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Eran Shalev on Teaching US History in Israel

Eran ShalevEran Shalev (PhD, Johns Hopkins 2005) is Chair of the history department at Haifa University, Israel, and an International Contributing Editor for the Journal of American History. He is the author of American Zion: The Bible as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War (Yale University Press, 2013), and Rome Reborn on Western Shores: Historical Imagination and the Creation of the American Republic (Virginia University Press, 2009). He is currently writing a book tentatively titled “The Star Spangled Republic: Political Astronomy and the Rise of the American Constellation.”

What led you to become interested in American history?

I became interested in American history through a fortuitous coincidence. I was already enrolled in a European history graduate program when I came across Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s The Cycles of American History (1986) on a bookstore’s shelf. I was fascinated with the opening essay of that volume that discussed the influence of the classics on the Founders. I said to myself, “hey, that’s really interesting,” and went on to write a seminar paper on the subject. An M.A. thesis followed, and in due course a Ph.D. dissertation on the Roman influence on American republicanism came along, which became my first book. That crash course in early American history took six years from start to finish.

What challenges do you face studying American history abroad?

If ten or twenty years ago the main challenge would have been the physical distance from archives and primary sources, the internet has eliminated much of that barrier. Extensive online databases (such as Readex, for example) enable students of American history to conduct considerable portions of their research from afar. I make a point to visit the U.S. at least once a year and conduct my archival work in the summer. The challenges, however, are still real: the vast majority of my colleagues are not Americanists and I miss a vibrant intellectual community of American historians. Even though large clusters of practitioners of American history still exist, only the internet (again!) facilitates a collegial republic of letters among like-minded scholars across the globe.

Does living outside of the U.S. lend you a perspective on American history that is perhaps different from historians who live and work in the U.S.?

That is a very good question, which I keep asking myself. I think that I have the advantage of spending much of my early education outside of the U.S., which lowers the risk of developing a U.S.-centric understanding of the world. One peculiar phenomenon I encountered when I studied in the U.S. is that Americans at times refer to their subjects of enquiry in the first person (such as “we” when referring for example to participants in the American revolution). I am immune to such unhelpful modes of reflection by definition.

How do you approach teaching American history in Israel?

Most of my undergrad students (which are not called here, by the way, “undergraduate” but like in the European model they are “B.A. students”) have little and mostly superficial knowledge of American history. Because the U.S. has such an influential geo-strategic and cultural presence in these parts of the world I find it very important to teach a survey that emphasizes the conditions and processes that facilitated the rise of the United States to the status of a superpower. In particular I discuss the explosive combination of economic potential, dynamic republican institutions, and a democratic political culture.

What types of courses do you regularly teach to undergraduates?

Most of my courses fall into two groups: the first are a set of “general” courses that explore the political and social aspects of American history, usually from early settlement to the turn of the twentieth century. There is a great thirst among my students for understanding the roots of the United States’ unprecedented power and influence, and I believe that part of a well-balanced higher education’s mission is to provide young people with a good understanding of the evolution of the modern world (for which a historical perspective is invaluable). The second group of classes is more thematic and tends to focus on my particular interests. In such courses, often seminars, I’ll explore political culture, ideology and historical thought, at times from Atlantic or European perspectives. I am now preparing a course that will study the different models which Americans adopted during the revolution and the early republic to make sense of and legitimize their new nation: among those were republican Rome, biblical Israel, Native Americans and even the cosmos (think of stars as the symbol for the American state).

What are the most challenging topics in American history for you to address to students?

Slavery is by far the most challenging topic to teach. At the start, reactions to slavery range from cynicism to disbelief. Students have a hard time drawing the lines connecting the idea of America as the “last best hope of earth,” in Lincoln’s words, and the ownership of and commerce in human beings. There is no easy way to answer such questions and I think that the best way to tackle them is by historicizing. Students gain a better perspective, for example, when they learn that slavery was the norm, not the exception, throughout human history, and that a concerted political effort to abolish the institution was realized for the first time only in the nineteenth century.

Are there patterns in the ways your students react to American history? What kinds of core assumptions do you encounter among your students? 

There are a few typical reactions in my classes that I have learned to expect. One is that there is no—or very little—American history to learn! I guess that the myth of the “young nation” has run amok. This absurd misconception is easy to refute. Qualms stemming from slavery and the meaning of American history, which come up often too, are more challenging.