The 100 Most Influential Americans

Credit: friend recently posted The Atlantic‘s 2006 list of the 100 most influential Americans. Not surprisingly, 5 of the top 10 Americans were presidents, with several more in the top 20, including Andrew Jackson (#18).

Lists like this are intended to generate conversation, and there were certainly some questionable placements, Ben Franklin at #6 being one of them. I also question Mary Baker Eddy making the list, given some of the other religious leaders who did not. On the other hand, I think we can all be glad that John F. Kennedy didn’t appear on the list.

If we were to make such a list today, what changes would you make? Where would President Obama appear on the list? Would Bill Gates move up? Can we all agree that Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande don’t belong?

In Memoriam: Donald B. Cole

Donald Cole PicEarlier this week, in the course of contacting historians about a new project, I learned that Donald B. Cole passed away last year. Unlike the death of Robert Remini, which garnered significant attention in the profession and the mainstream media, Don’s death passed largely unnoticed by the profession.

That is unfortunate, because Don’s scholarship was on par, and in some ways superior, to Remini’s. Remini’s narrative flair garnered him attention, but his desire to tell the story sometimes led him to gloss over the problems with his sources or to present an overly optimistic interpretation of Jackson. Don’s work was well-written, straightforward, and demonstrated fidelity to the sources. His biography of Martin Van Buren is far superior to Remini’s and Joel Silbey’s, and his study of Jackson’s presidency remains, two decades later, the standard account.

Personally, I can say that Don was always kind to me. He and Dan Feller were more gracious than they should have been at my first SHEAR conference (Buffalo in 2000), when the professional naiveté and self-confidence (read arrogance) of a graduate student were flexing their muscles. Don and I corresponded about projects over the years, specifically my Andrew Jackson, Southerner and his Vindicating Andrew Jackson: The 1828 Election and the Rise of the Two-Party System. He introduced me to Jon Meacham, wrote letters of support for grant opportunities, and offered his honest assessment of my work. Even when he disagreed, he did so generously, acknowledging that our interpretations were likely just different readings of the same evidence.

I encourage you to read more about Don in his obituary, the remembrance of a former student, and, most importantly, in his own words in an interview at American Talleyrand.

Biographies of Pivotal Tennesseans at the 2014 Southern Festival of Books

I have the distinct privilege of participating in this year’s Southern Festival of Books, which will be held this weekend in Nashville. I will be part of a session, entitled “From the State of Franklin to TVA: Biographies of Pivotal Tennesseans,” with Gordon Belt, Traci Nichols-Belt, and Aaron D. Purcell.

Our session will be held Saturday, October 11, from 11:00 A.M. to 12:30 P.M. in the Nashville Public Library, Third Floor Program Room. We will be signing books after the session concludes.

Tennessee Republicans Attack APUSH

AP-examTwo Tennessee Republicans, Dolores Gresham and Mike Bell, want the state to review the direction taken with the new AP U.S. History (APUSH) framework and exam. According to the Tennessean, Gresham is arguing that “[t]here are many concerns with the new APUSH framework, not the least of which is that it pushes a revisionist interpretation of historical facts. . . . The items listed as required knowledge have some inclusions which are agenda-driven, while leaving out basic facts that are very important to our nation’s history.”

Gresham and Bell appear to be taking their lead from the Republican National Committee, which is up in arms about the changes to APUSH. In particular, its members are upset about the lack of American exceptionalism in the new curriculum, as well as the absence of people and events traditionally a part of U.S. history curriculum. While Gresham and Bell do not, to my knowledge, specifically reference Stanley Kurtz’s piece in National Review, Gresham’s statement echoes Kurtz’s claim that the APUSH change is being pushed by “a movement of left-leaning historians that aims to ‘internationalize’ the teaching of American history. The goal is to ‘end American history as we have known it’ by substituting a more ‘transnational’ narrative for the traditional account.”

Kevin Gannon has provided a thorough critique of the “American exceptionalism” ideal that some APUSH critics have expressed, so there’s no need for me to repeat his cogent arguments. Kurtz’s deconstruction of the new APUSH and the proponents behind the change strikes me as silly. I looked at the new APUSH framework and the sample exam released by College Board, which is responsible for producing APUSH, and failed to see the leftist conspiracy that Kurtz imagines. Is it inclusive? Yes. Does it address the United States’ failures? Yes. Does it also address traditional U.S. history topics? Yes.

So, what’s the problem? Gresham, Bell, Kurtz, and Co. seem to want an APUSH that only acknowledges the positive things about the United States, and they believe that APUSH does the opposite instead. What is striking about the anti-APSUH crowd is that they seem oblivious to the fact that they are pushing an interpretation just as much as their opponents are. Despite Kurtz’s claim that under the previous framework, “[l]iberals, conservatives, and anyone in-between could teach U.S. history their way, and still see their students do well on the AP Test,” they seem to believe that there is only one interpretation of U.S. history: theirs.

There are legitimate differences in the way that we can interpret historical evidence, but liberal, conservative, socialist, or libertarian, the evidence must produce the interpretation, not vice-versa. It appears to me that Republicans are the ones letting their interpretation lead them, not APUSH.

Beloit Mindset List for Class of 2018

The new Beloit Mindset List is out, as is the new Beloit Mindlessness List.

I happen to agree with the latter: the original Beloit List for this year is not very interesting. I remember the mid-1990s as a much more exciting and revolutionary time, but maybe that’s just me.



Summer 2014 Research

IMG_20140716_141033128Last year, I said that the summer was one of the coolest and wettest I’d ever seen in Tennessee. It hasn’t been as wet this year, but it’s been unseasonably cool until this week.

This summer, I focused on three research projects. The first was completing Andrew Jackson and the Rise of the Democrats, which ABC-CLIO will publish next year. The second was beginning writing on The Log Cabin and Hard Cider Campaign, a new book on the 1840 presidential election, for The Johns Hopkins University Press. Finally, I also started writing a paper on Andrew Jackson and his alleged hatred of the British for LSU-Shreveport’s Battle of New Orleans bicentennial symposium, at which I will be presenting this fall.

In addition to these projects, two other major events occurred. First, I changed offices. Given the number of books I owned, that was no easy task. My wife convinced me that purging during the move was a good idea. Thankfully for my back’s sake, I took her advice. I have a window now, which has made a world of difference in my mood. I also have a plant; my take on that development is still pending.

IMG_20140716_183710704The second was a trip to New York City to speak at Bryant Park Reading Room. My friend and Van Buren expert and blogger James Bradley hosted me. I didn’t get the time I wanted to tour, but over 100 people came to my talk. I then traveled from NYC to Philadelphia for the annual SHEAR meeting, where I had the pleasure of sharing panel co-commenting duties with Harry Watson. As always, it was a great conference.

Classes start this week, marking the official end of my summer. Here’s to a productive semester.

Book Signing at the Wilson County Fair

Authors day banner JPEGThe Wilson County Fair is the largest fair in the state of Tennessee. I’ll be joining a number of authors there next Sunday, Aug. 17, to sign books. All of the authors will be located in the Fiddlers Grove Historic Village Pavilion from 2:00-6:00 P.M. Come see us if you have the opportunity.

Celebrating Four Years at Jacksonian America

Home made party cupcake with a number candle on topI started this blog four years ago today. It’s been quieter than normal the past few months, as I’ve been wrapped up in speaking about Andrew Jackson, Southerner and focused on writing on several new projects.

Despite my infrequent posting, this year witnessed a huge spike in views. This was largely due to a post I wrote on Andrew Jackson’s parrot. Who knew so many people were curious about a swearing bird?

Blogging continues to be a helpful creative outlet for me. Regardless of what brought you here originally or what keeps you coming back, thank you for reading.

Peter Onuf on MOOCs

OnufPeter Onuf’s interview at The Junto blog struck a chord with me, and I want to use it to address some things that are implied in his remarks.

(Just to be clear, none of what follows is meant to disparage Onuf in any way. Although I don’t know him personally, I respect his scholarship and his position as the dean of Jeffersonian studies. His interview simply offered me the opportunity to address some attitudes toward MOOCs that continue to bother me.)

The first is Onuf’s identification of one of the oxymorons of MOOCs: lecture vs. interaction. On the one hand, he argues, “I think the performance level among academics is abysmally low, and that more people ought to develop lecturing skills that would merit being, you know, MOOC’ed.” Later, he suggests, “But let’s not make believe that having a bunch of lectures in the can is the sovereign solution to all of our problems in higher education today. My solution, having lots of seminar-tutorial contact, is very expensive, it’s labor-intensive.” And then, near the end, “That people will hold onto the idea that a lecture is some kind of sacred thing—that it’s the essence of our teaching and learning experience—that’s got to be nonsense! I mean, it’s not! And so we have to get over that.” Maybe it’s the structure of the interview, but it appears that he is saying grad students and junior faculty should learn to lecture better in order to contribute to MOOCs, which need to be more like seminars (a contradiction, to say the least).

The tension between lecturing vs. interaction is a major problem that MOOCs have so far failed to address in any meaningful way. Onuf admits that he stayed away from the discussion boards because “it’s embarrassing—it’s about me.” I can imagine that anyone would feel that way, but for a student in a face-to-face course, interaction with the professor is crucial. How much more so for a MOOC, where you are one of hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands? If a student truly wanted to receive the full benefit of the course, s/he would need to have access to the professor. It’s one thing to lecture, even lecture well–it’s quite another to lead discussions, answer questions, moderate debates, and hold office hours. MOOCs seem inadequate for all of those necessities of a quality education. (For opposing views on peer evaluation, the backbone of MOOC “interaction,” read Jonathan Rees* and Ben Wiggins).

That brings me to the second point about Onuf’s post. He alludes to the threat that MOOCs pose to future professors, including his own grad students. The reality is, MOOCs, as they are conceived by venture capitalists and administrators, are meant to be taught, not by junior faculty who have great performance skills, but by the faculty Rees calls “superprofessors.” In his post, “Every Man His Own Superprofessor,” Rees notes,

what happens to the professors who get left behind? Every man cannot be their own super professor. The world will run out of students first. And as online classes get scaled up and MOOCs get scaled down, all the rest of us will be left as ministers without portfolios.

(See also Rees’ post on the ways in which superprofessors undermine the rest of academia.)

The point is that esteemed history faculty such as Onuf, Jeremy Adelman, and others have the name recognition and the elite-university appointments and resources to produce either full-blown or “boutique” MOOCs. Their jobs are not at stake, either because of where they hold their appointment or, in Onuf’s case, because he is retired.

Most of us don’t have that luxury. We teach at institutions that depend on declining enrollment and languishing endowments to keep the doors open and maintain current faculty lines. Our institutions don’t have the resources to develop a MOOC, which, by Onuf’s estimation, cost at least $100,000 for a short course. Many of us also don’t have the job security that Onuf et al. possess/ed, either because we are adjuncts, we work at institutions without tenure, or our jobs are dependent on financial factors beyond our control. Add to those circumstances the very real threat to future academic employment posed by MOOCs as currently conceived, and it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to see them as anything other than a threat to higher education.

One last point, which seems appropos given Onuf’s Jeffersonian bent: how do MOOCs benefit the less powerful in a democratic society? Historiann had a guest post on this last May, which is worth reading in its entirety for its examination of the ways in which MOOCs contain assumptions about women, racial and ethnic minorities, and the economically disadvantaged. And lest you think this is hyperbole, consider the comment of Daphne Koller, cofounder and co-CEO of MOOC-provider Coursera, last year:

We’re moving into a world where knowledge, base content, is a commodity, which allows anyone who is smart and motivated and passionate to make something of themselves and open doors to opportunity. But at the same time, the much deeper cognitive skills that are taught in the face-to-face interaction—they’re still going to be a differentiator. The best place to acquire those is by coming and getting an education at the best universities.

I happen to like Onuf’s approach to the Jefferson MOOC. He saw it as a way to target adults interested in learning more about Jefferson, not as a replacement for a course on Jefferson. That type of MOOC is a great idea and would require the performance skills that he notes are important. I also agree with his view that historians should be engaging not just each other or our students but the public as well.

The problem, of course, is that Onuf’s situation is not the norm. Administrators don’t want to focus on “boutique” MOOCs–they want MOOCs that will allow them to cut labor costs and increase tuition revenue, all to the detriment of the vast majority of faculty. For all of their rhetoric about democratizing education and saving the world, venture capitalists are interested in making money and/or exercising power, the cost to faculty be damned. That’s what is really at stake.

Fortunately, the MOOC revolution appears to be losing steam, so Luddites like me, who use social media to interact with the public, students, and the profession and instructional technology to help bring knowledge into the classroom, appear to be winning.

* If you haven’t read Rees’ blog, you should. He has been the most consistent faculty advocate, and he provides lots of links to other voices, both pro-MOOC and anti-MOOC.

Was Calvin Coolidge a Klansman?

Coolidge and KKKI recently came across the photo to the left, which purports to show Calvin Coolidge marching with several Klansmen in Washington. A look at several Klan websites revealed that the picture, Coolidge’s membership, or both were included on many. (See examples here and here.)

One website that appears to be a major source for the Coolidge-Klan claim is run by the Indiana Historical Research Foundation. The photo to the left appears on the site with the statement that Coolidge was the man in the suit marching with Klan leaders. According to the individual who runs the site, “In the 1980′s, I spoke to everyone I could find who would have been alive in the 1920′s and old enough to remember what went on. They all told me it was common knowledge that President Coolidge was a Klan member.” Sixty-year-old statements and a photo of a man who doesn’t even resemble Coolidge–what more do you need for evidence?

I’d never heard of the Coolidge-Klan connection, so I asked Kelly J. Baker, author of Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, if she had.

Kelly’s response prompted me to look at some scholarly secondary sources on Coolidge and his presidency. None of them marked him as a Klansman or a Klan sympathizer; in fact, quite the opposite, given the era. This piece by Jerry L. Wallace does a good job of outlining Coolidge’s relationship with the Klan. I also recommend reading Alvin S. Felzenberg, “Calvin Coolidge and Race:  His Record in Dealing with the Racial Tensions of the 1920,” New England Journal of History 55 (Fall 1998): 83-96.

The Coolidge-Klan connection is prevalent even on non-Klan websites. On the front page of a simple Google search (“Was Calvin Coolidge a Klan Member?”), for example, seven of the ten links listed Coolidge as a KKK member. In the big picture, a false claim about “Silent Cal” is probably going to convince someone of the Klan’s legitimacy, but the concern is that over time, these types of myths undermine and even overtake historical accuracy. At the very least, it makes the job of professional historians harder.


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