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Transnational Trojan Horse

From: Historically Speaking
Volume 8, Number 2, November/December 2006
pp. 26-27 | 10.1353/hsp.2006.0020

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26 Historically Speaking November/December 2006 U.S. History in a Transnational Context: An Exchange Thomas Bender's acclaimed Nation amongNations:America's Place in WorldHistory prompts a critique from Robert DavidJohnson. Bender's spirited defense follows. Transnational Trojan Horse Robert David Johnson T homas Bender wants to replace "American history as we have known it" with an approach "that rejects the territorial space of the nation as a sufficient context and argues for the transnational nature of national histories."1 But Bender 's A Nation among Nations: America's Place in World History (Hill and Wang, 2006) goes well beyond promoting a more "transnational" interpretation of American history. Indeed, his vision of reforming the study of the U.S. past entails two controversial proposals. First, he wants high school history teachers to produce students who support what he describes as a "cosmopolitan" foreign policy. Second, within the academy, Bender seeks to promote the race/class/gender trinity at the expense of more "traditional" interpretations. Bender's six chapters trace American history from the colonial period through the 1920s. Throughout the book he repeatedly asserts that American historians have ignored the international context of the nation's past. But Bender seems to be arguing against a straw man. Time and time again, themes that Bender claims are only revealed by the international context—slavery, 18th-century European wars for empire, 19th-century American imperialism —in fact turn out to have been standard features of mainstream U.S. history for decades. In response to this observation, Bender recendy replied, "Sorry I missed it. Having taught an undergraduate course on American history in global perspective , my experience has been that it was novel to upper level students at NYU, including history majors, with the significant exception of undergraduates who in high school had done the international baccalaureate degree in high school."' I cannot speak to the quality of either students or instruction at NYU, and therefore cannot assess Bender's assertions about that institution. More broadly, however, his comments hint at one of the two goals embedded within A Nation among Nations: a desire to have high school history redefine citizens' belief systems. New York typifies how most states approach history education: freshmen and sophomores take global history, while juniors and seniors study U.S. history. Bender believes that this structure leaves the impression of the United States standing apart from the world. Therefore, he recommends merging the courses, teaching U.S. history as part of world history classes. The traditional approach, he argues , has minimized citizen resistance as (unnamed) U.S. leaders "regularly invoke the idea of American exceptionalism even as they propose our country as the model toward which all other nations are or should be tending." The new curriculum, on the other hand, would reverse the pattern of insufficient respect for others "evidentin the American government's approach to foreign affairs , in respect not only to war but to the environment , trade, nuclear, and other policies."' When he moves from generalities to specifics, Bender's "transnational" version of American history seems litde more than an attempt to ensure that students think a certain way about contemporary events. His pedagogy has a civic purpose—"to imbue our national history and civil discourse with appropriate humility," training a generation of students who will become "humble citizens of the world."' But what constitutes a "humble citizen of the world"? Those who stood by silendy during the human rights abuses in Chile and South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s, lest they impose their views on others? Or, perhaps, those who in 2006 criticized vigils for two executed gay teens in Iran, contending that while "in the U.S. we are acculturated to stepping in and taking action, that's not how other countries do it and . . . [we] need to look at our own policies such as the death penalty, and see how they America, represented by an Indian, celebrating her new acquisition, while her injured allies, the King of France, a Dutchman, and a Spaniard, complain at having received no compensation, 1782. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [reproduction number, LC-USZC4-5277]. are affecting the situation over there."Vi Bender...