Internationalizing the Teaching of Early U.S. History

By Lyons, John F. | Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Internationalizing the Teaching of Early U.S. History


Lyons, John F., Teaching History: A Journal of Methods


As I have been teaching the history of the United States for the past few years, I have increasingly come to the conclusion that my, and other, survey courses need to be revamped to internationalize the teaching of United States history and thereby situate the nation more fully into the larger transnational and global context. At the moment, most teachers of United States History since 1865 rarely consider events beyond the country's borders and when they do it is only to examine briefly America's role in the two World Wars and the Vietnam War or maybe to discuss immigration to the United States. Those teaching the early American history survey spend even less time on events outside the United States, suggesting the nation had little economic, military, or cultural influence on the rest of the world in this period. Instead, they concentrate on the history of the various English colonies and the internal political policies and practices of the new nation while rarely mentioning other countries. This approach encourages students to view the United States as isolated from the rest of the world while ignoring America's similarities with other nations and both how the United States impacted other countries and how the rest of the world helped shape the United States. For early American history this trend is particularly troubling, because it is in this period that settlers established a new nation on the continent, that arguments about the exceptionalism of the United States initially emerged, and that the government's policies first started to affect other countries. Therefore, I propose that we need to rethink early American history within a comparative, multicultural, and foreign policy framework. I will illustrate these approaches by discussing the theoretical underpinnings of the United States History to 1865 survey class that I teach at Joliet Junior College in Illinois. (1)

I am not alone in the view that the study and teaching of American history needs to be internationalized. As far back as 1895 in the first issue of the American Historical Review, Columbia University Professor William Sloane warned historians against focusing on narrow national history and urged them to study U.S. history in an international context. (2) In the last few years other historians have come to the same conclusion--that we need to internationalize the teaching of the nation's history. (3)

Indeed, the Organization of American Historians, the main professional organization for those teaching American history, recently gathered together a group of historians to envisage and debate the contours of an international perspective on the history of the United States. (4) Since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, even more scholars have called for teachers to pay greater attention to events abroad. (5) The editor of a special edition of the Journal of American History focusing on September 11 noted: "... if we learned anything from the events of September 11, we should have learned, once again, that we cannot understand American history by dwelling solely on the United States. The attacks of September 11 force us to turn outward and to see the United States not in isolation, but in and of the world." (6)

There are three reasons why I think this international approach to United States history is urgently needed now. First, I believe that the emphasis on U.S. history as a distinct entity in a national framework assumes that the country is exceptional and unique and encourages students to view America as somehow separate and isolated from the rest of the world. To internationalize the teaching of U.S. history will reveal more clearly the American experience by elucidating the character of the United States and its role in the world. Second, we need to internationalize U.S. history because the increasingly multicultural character of American society and the ethnic diversity of the student population require that students have some understanding of how other cultures that too often have been ignored have contributed to the making of American society. …

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