History 220  Society and Culture in 20th c.
America

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Introduction

The history of the United States in the twentieth century is usually told from the perspective of government in Washington, D.C. This focus leads most courses to emphasize the role of the nation's political leaders -- the white male politicos who wield power in Congress, enact legislation, and shape foreign policy. Yet these persons comprise a tiny part of American society, and the study of politics, economics, and foreign policy carried on at elite levels (while undeniably important) tends to ignore the importance of deeper cultural forces and institutions that illuminate how a people live, as well as ignoring the existence of social groups that have not participated in -- or have been denied access to political power: racial and ethnic minorities, women, and poor people generally.

To correct this imbalance, History 220 will analyze important cultural and social forces in this century, assaying the role, also, of non-leadership groups and non-dominant cultures, seeking to avoid the "tunnel vision"that treats minority cultures as independent entities. We shall examine areas of American society in which dominant groups have dramatically influenced the lives of minority Americans. And we shall also assess aspects of minority cultures that have proved resistant to the influence of leadership groups, and those aspects of society that mirror the influence of cultural minorities upon dominant groups. By examining the pluralistic history of the American people in the twentieth century -- and the cultural forces that have acted upon them -- the course seeks to illuminate the human character that occupies the centre of all historical patterns.

The process will not be facile. The cultural historian faces the staggering problem of winnowing from masses of data those things that most truly and complexly suggest the marrow of a given society at a given point in time. Where social history considers institutions and groupings, cultural history centres its focus upon the arts and popular culture, and includes intellectual history which examines the course and influence of significant ideas. History 220, therefore, must seek and embrace a broad definition of culture. We must seek to discover those notions which make a unit of the diverse individuals and groups and aspects of a given society. For the cultural historian no subject matter may be blocked arbitrarily from the field of vision; everything has fascination in itself, and (if one could detect truly) has connection with everything else.

Cultural history associates itself with the anthropological concept of "culture," which includes not just art or legend, but all aspects of one society and especially those beliefs that tie together political, economic, familial, social, artistic, and religious behaviour and expression. Cultural history is the attempt to find those shared beliefs and assumptions and concerns that hold together the various groups and individuals and activities of a particular society. The cultural historian must have a discerning eye, engaged as s/he is in the attempt to grasp the mind and emotions of an age, and paying attention to what people wore or ate, their work and recreations, their aspirations and fears, what excited and amused them, their gossip and their philosophy. And the list could go on, indefinitely. Not incidentally, students of cultural and social history -- indeed, all history -- must also be attuned to the ways in which historians work, and to the various forces that affect their judgments.



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