Condemning early America as a land of racism and repression is by no means an uncommon practice in modern academia. It is nonetheless worthy of note when a history professor compares 19th-century abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison to Osama bin Laden and devotes part of a lecture—in a course on American history up to Reconstruction—to the subject of masturbation.
That was what students heard last fall in “American History to 1877,” a course offered at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. In his course syllabus, Professor John Larson described how he had organized the class around the four themes that he regarded as the main motivating factors of human life: “race, money, sex, and salvation.” Each of these themes was the subject of four lectures during the semester. Battles, no matter how epochal, did not, the professor admitted, interest him very much.
In the lectures dealing with sex, the professor criticized early Americans for their attitudes towards sexuality, marriage, and the family, saying that, in the 1600s, “Christians … had enormous problems with sexuality” and “Protestants had even more trouble with sex than Catholics.”
In one of these lectures, Larson devoted a significant amount of attention to the subject of masturbation. One of the sections in the lecture outline bore the title “Graham crackers and masturbation: (s’mores better?).”
Throughout the course, Larson took a decidedly negative view of American history, focusing heavily on the plight of women, blacks, and the poor and portraying white males as oppressors. The professor’s lectures on race, for instance, were quite lopsided. “It doesn’t matter much who started it: Europeans clearly perfected the slave trade for profit,” wrote Larson. “[R]ecognizing the complicity of African [slave] dealers takes nothing away from the crimes committed by Europeans against the African people.”
Larson criticized the “patriarchal household” and condemned colonial America as a place where “women existed only as somebody’s daughter, wife, or mother.” The professor taught that “in reality women emptied themselves to become obedient, without will,” a phenomenon that he called “a bourgeois variation on slavery.”
Larson blamed English colonists for the oppression he saw in the New World: “In their cultural ‘luggage’ (so to speak) the English brought Protestant Christianity, a sense of ethnic superiority, their traditional understanding of wealth, class, and social structure, and a full set of norms governing sex, gender, and the family.”
Later, referring to the some of the leading abolitionists of the 19th century, Larson wrote in his syllabus: “But in retrospect we make heroes of these uncompromising fanatics because they brought down the compromise with slavery that endangered the nation. What do you think about extremists like [William Lloyd] Garrison and John Brown? When Garrison declares that America is in bed with Satan he sounds a little like Osamma [sic] bin Laden. And John Brown is nothing if not a terrorist. We do not make room for extremists in our present world, but we love them in our past.”
Although the professor spent little time on important battles in American history, he did criticize the colonists’ conduct in the events surrounding the Revolutionary War. A student who took the course last fall says that Larson “seemed to spin the history to sound as if the British were innocent of all wrongdoing while the Americans were a distrustful, war-mongering lot.”
Though the student noticed an obvious bias in Larson’s teaching, including some disparaging comments about President George W. Bush, he found relief in the fact that the class was “accompanied by a discussion section where I and my classmates were able to talk openly about issues in history.”
Larson did not return a call placed by Campus Report.
This semester, “American History to 1877” is being taught by two of Larson’s colleagues, while Larson himself is now teaching a class called “Environmental History.”
Sean Grindlay is the managing editor of campusreportonline.net.