For most Americans, the history of the United States is built on a set of long-accepted beliefs about events, each of which resonates in the nation's collective memory. But what if those beliefs—however familiar—don't really tell the whole story? Our knowledge of history—or what we believe to be history—is the lens through which we view and interpret the world. And when that lens is distorted with misleading information, it has powerful effects on how we perceive the present and how we make decisions in the future, from choosing whom to vote for to interpreting the latest developments in today's news and opinion pieces.
To take a skeptical approach to American history is not to dabble in imaginative conspiracy theories or doubt the essence of the American experiment; rather, it's to reframe your understanding of this great nation's past and actually strengthen your appreciation for what makes American history such a fascinating chapter in the larger story of Western civilization.
Sorting through misconceptions, myths, and half-truths about America's past is also a chance to revisit some of the country's greatest episodes, figures, and themes from a fresh perspective and an opportunity to hone the way you think about and interpret the past, the present, and even the future.
In The Skeptic's Guide to American History, you can do just that. This bold 24-lecture course examines many commonly held myths and half-truths about American history and prompts you to think about what really happened in the nation's past—as opposed to what many believe happened.
Delivered by award-winning scholar and Professor Mark A. Stoler of The University of Vermont, these lectures demonstrate how reconsidering some of the most popular notions of U.S. history can yield new (and sometimes startlingly different) interpretations of political, social, economic, and military events. But more than just debunking commonly accepted accounts, you'll be able to replace these misconceptions with insightful truths.
See the Evolution of History
History, no matter how objectively it may be pursued, is still a profoundly subjective discipline and most emphatically not a science. History is also evolutionary, with every generation reinterpreting the past in light of its own problems, perceptions, and experiences.
Oft-repeated beliefs addressed in The Skeptic's Guide to American History include, to name only a few, these ideas:
- The colonies rose up in united determination to defeat Great Britain and win independence.
- The Civil War was fought over slavery and the Union's commitment to racial equality.
- A policy of laissez-faire helped create the economic juggernaut that propelled America to world dominance.
- Today's convergence of religion and politics represents a dramatic departure from the separation of church and state put in place by the Founding Fathers.
Exploring both the events of America's history and the verdicts that have been rendered about some of its most enduring figures—including George Washington, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, George C. Marshall, Lyndon Johnson, and many more—The Skeptic's Guide to American History examines a wide-ranging list of questions, including these:
- What impact did other nations have on the American Revolution?
- Has George Washington always been revered as president? Why or why not?
- What about America's other presidents? Which ones may have been underrated, and which overrated?
- In what ways were the responses to the Great Depression by presidents Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt actually quite similar, and why have their subsequent reputations nonetheless differed so sharply?
- Do we now understand the true blunders in America's Vietnam policies and tactics?
- How did the use of historical analogies affect cold war policymakers? Was the cold war inevitable?
Rethink the Meaning of History
In addition to rethinking not just the facts of U.S. history, but also their meaning, Professor Stoler offers fresh insight into history itself as well as how historians think and work. He presents a realistic picture of what the craft of history is and the most important things one can get out of its study.
The Skeptic's Guide to American History is also extremely revealing about how misperceptions of events at the time they happened—including how prior beliefs and perspectives caused those misperceptions—can be exacerbated over the years and obscure future understanding.
For example, you learn how the obvious success of an early 19th-century effort to make George Washington the personification of a national identity for America has come at a price. For it has not only obscured the knowledge of his failings essential to a well-rounded understanding of the man, but also of many of his successes—some of which may be his most important contributions to American history.
Few Americans, for example, are familiar with what is known as the Newburgh Conspiracy, a politically motivated plot during the winter of 1782–1783 that might well have developed into a real coup, with anti-Washington elements in the army enlisted as catalysts. Professor Stoler takes you into the extraordinary meeting called by Washington when he learned of the plot, offering a portrait of leadership under pressure more revealing than any story of a cherry tree and hatchet ever could be.
Get a Fresh Perspective on Powerful Episodes
The above insights are but some of the many that make this course such an intriguing look into an American "history"so many of us take for granted, with eye-opening explorations of key themes and episodes, including these:
- The ironic role played by the "cult of domesticity,"in which the moral battle by religious women on behalf of temperance also led to the birth of the reform movement that would ultimately give women the right to vote.
- Why the Battle of Gettysburg—which at the time was not perceived as pivotal by either side—came to be seen as the "turning point"of the war, including the role played by Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in unintentionally elevating the battle in history's vision beyond the far more important Union victories at Antietam, Vicksburg, and Atlanta.
- The origins of America's established war mythology, including the ideas that the United States does not start wars, but only responds to attacks, and that history reveals a pattern of America consistently "winning the war but losing the peace.”
Working in the same crystal-clear style that has earned him so many teaching awards—including The University of Vermont's George V. Kidder Outstanding Faculty Award and the Kroepsch-Maurice Excellence in Teaching Award—Professor Stoler takes you on a challenging but intellectually invigorating journey through American history.
The Skeptic's Guide to American History is a journey that allows you to rethink not just the facts of U.S. history, but also their meaning. Just as important, Professor Stoler makes that process a delightful intellectual experience.