Audiobook Review: Great Courses: The Skeptic’s Guide To American History

Great Courses:  The Sketpic’s Guide To American History, taught by Professor Mark A. Stoler

This particular audiobook disappointed me.  I consider myself a rather skeptical and critical person when it comes to myths of history, and this book certainly was hostile to at least some myths, but at the same time it struck me that the professor of this course was not nearly skeptical enough about the leftist myths of the contemporary historical community.  Even as he commented that later generations would see things differently than we do, which is certain to be the case, the instructor did not do a very good job at showing himself above the sort of myths of woke history that have made totems out of various subaltern groups and individuals in history because they suit contemporary political agendas.  Indeed, this author spends a lot more time talking about various patriotic myths and seems a bit too smug and self-assured as a skeptic when he is, as is often the case, not nearly skeptical enough, and not nearly enough concerned about the long-term ramifications of various historical decisions made by leaders, and certainly fear too dismissive of the importance of, for example, guilded-age and late antebellum presidents, even as he tries to promote the importance of others who have also been unfairly ignored.

This particular course was made up of twenty-four lectures of 30 minutes apiece on twelve discs.  The author began by questioning religious toleration in the colonies (1) and discussing the American revolution as neither American nor revolutionary (2), then moved to discussing the lack of democracy in the Constitution (3) as well as the failures and accomplishments of Washington as a general and president (4).  The instructor discusses the confusion about Hamilton and Jefferson (5), Jackson’s role as an odd symbol of democracy (6), the enduring impacts of the Second Great Awakening (7) as well as the question of slavery as the cause of the Civil War (8).  There are lectures on the turning points of the Civil War (9), the myth of laissez-faire (10), misconceptions about the original populists (11), and the strange history of labor in America (12).  There are lectures about American isolationism and imperialism (13), as well as progressivism (14), Woodrow Wilson and his presidential ranking (15), the roaring twenties (16), Hoover and the Great Depression (17), and what Roosevelt’s New Deal did (18), where the instructor is way too enthusiastic about what it managed to accomplish.  There are lectures on misconceptions and myths about World War II (19), the Cold War (20), Vietnam (21), and some myths in general about American wars (22), before the instructor concludes with discussions on who matters in American history (23) and the obvious fact that history did not begin with us (24).

In listening to a class like this, it is easy to think of how it could have been better.  Judging from the author’s praise of John Quincy Adams’ programs as a president and his consistent disdain for those who believe in the restraint of government–and his praise of Herbert Hoover and FDR in particular–it is clear that the author has some myths and misconceptions of his own that he needs to address before seeking to demythologize American history, namely his myth that government intervention in panics and depressions has worked out for the best.  The author seems to be blinded by the potential for leaders to do things and dismissive of those leaders who worked within the system and did not attempt to draw too much attention or adoration to himself.  This leads him to support the more authoritarian or personality-driven aspects of American history and to lament when people who did well are ignored in the narrative of history except by those who study history more in-depth, which demonstrates the way that the author is looking not for the appreciation of deep students of history but rather for changes in how history is viewed by the ordinary mass of Americans, which seems to be a quixotic sort of quest.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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