Saturday, October 20, 2012

The More Things Change...

You think you're something special, you think you're something else...Shania Twain

So I recently took a look at Oxford University Press's much touted, at least by itself, new textbook American Horizons (concise edition, Volume II, Since 1865, 2013). American Horizons claims to, to quote the subtitle of the textbook, put "US History In A Global Context". After looking at American Horizons co-authored by Michael Schaller, Robert Schulzinger, John Bezis-Selfa,Janette Thomas Greenwood, Andrew Kirk, Sarah Purcell, and Aaron Sheehan-Dean--wow now that was a mouthful--however, I can't say I am particularly impressed with this as its boosters proclaim on its back cover "only US History Survey text to offer fully integrated treatment of US History within a global context".

Horizons has the usual stuff of global import one can find in almost any introductory text to US History--the broader aspects of American colonialism in the Caribbean and Pacific, America as a Great Power, a very brief discussion of global social liberalism, WWI, WWII, for example. There is a reference to Black emancipations in Jamaica and South Africa but none to how slavery by another name intersects with the treatment of Aborigines in Australia or South Africa. There is a tiny box on the treatment of Aboriginals in settler societies by the British colonial rulers but no extensive discussion of the treatment of indigenous peoples after Britain granted Canada, Australia, and New Zealand confederation, federation, or dominion status. There is a discussion of how the US dealt with the Great Depression of the 1920s and 30s but no comparison of how Canada, Australia, and NZ dealt with it. There is a brief discussion of the global suffragette movement but no comparison between US, Canadian, Australian, and Kiwi suffragetism. New Zealand, of course, a leading social liberal light, was the first nation to grant women the vote. So much for American Horizons boosterist claims.

What Horizons didn't do, as I have already intimated, and this is why I was, in particular, so unimpressed with the book, was to take the opportunity it had as a comparative textbook to do what any comparative history of the US worth its salt should do, namely take on the issue of American exceptionalism as at least one of its central organising principles. It should have, in other words, looked at US history and its society and culture, through the lenses of Canada, Australia, NZ, South Africa, and the UK, the settler societies and old world hearth, that, to a large extent, gave "birth" to all of them. There are only a paltry three references to Canada in Horizons, Volume II, eight references to Australia, six references to New Zealand, and one to South Africa (hey, how about a comparison of apartheid and Jim Crow?). An additional problem, one which increasingly characterises a lot of college textbooks these days, is that Horizons reads like a Twitter version of US history and remains infected with that dreaded kitchen sink or throw everything against the wall approach to US history.

After perusing American Horizons I remain as fully convinced as ever that the textbook I have been using in my US History Survey classes, Unto a Good Land (Eerdmans, 2005), is the best textbook available to those teaching American History survey courses. In fact, I would argue, it is one of the best introductory textbooks I have ever seen and I have seen a lot of them--sociology introductory textbooks, sociology of religion introductory textbooks, stratification introductory textbooks,cultural anthropology introductory textbooks, communication introductory textbooks, television history introductory textbooks, European history introductory textbooks, world history introductory textbooks, and comparative history introductory textbooks. I think Unto a Good Land is an excellent textbook, though admittedly this is kind of a backhanded comment given the generally dreadful character of most of the introductory history texts out there that one can compare it to, because of its superb organisation, its depth (there are over one hundred fact filled pages on the Gilded Age alone), its attention to US religious history, one of the most important factors in American history and one that continues to be largely ignored by historians and sociologists, its, if perhaps in far too limited a way, placing of US history in comparative perspective, and the fact that it doesn't try to order to appeal every cultural interest group--the plague of vanity identity culture--out there in Americaland in its structure. So no thanks Oxford, I am going to stick with the textbook I already use for my American history classes.

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