sovietologists. Indeed, the twin assumptions of fin de siecle scholarship deserve to come down. America is more than the sum of its problems. Some of the nation’s intellectuals may have been lacking this perspective on Sept. 11, but it’s a precious piece of wisdom we can take away from ground zero.


Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman is the Dwight E. Stanford professor of American foreign relations at San Diego State University. She is the author of three books on American history, including “All You Need Is Love: The Peace Corps and the Spirit of the 1960s.”