So, I prepare for my teaching assignments: two sections of American Pluralism, and one section of World Civilizations I. This is a great deal of space and time to cover in one semester– even though I treat American Pluralism as a postwar survey of the United States. This, if you are keeping track, leaves me in the position of having to teach everything that ever happened (with the obvious exceptions of everything in the U.S. prior to 1945, and everything everywhere else after 1500 except the U.S. after 1945.) I do realize that many of the professor that I admire construct new courses ex nihilo all the time, but when one is starting out, it can be a daunting task. So here are the readings that I feel have best helped me get ready for my first batch of Singaporean students.
- Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation: One of my favorite concepts of world history that I wish more people knew about was the Axial Age. This does not refer to the invention of the wheel, as the name might suggest at first, but to the proliferation of great religious and metaphysical thinkers from about 700 BC to about 400 BC. Think about it: in that timeframe, you get Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzi, Ashoka, “Amos, the various contributors to Isaiah, Plato, Socrates, “The Iliad” is codified into literature, the great Hindu epics are codified into literature. And Armstrong is able to bring these diverse traditions a great deal of coherence– religion become, for the first time, concerned more with sophisticated understandings of justice here on earth— Amos’ cry for the poor, Confucius’ priority of the social order above the spirits, Plato’s search for truth, “The Iliad”‘s experiment with individuality, and so on. A book of ambitious scope by perhaps one of the best writers on religion today.
- Stewart Gordon, When Asia was the World: Western dominance of the world is a fairly recent (and, as is becoming clearer every day, a very fleeting) phenomenon. Gordon, one of my favorite South Asian historians, looks through the eyes of the pan-Asian traveler: Buddhist monks from China looking for original sources in India, Uzbek warlords like Babur conquering India, and well-versed courtly vagabonds like Ibn Battuta, traversing a sophisticated Muslim network that takes him from Mansa Musa’s empire in Mali to southeast Asia and Indonesia. In creating a viable community we now call Asia, these travelers also fostered an understanding, however nascent, of a wider and interconnected world.
- Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: An evergreen of unconventional U.S. history, Zinn’s book proceeds from the assumption that it is not the presidents and the generals who ought to shape the story of our history. Rather, it is in the Jackson-age mechanic, the Mexican migrant, the sojourning American Indian. Zinn’s narrative expertly balances the reality that these peoples often had serious wrongs committed against them with their own efforts to persevere and rough-hew their own understanding of justice. This is done not for the sake of a hollow sense of inclusion, but because changing the actors radically changes the narrative we tell about American history.
- Penny von Eschen, Satchmo Blows up the World: It’s the mid-1950s. All the world is becoming an ideological battlefield as the diverse nations of the world begin aligning either with the democratic ethos of the United States or the communist ideology of the USSR. This is an oversimplification, of course, but how did we win the Cold War? Von Eschen suggests that culture was one of the forgotten battlefields amidst the brinkmanship. In the U.S., the Eisenhower state department sent the nation’s premier jazz artists to the Third World as emissaries of American culture. What better emblematized individuality and the power of the market and the value of spontaneity like the improvisation and larger-than-life personalities of these jazz men? But these Jazz Ambassadors were not passive mediums through which free market ideas were presented to the Third World. These musicians- Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, and countless others, pushed back– often challenging their own government to show greater commitment to civil rights. And they gained a greater solidarity with the world’s colonized peoples, a mentality they would take with them when the civil rights movement gained momentum.
- Confucius, The Analects: Cryptic yet insightful, terse yet deep, this is a classic everyone should read. Some say that Confucius is a conservative, and in a very limited sense this is so. But there is much that is worthwhile in here: Confucius believes that at one’s core– any man and any woman can be benevolent, if they observe the proper social relationships. it is not our station that matters, but our virtue.
- Scot Brown, Fighting for US: “Black Power” sends chills up the backs of many white Americans; it conjures uncomfortable or threatening images of Oakland in the mid-1960s, and militants carrying guns through city streets, and raised fists with black armbands. But, as Brown argues, black power was also fought on the less violent front of culture. Maulena Karenga’s US organization, as this book demonstrates, took parts in both creating and restoring an indigenous African culture for American blacks to partake in– wearing the afro, putting on a dashiki, celebrating Kwanzaa. In doing so, he sets up one of the forgotten aspects of the 1970s. It isn’t the “Me Decade” a phrase Tom Wolfe once coined, but it is instead the “Us Decade”- one of smaller solidarity taking root, a cousin to the American Indian Movement, La Raza, the Evangelical Right, and Second Wave feminism.
- George Takei, To the Stars: How do you demonstrate the breadth of experiences in postwar American life? It’s hard to do it better than this rich, descriptive autobiography written by Mr. Sulu himself. From his experiences in prison-camps for Japanese Americans to his vivid recollections of growing up in a Mexican barrio, Takei’s story is full of the striking juxtapositions and contradictions that make up so much of postwar life. He doesn’t even meet Gene Roddenberry until a good 60% of his way into the book.
- Stephen Prothero, God is not One: Prothero inspects Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, and Yoruba religions and ethics and comes up with the obvious, but worthwhile argument that our world’s faiths have more that is different about them than they have in common. Each faith struggles with a different problem; Judaism with exile, Christianity with sin, Buddhism with suffering, Confucianism with social chaos– and each builds a faith around the solution of that problem. one reason, then, why religion plays such a contentious role in public life is because of the different methods and the different quandaries each faith presupposes. This may, again, seem obvious on the surface, but beneath that surface Prothero arrives at why we care so much, and quarrel so much, about our faith.