Robert Schoone-Jongen, Calvin College
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NEH Summer Institute for Teachers, 2012
American Frontiers in Global Perspective
What do you see when you look at the family and their home in the photograph? Stop and take a look before reading any further.
This isn’t Michael Landon’s idealized “Little House on the Prairie” from the NBC TV series or Walt Disney’s cleaned up theme park “Frontierland.” It’s the Rawding family sod house in Custer Country, Nebraska, in the 1880s.
Do you see poverty? The children have no shoes. Or do you see the Rawding’s pride in their success? Look at the cow, mules, table, melons, glass windows, and Sunday best clothes on display. Whatever you see, there’s something archetypal about this image and what it evokes about American frontiers.
Though I grew up in Canada, American frontier stories fascinated me as a child. I read the “Little House” novels and stories about cowboys, Indians, outlaws, gunfights, saloon brawls, all of it. Perhaps like me, you enjoyed these stories too and reenacted them with your friends, playing in the backyard or nearby woods. You might find that frontier history still speaks to many of your students in history, literature, and social studies classes, in surprising ways.
Stories about American frontiers continue to be powerful entry points into the past, calling out to Americans and people around the world with their promises of open spaces, journeys into the wilderness, and the dream of starting life anew. Every year millions of people take in “Frontierland” at a Disney theme park, watch TV and movie Westerns, visit “Little House on the Prairie” museums around the Midwest, and read Louis L'Amour novels. Whatever the promise of “American” life, the myths and history of the frontier continue to offer parables of that promise.
Despite their mythic power, or perhaps because of it, these frontiers also raise challenging questions. Is the frontier uniquely “American”? What happens when we look at frontiers in other countries? Did they shape places like Canada, Brazil, and Argentina in similar or different ways? How does frontier settlement in the U.S. compare to European conquests and colonies in Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific? What do we learn about the U. S. when we compare it?
Frontier myth tends to put pioneers at the center of the story. Does mythic frontier history sideline Native Americans? Were frontiers “open spaces” and “wildernesses” or were they “homelands” to diverse groups of indigenous peoples? Are frontiers about “settlement” or “conquest”? Who else -- enslaved Africans, Asian immigrants -- do frontier stories often neglect? How does the story look different if we include them as central characters?
In short, how do American history, world history, and the world today look different if we reconsider American frontiers from a global comparative point of view?
As the director of this NEH institute on teaching “American Frontiers in Global Perspective,” I invite you to explore this website, find out what we will be doing for three weeks during the summer of 2012, and consider participating.
The best place to go from here is to the "Director's Message." It summarizes the basic information about the Institute, the people involved, and the facilities at Calvin College. Other links in greater detail introduce me and my two co-directors, Carol Higham and Bob Schoone-Jongen, the Institute's guest faculty, the Calvin College campus, and local opportunities and amenities in Grand Rapids.
William Katerberg, Director
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.