Great Courses: Turning Points In American History, by Professor Edward T. O’Donnell
This is a course that I wanted to like more than I actually did. That isn’t to say that this is a terrible course, but considering that it took 24 hours of listening time, it was not nearly as good as I would have wanted it to be. And it’s not always easy to figure out why, except that the author’s politics and personal views intrude on this book frequently, and in ways that assume a certain progressive mindset and a strong bias towards leftism. Even this is not as bad as it could be because the author recognizes that history is the subject of conflict, including ideological conflict, and he does not believe in some sort of inevitability about leftism and progress, recognizing that there are factors that lead to dramatic shifts in opinion and that history is full of individual choices, made by famous and obscure people, that have complex consequences. And so while this book explores incidents of various kinds of history, including military, economic, social, political, and technological history, from a point of view that has clear biases, there is also a sense that the author wants the listener to take responsibility for their view of history, which is likely to be more complex than the author’s own views.
This particular professor has taken 24 hours to list 48 events that he views as turning points in American history, and it is worthwhile to discuss these incidents. What qualifies as a turning point. Here we go: 1617: The Great Epidemic in Massachusetts, 1619: Slavery and Democracy begin in Virginia, 1636: Freedom of worship in Rhode Island, 1654: Immigration, 1676: King Philip’s War, 1735: Freedom of the Press in the Zenger trial, 1773: Boston Tea Party, 1776: Declaration of Independence, 1777: Saragota, 1786: Shay’s Rebellion, 1789: Industrial Revolution, 1800: Peaceful turnover of power, 1803: Marbury vs. Madison, 1807: Transportation Revolution, 1816: Expanding suffrage, 1821: Second Great Awakening, 1831: Abolition, 1844: Telegraph, 1845: Baseball, 1846: Mexican-American War, 1862: Homestead Act, Antietam, 1868: 14th Amendment, 1872: National Parks, 1873: End of Reconstruction, 1876: Custer, 1886: Haymarket, 1898: Spanish-American War, 1900: The Great Migration, 1901: Theodore Roosevelt, 1903: Automobiles and Airplanes, 1909: Hookworm elimination, 1917: 19th Amendment, 1919: Upheaval, 1933: New Deal, 1939: Manhattan Project, 1942: Midway, 1945: Suburbanization, 1948: Berlin Airlift/Cold War, 1950: Television, 1960: The Pill, 1963: Civil Rights movement, 1968: Tet Offensive, 1969: Birth of Environmentalism, 1974: Watergate, 1975: Personal Computer, 1989: End of the Cold War, 2001: 9/11. Would everyone agree that these are more turning points than other events not included? Not necessarily. Are the author’s opinions ones I endorse? Most definitely not always. But even if I would disagree with some of these choices they are all thought provoking and that is enough for me to at least respect it.
If one wanted to view this course badly because of the author’s own ideological commitments, it would be easy to do so. The last lecture of the course features the author talking at considerable length about his own personal fondness for New York (which is another reason not to like this book very much), and earlier in the lectures, he talks about his chummy relationship with radical black professors who were involved in cheering on the 1619 project and doing the “academic” work for it. The teacher may think of this as a good thing, but I do not. Still, the professor’s general interest in ordinary people and in the importance of choice in history is enough to make this a class that has some moments of genuine interest, even if it is not as good as one would want. One might have to pick and choose among the lectures here to find the ones of interest, but there is enough detail as well as consistency of approach to make that a worthwhile task, even if the whole 24 hours of the course is somewhat tedious.