Erin Bartram

doomed to distraction

When Exactly Was America Great? Darn good question.

Interviews with Americans from eight states on this election-themed question

Source: When Exactly Was America Great? – The Atlantic – The Atlantic

This little video is an amazing window into views of the American past. Fascinating to see the periods of time chosen by the people interviewed, and extra fascinating to see how they restate the question – “I think the strongest America’s ever been…” – to communicate what they think greatness is.

I was not terribly surprised by the number of people who seemed to mark the Reagan administration as the greatest era, but I was surprised not to hear more talk of the 1950s. It made me think of Daniel Marcus’ excellent book on the nostalgia for the 1950s and 1960s – Happy Days and Wonder Years – particularly the Reagan administration’s use of the “choice” between the “stable” 50s and “chaotic” 60s. One of the things I work hard on in teaching 20th century U.S. history is breaking down that dichotomy; it’s one of the narratives that students come into class with and it’s very hard to budge.

I think it might be too politically charged to ask my students to write on this question at the start of the semester, but it would be interesting to know what they think. I am sure many wouldn’t have an opinion, but I suspect the ones who did have an opinion would hold it very strongly.

1 Comment

  1. I think it’s worth finding a way to ask students this question; these are the kinds of assumptions about the past that inform so much of their thinking yet remain obscured to us. Perhaps with a slightly different wording and as part of a larger series of questions?

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