A recent Wall Street Journal opinion essay captured this nation’s rotten national mood. Its title reads, “Seeing Red and Feeling Blue.”
This July 4, this country’s 247th anniversary, the nation’s mood was deeply pessimistic. Cynicism, suspicion, distrust and negativism reign. Optimism remains in short supply.
Yet there are many reasons for hopefulness. For all the fears about climate change and a drift toward authoritarianism in various places at home and abroad, many global trends are positive. These include declines in extreme poverty and famine and in death rates due to natural catastrophes—earthquake, flood, drought, storm, wildfire, landslides. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has stalled. The pandemic’s death toll, thanks largely to vaccines developed in record time, has fallen sharply.
Then, there’s a remarkable, unexpected surge in technological inventiveness: in solar and wind power, improved batteries, artificial intelligence, and mRNA vaccines. For all the talk about stagnation and decadence, the United States remains a leader in advances in medicine, science and technology—in cancer treatment, electric cars, text generation and much more.
After a disconcerting period of upheaval—of rising crime rates, mass shootings and extreme political polarization and partisanship—American society seems to be stabilizing. There are good reasons to think that a prolonged period of disruption—the failed wars on terror, the Great Recession, the bitterness provoked by election of 2016, even the pandemic—may be subsiding, at least temporarily.
The Great Awokening, too, appears to be winding down. The defund the police movement has faded. Campus activism has, to a certain extent, abated, and faculty and, in some notable instances, university leadership have reaffirmed the value of academic freedom and free speech on campus. A conservative backlash is certainly underway, and I don’t want to minimize its consequences. But it’s noteworthy and surprising that the abortion restrictions or the legislation involving trans rights or the court decisions about affirmative action and student loan relief have not produced mass protests, at least not yet.
Much, to be sure, has changed over the past decade. Religious belief and practice have fallen sharply, especially among the young, and as a result of organized religion’s decline, one of this society’s chief sources of belonging, support and meaning has faded. Marriage rates and birth rates have also fallen, and fewer adults are now part of a family unit. Meanwhile, household instability, isolation and loneliness have increased, which seem to be big contributors to this society’s high rates of depression and deaths of despair.
At the same time, despite some modest gains in income at the bottom of the wage distribution, the United States remains a highly unequal society not just in terms of income and wealth, but of job security and educational attainment. Many social problems persist, perhaps most visibly in the encampments of the unhoused and the many individuals with untreated mental illness that one encounters every day. Political polarization and partisan antipathy rage undiminished.
Especially worrisome is what some call doomerism—an extreme pessimism that often results in fatalism and a sense of resignation and which I encounter every day in the classroom.
As a U.S. historian, I am especially struck by the extreme negativism about this country’s history. Bitterness and anger about this society’s history quite rightly persist. This country did begin as a series of settler colonies. It did dispossess its Indigenous societies of their homelands. It was also a slave society that justified enslavement through various racist ideologies. It did bar immigrants from Africa and Asia for most of its history, seized half of Mexico, expelled hundreds of thousands of Mexican Americans during the Great Depression and again in the 1940s and 1950s, and interned much its Japanese American population during World War II. It still has vestiges of empire, including Puerto Rico. It has, since the late 19th century, been the center of corporate capitalism and finance capitalism and the fiercest advocate for a consumer society.
Yet it’s also essential to remember that this country’s history is one of conflict and struggle and of agency by the very people whose rights and very humanity were denied. If slavery was among history’s gravest crimes against humanity and an instrument of “soul murder” that separated families; undergirded U.S. exports; fueled the growth of banking, insurance, shipping and other industries; and left a lasting legacy of inequality, underdevelopment and racism, then the campaign against slavery is one of human history’s great achievements.
I do my best to avoid teaching U.S. history as a battle royal between the children of light and the children of darkness. After all, reformers often have had their own blind spots, prejudices and misguided ideas—like the illiberal Progressive reformers of the early 20th century, who favored eugenics and national immigration quotas, or the 1960s liberals whose ideas about urban renewal destroyed intact and vibrant, often racially integrated, neighborhoods.
Yet it would be a mistake of the highest order to fail to celebrate those who fought prejudice and inequality and who expanded everyone’s rights. I also want my students to recognize that much of this society’s creativity has come from those who lived on this country’s margins.
In his 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass said that it is “a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” He went on to say this:
“The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism a sham, your humanity a base pretense and your Christianity a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing and a bye-word to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union. It fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement, the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it …”
Then the great orator, civil rights activist and fugitive from slavery turns full circle and concluded with these words that expressed his confidence in the future:
“Notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. ‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened,’ and the doom of slavery is certain.”
Each Fourth of July, it is important to remember that the United States, unlike almost all other countries, is defined not by ethnicity or geography or language or even a shared history. It is defined by a proposition: that all human beings are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. We should, of course, recall that the man who wrote those words enslaved more than 200 women, men and children and that a fifth of the population lived in bondage. We should also recognize that women at the time were denied the right to vote, attend college, enter a profession or even speak publicly to mixed-sex groups.
Nevertheless, those words—with their call for human freedom, equality and rights—have served as an inspiration to abolitionists, women’s rights activists, trade unionists and other reformers.
I grew up in Detroit, directly across the river from Windsor, Ontario, and often ask myself whether the United States would have been better off if it were more like Canada. What if the U.S. hadn’t fought a revolution that validated violence, valorized the rebel and overvalued the most extreme forms of individualism and the most radical free-market conceptions of freedom? What if the Constitution hadn’t entrenched the power of the slave-owning states and created a governmental system that gives small minorities the ability to block legislation that might have extended the social safety net? What if this country shared more of Canada’s tolerance for diversity in language and culture and its penchant for compromise and its greater emphasis on equality in social conditions?
Perhaps yes. Perhaps no.
In a famous line in All the King’s Men, his classic 1946 novel about a charismatic Southern populist who famously combined idealism and corruption, decency and duplicity, Robert Penn Warren wrote:
“And what we students of history always learn is that the human being is a very complicated contraption and that they are not good or bad but are good and bad and the good comes out of the bad and the bad out of the good and the devil take the hindmost.”
As a historian, I can attest to that statement’s wisdom. Good and bad are often entangled in ways that are knotty and inextricable, and progress often arises out of a dialectical process, like the concept of civil liberties that represented a reaction to the violations of constitutional rights during the First World War.
So far, unpredictability and trauma have been hallmarks of the 21st century, beginning with the contested election of 2000 followed in rapid succession by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the anthrax poisonings, the wars against terror and the death and destruction wrought on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, with many more shocks to come. Radical disruptions and disturbances have, not surprisingly, produced a social psychology not unlike post-traumatic stress disorder, characterized by severe anxiety, irritability, hostility, social isolation and extreme depression. This troubled mood is certainly evident in my classroom.
That trauma-laden psychology is itself a source of worry, and my recommendation is that faculty should adopt some of the strategies associated with cognitive behavioral therapy in their classroom teaching. CBT rests on the idea that many psychological problems are the products of flawed ways of thinking and of learned patterns of dysfunctional behavior. Its goal is to change the thought patterns that lead to unhelpful or harmful emotions and behavior and cultivate healthier, more adaptive responses to stress.
What does this mean for us as classroom teachers?
- Help your students recognize the distortions in thinking that we are all prone to. These include:
- Catastrophizing: fixating on the worst possible outcome and treating it as likely.
- Change fallacies: assuming that other people should change their behavior or attitudes to meet our needs or desires.
- Control fallacies: viewing oneself as powerless or, conversely, assuming you are more in control than you really are.
- Externalization: blaming others when things go wrong.
- Fairness fallacies: expecting that effort or sacrifice will be rewarded and making judgments based largely on whether something is fair or unfair.
- Filtering: ignoring the positive and fixating on the negative.
- Jumping to conclusions: making a hasty judgment before considering all relevant facts.
- Mislabeling: drawing exaggerated conclusions about another person’s character or behavior based on limited information.
- Overgeneralization: basing a conclusion of a very narrow range of examples.
- Personalizing: self-blame, even for events outside one’s control.
- Polarized thinking: minimizing complexity and nuance.
- Self-righteousness: being convinced that you’re always right and others are wrong, misguided or stupid.
- “Shoulds”: placing unreasonable demands on oneself resulting in inappropriate levels of guilt.
- Show your students how these thought patterns apply to your own discipline. At the heart of CBT is an insight we should all take to heart: how people frame an issue and the expectations that they bring to bear color their response.
Let me offer a few examples from American history. You can’t understand the American Revolution without grasping the ideological filter through which the rebellious colonists understood events. A growing number came to believe that the British ministry and the king himself were engaged in a conspiracy to deprive them of their rights and reduce them to political slavery. Similarly, in the years before the Civil War, an increasing share of the North’s population became convinced that a vicious slave power had conspired to displace the Indigenous population, ignite a revolution in Texas, wage war with Mexico and even assassinate presidents with a goal toward expanding slavery. Meanwhile, many white Southerners became convinced that abolitionists were tools of British imperialism, eager to fragment the United States, strip the slave states of their liberties, deprive them of their primary source of wealth and (in their words) “Africanize” the South.
In their own interpretations of the past, students need to bear in mind the cognitive distortions—the simplifications, overgeneralizations and misrepresentations—that twist and warp understanding.
- Teach your students how to reframe and complicate their thinking. In a humanities or social science classroom, we don’t simply want students’ opinions; we want more sophisticated and compelling arguments developed and supported with evidence and logical reasoning. A sophisticated claim is one that others might dispute; it’s arguable, not merely factual; specific, not vague or overly broad. It’s also original; it offers a unique perspective or interpretation and doesn’t simply restate the obvious. To help your students make more sophisticated arguments, you might follow these tips:
- Encourage argumentation—create a classroom atmosphere in which students feel empowered to argue for different points of view.
- Emphasize perspective taking—help them understand a historical event from different viewpoints or to read a text through differing conceptual lenses (for example, feminist, Freudian, Marxian, postmodernist, etc.).
- Challenge students to navigate complexity and ambiguity—introduce information that complicates a topic.
- Provide examples of stronger and weaker claims—discuss collectively why some arguments are compelling than others.
- Brainstorm—as a group generate various theses and points of view.
- Identify existing debates surrounding a topic—then ask whether there are other perspectives or interpretations that are missing.
- Consider counterarguments—ask how might someone question a particular interpretation.
- Teach metacognition—help students become more aware of their thinking processes and to assess their level of understanding.
- Discuss the dysfunctional behavior patterns that impede serious discussion of controversial issues. Students (and, yes, professors, too) bring certain dysfunctional behaviors, often acquired in childhood, into the classroom. These include:
- Avoidance—withdrawing or disengaging from a stressful situation.
- Distraction—an inability to focus or concentrate on the topic at hand.
- Numbing—suppressing or repressing one’s emotions.
- Selective mutism—a refusal to speak or a tendency to shut down under stressful conditions.
- Equivocation—tempering one’s opinions rather than communicating openly and honestly.
- Eristical argumentation—arguing for its own sake or to fulfill a psychological need (for attention, for example or to assert one’s intelligence).
Let me be clear: I’m not asking you to practice therapy without a license. Rather, all of us need to recognize that CBT has identified certain principles that have proven effective in treating anxiety disorders and depression and that these precepts are broadly applicable to various academic fields of study. Cognitive behavioral therapy offers strategies we might apply as we try to engage the many students who lack focus, positivity and hope.