The Neo-New Left Movement

Since the mid-1960s young historians tabbed “New Left Historians” entered the scene with an eye toward reshaping history. They saw all around them serious issues within the teaching of history. They favored an interpretation of the past that placed its emphasis in such a way as to, in the words of Warren Susman, “remake the present and the future.”[1] What is also clear, is that the evolution of historiography since the 1960s is the belief that “objectivity” and more especially “neutrality” as a historian was a pipe dream.[2] Many, such as Howard Zinn, felt it was their duty to not be neutral as they saw the continual injustice of current (1900s circa) historiography was full of bias and little objectivity. And there certainly were issues with the nature of history at times in the 1900s. The presentation of American History was seen as overtly patriotic and as some would say, history books left the “negative stuff out.” I do not deny that there was a need for some activism, only today it strikes me as odd. There are historians who make such assumptions as if we are still stuck in the 1950s. By far, and I mean by far, from the average High School history instructor to the college professor, American history is taught from the perspective of a very unexceptional American past. The idea that teachers and historians felt the need to be activists made its way into mainstream education and continues today when it is not needed as there is no phantom “Old School” history perspective to attack. It’s been dead for some time. There is no Elephant in the Room on any significant scale.

For example, recently when Carol Berkin writes in the opening paragraph of her article, “Teaching the Revolution”:

For most Americans, young and old, the history of the American Revolution can be summed up something like this: In 1776, all the colonists rose up in unison to rebel against a tyrannical king and the horrible burden of unfair taxes the British had imposed upon them for over a hundred years. During the long war that followed, citizen soldiers shivered in the cold, shared the hardships together, admired George Washington, and won the war singlehandedly against the most powerful army in the world. Then they created a democracy and everyone lived happily ever after.

Except for the part about shivering in the cold, this myth is just that, a myth.

What the heck is she talking about? This myth is long dead and has been for several decades! These Neo New Left historians feel the need to continue where their predecessors left off and to do it they create “phantom” myths. Liberal historians dominate the classroom at both the high school and college level and have for 20+ years. There is no way the above myth is taught in ANY kind of wide-scale or significant way. But to continue to claim such things does allow them to continue the cause and to believe they are somehow making a difference. It is a ruse.

[1] Warren I. Susman, “History and the American Intellectual: Uses of a Usable Past,” American Quarterly, XVI (Summer 1964), 261-62.
[2] Howard Schonberger, “Purposes and Ends in History: Presentism and the New Left,” The History Teacher, Vol. 7 No. 3 May, 1974), 448-458.

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4 Responses to The Neo-New Left Movement

  1. Brooks Simpson says:

    Berkin does seem to have set up something of a strawman so that she can ride in and tell the truth, I guess.

    Of course, if “most Americans” believe this, and it’s wrong, we would have to blame the teachers, right?

    I know I never heard this version, and I’ve never taught it.

    I will say, however, that other people claim that history’s taught in such-and-such a way by supposedly “left-liberal” PC types. I don’t encounter that too much, either, and I don’t teach that way. But I’m sure that would not stop some unreasoning idelogues from claiming that I do.

    Let me share a story. In the fall of 2000 I taught a course on the American Presidency. At the end of the course two students approached me. They asked me to resolve a question they had been debating. One student, a Democratic partisan, was sure I was a Republican. The other, a Republican (who has since gone on to be a staffer in DC), was convinced I was a Democrat. Well, they wanted to know: which one was I?

    My sole answer was a smile.

    All I know is that several of my students who are committed conservatives seek me out to write letters of recommendation for them. Perhaps they know that I judge students not by their politics but by their work. Those people who offer assumptions about my political views and what I do in the classroom have never been in my class.

  2. Corey Meyer says:

    I find it interesting that in your last post you mention that your idea of American Exceptionalism, arguably a conservative notion, is the Egalitarianism, again an arguably liberal notion, that runs through the founding of the nation.

    I am curious to know and understand your thoughts on that in more detail.

  3. Chris says:

    Corey excellent question. What you confuse is the meaing of “liberal.” The classical sense was all about individual liberty and egalitarianism. Today’s “liberalism” is an extension of Progressivism and has nothing to do with the classical understanding. Liberals today want more government, more control, and less individual freedom, ect. Modern liberals hijacked the term “liberal” in much the same way the “Federalists” did. Both were very clever, but utterly deceptive.
    Hope this helps!

  4. Mr. D says:

    I see your point that the myth is not being taught in classrooms like yours and I applaud you for that. However, the same cannot be said for elementary classrooms.

    This is often because at a young, formative age, educators see the value of myths because they instill values that have historically been emblematic of the American ideal. To bust myths constantly is to instill a constant sense of self-doubt, and makes a student doubt even the facts.

    It is important that the myths Berkin mentions are broken. In fact, it is largely broken from secondary school through college. However, these myths are not necessarily completely dead, and often serves a useful purpose.

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