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Imaginary Horses vs. Logic and Evidence
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28 Historically Speaking · November/December 2006 Imaginary Horses vs. Logic and Evidence Thomas Bender There are important cautionary lessons to be learned from Robert DavidJohnson's sizzling critique of me and my book, A Nation among Nations. But the necessary focus of discussion, in my view, should not be his figure of the Trojan horse so much as his carelessness about logic and evidence. His strong opinions seem to be without foundation. It is unfortunate that he never engaged my book's specific arguments about the major events of American history and the evidence adduced for them. Johnson is correct in saying that I wish to change the basic narrative of American history. I believe that we have isolated the United States from the global history in which its history has been embedded since roughly 1500. I further think that such separation of the U.S. from the world tends to make the "international" seem like something over there, apart from us, which is consequential in two respects. First, it is not true to the human experience of the past five centuries , and, second, it quite predictably limits our understanding of our place in the world. His critique seems to be driven in part by a worry that a curriculum shaped by diis line of thinking would constitute a compulsory mis-education of future citizens. But his rhetoric gets the better of his logic. Besides suggesting that I propose to "merge" U.S. and world history (which I have never proposed), Johnson more energetically insists that I am arguing against a "straw man." He firmly rejects my claim that placing American history into a global context is novel; I am, he says, proposing no more than what have been the "standard features of mainstream U.S. history for decades." If that is so, why does my proposition so exercise him? Why does he so urgendy feel it necessary to police me? It seems, quite frankly, that his policing impulse is undermined by his faulty logic. If my proposal is mere standard stuff, how can it be radically and dangerously revisionist? Where is the evidence for Johnson's assertion that there is nothing new here? As he notes about my previous response to his charge on the History News Network, I cited reactions of my students at NYU. He rejects this, while generously declining to characterize NYU students. But he offers no evidence for his position; nor does he make any specific reference to the substantive narrative of any of the chapters in the book. He, not I, may be in a selfreferential bubble. However, on my side, so to speak, there is considerable evidence. Over the past three summers, for example, I have been offering a summer seminar for high school teachers at NYU on the "Civil War in Global Context" under the auspices of die Gilder-Lehrman Institute for American History. Of the seventy-five or so teachers who have particA Thomas Nast sketch of a Civil War naval engagement, London Illustrated News, April 5, 1862. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [reproduction number, LC-US262-1 19750]. ipated and who represent every region of the United States, not one said this was already being done, though several pointed out that the approach is nearly impossible within the constraints of many state-mandated guidelines. The same point was made at a session on the U.S. history survey at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians this past spring. I have also presented this material to college teachers at several institutions of higher education in this country. Never was I accused of arguing against a straw man. Neither would die executive board of the Organization of American Historians have authorized and co-sponsored the La Pietra project on internationalizing the study of American history if this had been mainstream for decades. Of the seventy participants in its four annual meetings, 40% of them foreign scholars, not one said this was "mainstream." The La Pietra Report was mailed to all members of the OAH and it has now been on the OAH web page for six years. And it has been the subject of an ongoing discussion...