Fall 2020 Guidance
In response to COVID-19, university courses and operations remain predominantly online for fall.
NewsOct 16, 2020

Examining the history and causes that divide us

Historian and author Jill Lepore leads an unflinching discussion of our nation and ourselves for CLAS Reads program

Photo of Jill Lepore standing in Harvard University gates
Jill Lepore. Image: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University

Since before our founding as a nation, America has always been divided by race, class, faith, geography — pretty much any way people can conceive of separating themselves.

Today’s America, in the throes of a resurgence of nationalism, as well as a pandemic, remains divided philosophically but also physically. We hunker down at home or, on those infrequent occasions we venture into public space, we don surgical masks and endeavor to preserve a 6-foot buffer zone at all times.

“This is a really rough time and there’s a lot of reason to be worried about this moment,” said historian Jill Lepore, whose book “This America: The Case for the Nation” was the centerpiece for this year’s CLAS Reads, an annual program for first-year students in our College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS). In addition, humanities adjunct faculty member Megan McNamara Dawley said she built her syllabus around Lepore’s book.

CLAS READS This America: The Case for the Nation by Jill Lepore "...a thoughtful and passionate defense of her vision of American patriotism as a purified liberalism." - New York Times
Historian Jill Lepore's book “This America: The Case for the Nation” was the centerpiece for this year’s CLAS Reads, an annual program for first-year students in our College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Lepore, a Harvard professor, Cambridge resident and native of Central Massachusetts, spoke Wednesday via Zoom to several dozen students in an honors class, then in a larger virtual session for the Lesley community and members of the public later in the early evening.

The latter event, largely a slide presentation of art images showing various permutations and interpretations of the divided nation, included a question-and-answer session moderated by Associate Professor Rob Wauhkonen.

In a freewheeling discussion during the honors class, Lepore and students delved into the effects of Trump-era nationalism in general and on how we see ourselves as Americans.

Responding to a student question, Lepore said, “It’s always a bad idea to be blindly patriotic … I spent a lot of time in ‘This America’ trying to draw the distinction between nationalism and patriotism.”

Zoom screenshot with four people
Jill Lepore speaks with faculty Megan Dawley, Associate Dean Ingrid Johnston and honors student Taija-Rayne Franklyn.

One of the hallmarks of nationalism, she said, is the polarization endemic in the country, with President Donald Trump and his supporters saying their opponents hate America, while his opponents label the president and his supporters as fascists. She called the contemporary political terrain “bizarre and violent” and pointed to plenty of causes for pessimism: violence in the streets, growing anti-immigrant sentiment and racial schisms among them.

“It is really hard to be patriotic – the country is a mess. There are really horrible things being done in our name,” Lepore said. “When liberals stop talking about nationalism, nationalism doesn’t die: nationalism starts eating liberalism.”

And, with COVID-19 still looming over every aspect of life, ”United States” seems like anoxymoron.

“Crossing a state boundary seems more like crossing an international border now,” Lepore said.

But the nation has prevailed over calamity before, or at least made progress.

“I think what the book is trying to suggest is that illiberal nationalism is not a new thing,” Lepore said, citing 19th- and 20th-century racist anti-immigrant policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, the expulsion of Mexican-Americans, the imprisonment in detention camps of Japanese-Americans, as well as slavery and the mistreatment, including attempted genocide, of indigenous people.

“Educators do have an obligation … to think about what the range
of possible political opinions are. And if you’re confronting a student body
that has a narrow range of political views, you have to introduce students
to people with different political views.
Jill Lepore

However, Americans still have much work to do in making the United States an inclusive and equitable nation for all, as the author outlined in the evening session, attended by more than 100 people. Lepore chastised the media for exacerbating tension, from chasing ratings and revenue by providing Trump a platform from which to launch his eventual presidency, to the way it covers and deliberately misunderstands rural America.

“There’s been a lot of, not malicious, but misguided work on this,” Lepore said, describing Ivy League-educated journalists venturing into Appalachia and other lower-population communities to ask about Trump.

But at least those journalists are trying. Lepore criticized educators and Americans in general for our failure to imagine why people hold opinions and beliefs we happen to oppose.

“Educators do have an obligation … to think about what the range of possible political opinions are,” Lepore said. “And if you’re confronting a student body that has a narrow range of political views, you have to introduce students to people with different political views."