The story I’m telling my students this semester is relatively small. I’ve left a lot of stuff out. There wasn’t much, for example, of WWII that pertained to our theme (the rise of law and order). As such, I skipped most of the Forties. I figure there’s enough crap out there about the “Greatest Generation” that I don’t need to talk about that much anyway. We’ve skipped over a good part of the text too. The chapter on the war detailed much of the military strategy and diplomatic negotiations that took place. I’m not going over that again. On the other hand, there’s a couple of brief lines in the text about war-time riots. I gave a whole lecture on that. In detail, I covered a little sliver of that decade. Compared to the master (or monster) narrative in the book, my focus is quite small — and specific.
The difference between the story I tell in class and the book’s lies in our different purposes. The authors of the text wrote their history by selecting the events they considered most important or noteworthy and compiling them together. The result is a hodgepodge of issues glued together with subheadings. This approach is common in the profession. When telling general histories, this is the traditional method. Of course, then you wade into the quagmire of selecting your topics. You must choose whether you think economic developments are more important than religious ones and the like. Usually, politics, economics, and major social trends win out. Everything else is either a big loser or a token that gets mentioned with the intent to appease.
And, you must appease then, because you’re vulnerable to criticisms for your selections. Realistically, did the election of 1920 have a bigger impact on people’s lives than the advent of indoor plumbing? Did credit cards alter lifestyles more than white flight? Choices are shaped by inclinations and preferences. Others with differing intentions can make legitimate critique then. Thus, historians get caught up in this debate whenever they write traditional histories. No one’s come up with a good resolution that can survive all accusations of snobbery or elitism.
This is what you get when you try to tell such a big story. In contrast, I’ve elected to tell a smaller one. I don’t purport to boil our history down into one narrative. Anyone who promises they can is delusional. You can find ways to connect various events together in small stories, and this is the best kind of synthesis you’re going to get. I prefer it anyway. So, each semester I pick a different theme and stick to that. I try to be creative with the things I put together and pick themes that allow for a good bit of innovation. I omit any happenings that do not relate to my topic, but since I’m not selecting based on the “importance” of those I include, I can avoid accusations of elitism. At the same time, I am free from the illusion that a master narrative exists. I leave that fallacy to the textbook.
My students have no idea they’re caught in a philosophical battle between me and the book. I’m undermining the text (and in that way, the noted historians who wrote it), and all they know is that they don’t have to read all that boring crap. Meanwhile, I’m doing my best to counter-balance the notions that some events are more important and worthy of study than others and that using politics and a socio-economic focus is the way to tell American history. I have no illusions that mine is the one history there is to tell. In fact, I tell a different one every semester because there are so many and each is interesting and worthy of study. With each, I renew my resistance to the tyranny of a master narrative.