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Thomas Bender: No Borders ... Beyond the Nation-State watch

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    Thomas Bender is a professor of history and university professor of the humanities at New York University. This essay is adapted from A Nation Among Nations: America's Place in World History, to be published this month by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2006 by Thomas Bender.]

    I want to propose the end of American history as we have known it. "End" can mean both "purpose" and "termination," and I have in mind both those meanings. I want to draw attention to the endto which national histories, including American history, have been put. They are taught in schools and brought into public discourse to forge and sustain national identities, presenting the self-contained nation as the natural carrier of history. That way of writing and teaching history has exhausted itself. In its place, I want to elaborate a new framing for U.S. history, one that rejects the territorial space of the nation as a sufficient context and argues for the transnational nature of national histories.

    The nation is not free-standing and self-contained; it is connected with and partially shaped by what is beyond it. Nineteenth-century nationalist ideology, which became embedded in the development of history as a discipline, has obscured the actual experience of national societies and has produced a narrow parochialism. I want to encourage a more cosmopolitan sense of being an American, to have us recognize the historical interconnections that have made America's history global history even as it is national, provincial even as it shares in the general history of human beings on this planet.

    National histories, like nation-states, are modern developments. The first national history of the United States, David Ramsay's History of the American Revolution, was published in 1789. In fact, Ramsay held off publishing it until the Constitution was ratified. History — and especially history in the schools — contributed mightily to the acceptance of the nation during the next two centuries. It became the core of civic education in schools and other institutions devoted to making peasants, immigrants, and provincial peoples into national citizens. That category of citizen was supposed to trump all other sources of identity. Regional, linguistic, ethnic, class, religious, and other forms of solidarity or connection that were either smaller or larger were to be radically subordinated to national identity. To sustain the idea of a national citizen, the national space was to be firmly bounded, and population and culture were presumed to be homogeneous. In return, the modern nation-state promised to protect its citizens at home and abroad. One artifact that marks both the importance of borders and the promise of protection is the passport — a 19th-century innovation.

    If this concept of the nation is specific to the past two centuries, still we are so comfortable with it as to refer routinely to events that occurred a thousand years ago within the present borders of France, for example, as "medieval French history." In this age of talk about globalization, multiculturalism, and diasporas, clearly our experience does not match up to such nationalist assumptions. Life is simply more complex.

    In the past few years, some of the most innovative and exciting scholarship in American history has been framed in ways that do not necessarily tie it to the nation-state — work on gender, migrations, diasporas, class, race, ethnicity, and other areas of social history. If that scholarship has not succumbed to the nationalist framing, neither has it altered nor displaced it. It has grown up beside the older default narrative that we all carry around in our heads. It has brought forward new knowledge about previously unstudied or insufficiently recognized groups and themes in American history, but it has not changed the dominant narrative structure. The unitary logic of national history seems to have kept at bay new scholarship that could be transformative. Too often, new scholarship is bracketed (literally so in textbooks) rather than integrated. Much is added, but the basic narrative stays the same. That is why textbooks get longer and longer, more and more ungainly, and less and less readable....

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Updated: April 10, 2006
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