Activist Training @ Harvard

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

When a course is entitled “History of the U. S. for Policymakers, Activists, and Citizens,” you can bet that the target audience is the second group of constituents.

According to the Kennedy School at Harvard, “This is a course intended for policy students, both from the U.S. and from abroad, who would like to enlarge or shore up their knowledge of U.S. history. The course will deal with the major themes, issues, and turning points in the evolution of the modern U.S. (largely post-1900) with an eye towards developments that are likely to be relevant to understanding current and future problems and policy issues. Among the topics to be considered historically are: the constitution and institutions of governance; parties and political institutions; the relationship between business and government; immigration; race; labor and social welfare provisions; regional differences; imperialism; and the Cold War. Some attention will also be devoted to the ways in which historical understanding can fruitfully serve policymakers.” Note the small “c” in Constitution and the primacy of “imperialism” over the Cold War with no mention of communism or the Soviet Union.

The class is taught by Alexander Keyssar, whose one review on Rate My is an unqualified rave: “Keyssar is fantastic. While the course has many readings, they are quite interesting. Discussions are well-managed and fascinating. Can’t say enough good about this professor and class.” Keyssar himself seems to take a rather jaundiced view of U. S. history, although he might call it nuanced.

“The targets of exclusionary laws have tended to be similar for more than two centuries: the poor, immigrants, African-Americans, people perceived to be something other than ‘mainstream’ Americans,” Keyssar wrote in The New York Times. “No state has ever attempted to disenfranchise upper-middle-class or wealthy white male citizens.”

“The current wave of procedural restrictions on voting, including strict photo ID requirements, ought to be understood as the latest chapter in a not always uplifting story: Americans of both parties have sometimes rejected democratic values or preferred partisan advantage to fair democratic processes.”  Lumping Jim Crow laws in with statutes designed to keep convicted murderers and illegal aliens, particularly those who are both, might be a bit of a stretch to those who try to follow history and current events.

To those new to it, they have nothing to compare it to, and are unlikely to find competing interpretations at Harvard, although it should be noted that Harvard does offer a course on “The Economic Impact of Immigration” taught by George Borjas. Borjas has noted that “The new immigrants are more likely to receive welfare assistance than earlier immigrants, and also more likely to do so than natives: 21 percent of immigrant households participate in some means-tested social-assistance program (such as cash benefits, Medicaid, or food stamps), as compared with 14 percent of native households.”


Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.
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