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American Studies

By Tom Robotham

Thirty-five years ago—10 years after I graduated from college—I decided to go back to school to pursue a master’s degree in American Studies. At the time I had no plans to become a teacher. My decision was motivated purely by a desire to gain a deeper understanding of our history and our culture.

In time, it yielded practical benefits. After my stint as editor of Port Folio Weekly came to end, I applied for an adjunct position at Old Dominion University—something that would have been unavailable to me had I not obtained a graduate degree. My graduate work has also informed virtually everything I’ve written for publications over the last three decades. But the greatest value of my graduate studies cannot be quantified. Put simply, they deepened my interest in the American experiment and my love for this country.

My gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy was deepened further as I contemplated, during the Olympics, how oppressive life is in China, then pondered—after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—what it might be like to live under the brutal tyranny of Putin. The governments of both countries operate on a single assumption: that an open exchange of ideas and information is dangerous. It’s a curious way to run a country—this acknowledgement that your nation’s system is not strong enough to withstand the force of dissenting opinions.

The vast degree of freedom we still enjoy in the United States—freedom of expression, in particular—is striking in comparison. The trouble with this is that it leads many people to grow complacent. Just because we now enjoy far more freedom than the people of Russia and China does not guarantee that we always will.

We would be wise to reflect on the words of the great Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas: “As nightfall does not come all at once,” he said, “neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air—however slight—lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.”

IT SEEMS CLEAR TO ME that there have been disturbing changes in the air, here in these United States, in recent years. We endured four grueling years, after all, under the “leadership” of a would-be tyrant—someone who made no bones about his admiration for Putin and bragged about the “love letters” he’d exchanged with Kim Jong Un. With his relentless efforts to overturn the election, he made it clear that his musings on the “genius” of Putin were no idle fantasies. He intended to do everything he could to try to realize his fantasy of becoming an all-powerful ruler.

When he failed, many of us breathed a sigh of relief that democracy had prevailed. Since then, however, countless Trump wannabes have come out of the woodwork. Some, like Marjorie Taylor Greene, are so bat-shit crazy that it’s tempting to simply dismiss them. It would be unwise to do so, since—at the very least—they aggravate our civil strife.

The greater danger, however, lies in the cynicism and cowardice of less strident leaders who not only refuse to call out Trumpism for what it is—a direct assault on democracy—but who employ his strategy of stoking fear as a means of gaining or maintaining power. In various states, there are, for example, ongoing efforts to remove scores if not hundreds of books from school libraries and curricula on the grounds that these books teach children to “hate America,” make white students feel “uncomfortable,” and threaten “family values,” by acknowledging that some families have two moms or two dads.

Our own governor is among those who believe that our children need to be protected from ideas and from the realities of our contemporary society. It’s not clear to me whether Youngkin is sincere in his tacit assertion that ideas are dangerous, or whether he’s so cynical that he’s willing to stoke fears, even though he knows them to be unfounded. If it’s the former, that’s sad, for it suggests an utter lack of faith in young people and in the virtues of the American experiment. If it’s the latter, well, that’s downright insidious.

Either way, he proceeded. His “tip line,” designed to encourage parents to report “inherently divisive practices” in our classrooms, is not just reminiscent of McCarthyism. It is precisely the kind of thing that happens in dictatorships. It represents, in other words, one of those “changes in the air,” that Douglas talked about.

Let me clear: I’m not suggesting that Younkin himself is a would-be dictator. I’ve never met him, but my gut tells me that he does in fact love this country—unlike Trump, who clearly despises it, except in so far as it has allowed him to rip off countless people, abuse the civil-court system, and construct a fictional persona of a self-made man.

Nevertheless, our governor and many others are playing a very dangerous game indeed. The surest way to weaken democracy, after all, is to weaken our education system.

By the same token, the surest way to strengthen it is to encourage students to examine the American story in all of its richness—its myriad examples of heroism, courage, compassion and resilience, along with its examples of bigotry, brutality, greed, hypocrisy and cowardice.

This was my experience, at any rate, not only in grad school but from an early age.

MY EDUCATION BEGAN AT HOME, with my father, who was an old-school liberal, a voracious reader and deeply reflective thinker. When I was growing up, he taught me about all kinds of things, from the beauty of America’s national pastime, the glories of our natural world and the value of the Bill of Rights, to the evils of racism, the dangers of censorship, and the oppression of the working class.

Throughout my formal education, I was also exposed to a full range of ideas about the human condition, the wonders of art and literature, and the histories of societies. My teachers represented a broad spectrum of political viewpoints. One of my favorite college professors was a staunch Republican who used to enjoy provoking me. Others were liberals and still others were Marxists. I accepted none of their ideas without resistance and questioning, and that is precisely what most of them wanted. Regardless, when I graduated from college, I left not with any firm ideology but with an insatiable hunger to learn more—especially about my own country.

Grad school was the most exciting chapter of all. It was there that I deepened my understanding of Emerson and the enthusiasms he expressed when contemplating the possibilities of the American experiment. It was there, as well, that I discovered the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, a 19th century Frenchman who was fascinated by the young American Republic but also confronted its problems unflinchingly.

It was there, too, that I discovered James Baldwin’s essay The Fire Next Time—the single best thing I’ve ever read about race in America. The essay is filled with expressions of heartache, both because of what Baldwin had endured as a Black man and because of our country’s failures to live up fully to its stated ideals. In spite of that, he ended on a note of hope—albeit dim—that we my yet “change the history of the world.”

Above all, my graduate studies left me with the sense that looking at our history and current circumstances is a glass-half-empty-or-half-full proposition. Though I sometimes feel as if my hope is crumbling, I remain a half-full guy at heart. Indeed, as I survey our history, and all the triumphs, I’m continually reminded of Martin Luther King’s oft repeated remark that “the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.”

That is the story we should be telling our children: that yes, the American idea represents to this day a great beacon for humankind, but that our country is far from perfect. That our history is, in fact, stained with blood, and that our greatness lies in repeated examples of our willingness to confront our sullied past and resolve to do better.

Those who want to whitewash our history and trivialize enduring injustices have somehow construed a more honest approach as an expression of hatred. It is the very opposite. Parents who love their children, after all, don’t simply look the other way if a child is falling short of his or her potential. They impose discipline and express faith that the child can do better. Our country deserves this “tough love” as well. Yes, it is great—but it could be so much better. After all, if we simply rest in satisfaction that “we’re not Russia,” that’s a pretty low bar.


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