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Education: De-lsolationized U.S. History

2 minute read

Pearl Harbor may have shaken U.S. isolationism politically, but it was news last week when a professor challenged its tacit acceptance in U.S. history teaching. At Columbia University’s Barnard College (for women) Professor Eugene Hugh Byrne announced a course in “de-isolationized” U.S. history: “World history from the American standpoint—1500-1942.”

Brusque, dogmatic Professor Byrne started preparing his new course by asking 45 businessmen and scholars: “If you were to go back to college and take one history course, what would you want included in it?” He got a spate of suggestions that made eminently good sense but were so sweeping that no one teacher or textbook could teach the course. So Professor Byrne organized a battery of five history experts to help him give the course. It had a successful trial at Barnard last summer, may soon be paralleled in other colleges.

Designed to place the U.S. in the world family of nations, the course traces American roots back to Europe and the Middle Ages, studies the continued influence on America of the Irish, Jews, Scandinavians, Negroes, Germans and other immigrants. It pays considerable attention to the parallel development of Canada and Latin America. Ignoring unimportant U.S. Presidents, it gives most study to those Americans who have played a world role (e.g., Ben Franklin, Woodrow Wilson). Its texts include such original documents as the Resolves of the First Continental Congress and John Dickinson’s Letters of a Farmer in Pennsylvania. Unusually sophisticated for undergraduates, it requires students to read such authors as French Catholic Philosopher Jacques Maritain, British Socialist Harold Laski, Congressional Librarian Archibald MacLeish, Machiavelli.

Professor Byrne, 59, hopes his course will annoy pedagogical isolationists who have agitated for compulsory college courses in U.S. history ever since the New York Times found last spring that U.S. history study was not required in 82% of U.S. colleges. Let U.S. colleges, says he, stop teaching “American history in a vacuum.” He describes his new course as “an exercise in historical imagination.”

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