CONN 420

The American Progressive Ideal

In 1872, Prussian-born and longtime Brooklyn resident John Gast painted "American Progress," an artistic rendering of Americans' dominant-cultural belief that they were destined to expand throughout the continent. In the painting, Columbia, an angelic female figure betokening Anglo-American "civilization," drives benighted forces of "savagery" into oblivion and ushers in their replacements, those 19th-century emblems of progress, the telegraph wire, the locomotive, the farmer, the schoolbook. The technologies and the agrarian ideal may strike us today as quaint, but we may not question the nature or inevitability of American progress. Through the pairing of English Studies and Political Theory this Connections course identifies and interrogates an American narrative of progress beholden to the biological, political, economic, and sociological philosophies of mid-19th- to early 20th-century Europe. Within a capitalistic and "socially Darwinistic" system, what is progress? Who progresses and how? What does it mean to be "progressive"? The critical and creative engagement with such questions about the mid-19th to early 20th-century U.S. equips students to examine inherited notions of American progress that are regularly invoked in American politics and culture today. From these various perspectives (primarily literary and philosophical, but also biological, historical, and sociological), students will develop an understanding of the development of an idea--progress--as an American political value. "Connections days" are discussion-oriented classes specifically devoted to cross-disciplinary dialogue so that students and faculty alike can interrogate these myriad perspectives. Finally, student writing assignments are devised to help students learn to work with textual materials and to situate and problematize this narrative in contemporary American discourse.