A series of posts taking you day-by-day through a proposed travel version of my course HIS230L World War I. To read the introduction to the series, click here.
Thursday, January 3, 2013 – Arden Hills, Minnesota, USA
Bethel University (and, the Minnesota state legislature willing, some new neighbors) makes its home in a St. Paul suburb called Arden Hills. For years, I had this ridiculous idea stuck in my head that “Arden” was actually an adjective designed to make the Hills seem more enticing than they really were. (See: Golden Valley, MN; Eden Prairie, MN.) I think I assumed it was a synonym for “verdant” rather than a name picked by a millionaire hobby farmer. (This sounds even more ridiculous now that I write it out…)
In any case, let us hope that the twenty students who sign up to spend January 2013 (and several thousand dollars) traveling in Europe will be taken with the Arden-ness of those Hills, since we’ll spend the first day of the term inside the hallowed cinder block halls of Bethel.
Here’s why we’re going to remain on campus for one day before jetting off to the Old World: As an “L” course in the Bethel gen ed curriculum, HIS230 has traditionally inhabited a category meant to study Western culture and thought in the 19th and 20th centuries, but particularly the American experience in that era.
That’s something I’d rather not discard. Even though all but one day of the course will be spent in another hemisphere, I want my students early on to consider similarities and differences between American and European experiences and legacies of the war.
So for the first day, we’ll have a slightly more traditional day of class and get down to the task of imaginatively immersing ourselves in American culture and society ca. 1900. In a sense, this is something I’m accustomed to already, since any history course is a travel course. We traverse time rather than space, but ideally, if we do our task as historians anything like right, we’re leaving home for the class period and encountering people, places, ideas, experiences, etc. that will seem somewhat alien.
To heighten the effect, I plan to emphasize discontinuity. When I first started teaching a WWI course, I asked my Americanist colleagues Diana Magnuson and AnneMarie Kooistra what 21st century Americans would find most unfamiliar about the United States a century before. Among other things, they noted that most Americans at the time of the war’s outbreak lived in the countryside, had no electricity or access to modern transportation, had (within 1-3 generations) lived in a different country (soldiers in the American Expeditionary Force wrote home in almost four dozen languages), and had almost no chance of attending then-Bethel Academy and Seminary (which set up permanent residence in St. Paul the year the war started in Europe) or other secondary schools or institutions of higher learning.
I also plan to emphasize a few themes that generated enormous social and political conflict at the time and would be tested in the experience of total war. #1 is racism.
Here it’s well worth noting that the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War was celebrated while neutral America watched Europeans (and their colonial subjects) slaughter each other in places like Ypres, Loos, Artois, the Masurian Lakes, and Gallipoli. Yet most African-Americans had gained little since emancipation, and the first two decades of the 20th century featured a shocking wave of lynchings (over 100 a year in 1900 and 1901 and at least half that many each year through 1916). In response, a new generation of activists like W.E.B. DuBois rejected accommodation with Jim Crow and agitated for genuine civil rights reform. Ultimately, DuBois would have to decide whether or not to endorse a war fought for self-determination by a government that denied the principle to his own people. (Read excerpts from his controversial response to the question — published July 1918, not 1915 as labeled — here.)
In addition, we’ll talk about the rising tide in favor of women’s political, civil, and legal rights, and the battle for the future of the labor movement between the “business unionism” of Samuel Gompers’ American Federation of Labor and the more radical “Wobblies” of the IWW. (Those topics will find resonance with similar conflicts in British and European history at the time; racism will echo in our study of European empires.)
All of these conflicts flew in the face of two basic assumptions common to many Western elites in Europe and North America: an ostensible commitment to human rights and individual dignity (as expressed by growing religious toleration and the rise of universal male suffrage) and a secular faith that human history was a story of progress, assumptions that they proclaimed loudly to help separate themselves, as children of the Enlightenment, from the pre-modern generations who were mired (so they thought) in superstition and bondage.
In the United States, those assumptions were central to the most important political movement of the era: Progressivism. In 1912 two Progressives ran for president (both of whom would go on to preside over this august body): the “Bull Moose” Republican former president Teddy Roosevelt (who had helped wrench his country out of its traditional isolation and enter the arena of world politics during and after the Spanish-American War and the debate over annexing the Philippines) and the academic-turned-Democratic politician Woodrow Wilson, who would win the election, keep the US out of and then lead it into the war, and finally, suffer debilitating illness while going city to city selling his vision for the redemption of the war.
Next time, like millions of Americans did in 1917-18 (but more quickly and in more comfort), we cross the Atlantic…