Intellectual History of the United States Since 1865

History C132B

Fall 2005
219 Dwinelle
Day & Time: 
TuTh 3:30-5
  • This course satisfies the American Cultures Requirement.
  • In this course we will be discussing key developments in U.S. thought since the middle of the nineteenth century, roughly beginning with the reception of Darwin. The broader story told in the class weaves together the history of science and engineering, the arts and popular culture, philosophy, and education. Our goal is to trace how ideas, whether they are dominant, challenging, or look back, have affected the ways in which Americans live together. Sometimes the ideas we will examine will seem specialized. Nevertheless, fields like geology, genetics, psychoanalysis, or quantum physics have affected how Americans have looked at the world at large and have influenced the course of public policy. The sciences and the arts have provided raw material for a continual reconstruction of how to understand the world. They have inspired efforts to legislate a new society. As we look at this process over the past century and a half, we will look at how intellectual life has empowered and expanded the capacity of Americans to understand their world and achieve goals more effectively. We will also consider how intellectual theories have contributed to inequality and injustice.

    The first part of the class will examine the emergence of a modern, secular society. We will discuss the influence of positivism and natural selection on American life; the relation of science, religion, and the arts in promoting ideas of progress and moral reform; the rise of the social sciences, their relation to social planning, and their influence on how Americans understood social difference and the limits of equal citizenship. This section will conclude with the rise of pragmatism and pluralism. These new developments were the fruit of American intellectuals working to understand the complexity and diversity of the modern world.

    We will examine how American intellectuals responded to the challenge that fascism and communism presented to liberal democracy after World War I. While some were impressed by the apparent successes of dictatorial regimes abroad, others worked to strengthen American core democratic values and build political movements for broader civil rights and civil liberties. In the final section of the course, we will look at factors contributing to the cultural and political conflicts characterizing American life since World War II. We will discuss the role of psychology in establishing new understandings of personal development, as well as linguistics and cybernetics in advancing new conceptions of what knowledge is. We will look at the relation of these and other postwar scientific developments to the ongoing contest of liberal, radical, and conservative social movements to define the nature of American society.


    New Room!

    Also listed as American Studies C132B.