Stand too close to something and it becomes difficult to truly see. Gazing from the forest floor, straining your eyes to see the tops of trees, you miss the majesty of its many acres.
Jay Sexton knows this human phenomenon well. Crossing an ocean aided the professor and author, helping him look back at the wilds of American history with clearer eyes.
Sexton’s new book, “A Nation Forged by Crisis,” argues that we cannot truly see the shape of our own history until we recognize the shaping power of other nations and catalyzing events. To Sexton, history shouldn’t be read like a straight line, but rather like a printout from a seismograph.
The Kansas native serves as a professor of history and the Kinder Institute Chair in Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri. Before returning to his native Midwest, Sexton spent nearly two decades in England, first as a graduate student, then as faculty at Oxford University.
“A Nation Forged by Crisis” is the longhand version of his approach to teaching American history to British students. Their concerns, and the connections they made, sparked Sexton’s own interests and sealed the more internationally-focused view of history he was coming to.
“They didn’t want to know what made American different or exceptional — that’s not what they were interested in,” he said of his students.
Rather, they were fascinated by tracing the country’s development and how nations like their own affected change. Seeing American history through their eyes greatly influenced his words in the classroom and on the page.
“Looking at it from the outside in, rather than from the inside out, does give one a different perspective,” he said.
Simply by conveying that perspective, the book reinforces the truth that new and old aren’t as separate as they often seem. A more globally-informed way of teaching American history prevailed in the early 20th century, Sexton said. After the last guns of World War II sounded, the country became both more powerful and more inwardly-focused, producing a view of history that was more like looking into a mirror.
The manner and method Sexton pursues has become more prevalent again in the last 15 years or so, he added.
Among the book’s through lines: “Foreign powers are the great forgotten actors in American history,” Sexton said. “In our inward-looking age of American ascendance, we have just assumed that we controlled our own destiny.”
In their discourse, his British students often noticed the presence of good fortune, especially in regards to international relationships, in American history. Sexton shared several examples: had it not been for the French, the Revolutionary War might have been a lost cause; a potential British alliance with the Confederacy, which didn’t come to fruition, could have changed the course of the Civil War; America benefited from its greatest foes trading knockout punches during World War II.
Throughout the book, he also traces what he labeled “a series of profound, transformative changes” which buck against conventional wisdom that America’s history is continuous and evolutionary.
The narrative he lays out is more concerned with patterns than presidents, structures and systems than individual stories. Classes of people, social movements and technologies all cast a longer shadow than particular historical figures, he said.
Sexton’s book, while certainly cerebral and analytic, never soars over readers’ heads or condescends to them. He frets that academics do a poor job of justifying their existence to the average reader, and that they often insulate themselves from potential criticism through the use of jargon and qualifying their work to death. His experience with readers is quite different — he has entertained thoughtful, insightful questions that suggests all the makings of a stronger bond.
“Academics ought to put more faith in the wider public,” Sexton said.
While it isn’t about 2018 per se — such an immediate focus would run counter to his wider points — Sexton knows releasing a book in 2018 with “crisis” in the title will provoke questions about our current moment. He addresses, to some degree, the world after the 2016 American presidential election but consistently calls for a longer view. By his measurements, we are not a nation in crisis — yet.
“A crisis is when the known is replaced by the unknown, the ground’s shifting beneath your feet, you’ve got no idea what’s happening, there’s an imperative to mobilize power in short order,” Sexton said by way of definition.
Great seismic shifts in our recent past include September 11, 2001, the financial collapse of 2007-2008 and the 2016 election, he noted.
"We’ve wobbled, we’ve buckled a little bit under the strain,” Sexton said, but haven’t collapsed into full-blown crisis yet.
And yet, Sexton calls anyone within the sound of his voice or reach of his pages to pay careful attention to large-scale forces both involving the United States and interwoven with our nation. The relative unraveling of international institutions, global capitalism, high level of immigration, national security threats by way of terrorism and Russian disruption — Sexton believes all these factors will have their say when the history of this moment is penned.
Knowing this, he wishes our leaders knew more about the world outside our borders. Nothing matters to our history more than our alliances, he said. Until that sort of high-level attention is paid, we the people can take a bigger view of all that surrounds and shapes us.
“America’s been at its best ... when it constructively engages with the wider world,” Sexton said.
Sexton will celebrate the book Dec. 6 at Skylark Bookshop. VIsit www.skylarkbookshop.com for event details.
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Source : http://www.columbiatribune.com/entertainmentlife/20181116/whole-wide-world-mu-professor-writes-different-sort-of-american-history-book