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The Skeptic's Guide to American History

The Skeptic's Guide to American History

Professor Mark A. Stoler, Ph.D.
The University of Vermont

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The Skeptic's Guide to American History

Course No. 8588
Professor Mark A. Stoler, Ph.D.
The University of Vermont
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Course No. 8588
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is well illustrated with more than 1,100 visuals to enhance your experience, including maps, helpful on-screen text, and historical illustrations and photographs of key figures and events in American history.
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Course Overview

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.

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24 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
Year Released: 2012
  • 1
    Religious Toleration in Colonial America?
    Learn the key elements of a broadened approach to the study of history with this fast-moving examination of the origins of religious and racial tolerance in America. Grasp how the assumptions you’ve long held can differ dramatically from historical reality. x
  • 2
    Neither American nor Revolutionary?
    Continue this new approach to understanding history with a look at efforts of the colonists to defend their “rights as Englishmen” and the ironic role played by European tyrannies in helping establish the nation that would forever change the definition of liberty. x
  • 3
    The Constitution Did Not Create a Democracy
    Gain a nuanced understanding of what the Founders’ “original intent” really was and how so many of the questions they grappled with divided them for their entire lives—ultimately being bequeathed to their successors and persisting even to this day. x
  • 4
    Washington—Failures and Real Accomplishments
    Set aside the hagiography that helped shape George Washington’s image and undertake a balanced examination that measures his military and presidential failings against his numerous successes. See how some of the least known of those successes may have been his most important contributions to American history. x
  • 5
    Confusions about Jefferson and Hamilton
    Jefferson and Hamilton held sharply differing views on policy and constitutional interpretation. Learn how their conflict—often thought of in terms of our contemporary understanding of liberalism and conservatism—is actually relevant to us in very different ways from those we imagine. x
  • 6
    Andrew Jackson—An Odd Symbol of Democracy
    Andrew Jackson’s election ushered in an era marked by much democratic reform. Ironically, as you’ll learn, the man who would be seen as the symbol of such reform actually opposed much of it and championed many policies that few today would call democratic. x
  • 7
    The Second Great Awakening—Enduring Impacts
    Grasp how the links between religion and politics that today inspire such powerful positive and negative emotions are nothing new. See how issues born out of the 19th-century’s evangelical upheaval—from prison reform to women’s suffrage—still engage us today. x
  • 8
    Did Slavery Really Cause the Civil War?
    By analyzing this question and the different answers posed by generations of historians, you begin to understand “historiography”—the study of the writing of history—and take a key step in your understanding of history itself. x
  • 9
    The Civil War’s Actual Turning Points
    Discover how perceptions of Gettysburg as the Civil War’s “turning point” are inaccurate. Here, examine three battles that were arguably more important and gain new insights into what determines—in any war—how meaningful a battle really was. x
  • 10
    The Myth of Laissez-Faire
    The great age of post–Civil War industrialization and the enormous levels of national and personal wealth it generated (for some) have often been attributed to a governmental attitude of “hands-off” toward business. Discover that such an attitude did not exist in the United States and that, in fact, it never had. x
  • 11
    Misconceptions about the Original Populists
    Is a reference to someone as a “populist” praise or criticism? Does it have any reference to where a person stands on the political spectrum? This lecture analyzes the nation’s original populist movement and what links—if any—it has to contemporary namesakes. x
  • 12
    Labor in America—A Strange History
    Although often seen as a dramatic reversal of historical government support for labor, today’s efforts to scale back collective bargaining rights are actually a reassertion of policy with a long precedent. Learn that the pro-union policies of the New Deal represent the real break with the past. x
  • 13
    Myths about American Isolation and Empire
    Was the United States ever as isolationist and opposed to imperialism as is commonly believed? Explore the myth and reality surrounding our historical self-image and learn how America’s expansionist history might appear from the perspectives of other nations. x
  • 14
    Early Progressives Were Not Liberals
    Many liberals see the roots of their philosophy in progressivism, but this is misleading. Learn how progressivism also included many ideas—such as eugenics, limits on free speech, and restrictions on immigration—that would have outraged modern liberals. x
  • 15
    Woodrow Wilson and the Rating of Presidents
    How, exactly, should past presidents be judged? A provocative examination of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency—judged a great success by some and a profound failure by others—provides an opportunity to explore the broader issues of presidential ratings in general. x
  • 16
    The Roaring Twenties Reconsidered
    Were the 1920s really a return to isolationism and the values of the late 19th century? Uncover a decade far more complex than is generally believed, as you learn how much of the change begun during the progressive era continued—in many ways setting the stage for contemporary America. x
  • 17
    Hoover and the Great Depression Revisited
    Herbert Hoover came to the White House regarded as both a skilled manager and great humanitarian, yet left the presidency perceived as just the opposite. Gain an understanding of how this could happen through a detailed examination of both his forgotten accomplishments and his often misunderstood failures. x
  • 18
    What Did Roosevelt’s New Deal Really Do?
    FDR was simultaneously one of the most beloved and most hated of U.S. presidents. Explore what the New Deal attempted and accomplished—as well as its intended and unintended consequences—as you grasp its role in creating the economic and political systems of today’s America. x
  • 19
    World War II Misconceptions and Myths
    Is our understanding of “the Good War” correct? Grasp how our reliance on a national mythology makes for not only inaccurate history but a misconceived future because of the long-term effects that myths about the war have had on American policy since 1945. x
  • 20
    Was the Cold War Inevitable?
    Professor Stoler holds that the cold war was not necessarily destined to happen. In this lecture, he leads you in an analysis of why it took place and lasted so long, with examination along the way of several additional myths regarding this long and dangerous Soviet-American conflict. x
  • 21
    The Real Blunders of the Vietnam War
    Why did America fail in Vietnam? Was it flawed military strategy? Political micromanagement? America’s domestic antiwar movement? You not only learn the answer to this fundamental question, but you also gain a more nuanced understanding of why the debate has raged to this day. x
  • 22
    Myths about American Wars
    Vietnam is far from America’s only misunderstood war. This lecture delves into the common myths and misunderstandings shared by many Americans about why the nation’s wars have been fought and how the results have been judged. x
  • 23
    Who Matters in American History?
    Who in history do we choose to remember, and why? Take in the extraordinary accomplishments of several Americans—including John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and George C. Marshall—whose achievements and influence may well have exceeded those of many of the great figures more vividly remembered. x
  • 24
    History Did Not Begin with Us
    Conclude the course with an appreciation that history did not begin with the events of our own lifetime. Explore the antecedents of the civil rights, antiwar, and women’s rights movements and the tendency to pronounce any era’s major technological advances as the most important in history x

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Your professor

Mark A. Stoler

About Your Professor

Mark A. Stoler, Ph.D.
The University of Vermont
Dr. Mark Stoler, who holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Wisconsin, is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Vermont. An expert in U.S. foreign relations and military history, as well as the origins of the cold war, Professor Stoler has also held teaching positions at the United States Military Academy, the Army Military History Institute, the Naval War College, and-as a Fulbright Professor-the...
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Reviews

Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 90 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Skeptical but Not Cynical I was a little apprehensive about taking this course because of the title. I read many history books, and I get really tired of revisionist history and cynical professors with an axe to grind against America. Given the title, I feared running into exactly this scenario. I was happily relieved to find that not to be the case with this course. The professor's goal is to shed light on American history myths and misunderstandings, but he does so in a respectful way that does not belittle America or ignore the nation's accomplishments. For example, he points out that George Washington lost nearly every battle he fought in the American Revolution, and, thus, Washington was not an unmatched tactical general. The professor points out, though, that Washington was a strategic master who won the war without winning all of the battles by making the British situation in America unsustainable and winning enough key battles to be successful. As another example, he discusses the myth that President Franklin Roosevelt "gave away" Eastern Europe to the Soviets at the end of World War II. The professor explains that the Soviets had already conquered Eastern Europe, and, instead of surrendering territory, Roosevelt negotiated territorial concessions from the Soviets, not vice-versa. The class was fascinating and thought provoking and, thankfully, not cynical or demeaning to America. November 20, 2015
Rated 4 out of 5 by American History Mythbuster This is not the typical survey course on American History. Rather, Dr. Stoler goes after some commonly held misconceptions many Americans have about historical events and people and reconciles them with their historical context and related facts. He educates us about "anachronism" , in the context of viewing events from the perspective and social norms of a different time period than those of the historical event itself. This practice is routinely played out in today's news media and by pundits from all ends of the political spectrum. We can all learn much by taking the more jaundiced look backwards that Dr. Stoler takes. Another tool he introduces to the view of history is to view it as a mosaic. Each :"tile" of the mosaic represents a picture of history in the context of its time and when assembled together they represent somewhat of an overall picture of history. By viewing the entire mosaic from various distances we get overviews of history with varying levels of detail, while viewing individual tiles up close we may get a more detailed view but less understanding of how a certain time period it fits into the entire historical mosaic. This is provides a good analogy as to how historians and others study history and why different levels of examination provide different revisionist histories and perspectives. With this image in mind, it seems quite natural to be skeptical when studying history. Dr. Stoler purposefully chose people and events that are at the core of what most Americans believe to be true representations of our history and shows how they suffer from romanticism, anachronism, and in some cases, outright distortion. Starting with the myth of religious toleration in colonial America, through several misconceptions about the founding fathers and the start of the nation, through widely held misconceptions about the motivations for and actions during the Civil War, through the myth of laissez-faire and misconceptions about populism in the 19th century's gilded age and labor movements, through a contextualization of TR's progressive moment as contrasted to today's liberalism, to a rather jaundiced look at Woodrow Wilson, to a more balanced view of Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression, to a realistic view of the impact of the New Deal policies of FDR, to a more holistic view of America's contribution to World War II, and through the Cold War (which became hot in Korea and Vietnam) to the current time, Dr. Stoler takes the student on a journey that really makes us think about what we have learned to believe is "fact" about American history. Along the way our minds are opened as Dr. Stoler challenges us to consider different intertwining events, the socio-economic conditions of each time, and a more international view of America's role in the world events. I found the lecture 22 on "Myths on American Wars" most interesting as a compelling case is made that G.W. Bush's "Weapons of Mass Destruction" justification for the War in Iraq was not an isolated incident of seeking a justification for war, but that such pretenses by American political leaders have occurred as justification for several American wars or military actions. Dr. Stoler makes a case for more healthy skepticism by Americans in this area. Dr. Stoler does include himself among historians who are susceptible to revisionist history. In one case, he does show a bit of anachronism himself when discussing Adam Smith and the concept of Laissez-Faire in "The Wealth of Nations". Actually the title of Smith's work is "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations." Unlike Dr. Stoler's implied connection of "Wealth" to individual who are wealthy, Adam Smith's work is really the first attempt to apply a scientific, reasoned approach to understanding economics. In modern language, his book might better be entitled "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of National Prosperity". In fact, the college professor Adam Smith, was proposing economic theories for free trade among nations (and their people) vs. the state sponsored monopolies and high tariffs of Mercantilism. Dr. Stoler maintains a good pace throughout this course with few unnecessary pauses or "non-words" (e.g. "ah"). He speaks with inflection and authority. I watched the video version of the course which had some interesting photographs and videos, but I am sure that given Dr. Stoler's speaking skills the audio version will be almost as good. I found Dr. Stoler's body language metronomic and not particularly emphatic. Nevertheless I was engaged throughout the course. I would recommend this to anyone who wishes to get a view of key events and people from American history without the encumbrances of ties to current political philosophies. Just keep in mind that this is not a complete survey course of American history as several time periods and events are left out. October 31, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Reassessing US History I was intrigued by the title of this course--I was not sure what I was into when I purchased it. I was pleasantly suprised. Dr. Stoler takes a critical look at what we have learned about US history, focusing on topics such as the major wars, various movements throughout US history, and how we have emphasized political and military leaders while others who have made significant achievements have been essentailly neglected. The role of a the skeptic , the lecturer mentioned several times, is to investigate and learn for oneself what really happened in history, and not take anything for granted. This principle can be applied to any history. I would especially recommend the lectures on the Constitution, whether slavery was the real cause of the Civil War, the ratings of presidents (Dr. Stoler focuses on Woodrow Wilson and that he may be overrated), World War II, and the Vietnam War. Dr. Stoler organized the lectures bascially in chronological order, although in his 24 lectures he could not possibly cover all of US history during this time. I would definitely recommend this course to any student of US history, and it would be good for kids in middle/hight school as well. I thought Dr. Stoler very enthusiastic in his presentation, and I would not hesitate to purchase another course offered by him in the future. January 12, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by I was ironically skeptical... ... of the title of this course, but I have to say that it's one of the top 3 best ever courses offered by the Teaching Company. I won't be too long. Suffice it to say that this lecturer treats you like an adult. He doesn't tell you fairy tells. He explains events in their own historical context, then traces the evolution of the understanding of these events through time, all the while recognizing that he is himself seeing these events from a specific vantage point in history, which will itself be overturned in decades to come. If you're looking for a serious work of historical scholarship that presents COMPLEX events, this is your course. If you're looking to hear an more detailed version of the fairy tales you were told in middle school, keep looking. September 23, 2013
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