Highlights from the 'American History Now' Panel at Harvard University

the panel, l-r: rebecca edwards [professor of history on the eloise ellery chair at vassar], ned blackhawk [western shoshone, professor of history and american studies at yale], seth rockman [associate professor of history at brown], sarah phillips [assistant professor of history at boston university], eric foner [dewitt clinton professor of history at columbia], and moderated by lisa mcgirr [professor of history at harvard]

rebecca edwards: ...we do very little to displace the idea of 'waves'; it continues to dominate the popular understanding of women's movements. i feel we need a rethinking - even in considering the history of women's activism [because] we don't necessarily have a compelling central story. and we need one that not only looks at women's activism, but incorporates thinking about women's economic roles, changes in family structure and reproduction, slavery and empire.

i decided to go out there and see where social and cultural history are. if you look at the current test weight for the ap us history exam, you'll find that 40 percent of the questions deal with social, cultural, and intellectual history. 35 percent deal with political institutions and behavior and public policy. then you have 15 percent that covers diplomacy and international relations.

and you have 10 percent that covers economic history - i'm really struck by that. a very smart ap student who really does grasp the material as it's been condensed in this american history might be able to tell you a great deal about the diverse people and culture that make up the united states, but not much about why none of them have a job. and in the era of occupy wall street, economic history has become quite diminished - and that is an interesting problem.

i think the new history has so much of its power because it's closely tied to civic, political and public purpose. i have a real obsession with that - i look out there and see that people will keep with that 'wave', claiming that nothing changed in women's lives until 1970-ish until there's some other compelling narrative out there. how do we create that kind of narrative out of what we're given?

ned blackhawk: the field of historiography has exploded [recently]. and is it even possible to stay conversant in what was once really specific fields - political history, colonial history? it just seems that people continue to stay focused in their previous area sof specializiation without fully engaging. i wonder about the impact of such a change - to hear that a thousand works are now constituting the field of study we call women's history - to call myself a women's historian would require a fairly strong familiarity with roughly 70 percent of those. how could one possibly stay conversant in all of these other areas?

seth rockman: we were able to host a remarkable group of scholars to talk about slavery capitalism and the centrality of slavery to american economic development and economic transformation in the period between the revolution and civil war. but i also wanted to go beyond economics and focus on the political and social ways that slavery was a national institution - rather than merely a regional one. so i wanted to focus on the national committment to white supremacy that linked people in the north and the south in a common set of understanding of racial order that would have consequences, not only for people living within slavery, but for free people of color seeking out meaningful citizenship in other parts of the country. i also wanted to then , in this direction, talk about whiteness studies, talk about the other ways in which we think about slavery as organizing much more in american life than merely the production of commodities on plantations removed from the central concerns of the rest of america. i wanted to argue that slavery is really central to the entire story.

i also focus on the transnational study of american geographical expansion, moving away from [an idea of] manifest destiny as a process that 'just happens' to a state-driven expansion of national boundaries, looking at it as a sort of the 'citizen imperialist' - and the ways in which the nation stated its power to expand the united states into a transcontintental nation recognizing that one could not have this conversation without taking into account relations with britain, with mexico, and a series of international contexts, including relations with a number of native empires like the comanche people. politics takes place in a number of different venues and the kinds of privileges and constraints that shape american life arise from many sources beyond dated legal apparatus - and soto look then at a number of public ways in which power gets exercised and contested outside of the realm of formal politics seems to be a crucial move.

sarah phillips: '...because the field developed to ask different kinds of questions and purposefully forge minds - at the beginning of her essay, for example, rebecca edwards mentions that perhaps the best indication of the field of women and gender history' ssuccess is that all the other essays show how their fields have been enriched by the incorporation of women and gender studies. but the same cannot be said of environmental history - [unfortunately] the environment is not one of those automatic potential categories.

i do want to take the opportunity this essay offers to grapple with the question of integration. i wanted to offer and environmental overview of all of american history. i couldn't just assert that human national interaction would help to determine patterns of economic, political, social authority - i wanted to show it. for most of its formative years, the field was linked to western history, with natuve american history and the question of the frontier. the expansion, trading and settlement, resource extraction, the fate of native americans - the main story all hinged on the conquest of nature and the commodification of certain parts of it. common law had to change, law had to favor some resources over others - an environmental interpretation is not only helpful, it's indispensible.  '

eric foner: no matter how much theory you have, history has to be grounded in actual information. and that is often the death of theory. you know, i believe theory can inform our work, in many important ways, but i think most of the impact of theory has been essays urging [us] to take it more seriously. i would be hard-pressed to mention a large number of works that were actually theoretically informed in american history in a way that works in other disciplines. it may be that we're just an old-fashioned, too empirical group -

grand narratives of large chunks of american history seem to be the most popular out there - so there does seem to be a little gap between what historians are doing [which is tremendously creative] and what the broader public wants to read, which does fall back into this grand narrative.