Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center
Unpublished Manuscripts by William Appleman Williams
Page 2

Seven Americas on the Way to the Future: An Exploration of American History

A book proposal drafted circa 1975.

William Appleman Williams. 1984.
William Appleman Williams. 1984.
Photo by Ira Gabriel for CLA Alum (Oregon State University).

Notes on Understanding and Using This Book

This book grew out of many initially separate thoughts, feelings, and experiences that gradually became so interrelated and mutually reinforcing that they led me to undertake a project that I had often said I would never attempt. Namely, to write a book about our development as Americans that would help advanced high school students, college freshmen and sophomores - and their parents and grandparents - gain more understanding of, and insight into, our historical experience as Americans. My hope is that such greater awareness and comprehension will provide some assistance in our common (if often contentious) effort to improve our existing lives.

To understand the book, therefore, you need to know something of those experiences, thoughts, and feelings. The most important element was my increasing recognition, early in the 1960s, that undergraduates, and alumni, and non-college citizens were being increasingly neglected (or ignored) as historians - and professors in other disciplines - concentrated ever more narrowly on talking at (or past) each other, and on responsibility for that damaging inattention to the fundamental purpose of education. My failure to keep my mind on the primary objective of maintaining a dialogue with the citizenry allowed me to drift into giving too much of my time to graduate students.

Directly and indirectly, several people shook me out of that cloud. Perhaps the most powerful force was the example of my mother, who taught third grade children, and the teachers of third grade children, for 30 years with a toughness, compassion, and humanity that informed and changed their lives and sustained her own. I caught myself reminiscing, even in the middle of profound seminar discussions, about the day (when I was all of 20) that she introduced me to her third-graders and then left the room, remarking as she walked out that I was to teach them anything I knew. That was an experience. My mother's presence was reinforced by former undergraduates who returned to campus and seriously avowed that they were appalled because I was no longer offering my peculiar combination of out-of-the-way information and wild ideas to their younger sisters or brothers.

So I began to do strange things: I read introductory textbooks, I slipped into survey courses and then talked at length with the students after class, and I slyly engaged my children in conversation about their experiences in grade school and high school history courses. All very unprofessional behavior. Also all very disturbing to me as one who became involved with history because it seemed to be - and on balance had proven to be - the best way to make sense out of the world and my own life.

The point is not that we in the seminar were irrelevant. It was just that we were not doing enough to share what we knew and thought with the community that history claims as its own - the citizenry of the country. So not very much later I left the seminar table and reentered the larger world of the undergraduate classroom. I did not do too well the first year. But my fumbling clarified the problem: design a course that would engage the students with the teacher and yet enable the students to experience the excitement and relevance of history by beginning to act as their own historians involved in an on-going dialogue with other citizen-historians.

That is not an easy task, and I make no claim to having found the final answers. But George Barr Carson, a perceptive and generous colleague, gave me the chance to experiment. And so I did. Or, more exactly, so we did: myself and the students. At first, we did not learn so much by doing as we learned by undoing. In my first lecture, for example, I tried to explain why and how I had found it necessary to unlearn much of my own experience and early ideas because they had proven to be limited and limiting; and how I had found that it was very often far more relevant, less painful, and just as effective to learn vicariously - as through the study of history - than to learn by literal experimentation.

So we began by dismantling the standard survey course. That produced a genial, but nonetheless frustrating, chaos. But, somehow, we survived into February; by which time we had begun to forge a consensus on how American history could become important and educational - a way of learning - and also fun, exciting, and relevant. Most students decided, after trying various other arrangements, that they wanted a modern textbook that provided basic information as the foundation for the historian to give us, with candor and verve, his own analyses, interpretations, and considered judgments as a way of initiating a dialogue about the questions and issues. We never found one that satisfied us. We also concluded that good lectures were not outmoded or boring or useless; and I learned once again how difficult it is to prepare and deliver one good lecture a week.

We used that lecture as the focus of our reading for the week and, so armed, I then met the students in groups of ten, and we discussed that part of American development. (Yes, that demands a great deal of time and energy, but so does a good seminar: the issue is where one invests one's efforts.) In the beginning, none of us gave enough of ourselves - either in preparation or involvement - and many of those early sessions were dreary, frustrating, and discouraging. Gradually, however, as my lectures improved, and as the students read more and thought more, our dialogues became informative and illuminating.

The turning point came when an increasing number of students began to complain that they wanted to explore various aspects of American development that were not being dealt with extensively enough simply because the decisions about what we would study were forced upon us by the limits of time. Even though I knew it was largely correct, I was not satisfied with my answer that a college education was based on the idea of involving people in the use of their minds, and teaching them - and inciting them - to continue learning throughout their lives. I was unhappy because I knew that the classical conception of a university had been largely subverted by the pressures to turn it into a glorified vocational school designed to produce middle class workers for the modern corporation economy. Many, many students felt the same, and we began to search for a way to restore some measure of the original purpose - and experience.

Their candor on a central point saved us much time and frustration: they were not disciplined or engaged enough to read more unless it was required and unless I was involved. Further discussion revealed that most of them thought that book reports were a bore because they were not yet prepared to deal with them as a serious intellectual challenge. Overcoming considerable skepticism and opposition, we finally decided to try research papers on well-defined subjects chosen by individual students, or by teams of no more than three; and we further agreed that the essays had to be based on information found in the primary sources. And the stress was placed on the students making their own sense of the subject, rather than upon criticizing other historians or upon coming to an agreement with another analysis and interpretation.

The experience of digging into the sources had important results: history became people in a deep and immediate sense, whether the people were unknown members of one's own family or traditional folk-heroes; students soon related their specific projects to those undertaken by other members of their discussion group, and to the broader patterns of American development; and most students began to find and then transcend themselves in making the confrontation with the raw data of history. As with the young woman who had lived for 17 years with four other people in a mountain cabin (and had never gone to school with more than 50 people), who wrote a beautiful essay about the excitement of coming to realize, in the course of studying the Black Panthers, that "there have been many different Americas." Most of the essays were much better than I had anticipated, and a surprising number were excellent. I acquired much new information and enjoyed responding in considerable detail to different ideas and interpretations. The insights and quantum jumps of honest and open naiveté are at least as revealing as the certainties of pseudo-sophistication.

Many other teachers have also, in recent years, broken out of the orthodox pattern of dealing with the introductory course in American history, and no doubt some of them have developed better alternatives. Or at least better for the students they were dealing with at the time. The point here is simply that this book grew out of that troublesome, moving, and ultimately delightful experience in learning and teaching, and I have tried to make it a book that will help others develop their own involvement with American history. Thus it is not a traditional textbook. I make no pretense, for example, of giving you in one lumpen mass most if not all of the information that some committee or testing agency has decided that you need to master in order to answer all the important questions about American history and society. In the first place, that is impossible; and the effort to do it has the additional faults of confusing history with data, and of obscuring whatever analyses and interpretations the author may offer. The heart of history is making sense of ourselves and others, not memorizing a detailed chronology.

I am not trying, however, simply to compensate for the weaknesses of the orthodox textbook. This is no more an anti-textbook than it is a textbook. The anti-textbook attempt to counter the failures of the textbook is morally and intellectually defensible, as well as pragmatically useful, but it is inherently (and significantly) limited by the negative intellectual strategy of defining itself in terms of what it criticizes.

Instead, I am offering you the results of my serious effort to comprehend and understand how we Americans became what we are. I hope that my struggle to understand our history will help you make more sense of it in your own way. If we can extend our knowledge of ourselves, of what we did, of why we did it, and of the consequences, then perhaps we can make our contemporary and future choices with more thought and care, act upon those decisions with more foresight and concern for each other, and thereby produce more creative consequences. By more creative I mean more moral, more ecological, more playful, more responsive, more responsible, and more equitable.

I am fully aware that historical understanding does not, in and of itself, prompt individuals or groups to alter their behavior for the benefit of the general welfare: but I do think that such consciousness can increase our readiness to make an effort to act on that basis, particularly when a society is in the process of being forced, as ours is, to recognize that all is far from well. A deeper comprehension of the reasons why our traditional assumptions and beliefs have not produced the general welfare can make it easier - and at the same time encourage us - to modify our ideas, actions, and institutions. Such a sense of history, which I define here as a feeling for the kind of consequences that flow from certain kinds of ideas, beliefs, and actions, can also help us increase the probabilities that our contemporary actions will carry us closer to creating an American community.

Hence in writing this book I have concentrated on two things: first, presenting vital information about the actions that Americans have taken, and not taken, and about the alternate approaches that other small but dedicated groups tried to translated into policy; and, second, offering explanations of those activities and failures to act (or to act effectively). My purpose is to involve you in a dialogue about our sometimes United States and to encourage you to continue your own inquiry and thought.

Hence my approach is radical, or critical, in two respects. First, I offer some different ideas about the major themes and periods of our history, some different analyses and interpretations of ideas, people, groups, institutions, and the relationships between all those elements in our development, and a different balance between information and explanation. Spurred by the insight of the student that I mentioned earlier, for example, I reexamined my earlier thoughts about the major periods in our history and then organized this book in terms of the different Americas that were created by earlier Americans. I have also given more space to the last 100 years than to the previous three centuries and have likewise tried to balance the accounts of those who enjoyed wealth and power with discussions of those who were poor or weak, and who were therefore usually acted upon.

Second, I am openly critical of those aspects of American development that I consider to violate or ignore the best values of our culture, and even of those values that do not seem to me to withstand rigorous examination, either on logical or pragmatic grounds. This critical approach will no doubt upset some - perhaps many - teachers and students. But the study of history is not a game any more than it is an exercise in self-congratulation or in memorizing pieties.

Our minds live and develop through the exercise (and joy) derived from open and candid confrontations. I have always assigned books and articles that presented views that were different than mine simply because it strikes me as elementary intellectual honesty and because I have found that it is an effective strategy for encouraging students to raise their own questions and criticisms. I make no apologies for trying to induce teachers to change their lectures, and other aspects of their courses, or for trying to encourage (and push) students into a more active and intense involvement in American history.

As part of that effort, moreover, I warn you who use this book that you will have to read many other essays and books in order to gain the kind of consequential understanding of our history that is vital to our future welfare. No one book, whether an orthodox textbook twice the length of this volume, or a sweeping and scintillating essay half its size, can give any of us all the information and ideas that we need. I know that reading, particularly the serious and thoughtful kind of reading that I am talking about, is today in low repute. But in this case, as in others, to be radical does upon occasion appear to be reactionary.

Whatever the claims for other media, the printed and spoken word is nevertheless our primary and irreducible instrument of finding, comprehending, and communicating truth. Iris Murdock, a penetrating philosopher who often (perhaps too often) presents her ideas through the words of fictional protagonists, has recently said it all: face-to-face and page-to-eye words are the best way into our own - and each other's - minds, hearts, and souls. So I have tried to give you, in my suggestions for further reading, some guidance in extending your understanding of America. I urge you to engage these other authors, and then integrate the information and insights they offer into your own outlook.

I have emphasized the presently disparaged importance of words and reading even though I am a very good photographer who knows - has felt - the impact of a fine picture, and its capacity to communicate important matters about and between people. And, because I do honor that visceral power of the visual image, I have asked an even better photographer, Michael Lesy, to present the best pictures that he has found among the countless photographs we Americans have taken of each other. And, for the same reason, I have asked Orde Pinckney to provide the cartoons that tell us how another kind of American artist responded to the developments of their own time. As with the other art we offer, these photographs and cartoons will variously inform, annoy, terrify, and inspire you. And, we hope, give you pleasure.

But in the end, in order to consolidate all such information and insights, and make them your own, you will have to talk and write about your response. I do not think you can gain a consequential knowledge of history unless you talk and write about the way you make sense of the past - and the present.

And so we always come back to words.

I have written these introductory words to help you understand and use all the other words on the following pages. I offer them to help you deepen and sustain your dialogue about America. It is not so much that such dialogue - interior and exterior - is the essence of education as it is that such dialogue is the heart of the intelligent and feeling and moral life.

And we desperately need to extend and deepen that life in America.