What Stanford history will teach you

Dec. 2, 2019, 9:44 a.m.

Like clockwork each year, the Stanford Review publishes an article that criticizes the humanities at Stanford: the University is either far too vocational, doesn’t force students to read enough of the Western canon or “indoctrinates” students by teaching them queer theory. The most recent object of their scathing critique is Stanford’s history department. Nicola Buskirk’s piece laments that, in her eyes, the Stanford course catalog fails to offer enough early American history classes, focusing instead on topics implied to be more frivolous. 

Buskirk could not be more wrong. 

I want to address Buskirk’s argument not only because her article is shoddily researched and woefully uninformed, but because her implication about what it means to study early American history is narrow and shortsighted. 

If you’re a history major at Stanford, concentrating on American history is probably the easiest thing you can do within the department. I know this because I am a history major, and one who specifically studies the American founding period. Out of all the geographic concentrations, the highest number of history faculty and graduate students study primarily the United States. For students wanting to study French revolutionary history, there is but one professor. For those curious about any part of Middle Eastern history, one of only two professors just retired. But for those interested in any period or theme in U.S. history, there are at least 10 professors — ten. The department is renowned for its American history offerings not only because it has hosted a slew of influential Americanists, but also because it has the capacity to produce even more. The Stanford History Department usually only has one or, at most, two professors covering the same time period and geographic concentration. The early American period meets these criteria, and then some. There are at least two prominent early Americanists within the department, bolstered by even more faculty in other departments and schools (Law School, American Studies, Political Science, etc). 

To Buskirk’s point, not all of the American history professors focus on the founding period. But for students who do, Stanford is more than lucky. Jack Rakove, though recently retired, is a legend within his field: he wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book on American originalism before anybody was even talking about it. His presence in the department has proven to be essential to this day — he continues to advise students and teach courses, even as he prepares to take his leave. 

And where Rakove leaves off, other professors more than make up for it. Caroline Winterer, former director of the Humanities Center, studies the intellectual history that underlays much of the founding period. She’s done research on Benjamin Franklin, and her most recent book, American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason, is a study in those “values” Americans grappled with in the early founding period. And if that’s not enough, Jonathan Gienapp, my advisor, has offered a wide range of early American classes since arriving on campus just over four years ago. His recent book, The Second Creation, won a major book award and has received praise for its shrewd understanding of not only — as Buskirk complains — the “legal qualities of a document,” but also the historical context which gave rise to the Constitution’s prevalence in the American historiography. Even though Gienapp is on leave this year, he has revitalized the study of early American history within the department, and his courses consistently receive rave reviews. There’s a reason the same students come back again and again to take his classes and why many joke that he has a cult following. 

Gienapp and Rakove have both taught the early American history survey course — Colonial and Revolutionary America (HISTORY 150A) — which Buskirk notably points out. But they’ve offered a range of courses beyond that which expand upon the survey and provide that “in-depth coverage” of the founding to the United States which Buskirk claims is missing. And as Buskirk criticizes the American Studies department for not offering enough early American history classes, she leaves out the important fact that most of these history classes are included in the American Studies bulletin and are cross-listed. HISTORY 150A, for example, is also an American Studies class. That major itself is interdisciplinary, and most of its courses are rooted in other disciplines, including history, English and philosophy. To say that there is a “serious gap” in the history department — and in the course catalog in general — is a misunderstanding that could be fixed with a simple course search in Carta.

But perhaps the most frustrating part of Buskirk’s article is that she suggests studying early America necessitates taking classes within the history department alone or that these classes have to be about American history and political theory specifically. While I have truly valued taking classes exclusively about early America, some of the most informative and useful courses for my development as a historian were those which taught me to engage with difference and perspective beyond what I already knew. When I took a course on sex in America (HISTORY 52S, cross-listed with Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies), I encountered a gendered perspective on the early American colonies — another lens through which I could consider the limits of those sweeping values of “rights” and “democracy.” When I took Keith Baker’s legendary class “The French Revolution and the Birth of Modern Politics,” I explored one of the world’s defining moments in political thought — one which interacted spectacularly with my understanding of early American politics. 

Outside of the history department, political science and philosophy offer just as salient a study in American political theory as any history class could. Brian Coyne teaches wide-ranging but brilliant political philosophy courses on citizenship, democratic theory and liberalism, which all engage with texts from the founding period. In order to get a good understanding of the “American experiment,” one might just have to look outside the history department to see how other disciplines can comment on, transform and challenge those ideas history alone provides. 

And to suggest that the founding period need only be engaged within the realm of historical “political theory” does a disservice to the multitude of perspectives that shaped this period, particularly to those narratives too-often overlooked by historians. Most of the political philosophy at this time was written by white, wealthy, slave-owning founders who did not care to consider how their cries for democracy and liberty “for all” were designed for a very select “all” — one which excluded people of color and, frequently, women. Saying that HISTORY 150A is the only early America-based class suggests that the only valid way to study early America is through the written achievements of those very elite founders and not through thematic classes which elevate the lived experiences of the millions of slaves, Native Americans and women who formed the backbone for the entire founding period. There are a multitude of courses offered by the likes of historians Allyson Hobbs and Kathryn Olivarius that provide a race-based perspective on the founding that is often not emphasized in other early American classes. 

This isn’t to say that I don’t support studying early America or political philosophy involved in its founding documents. What I take issue with is the notion that Stanford History needs to reinforce its studies in this realm when a disproportionate amount of classes and professors are already covering this field in its entirety (and then some), perhaps at the expense of other areas of history. It suggests that there is some sort of primacy or absolute necessity of studying early America for any and all history majors — a notion I cannot agree with, when a good portion of history students do not study anything remotely close to American history, just as I don’t often take classes outside of my own concentration. And to suggest that the “right” type of early American history does not include studies in race and ethnicity, political frameworks developed outside the United States or through a gendered lens narrows what it means to study American history and loses perspectives crucial to understanding the entire story of America’s founding. Buskirk’s article thus read as a misinformed take on just how accessible it is to engage with the founding period at Stanford, while also advocating for a restriction in what it means to study history in its entirety. 

I have compiled a list of courses — the size of which could amount to an entire history major — related to studying the founding, which Buskirk and other American history enthusiasts might appreciate.

(Note that most classes are not offered at the same time or were offered in recent years past — professors in the humanities often recycle classes every other year in order to offer a wider variety of courses over the span of a student’s career. If some of these courses are not going to be taught again, new ones will certainly be offered in the future.)

History, specifically about the founding period:

HISTORY 150A: Colonial and Revolutionary America (Gienapp/Rakove)

HISTORY 252: Originalism and the American Constitution: History and Interpretation (Gienapp)

HISTORY 254E: The Rise of American Democracy (Gienapp)

HISTORY 61N: The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson (Gienapp)

HISTORY 257: Was the American Revolution a Social Revolution? (Gienapp)

HISTORY 253F: Thinking the American Revolution (Gienapp) 

HISTORY 205K: The Age of Revolution: America, France, and Haiti (Olivarius) 

HISTORY 3G: Hamilton: An American Musical (Hobbs) 

HISTORY 54N: African-American Women’s Lives (Hobbs) 

HISTORY 255D: Racial Identity in the American Imagination (Hobbs)

NATIVEAM 115: Introduction to Native American History (Red Shirt) 

HISTORY 153: Creation of the Constitution (McConnell)

HISTORY 157: The Constitution: A Brief History (Rakove)

HISTORY 251G: Topics in Constitutional History (Rakove)

HISTORY 251X: Creating the American Republic (Rakove)

HISTORY 52S: Sex in America (Iker) 

AFRICAAM 117: Maroon Freedom: Black Resistance, Autonomy, and Fugitivity in the US South

NATIVEAM 103S: Gender in Native American Societies 

19th-century history (because the founding is not entirely restricted to the 18th century) 

HISTORY 252C: The Old South: Culture, Society, and Slavery (Olivarius)

HISTORY 144: American Constitutional History from the Civil War to the War on Poverty (Dauber) 

HISTORY 155F: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1830-1877 (Olivarius) 

HISTORY 150B: Nineteenth-Century American History (White/Campbell)

Political science and the law: constitution and founding period

POLISCI 125P: The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech and Press (Persily)

COMM 361: Law of Democracy (Persily) 

ENGLISH 350D: Constitutional Theory (Meyler) 

POLISCI 122: Introduction to American Law (Friedman) 

HISTORY 152: History of American Law (Friedman) 

LAW 7080: Amending the US Constitution (Feingold) 

POLISCI 20Q: Democracy in Crisis: Learning from the Past (Ehrlich) 

POLISCI 220R: The Presidency (Moe) 

Political philosophy and intellectual history related: 

PHIL 135X: Citizenship (Coyne)

PHIL 171: Justice (Coyne)

PHIL 176P: Democratic Theory (Coyne)

PHIL 276A: Classical Seminar: Origins of Political Thought (Ober) 

HISTORY 234: The Enlightenment (Baker) 

Thematically related and/or geographically different: 

HISTORY 237D: The French Revolution and the Birth of Modern Politics (Baker) 

HISTORY 200A: Doing Legal History (Gienapp/Dorin) 

HISTORY 200G: Doing Intellectual History (Baker) 

HISTORY 126B: Protestant Reformation (Como) 

HISTORY 133A: Blood and Roses: The Age of the Tudors (Como) 

NATIVEAM 122: Historiography & Native American Oral Traditions and Narratives

Contact Elizabeth Lindqwister at liz ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

Elizabeth Lindqwister is a senior from Peoria, Illinois, majoring in history. She is the Vol. 259 Public Editor, having previously served as the Vol. 257 Executive Editor and Vice President. Find her at CoHo or liz 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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