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Publisher's Summary

Long before the United States was a nation, it was a set of ideas, projected onto the New World by European explorers with centuries of belief and thought in tow. From this foundation of expectation and experience, America and American thought grew in turn, enriched by the bounties of the Enlightenment, the philosophies of liberty and individuality, the tenets of religion, and the doctrines of republicanism and democracy. Crucial to this development were the thinkers who nurtured it, from Thomas Jefferson to Ralph Waldo Emerson, W. E. B. DuBois to Jane Addams, and Betty Friedan to Richard Rorty. The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History traces how Americans have addressed the issues and events of their time and place, whether the Civil War, the Great Depression, or the culture wars of today. 

Spanning a variety of disciplines, from religion, philosophy, and political thought, to cultural criticism, social theory, and the arts, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen shows how ideas have been major forces in American history, driving movements such as transcendentalism, Social Darwinism, conservatism, and postmodernism. In engaging and accessible prose, this introduction to American thought considers how notions about freedom and belonging, the market and morality - and even truth - have commanded generations of Americans and been the cause of fierce debate.

©2019 Oxford University Press (P)2019 Tantor

Critic Reviews

“A valuable civic exercise that invites ‘thinking about thinking.'” (Kirkus)

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  • Carl A. Gallozzi
  • 02-05-2021

Listenable Survey Course of American Ideas

The Ideas that made America
…A Brief History
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen

For those of us of a certain age – we might fondly remember “Survey Courses” in College. These courses provided a high-level overview of the subject with a basic understanding and a ‘map’ for further reflection and study.

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen provides just such a Survey Course” on the basic ideas that ‘made America’.

Well written very interesting and worthwhile.

Ratner-Rosenhagen provides some context concerning when these ideas were initially documented, what the ideas represented and what intellectual conversation followed.

From a high enough level of abstraction, you can read these as almost a ‘geographic map’ of rivers of ideas some of which flow into one another – some die out – all have impacted American Intellectual Conversation.

Well written – readable- thought provoking.

Should be of interest to those who read/study American History.

Carl Gallozzi

Selected Highlights:
• She gives credit to the Indigenous Americans – where there was no written tradition – with the American Indian Tribes having an estimated 1000 different languages and an oral tradition. Nevertheless Ratner-Rosenhagen recognizes these people, tribes and languages as pre-existing the American Experiment.
• During the Revolutionary Era – she discussion Thomas Paine “Common Sense” and the writings of Ben Franklin among others.
• Later in an interesting thought – Ratner-Rosenhagen documents that within one month in 1859 – John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry Raid occurred and Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species” were published. The concepts of Race and Evolution were brought into focus.
• During the 1800’s the writing of Cotton Mather, William James and Ralph Waldo Emerson were the emerging line-of-progressive-thinking – including Emerson’s essay of Self-Reliance.
• John Dewey – documented as an intellectual force – University of Chicago – and the ‘Great Books’ program Mentioned.
• During the 1930’s as an alternative to F.D.R’s “New Deal” – the influence of both Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin are mentioned as alternatives.
• During the 1960’s – beginning with the Free Speech Movement – new models of thought were developed. Milestone works included Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” and Martin Luther King’s “Letters from a Birmingham Jail”.
• 1970’s “mentions” – include Thomas Kuhn “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” – which led to a [French Inspired] Post-Modernist thought model. There is no objective truth and etc.
• Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. observes ..”The Disuniting of America” – where he recognizes ‘riffs in Academia’…where ‘oppressed’ (?) groups form group identity – 1968 raised Black consciousness; 1970 raised Women’s consciousness.
• One background here is that during this time period the dialogue involved the debate between self-interest and any social obligation that the individual had (might have had).
• The 1980’s were the ‘Me’ Decade – see Tom Wolfe “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and Christopher Lasch “The Culture of Narcissism”.
• In academia this led to ‘fault lines within fault lines’ and the rise of Intersectionality as an idea: Class; Race; Ethnicity; Gender; Sex; and Religion as examples.

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