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American Identity

American Identity

Course No.  8540
Course No.  8540
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Course Overview

About This Course

48 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

What defines an American? Is it the love of liberty, the pursuit of justice, the urge to invent, the desire for wealth, the drive to explore, the quest for spiritual values? The paradox of the American identity is that although the United States is a melting pot of many different traditions, motives, and ideals, there are nevertheless distinctive qualities that define the American character

In this course, historian Patrick N. Allitt investigates the national character by introducing you to notable Americans from all eras of the nation's history, whose lives speak eloquently about the qualities that make one truly American.

Focusing on various character traits and attitudes that have indelibly shaped the national psyche, Dr. Allitt takes you on a journey from the very first settlers to the present, showing how certain characteristics have been passed down through time, and also how certain traits and beliefs have changed over time.

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What defines an American? Is it the love of liberty, the pursuit of justice, the urge to invent, the desire for wealth, the drive to explore, the quest for spiritual values? The paradox of the American identity is that although the United States is a melting pot of many different traditions, motives, and ideals, there are nevertheless distinctive qualities that define the American character

In this course, historian Patrick N. Allitt investigates the national character by introducing you to notable Americans from all eras of the nation's history, whose lives speak eloquently about the qualities that make one truly American.

Focusing on various character traits and attitudes that have indelibly shaped the national psyche, Dr. Allitt takes you on a journey from the very first settlers to the present, showing how certain characteristics have been passed down through time, and also how certain traits and beliefs have changed over time.

You will learn about the famous (like Thomas Jefferson), the infamous (like Al Capone), and the relatively unknown (like Emma Goldman). Each person covered in this course manifests certain characteristics that are quintessentially part of the American identity, or reveal some underlying aspect of the American identity.

A Deeper Understanding of Trends and Ideas

The figures in these lectures led fascinating lives. And while the course is enjoyable simply as a well-told series of biographies, it does much more, helping you gain a deeper understanding of the trends and ideas that shaped America and that continue to influence American society today. For example:

  • The 17th-century Puritan leader Cotton Mather is the spiritual ancestor of today's vogue for political correctness, which Professor Allitt sees as a secular transfiguration of the Puritan belief that you can think, do, and say the right things and gradually get rid of the wrong things.
  • The Civil War-era landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted combined public park construction and anti-slavery advocacy, spurred by the conviction that each contributed to fulfilling his ideal of a society where citizens are free, educated, genteel, and able to maintain contact with rural conditions.
  • The late 19th-century industrialist Andrew Carnegie helped create a pattern of philanthropy in which business leaders who succeeded by ruthless methods sanitized their reputations by endowing universities and other institutions. "It wasn't a trend which was taking place elsewhere in the world," says Professor Allitt.
  • The 20th-century columnist William F. Buckley, Jr., was among the first Americans to take pride in the conservative label, which Americans had long resisted attaching to themselves. Buckley transformed the image and idiom of conservatism, with consequences that persist into the 21st century.

What You Will Learn

Each lecture in this course takes as its subject a single individual or pair of individuals. Each person is then treated in terms of a particular activity, which is reflected in the lecture's subtitle: for example, "Frederick Douglass—The Abolitionist" or "Samuel Gompers—The Trade Unionist." The four parts of the course follow a roughly chronological pattern:

Part I introduces a series of powerful figures from colonial America, who imparted their imaginativeness, forcefulness, and energy to the American tradition. Among them are the explorer and colonial founder John Smith; the religious liberty advocate, Quaker, and colonial founder William Penn; the great Puritan intellectual Cotton Mather; and the astonishing 18th-century polymath Benjamin Franklin. This part climaxes with the revolutionary generation and the men and women who had to make the difficult transition from being British subjects to being American citizens. Some among them, such as First Lady Abigail Adams, set the tone and style for a long line of successors.

Part II considers influential Americans of the early 19th century, many of whom were involved in the great controversy over whether the nation would maintain or overthrow the slave system, and who collectively energized the young republic's astonishing economic growth. Two writers from this group, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott, bear witness to the maturing of a distinctive American literary and philosophical culture.

Part III picks up the story after the convulsions of the Civil War, highlighting the men and women who turned America into a first-class industrial nation dedicated to sustained economic growth, and who enabled the republic to stretch, in reality rather than just aspiration, from ocean to ocean.

Part IV shows how America's diversity flowered in the mid-20th century, as new waves of immigrants were assimilated and began to play a role in every facet of national life. This was also a time when America developed a global reach, personified in such international heroes as aviator Charles Lindbergh, such war leaders as General Douglas MacArthur, and such international cultural stars as Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein.

The American Character Exemplified

There are countless examples of how these individuals embody distinctly American traits. Here are some of them:

  • Lack of Fatalism: Louisa May Alcott volunteered as a nurse in a Civil War hospital, where she contracted typhoid fever and was crippled for life from the mercury used to treat her. Nonetheless, she kept writing to support her family and pay off her father's debts. Her most beloved book, Little Women, emerged from this difficult period.
  • Energetic Approach to Problem-solving: Benjamin Franklin was inspired by a firewood shortage in Philadelphia to invent a more efficient source of heat: the Franklin stove. His clever marketing campaign for the invention displays another American characteristic: boundless self-confidence.
  • Faith in Economic Growth: Andrew Carnegie made a fortune in various industries before devoting himself full time to steel, seeing its limitless potential. It was then that he said, "Put all your eggs in one basket and then watch that basket!"
  • Dedication to Education: When Horace Mann was named secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education in 1837, he encountered a school system in decay. By the time he left the job 12 years later, he had laid the foundation for universal compulsory schooling that would be a model for all other states.
  • Devotion to Religious Liberty: The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which Thomas Jefferson drafted in 1786, was one of his proudest accomplishments, which he classed even above his two terms as president of the United States. The statute was the foundation for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
  • Belief in Equality: When Abigail Adams asked her husband, John Adams, to "remember the ladies" as he worked to establish the new American nation, she was speaking partly in jest. But her feminist heirs were serious. In the 20th century Betty Friedan sought to give women real equality and real democratic access, rather than the outward legal shell of these rights.

You May Even Recognize Yourself

This is a course that is descriptive of the American character, rather than prescriptive; Professor Allitt emphasizes that one need not have certain characteristics in order to be really American. Nonetheless, if you are an American, you will probably find that you share basic attitudes and beliefs with many of the individuals featured in these lectures. This is no accident. One of the lessons of the course is that habits of mind that you may take for grantedùoptimism, self-reliance, and belief in education, among others—are specifically American in outlook and have been developed through the success of these and other like-minded individuals throughout American history.

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48 Lectures
  • 1
    Being American
    This course profiles 48 notable Americans whose lives and accomplishments help define the national identity. In his introductory lecture, Professor Allitt highlights characteristics that are distinctly American, while noting that these traits are neither prescriptive nor unchanging. x
  • 2
    John Smith—The Colonial Promoter
    Famous for being saved from execution by Pocahontas (which may not have happened), John Smith was a talented soldier, explorer, mapmaker, colonizer, and writer whose career heralds what would become the American approach to Indian policy, meritocracy, and frontier settlement. x
  • 3
    William Penn—The Religious Liberty Advocate
    Religious freedom is so central to the American way of life that it's difficult to recall what a radical notion it once appeared to be. William Penn is one of the first great advocates for making America a land of religious liberty where everyone is free to worship in his or her own way. x
  • 4
    Cotton Mather—The Puritan
    A ferociously devout Puritan, Cotton Mather is famous for his role in the Salem Witch trials and for introducing smallpox inoculations to Boston. To some, he represents Puritanism at it worst; others praise his high moral standards and constant attempts to root out corruption and decadence. x
  • 5
    Benjamin Franklin—The Improver
    American history is full of people trying to improve things, none more so than Benjamin Franklin. Born in humble circumstances, his success as a printer, writer, scientist, and public servant made him admired worldwide, proving that upward social and economic mobility was an American reality. x
  • 6
    Francis Marion—The Guerrilla Soldier
    Francis Marion, the "Swamp Fox," helped preserve the possibility of American independence in one of the most treacherous campaigns of the Revolutionary War. His style of irregular warfare inspired tactics used later against the Indians and during the Civil War. x
  • 7
    Thomas Jefferson—The Patriot
    A striking aspect of American nationalism is its self-critical character, in which Thomas Jefferson leads the way. He was not only proud of the U.S. and its revolutionary accomplishments but also anguished about its imperfections, especially the blight of slavery, which he knew well as a slaveholder himself. x
  • 8
    Abigail Adams—The First Lady
    A minister's daughter full of the Yankee virtues of prudence, thrift, hard work, and sobriety, Abigail Adams was wife to the second U.S. president, John Adams. Along with Martha Washington, she helped create the pattern that American first ladies have followed throughout much of the last 200 years. x
  • 9
    Mother Ann Lee—The Religious Founder
    Religious innovation is one of the most distinctive aspects of the American identity. We look at Ann Lee, the principal founder of the Shakers, whose demand for absolute celibacy meant that no one would ever be born to Shaker parents and that recruits would have to live a life of heroic self-discipline. x
  • 10
    Rittenhouse and Bartram—The Scientists
    American preeminence in science did not come until the 20th century, but there were notable American scientists in the nation's early years, among them astronomer David Rittenhouse and naturalist William Bartram. Relatively unknown today, they had worldwide reputations in the late 18th century. x
  • 11
    Eli Whitney—The Inventor
    A distinctive aspect of the American identity is the ability to make practical new devices and put them to profitable use. A famous example is Eli Whitney, whose greatest invention, the cotton gin, was almost too useful, and the bargain he tried to drive was almost too hard. x
  • 12
    Lewis and Clark—The Explorers
    The most illustrious explorers in American history, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led a three-year expedition to explore the Missouri river and beyond to the Pacific Ocean. Their work laid the foundation for the nation's subsequent westward expansion. x
  • 13
    Charles Grandison Finney—The Revivalist
    Charles Grandison Finney helped create the revivalist evangelical style in America in the 19th century, which emphasized a brighter theological message than that of traditional Calvinism. He was also a central figure in Christian education and in the movement to abolish slavery. x
  • 14
    Horace Mann—The Educator
    No American characteristic is more striking to outsiders than the nation's commitment to education. Horace Mann created America's first statewide public school system in Massachusetts, which became a model for other states and led to today's system of universal education for all. x
  • 15
    Ralph Waldo Emerson—The Philosopher
    Ralph Waldo Emerson was the leading figure among the Transcendentalists, an idealistic group of philosophical and social radicals in pre-Civil War New England. His lectures and essays made him the most famous American thinker of his era, at home and in Europe. x
  • 16
    Frederick Douglass—The Abolitionist
    The growing anti-slavery movement in the 1850s found an eloquent spokesman in Frederick Douglass, a former slave who had escaped from bondage. His moving autobiography and electrifying oratory energized abolitionists and helped precipitate the crisis of the union. x
  • 17
    Edmund Ruffin—The Champion of Slavery
    American history is full of dramatic contradictions, none more so than Edmund Ruffin. The father of scientific agriculture, he argued for a wide array of enlightened farming practices. At the same time, he was a passionate advocate of slavery and may have fired the first shot in the Civil War. x
  • 18
    Brigham Young—The Religious Autocrat
    In the 1840s, Brigham Young led the faithful of the new Mormon Church on a spectacular transcontinental journey to escape persecution in the U.S. Settling in what is now Utah, Young transformed desert land into irrigated farms and established a tightly regulated community that has flourished ever since. x
  • 19
    Frederick Law Olmsted—The Landscape Architect
    America's first landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, was the maker of large urban parks in dozens of cities, including Central Park in New York. He combined this career with a commitment to the antislavery cause. During the Civil War he headed the Sanitary Commission, an important aid organization. x
  • 20
    William Tecumseh Sherman—The General
    William T. Sherman represents what became the typical American style of warfare, bringing overwhelming force against the enemy and battering it into submission. His destructive campaign against the South during the Civil War made him one of the most controversial people in American history. x
  • 21
    Louisa May Alcott—The Professional Writer
    Daughter of an unworldly New England Transcendentalist, Louisa May Alcott got her family out of debt by becoming a prolific novelist. Little Women, a fictional transfiguration of her own childhood, became a classic almost at once and has remained one since its publication in 1868. x
  • 22
    Andrew Carnegie—Conscience-Stricken Entrepreneur
    Born poor in Scotland, Andrew Carnegie found economic opportunity in the U.S. and became one of the richest men in the world. Not content with piling up wealth for its own sake, he became a leading philanthropist. His altruistic "gospel of wealth" influenced generations of Americans. x
  • 23
    “Buffalo Bill”—The Westerner
    Images of the Wild West have long held a treasured place in Americans' conception of their nation, and few people did more to nourish them than "Buffalo Bill" Cody. Famous for staging fictionalized versions of his exploits, he occasionally returned to the field to rack up more adventures. x
  • 24
    Black Elk—The Holy Man
    Black Elk belonged to the last generation of Sioux that lived a semi-nomadic life on the plains, dependent on buffalo hunting. At age 13 he was present at the Battle of Little Big Horn. He experienced a powerful vision as a child and devoted his life to offering spiritual guidance to his people. x
  • 25
    John Wesley Powell—The Desert Theorist
    John Wesley Powell was the first man to travel the length of the Grand Canyon in a boat. He learned the languages of the desert Indians and became a leading anthropologist. At the U.S. Geological Survey, he proposed a dramatic and novel solution to the chronic problem of water shortage in the West. x
  • 26
    William Mulholland—The Water Engineer
    William Mulholland used fair means and foul to engineer an ample water supply for Los Angeles, showing that cities could flourish in the desert southwest of the U.S. His reputation was ruined in 1928 when the St. Francis Dam, whose building he had supervised, burst and killed 500 people. x
  • 27
    Samuel Gompers—The Trade Unionist
    A founder of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers was a hero to millions of American workers. He embodied their demands that their dignity as independent citizens be preserved, that they be paid decent wages, work in safe conditions, and enjoy job security. x
  • 28
    Booker T. Washington—The "Race Leader"
    Booker T. Washington is one of America's greatest success stories. Born a slave, he rose to a position of wealth and influence as an educator and race leader. However he was criticized for failing to speak out against worsening segregation, lynching, and other violations of African-American rights. x
  • 29
    Emma Goldman—The Anarchist
    One of the best-known anarchists in American history, Emma Goldman was widely feared and hated during her lifetime. She has since become one of the nation's most popular women. Aside from her radical political views, she believed in free love, birth control, abortion, and women's rights. x
  • 30
    Abraham Cahan—The Immigrants' Advocate
    Immigrating to New York as a young man, Abraham Cahan founded the Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward to help fellow immigrants adapt to American ways. He also became a widely admired novelist, notably for his semi-autobiographical novel, The Rise of David Levinsky. x
  • 31
    Isabella Stewart Gardner—The Collector
    Many of the great American art collections were established in the late 19th century. None carries a more distinctive stamp than that of Isabella Stewart Gardner of Boston, who showed a lifelong capacity for intellectual growth and eccentric high style. x
  • 32
    Oliver Wendell Holmes—The Jurist
    Arguably the greatest of all Supreme Court justices, Oliver Wendell Holmes joined the court in 1902 at age 61. He served until 1932, aged 91, during which he wrote many influential opinions reflecting his "legal realism" philosophy: "The life of the law has not been logic. It has been experience." x
  • 33
    Henry Ford—The Mass Producer
    The first automobiles were toys for the rich, but Henry Ford's Model T, introduced in 1908, came steadily down in price and by 1915 was affordable to ordinary citizens. Ford pioneered in paying high wages to workers to ensure a stable workforce and to enable his men to buy the cars they were building. x
  • 34
    Harry Houdini—The Sensationalist
    Magician Harry Houdini developed the ability to escape from apparently impossible situations. Understanding the need to promote his acts, he adapted well to the demands of 20th-century publicity and demonstrated that show business could make a talented performer into a wealthy and influential man. x
  • 35
    Al Capone—The Crime Boss
    Prohibition did little to stem the market for alcoholic beverages, and Al Capone stepped in to meet the demand. Considering himself a "businessman," he organized a crime empire that dominated Chicago, corrupting officials at every level and in every department. x
  • 36
    Herbert Hoover—The Humanitarian
    A successful mining engineer, Herbert Hoover achieved an international reputation for his humanitarian work during and after World War I. He was one of the most widely admired men in America when he was elected president in 1928, but the Great Depression took him by surprise. x
  • 37
    Helen Keller—The Inspiration
    Helen Keller was struck blind and deaf by scarlet fever before her second birthday. Under the care of a gifted teacher, Anne Sullivan, she learned to read, write, and make sense of the world around her. She went on to a life of advocacy for the blind, women's suffrage, socialism, and other public causes. x
  • 38
    Duke Ellington—The Jazzman
    Before 1900, America had made few contributions to the world's musical heritage. This changed with jazz, particularly with the career of Duke Ellington. His rise to fame was aided not only by his superb musical skills but by the advent of radio and the phonograph, which helped spread his music. x
  • 39
    Charles Lindbergh—The Aviator
    Charles Lindbergh became world famous for making the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. His later life was beset with personal and political difficulties. Nonetheless, he remains an American icon whose heroic act linked personal willpower and technical mastery. x
  • 40
    Douglas MacArthur—The World-Power Warrior
    Douglas MacArthur was a larger-than-life army commander ideally suited to America's role as a superpower. After performing brilliantly in World Wars I and II and the Korean War, he was dismissed by President Truman for publicly challenging the tradition of civilian control over military decisions. x
  • 41
    Leonard Bernstein—The Musical Polymath
    Leonard Bernstein did more than anyone to break down the hierarchy of musical styles from classical to jazz to popular. He was equally at home conducting Beethoven at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, writing Broadway shows such as West Side Story, or broadcasting to children. x
  • 42
    Shirley Temple—The Child Prodigy
    Child actress Shirley Temple was the most popular attraction in Hollywood from 1935–38, cheering America during the Great Depression. As her career faded, she entered politics and served a succession of Republican presidents as an ambassador, State Department officer, and White House protocol chief. x
  • 43
    George Wallace—The Demagogue
    George Wallace built his political career on opposition to racial integration, winning several terms as governor of Alabama. His third-party run for president in 1968 made a strong showing. Trying again in 1972, he was wounded in an assassination attempt. Afterward, he recanted his racist views. x
  • 44
    William F. Buckley, Jr.—The Conservative
    William F. Buckley, Jr., founded National Review magazine in 1955, gathering anticommunists, classical liberals, and social traditionalists into an influential forum. Buckley's gifts as a polemicist and an entertaining talk show host helped turn conservative ideas into practical political realities. x
  • 45
    Roberto Clemente—The Athlete
    Puerto Rican athlete Roberto Clemente played his entire 17-year, major-league career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He complemented his skills in baseball with humanitarian work. His death in 1972 while taking part in an earthquake-relief operation sealed his reputation as a selfless role model. x
  • 46
    Betty Friedan—The Feminist
    The galvanizing event in modern feminism was the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Friedan founded the National Organization of Women in 1966 and became a central figure in the successful campaign to abolish discriminatory legislation against women. x
  • 47
    Jesse Jackson—The Civil Rights Legatee
    Jesse Jackson inherited the mantle of leadership of the civil rights movement after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. Mixing social protest with electoral politics, as King never did, Jackson became a controversial figure, especially after his runs for the presidency in the 1980s. x
  • 48
    Stability and Change
    Certain themes and ideas have persisted throughout American history, while others have changed beyond recognition. Professor Allitt discusses what we can conclude about the American identity from the fascinating case histories presented in this course. x

Lecture Titles

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Patrick N. Allitt
Ph.D. Patrick N. Allitt
Emory University

Dr. Patrick N. Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, where he has taught since 1988. The holder of a doctorate in history from the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Allitt-an Oxford University graduate-has also taught American religious history at Harvard Divinity School, where he was a Henry Luce Postdoctoral Fellow. He was the Director of Emory College's Center for Teaching and Curriculum from 2004 to 2009, where he looked for ways to improve teaching. In this critical administrative position, he led workshops on a wide variety of teaching-related problems, visited dozens of other professors' classes, and provided one-on-one consultation to teachers to help them overcome particular pedagogical problems. Professor Allitt was honored with Emory's Excellence in Teaching Award and in 2000 was appointed to the N.E.H./Arthur Blank Professorship of Teaching in the Humanities. A widely published and award-winning author, Professor Allitt has written several books, including The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities throughout American History; Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America, 1950-1985; Catholic Converts: British and American Intellectuals Turn to Rome; and Religion in America since 1945: A History. He is also author of I'm the Teacher, You're the Student: A Semester in the University Classroom, a memoir about one semester in his life as a university professor. In addition, he is the editor of Major Problems in American Religious History. He has written numerous articles and reviews for academic and popular journals, including The New York Times Book Review.

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Reviews

Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 38 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent This was an excellent introduction to prominent figures in United States history. Prof. Allitt did a nice job in his selection of the people described. There is a nice selection of famous people and not-so-famous (at least to me) people. Prof. Allitt provided an excellent course guide and bibliography. I enjoyed his sense of humor. I had to chuckle because as I was preparing to write this review, I glanced at a couple of the previous reviews. I was planning to write that as far as history-by-biography goes, this course tends to have more biography and less history. However, the previous reviewer wrote just the opposite. I guess that shows that everyone has their own opinion. In any case, we both agree that we learned a good bit from this course about U.S. History and those who made it. I would recommend this course for anyone interested in learning about U.S. History. July 18, 2012
Rated 5 out of 5 by The American Identity: Character Counts DVD review. ©2005. Guidebook 201 pages. I got the DVDs and enjoyed watching the presentation and the pictures. However, graphics are limited, so audio would work just fine for most people. The Guidebook is lengthy and reading the comprehensive outlines was worthwhile. This course appealed to me because I love reading non-fiction, particularly biographies. If you do too, then I highly recommend this course. One thing that strikes me about this course is that it is not singularly biographical. For the most part, each lecture is a indeed a standalone lesson. Sure, that’s the main idea, that we’re introduced to distinguished Americans in so many different walks of life, all of whom contributed greatly to our heritage. Equally significant is the roundabout attention paid to the general American public and changes in society at large: technological breakthroughs, geopolitics, fame, religion, business and economic growth, entertainment, etc. It’s not until you near the end that you really get a broader sense of the continuity of the American Identity. It’s never boring. In fact, some were at times laugh-out-loud funny. Although you probably know most of the cast of characters, there are some you’ve probably never heard of. And those that you do know, there’s bound to be new anecdotes and references you never knew about. Interestingly, some of the ones I expected to like the least were among the best. Shirley Temple--are you kidding? Actually, gripping stuff. In the end, this course was a good way to pass the time, learn a new thing or two, and come to appreciate our dynamic American identity as it developed over the ages. May 28, 2012
Rated 5 out of 5 by Splendid Capsule Biographies This is an excellent course. The adjective "American" in the course title refers colloquially to the United States of America. It also refers to the character of the American people. Professor Allitt offers us four dozen short biographies of historic persons who, collectively, represent the essential nature of what he feels it means to be an American. Each of these characters exhibited traits such as unusual individuality, innovation, persistence, and a flair for hard work that, the Professor suggests, seem to be unique to the American identity. To make his case, the Professor discusses individuals from all walks of life, scattered across several hundred years of American history. Some of these historic persons are quite famous, while others you probably will have never heard of. No matter, these lectures hold your attention, and for the most part are a genuine delight to listen to. I learned a lot from this course -- don't miss it. January 5, 2012
Rated 4 out of 5 by 48 Life Sketches 48 Life Sketches of individuals who helped shape the American (United States) identity. The lectures are insightful and mostly contain figures whom I had heard of, but did not know a great deal about. It good to focus on some of the people who are not the usual standard bearers in American history. Rather than say "this is what the American identity is" the professor lectures on a wide variaty of extraordinary people who represent different movements or values throughout American History. The overview of these 48 individuals does give the listener a broad view of the shaping of the American identity from the Colonial period to the end of the 1970s. I enjoyed it. December 27, 2011
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