U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Paths of American Thought

Before we plunge into Dante’s Inferno – next up on Stanford’s infamous Western Culture reading list — let’s return for a moment to Bernard Bailyn’s conception of education.  The perspicacity and utility of Bailyn’s definition of education – “the entire process by which a culture transmits itself across the generations” – remain unmatched.  He encouraged historians – intellectual historians, mostly – to take the broadest possible view of their subject, to consider the fullest range of sources, to read and think widely in order to interpret the past deeply and discerningly.

Somebody put the Harvard undergrads in charge of the rummage sale, so I picked up this nifty used copy of Bailyn for a song.

Bailyn’s use of the term “culture” here is key – a “keyword,” in fact, and one of the most important ones, if we are to believe Raymond Williams (and why not believe him?).  Without quoting Williams directly – because I cannot for the life of me find Keywords right now in the triple-shelved ranks of books that are spilling out of my bookcase even as I acquire more of them – culture connotes a whole range of practices and activities and modes of thought.  Culture is at the heart of growing things – agriculture, cultivation – and it suggests a deliberate attention to development and growth.  Think of the 19th century commitment to “self culture.”  And culture is also that which has developed and grown, that which accrues or has been acquired.  It is an object of sorts to be attained as well as a quality to be nurtured.  It is also the conditions or the set of practices that affect what can and cannot grow – a culture of inquiry, a culture of honesty, a culture of violence, a culture of shame.

“Culture” can mean all these things and more, and it’s not altogether clear how many of these things Bailyn had in mind when he ventured his description of what education is.  However, we need not be limited by his conception – indeed, we cannot be. Once words or ideas break out into the world, the wind bloweth where it will, and they travel in ways we can neither predict nor prevent.

So I am going to use Bailyn’s idea here to critique part of Bailyn’s argument.  And I am going to suggest an alternative way of teaching past the flaws of Bailyn’s approach.

The problem in Bailyn comes when he falls into the familiar trope of the Mid-Century Magisterial Males regarding the colonization of New England as an “errand into the wilderness.”  It’s not the “errand” part that’s so problematic here, but the “wilderness” part.  Here is Bailyn:

To all of the settlers the wilderness was strange and forbidding, full of unexpected problems and enervating hardships. To none was there available reliable lore or reserves of knowledge and experience to draw upon in gaining control over the environment: parents no less than children faced the world afresh.  In terms of mere effectiveness, in fact, the young – less bound by prescriptive memories, more adaptable, more vigorous – stood often at advantage.  Learning faster, they came to see the world more familiarly, to concede more readily to unexpected necessities, to sense more accurately the phasing of a new life.  They and not their parents became the effective guides to a new world, and they thereby gained a strange, anomalous authority difficult to accommodate within the ancient structure of family life (22).

This paragraph stood out to me for two reasons.  First, it stood out because of the conference that the Omohundro Institute had sponsored just prior to the one at which Bailyn delivered this paper. At that conference, William N. Fenton had addressed “a continuing racial problem of yesterday and today.”  His conference presentation was published as American Indian and White Relations to 1830, and it surveyed “a common ground for history and ethnology” (iv).

Now, I haven’t read Fenton’s essay, so I don’t know if he was as silly as Bailyn in depicting Puritan settlers as lost and alone in “the wilderness,” though I suspect not. In any case, Bailyn was surely aware that the prior conference had focused in depth on relations between Native Americans and white settlers from the founding of the colonies to the Age of Jackson.  So Bailyn’s assertion that there was not “available reliable lore or reserves of knowledge or experience to draw upon in gaining control over the environment” strikes me as deliberately discounting what we know – and what he knew – to be the case:  settlers relied upon, observed, and learned from the agricultural, venatical, and halieutical practices of the Native residents.  They adopted Native technologies, followed Native pathways – literally walking in the footsteps and along the trails long-established by Native trade and travel – and proved ready, if often ungrateful pupils, to the Natives’ magisterial expertise regarding the life ways of the bracing but bountiful land the Puritans and their descendants imagined as a wilderness ripe for the taking.

Second, Bailyn’s assertion that everyone had to start from scratch is precisely the opposite of how we teach – or how we should teach – the U.S. history survey.  Nobody who crossed the Atlantic to try their hand at making money or making new Catholics or making God’s new Israel started from scratch – nobody.  The Aztecs and Incas had already built both the infrastructure and the imperial/client relationships which the Spanish exploited.  The footsteps of the Algonquin-speaking peoples had already beat the thoroughfare for travel and trade we know as the Appalachian Trail.

The best possible site for landing a canoe along the edge of a river, the best place in a clearing to situate a cooking fire, the time to plant, the time to harvest, the best route to take into the woods to hunt downwind of the deer coming to their customary watering holes – all this was already written on the landscape like a text.  And often the nuances of that ready text were patiently explained by the Natives to these interlopers who came to impose their own narrative upon the land.

When I teach the first half of the survey, I make it a point to spend a fair amount of time on the Cahokia people, with their great earthen pyramids, their carefully laid out city, their central position on major trading routes that crisscrossed the continent, and their commanding view of the mighty Mississippi.  And after discussing something of what we know of the Cahokia people, thanks to the work of archaeologists and anthropologists – for historians are at a loss without some writing of some kind – I ask my students why we should study the remnants of a civilization that was gone by the time the first Europeans explored North America.  Why study a culture buried beneath a city that had been abandoned for hundreds of years?

The answers I get to this question are always fascinating.  Some students suggest that everyone in the past is important, that every culture deserves to be remembered.  Other students suggest that the people who abandoned Cahokia obviously did not simply disappear, but must have moved elsewhere and influenced the cultures they fought against or joined.  But so far, I have never gotten a response along the lines of what I outlined above about making the landscape, and making it legible.  So I explain to my students how crucial it was in the history of European settlement of North America that the land was not an untracked wilderness.  Human hands, human feet, human culture had already shaped the environment.  People had already found the most advantageous locations for an encampment.  They had already found the best route to the best stand of hardwood trees.  They had already found the surest path around the swamps, the safest route through mountain gaps.  That was knowledge written upon the land and carried in the cultural traditions of the peoples who were here before the first pasty-faced European gold-diggers stepped foot on these shores.

Photo courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation

Recovering all that the structures and practices of “American thought and culture” as they have developed over the centuries really owe to the Native peoples who shaped this land before the colonists came may be an impossible task.  But the history of American education on these shores did not start with Bible reading or sermons or the provision for public grammar schools.  It started when the first people – the First Peoples – cut down the first tree, established the first encampment in a sheltered spot overlooking a river, napped the first arrow, decided that the branches of Maclura pomifera would make the best bows.  Observing this last practice, the French explorers gave that tree the name by which I know it – “Bois d’Arc.”  (Texans generally pronounce that as “BO-dark” or — heaven help — “BO-dock.”)  My grandmother, who grew up in Nebraska, just north of the Blue River, called it the “hedge apple.”  Other people call it the “Osage orange.”  But everyone knows that it’s a thorny, bushy, scrappy, durable rambler of a tree, and everyone knows that its wood is both flexible and strong, and we know that because the Native peoples knew it first.

Bailyn’s conception of education was as wide as he could or would envision it.  But we know it was not wide enough.  The trail of human thought runs over everything, and was already running deep and wide across this land before the Puritans’ errand into the so-called wilderness.

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  1. An excellent read from Smithsonian.com on the Cahokia pyramids just popped up in my TL: White Settlers Buried the Truth about the Midwest’s Mysterious Mound Cities.

    So I don’t think I’m being too hard on Bernard Bailyn or his generation here. In fact, I think I’m going a little easy. It takes a very deliberate kind of “agnosticism” — the word for deliberate not-knowing escapes me! — to frame anything about the European settlement / conquest of the United States as a matter of taming an untouched wilderness.

    • I don’t think you’re being too hard–you’re just noting that he was a part of a tradition, regional approach, and generation that took the Puritans at their word on the “wilderness” stuff. I might also point out that his iteration of this notion was come by honestly at the hands of the men who trained him at the World’s Greatest U., Perry Miller and Oscar Handlin. For all their sensitivity to nuance and to irony, which Bailyn certainly absorbed and still marinates in today, they chose utterly to see around or past the experience of any non-white Natives or immigrants to North America.

      Great post, BTW. I had no idea about the Bois d’Arc tree! I will bookmark this post for my grad students to read when we read at Elizabeth Fenn’s Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People.

  2. I don’t wish to make too much of this, but: the particular version of The New Adam propagated at Harvard in the era in question was flavored by more than generic midcentury whitemaleness. Note the importance of the Handlin-Bailyn connection, in which Handlin’s ostjuden-shaped narrative of immigration can’t be ignored. What I believe was Bailyn’s rather deeply submerged Jewish background is…well, you can call it deep, deep background. But this is merely to indicate the significant, even constitutive Jewish element in that midcentury whitemale narrative of new beginnings. Not to push it.

  3. It’s worth recalling here that Bailyn’s idea of the “peopling” resembles Israel’s foul idea that Palestine was empty before the Jews arrived. Bailyn’s intolerance of left critiques is notorious. I add the following: when I was at the University of Chicago in the mid60s, the SDS grapevine conveyed to me that in his lectures at Harvard BB would say, “there’s a fellow at the U of C doing interesting work on the mob: problem is, he’s a Maoist.” Never in my 400 years in the profession did I meet him. I have a picture I took of him rushing through the audience at an OAH (?) where he had just condescended to give a paper, but — fearing debate — he left in the middle of the session after announcing that he had to get back to teach a class. This applied to most of the people in the room, but deference was so heavy that nobody dared to hoot at him.

  4. Sorry to be coming to this great post late! I’m just wondering if you have (or anyone else has) run across Milton Gaither’s American Educational History Revisited: A Critique of Progress (2003)? I have not read it, but the description intrigued me: “In this thought-provoking volume, Milton Gaither challenges the dominant view of American educations history held almost universally since Bernard Bailyn and Lawrence Cremin’s work in the 1960s. Gaither claims that for forty years the myth has persisted of a monolithic pre-1960 educational historiography narrowly focused on schools and cut off from developments in mainstream historical writing. This book revises that perception by providing the most comprehensive coverage yet of the earlier period. Rather than condemning the entire pre-1960 tradition outright, Gaither seeks to understand it as a manifestation of the society and culture from which it came. In this context, Gaither finds a rich and conflicted pre-1960 educational historiography fully attuned to the spirit of its age. This well-written and persuasive volume revolutionizes our view of what has become the central self-image of nearly all practicing educational historians by going behind the Bailyn myth to recover a historical past that has been systematically mis-represented and suppressed from Bailyn’s day to our own.”

    The last chapter is titled “Why Bailyn Was Right Despite Being Wrong”!

    It would be interesting if, in addition to erasing the history of Native American culture, Bailyn also was simultaneously erasing a whole history of the history of education in his conference paper.

    • Andy, thanks so much for this comment! I was literally lying awake last night, staring at the ceiling, thinking about how I still freeze in panic, to this day, when I have to use the word “historiography,” because I’m never sure if I’m using it the right way in a particular instance. I mean, when we’re comparing Bailyn’s account of the history of historical writing on American education to Gaither’s account, we are…doing the historiography of historiography? Doing a historiography of the historiography of a historiography? Doing the intellectual history of historiography? Or are we just doing historiography? That single damn word is like nested parentheses in a spreadsheet; it’s snapping turtles all the way down.

      The good news about “historiography” though is that, much like obscenity, I know it when I see it. So I have just ordered myself a used copy of Gaither’s book. It is arriving by the slow boat, though, so might be a few weeks before I can get to it and answer your query. But I wouldn’t be surprised if your hypothesis about what else Bailyn suppressed or ignored is correct, since Bailyn comes out swinging against Schools of Education and all the rest.

      Ellen Fitzpatrick’s History’s Memory did a great job of broadening the generally accepted historiographic horizons of American history, and especially of the “age of consensus”; perhaps Gaither’s successfully does the same for the subfield of the history of American education. Bailyn’s bibliographic essay, included in the Omohundro volume, was pretty lengthy, and was more attentive to identifying the “best” account of a period or question, rather than the first account or best known account. So I’ll be interested to see what sources Gaither explores that Bailyn mentioned, or what sources he introduces that Bailyn glossed over.

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