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David M. Kennedy is the Donald J. McLachian Professor of History at Stanford University. His scholarship is notable for its integration of economic analysis with social history and political history.[…]

Understanding a country of 300 million.

Well there’s 300 million of us, so any generalization, we should be suspicious about it. There is an older school of thought actually that I grew up with in a sense in my early professional life, and when I was really turning my attention to American history is when I wanted to spend my time with it for the rest of my life. It was called National Character Studies. There were a number of books in the post World War II era that took this subject on. Probably . . . Some of the more famous ones were David Reesman’s “The Lonely Crowd”; William White’s “The Organization Man”; and then the one that had the greatest influence on me was a book by David Potter called “People of Plenty”. And David Potter was, in fact, my mentor when I was an undergraduate student. And their general approach was to try to locate distinctive attributes of the national character we might say in the heads and hearts of every single individual in the society. And it was kind of a social psychology approach. How did being socialized into a given environment compel everybody in the society to internalize certain values? That approach fell into a lot of disfavor at a certain point, particularly in the age of multiculturalism when we became acutely sensitive to all the many differences among us. So that is not exactly my approach, though I wouldn’t deny that everybody who lives in this society for a generation or so does share some stratum of shared values in one sense or another. But that’s not exactly my approach. I’m more interested in institutional factors, situational circumstances that have determined the range of choices that people have in this society. And collectively, ________ determine our institutional . . . pardon me, our historical pathways in these various eras. When I was on my way to graduate school – literally, figuratively driving across the country from California to Connecticut in 1963 on my way to begin my graduate studies at Yale – I drove a car, an old beat up Dodge. And I started out in Seattle, and then I drove down to visit friends in Oklahoma, and then up to Chicago, and then on to New Haven, Connecticut. And I was filled with this notion, you know, I was driving across my subject. I was literally transiting the physical subject that I was gonna study. And it was about a two-week trip, and I can remember thinking on the way, “Boy, I’d better take on some humility here because this place is so big and so diverse that really, the kinds of easy generalizations that I have been thinking I could apply into the life of this society are probably not gonna cut the mustard.” So we’re almost at the beginning of my lifelong endeavor with this. I was given a very chastening lesson on the complexity of the subject. Our history constrains us even as it opens special opportunities to us; but we live and we will always live in an environment that is given to us by the past. And our capacity to just throw that overboard and start all over again . . . I mean history is full of very few successful attempts at that kind of thing. So the better we understand how we got here, the more cogently we’re gonna be able to take ourselves forward. What has made us capable of functioning now for several centuries as a unified, political entity? What has made us one people despite – or perhaps even because of – all of the various differences amongst us? We don’t have . . . This is a cliché, but it carries a lot of analytical weight actually. We don’t have the natural inheritance of common language, and culture, and religion and so on that binds us as a people the way, for example, the Italians do, or French people do or what have you. We’ve had to make a country, and remake it, and renew it generation after generation. And how we’ve made that work . . . I do not believe it was divinely ordained, or in the historical cards, or part of our collective karma. That’s been a historical project to make this country work as a unified entity over many, many generations. So that’s the fascinating topic. Recorded on: 7/4/07