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
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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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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

The Skeptic's Guide to American History is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 136.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Perfect! This was the finest snapshot of American History I could have imagined. The 24 or so chapters just flew by. I liked it so much that I shared it with my son-in-law, who is a high school History teacher.
Date published: 2018-08-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Needs more breadth I found this course to be just okay. Relative to some of the other courses I have watched/listened to, this one didn't hold my attention as well. There is a lot of information that is covered, but I felt that much of it was cursorily reviewed rather than explored in depth and connected to other material both within and between the different lectures. I would like to see an updated and expanded version of the lecture series that includes more data and analysis beyond what was included. Additionally, there are several major events that weren't included and more recent history was left off as well. I felt that the course was only 60% done when I finished the lecture series. Somewhat disappointing compared to others.
Date published: 2018-08-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course! Using this for an Adult Ed course. Folks love it. I’ve got a degree in American Studies and I’m learning new things . . . 50 years after my degree.
Date published: 2018-08-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Mastering the Myths Americans often like to remember history the way it never was; the Founding Fathers were demigods of political wisdom, the antebellum South was a land of hospitality and refinement, the Greatest Generation was unflinching in the face of the Great Depression and World War II, and Ronald Reagan brought down the Soviet Union (I actually met a guy who made this argument with a straight face). Professor Mark A. Stoler dispatches myths right and left from colonial New England to the 2003 Iraq War of George W. Bush. There are myths and then there are myths. Some lectures deal with myths that are entirely mythical. For example, America has never been really “isolationist” in its foreign policy except for wanting to keep out of European wars. Consider Thomas Jefferson’s war against the Barbary Pirates or the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty. Herbert Hoover was really an activist rather than a “do nothing” president in trying to cope with the Great Depression. Other lectures deal with myths that are only partial, for example that George Washington was a great military and political leader. Washington suffered mostly defeats and stalemates in his military campaigns and his war-ending success at Yorktown was really a victory of the French Army and Navy, but he really deserves the credit we give him as a statesman. He prevented Continental Army officers from overthrowing Congress over unpaid salaries at the end of the Revolutionary War (the “Newburgh Conspiracy”) and twice gave up power voluntarily when he felt his work was done. Still other lectures, such as those about the Second Great Awakening or the Populist Party, have little myth in them at all. Stoler also makes very important points about history as a discipline. First, consequences of actions may be very different from what the actors intended, e.g. Columbus discovering America instead of India. Second, we must avoid impressing our values and after-knowledge upon the past, such as imagining Roger Williams in Rhode Island favored modern-style religious liberty rather than religious purity or that progressives of 1910 were like modern liberals. History is not an objective series of events and facts that speak for themselves but a network of interpretations that historians constantly debate. Was the Civil War, for example, a contest of slaveholders versus abolitionists, a failed war of independence by southern states from an overbearing central government, an unnecessary bloodbath brought on by fanatics on both sides or a struggle between agrarian and industrial modes of production? I do have some serious criticism of this mostly very good course. A few of the “myths” seem more like straw men that Stoler has set up for himself to knock down rather than things many people have believed. Who really thinks that the Axis powers attacked the US because of its aid to the Allies or believes that “America always wins the war and loses the peace”? More seriously, he rarely says exactly who pushed these myths and who benefited from them. Myths do not make themselves! Furthermore, I really wish he had begun with the American Indians, who have long labored under the myth that America in 1607 was but a howling wilderness peopled by uncouth savages. In his delivery Stoler begins strong and decisive but midway through the course begins to hesitate and stumble. He often says “contemporary” when he means “modern” or “present-day.” There is also a small mistake in a photo of Theodore Roosevelt; the caption shows his presidential years as 1933 to 1945, which of course belonged to Franklin Roosevelt. Still, this course is a strong contribution from the Great Courses and should find its place in the collection of anyone who enjoys American history.
Date published: 2018-07-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from "More Detail About American History" I just watched the lecture on WW2 and it led me to write this. First a little about me. I am a Brit, now naturalized American, and was born in 1941 in the London area, so WW2 means a lot more and is far more personal to me than any history book or lecture. You should also know that I hated history in school, and it only recently that I have come to be interested in it. I think watching PBS has much to do with that. Previous Great Courses that I have purchased have all been scientific in focus, with an attempt to get myself an understanding of general relativity, to appreciate the fascination of the “particle zoo” and learn the significance of Peter Higgs’ Boson… In which they have largely failed I fear, though the fault I am sure is mine. If this course had been titled “More Detail About American History” I certainly never would have bought it. Its actual title caught my attention, and of course it is true as other reviewers have said, the emphasis is more on understanding the details and subtleties than it is on being skeptical. But I have found it interesting, though somewhat of academic interest until I came to this lecture on WW2. Now I could see Professor Stoler’s method in the light of my own knowledge and perspective, and my appreciation for it was solidified. I had already been finding the lectures more relevant as they came nearer to my own life span, which of course just shows that I do not know enough about earlier American history, although those early lectures certainly give me a lot of good information to build on. So while the name of the course is somewhat imaginative it is a good title that induced me at least to buy it, and very glad I am that I did. Professor Stoler’s “talking with his hands” is distracting to start with, so I try to listen closely and look at the screen for the interesting visuals, some of which are detailed enough to need to be studied for a while on pause. I’m looking forward to the remaining five lectures.
Date published: 2018-07-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great history! Professor Stoler does an excellent job of compiling the opinions of various historians on these subjects in American History. I particularly appreciated the way he dealt with the issue of slavery and the Civil War. I love "DEEP History" and I found it here. This is not a skim of American History but if you want to really think about the past and how it affects us in America today, I know you will enjoy this course.
Date published: 2018-05-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best course ever I like the detail and flow of this. There is a lot of over simplification in k through 12 to cover some facts. Thanks for this great course.
Date published: 2018-05-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Title sums it up: we need to delve deeper. Professor Stoler brings a lot of "insider" information to the table. This is a great way to brush up on the history we all took in high school. I feel like I'm getting a lawyer's take on our American history.
Date published: 2018-05-07
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