Sunday, June 03, 2018

The Hourglass Effect and Its Discontents

Last month the Panorama, the blog of the Journal of the American Republic, shared Nathan Perl-Rosenthal’s essay “The Hourglass Effect in Teaching the American Revolution.”

Perl-Rosenthal, a professor at the University of Southern California, wrote:
The hourglass problem arises from trying to synthesize old and new ways of seeing the American Revolution in a single course. You probably start your class with a wide-angle early modern frame: Big, oceanic topics like global empire, Atlantic slavery, and the consumer revolution are good for framing and explaining the coming imperial crisis.

But before long, the course’s terrain contracts as you turn to the traditional chronology of the Revolution. One feels the squeeze already with the Sugar, Stamp, and Townshend Acts. After early 1770, it gets hard to leave eastern North America. First one is in Boston for the Massacre, then explaining the local politics of the Coercive Acts, followed by Lexington and Concord, and the debate over independence. The same goes for the war years and the critical period. A reopening outward typically only gets underway in the 1790s. . . .

The geographic cinching-up of the 1760s and 1770s, by temporarily shutting out events anywhere but North America, paradoxically ends up reinforcing the very exceptionalist narrative of the Revolution that a wider lens is supposed to help us avoid. The wider world may play its part in the revolutionary era, this approach implies, but during the crucial period of the 1770s and 1780s there is a particular and special North American story that must be told.
Perl-Rosenthal then tries to sketch out (with sketches!) how a course might “tell the story of the revolutionary decades in parallel with simultaneous developments elsewhere in the continent and the world.”
What would a course on the American Revolution look like with this approach in mind? First, it would begin by sketching out the common traits of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world—not just in the British empire but across imperial boundaries. . . .

Second, you would want to use these shared traits to constantly relativize and contextualize the American experience. . . .

Third, those shared elements would provide a basis for incorporating contemporaneous revolutions into the course, starting in the 1780s. The idea would be to see these revolutions not as disparate phenomena in distant regions, but as branches off of the same trunk in constant interaction. . . .

I’ll conclude by going back to Lexington and Concord, a particularly tricky point in the course if one wants to avoid the hourglass effect. Where are the “Atlantic cultures” to be found in this story of British regulars marching into a provincial burgh? Not far off at all. Civic militia were an almost universal feature of the Euro-American world, who generally defended local interests—as the American militiamen did. The British regulars’ tactics had much in common with those of career soldiers elsewhere in the Atlantic, from Prussia to Cape Colony. And the confrontation between the two was hardly unusual. The Dutch patriot revolt, the early French Revolution, and the Haitian Revolution—to name just a few—were also set off in part by similar clashes. 
John Fea, professor at Messiah College, responded briefly on his own blog:
As I read Perl-Rosenthal’s post I was struck by the presuppositions that guided the piece. It is assumed that any discussion of local narratives is bad or somehow contributing to American exceptionalism. He uses terms like “traditional chronology” as if that is a bad thing. Those who get too caught-up in this narrative “feel the squeeze.” And, of course, the word “exceptionalism” is a very loaded term with negative connotations in the academy. (In some ways, I would argue, the American Revolution was an exceptional event, even as it was shaped by global forces).
Perl-Rosenthal himself acknowledges the outsized influence of events in the thirteen colonies, but only parenthetically: “This emphatically does not mean denying the American Revolution’s transformative power in the region, nor its wider global significance.”

All of which suggests to me that some hourglass effect might be inevitable, especially if one is teaching American history at an American university to American students.

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