A vituperative rant, thinly veiled in scholarly clothes, against the direction the study of American history has lately taken.
Diggins (The Rise and Fall of the American Left, not reviewed) is not happy about the way American history is being taught. In a typically unmeasured comment, he says of the National History Standards (commissioned by the federal government to guide high-school curricula) that “[n]ot since the Nazi propaganda has a document . . . so minimized the importance of the western Enlightenment and replaced political knowledge about human nature with cultural mystiques about races and racial heritages.” This is a provocative statement, but unfortunately, it goes mostly unsupported by any kind of coherent argument. In fact, large parts of Diggins’s text verge on the unintelligible. What is clear is that the author is a Lockean liberal who believes that American history can be synthesized as a story about consensual liberalism. As such, he takes great umbrage at the attempts of Marxist, multiculturalist, post-structuralist, and feminist historians to tell other kinds of stories. He so misunderstands these efforts, however, that he completely fails to engage them constructively—which is too bad, because his analysis of Abraham Lincoln’s liberalism, with its emphasis on rights and property, could provide a compelling challenge to many ideas currently holding sway in the academy. But mostly we get unsupported assertions, selective paraphrases of offending historians, and the comments of Locke, Tocqueville, Lincoln, and Weber on a variety of subjects. Toward the end, the author takes up issues of class, race, and gender. Suffice it to say that few women or African-Americans are likely to be happy with his account.
A bitter, perplexing, and eccentric work.