Role Reversal

Something I wrote for an online Chinese History class:

There’s a kind of reversal exercise that is getting more common: it’s worth thinking about. What would American history and society look like if it were written the way that we write histories of other cultures? What would the history of the Civil War look like if we talked about it in terms of tribalism, religious sects, honor culture, caste systems, and magical thinking? What would an analysis of US history that took Puritanism or Methodism as critically as Chinese histories take Confucianism and Daoism? Remember: Harvard and Yale were seminaries until the 19th century; we still haven’t had a non-Christian president, and we added “In God We Trust” to the currency and “Under God” to the pledge in the mid-20th century. What if, instead of focusing on ‘pioneers’ and activists and breakthroughs towards a more perfect union, we focused on conservative and subversive forces and how each crisis revealed deep-rooted problems and how we failed to actually solve them most of the time?

Teaching the US Declaration of Independence in a World History context

Philly 2012 - Congress Hall - House DeskJoseph Adelman has a nice post on how he teaches the US Declaration of Independence in his early US survey — he reads it aloud; with the class standing, as in an 18th century church or town meeting — and I thought I might offer another perspective, since I use the same document in my World Since 1500 course.

For the last few iterations of the course, I’ve had students’ primary source readings focus on the rising tradition of rights in Western, then World, civilization.  So I have them read the US Declaration as part of a group, along with the English Bill Of Rights and the French Declaration Of Rights Of Man And Citizen. (Later in the semester, they read the UN’s Declaration of Universal Human Rights).  This is in the context of a discussion of revolutionary change, following one on the Western Enlightenment.

When we talk about the Declaration, it serves as focal evidence for talking about the American Revolution, and I talk about historiography. (I talk about historiography a lot in World History, as it turns out, but my favorite bits are this one on the US Revolution and the Fall of Rome, where the historiography just layers and layers….) There are many ways to see the US Revolution — I’m increasingly fond of the “creole” generational theory, myself, as it helps situate it in the context of the Latin American revolutions, and connects it to post-colonialism, a little — and I point out that there’s evidence for most of them right in the text of the Declaration itself.

In particular, I raise the question of just how revolutionary the American Revolution was. The famous preamble is a classic statement of Enlightenment principles about humanity and government, which suggests the power of new ideas and real change. The body of the document, though, lists grievances based, in large part, on the earlier English Bill of Rights, and the structure of the whole Declaration follows closely on that example, which suggests less revolutionary aims and more an attempt to conserve rights already in existence against changing circumstances. And, of course, I have to talk about the Seven Years’ War, the tax and mercantilist policies which were driving much of the tension between the colonies and the Crown, and the extent to which many of Founding Fathers were involved in import and export related businesses.

Philly 2012 - Liberty Hall - Liberty Bell - FrontI point out that the “all men” of the Declaration was limited in effect, and that the attempt to preserve the self-governance of the colonies against royal interference largely succeeded in the short term, as the states continued to govern themselves and only slowly to create coordinated or national policies. In this it was also conservative, rather than liberalizing. But the Constitution, when it came to be, embodied Montesquieu’s tripartite scheme, which is clearly foreshadowed in the complaints of the Declaration, and maintained an elected executive and legislature, a political experiment of the most ambitious sort. Well, ambitious if you discount the even more radical political experiments of the French, which began at that very moment, and the example of which helped to solidify some of the more conservative elements of American leadership.

I have little patience for those who would fetishize the Founding Fathers and the Constitution as written, turn them into an icon of secular faith in American Exceptionalism. But I’m always impressed, as I work through this material, with the way in which the intellectual and political resources of the moment were marshalled into the Declaration, and the tensions of the moment were balanced into an effective and productive evolving Constitutional system. But clearly my presentation cuts against the grain of American exceptionalism: the American Revolution shows clear evidence of Enlightenment thought, English civic tradition, post-colonial pride, economic competition, and a desire for social stability which meant that very little changed in most people’s lives as a result.

Extra Credit Opportunity: NASA lecture

Alan Glines, a retired NASA employee who worked in the control room of the Houston Space Center during the Apollo missions, will deliver a public lecture about recent Kepler Mission results at Pittsburg State University on Wednesday, April 11. Glines’ presentation, at 2 p.m. in 102 Yates Hall, is part of the 2012 Physics, Mathematics and Engineering Lecture Series. The list of planets orbiting distant stars is growing rapidly. These discoveries are the result of NASA’s Kepler Mission, a multi-year project that springs from mankind’s ongoing search for life among the stars.

Extra Credit Opportunity: Sister Helen Prejean

The Pittsburg State University Performing Arts and Lecture Series concludes its 2011-12 season on Friday, March 30, with a free lecture by Sister Helen Prejean, the author of “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States.” Sister Prejean will speak at 7 p.m. in Pittsburg’s Memorial Auditorium.

Sister Helen PrejeanSister Prejean, a Catholic nun from Louisiana, became the spiritual adviser to convicted killer Patrick Sonnier and witnessed his execution. In 1993, she wrote of that life-changing experience in a Pulitzer-Prize nominated book, “Dead Man Walking.” The book, which topped the New York Times list for 31 weeks, was adapted by director and producer Tim Robbins for an Oscar-nominated film in 1996 featuring Susan Sarandon as Sister Prejean and Sean Penn as the death-row inmate.

A Nobel Prize-nominated activist and advocate, Sister Prejean has witnessed multiple executions and describes herself as “an ordinary person who got involved in extraordinary events.” As the founder of Survive, a victim’s advocacy group in New Orleans, she continues to counsel not only inmates on death row, but the families of murder victims, as well.

In conjunction with Sister Prejean’s Pittsburg appearance, the PSU Theatre will present the stage version of “Dead Man Walking” April 26-29 in the PSU Studio Theatre.

Admission to the lecture on March 30 is free, but tickets are required. Tickets may be obtained at the PSU Ticket Office in the Overman Student Center (620-235-4796) or at the door the evening of the lecture, based on availability. All seating is general admission.

For information, please contact Campus Activities at 620-235-4795.

Extra Credit Opportunity: Wrongful Conviction

Rob Warden, Executive Director at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwest University in Chicago, will present a lecture on wrongful convictions at 11:00 a.m., Friday, March 30th, in the Crimson and Gold Ball Room, Overman Center. 
Warden is an award winning legal affairs journalist who, as editor and publisher of Chicago Lawyer magazine during the 1980’s exposed more than a score of wrongful convictions in Illinois, including cases in which six innocent men had been sentenced to death. He has won more than fifty journalism awards.   In, 2003, he was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame.  He has also been featured on 60 Minutes.
Please feel free to come early for the meet and greet at 10:00 a.m.  Warden’s latest book True Stories of False Confessions is on sale NOW in The Pittsburg State University Book Store and will be for sale that day and he will be available to sign books.  This is a FREE EVENT TO ALL in  conjunction with The Dead Man Walking School Theater Project.
For more information you can contact Sara Mills at and Abby Sutton at

Extra Credit Opportunity: Dead Man Walking

PSU CAMPUS FILM NIGHT: DEAD MAN WALKING, 1995 Academy-Award Winning Film
MONDAY, MARCH 5, 2012, 7:00 PM, 109 Grubbs Hall
-Starring: Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn; Directed by Tim Robbins
-Based the book by Sister Helen Prejean
-Arranged through special permission from Swank Productions, Inc.
-Sponsored by the PSU Department of Communication, Ron & Debbie Koelsch & June Koelsch
*ADMISSION IS FREE, but due to limited space, RESERVATIONS are REQUIRED. FOR RESERVATIONS, EMAIL Kristy Magee at your name and email address.
*Open to PSU Students, Faculty/Staff, Community Members
PLOT: Susan Sarandon, in her Academy-Award winning role, portrays Sister Helen Prejean, a nun who exchanges letters with death row inmate, Matt Poncelot, portrayed by Sean Penn. This captivating film leaves viewers questioning what roles compassion and freedom play in today’s society; and ultimately, in their own lives.
ENGAGING IN A SEMESTER OF INTERDISCIPLINARY DISCOURSE AT PSU! As this semester of discourse on capital punishment continues, Sister Helen Prejean’s visit to Pitt State gets closer (March 30th, Sponsored by PALS & Social Work Plus), and Dead Man Walking, the play (April 26th-29th, Sponsored by Pitt State Theatre) wraps it up at the end of the semester, let’s get together with everyone interested and inspired by this story to kick off these activities and watch the film! Whether you are working on this project for a class, doing an independent study surrounding this topic, planning to attend auditions and/or be involved with the production of the play, or just interested in watching this film, it is sure to get you thinking about everything involved.
QUESTIONS? Contact Kristy Magee, Graduate Student in the Department of Communication & Director/Coordinator of The Dead Man Walking School Theatre Project at Pitt State, at or 620-481-9619.