Readings on Business in the History of American Life

History 103D.008

Fall 2005
Section: 
Instructor (text): 
Abrams
Location: 
107 Mulford
Day & Time: 
Tu 10-12
CCN: 
Units: 
Units
New Course Added. Description now available.

";The business of America is business,"; Calvin Coolidge is supposed to have remarked, in his crass and laconic way. Probably most American academicians--especially those who labor in the humanities and give themselves to the life of the mind and aesthetic appreciation--have at some time or other snickered in disapproval. But they also probably acknowledge that it would be hard to dispute what for them may seem to be its drab truth. In their study of American life, however, they have on the whole chosen simply to ignore it. Witness, for example, how the UCB history department regularly offers not a single undergraduate course on the age of the industrial revolution in the U.S., while business history in general has been left to business schools and some Big 10 universities.
This seminar is predicated on the proposition that if business has indeed been a preoccupying activity for most Americans throughout most of American history, it may be sensible to study it. It will proceed, moreover, on the premise that modern capitalism, and in particular the American socio-economic system of relatively autonomous, growth-oriented private business venturing, could not have materialized except for the ascendancy in the 16th Century in especially northwestern Europe of a new world view, a new rationale that at least conceded, even if only implicitly at first, the possibility, the legitimacy, perhaps even the desirability of secular, material progress. That legitimacy derived particularly from Protestantism's implicit, albeit unintended, sanctioning of private materialistic ambition. These highflying generalizations are code for the successful challenge in especially England and the Low Countries of Calvinistic Protestantism to the system of authority and social order embodied in traditional Roman Catholicism. Not that Protestantism underwrote capitalism. Not a bit of it. Rather, some of our reading may suggest how remarkably perverse the march of history can be, how the best laid dicta of righteous people gang aft agley, and how great changes grow not from great events but from the wanton interaction of small ingredients thrust into an already vigorous culture.
Having ruminated on the significance of the cultural variable in the history of economic growth, we will proceed to examine the possibility that variations in subcultures within the same large social environment may have acted to produce different ";success"; ratios among various American ethnic groups. That may lead us, moreover, to inquire into changing definitions of ";success"; in America. We may also inquire as to whether, even given the ";proper"; cultural mix, it would have all been in vain if not for a legal and political environment that changed over time to favor different growth-stimulating activities. To bring things up to date, we shall inquire into the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the character of Work, on the structure of business, on U.S. foreign relations, on the effects of ";globalization,"; and on the military in American life.

Since this is a seminar, its effectiveness depends on regular ATTENDANCE, and INPUT, from each member. Absences and failure to contribute meaningfully to class discussions on the assigned readings will be duly noted. Apart from regular participation in seminar discussion each week, course requirements include TWO papers. Each paper (15-25 pages, 12-point type, double-spaced, normal margins, presented in sufficient copies for each seminar member to have one) will be in the nature of a HISTORIOGRAPHICAL or REVIEW ESSAY. The subject of each essay will be selected from among the subjects stipulated in the weekly syllabus. Each essay will endeavor to present a more comprehensive assessment of the literature on the subject than the assigned and suggested readings permit within the time constraints of weekly assignments. You must get my approval for each topic you choose before you begin.