Life in America: The Reagan Years, A Webography

Discussion Questions for Robert M. Collins' Transforming America

1.  What is “history”?  What kinds of questions do we ask of an “historical text” to ensure that we (and the author/authors of the text) are using our critical thinking skills?  How, in other words, do we assess the validity, the truthfulness (aka accuracy), and the “objectivity” of the historical account (if, indeed, these three criteria can even be applied to an historical narrative)?  And, of course, if they cannot, then by what standards/criteria do we evaluate an historical narrative?

2.  What is “historiography”?  How do we “tell” the stories of our past?  Which stories get told?  Which stories remain untold?  Who decides what stories are recorded and on what basis are those decisions made?  What role does the historian play in the recording of the past?  (And, for that matter, what is “the past”?)  What (if anything) shapes the historian’s view of “the past”?  What role does the reader play in the recording/interpretation of the past?

3.  What is Robert Collins’ approach to historiography?  What role does he take vis-à-vis his subject?  His audience?  What is his attitude toward his subject?  His audience?  His field of study?  What assumptions does he make about the process of historical recovery?  About the bias and subjectivity of the historian who looks back?  In what ways does (Does?) he combat bias and subjectivity?  And how effectively does he do so?

4.  How would you characterize the 1980s?  What was that decade like?  What were some of the significant events that shaped the decade and how did they do so?  What were the prevailing ideological and intellectual currents that gave shape to the decade? 

5.  Much is made by Collins and by some of the historians and other figures he cites about Reagan’s view of America as the “city upon a hill.”  Explain first Reagan’s view of America—what does it mean for America to be the “city upon a hill”?  Then, explain how this view potentially impacted the shape of Reagan’s presidency and/or his ideological platform.

6.  In what ways might the 1980s might be characterized as “a critical era in the history of modern America” (3)?  Are there any ways in which this assessment might not be valid or accurate?

7.  Historian Sidney Hook once labeled Reagan an “event-making hero” (qtd. in Collins 5).  Explain Hook’s assessment of Reagan and then respond to it, providing an explanation for why you accept or reject his classification of Reagan.

8.  Chapter 2 of Collins’ book opens with the provocative statement, “Ronald Reagan was a product of Hollywood in more ways than one” (30).  Discuss the accuracy of this assessment of the figure of Ronald Reagan.  If you agree with Collins’ assessment, then explain why and identify and discuss examples to support your agreement.  If you disagree with Collins’ assessment, then explain why and identify and discuss examples that undercut or work against his claims.

9.  Collins writes, “Reagan’s growthmanship serve as both vehicle and camouflage for a larger ideological agenda” (70).  Do you agree with this assessment of Reagan’s leadership style?  Explain why and identify and discuss examples to support your stance.

10.  In his discussion of the film Wall Street and its central antagonist Gordon Gekko, Collins writes, “Cultural icons are not . . . wholly fabricated or imposed from without, no matter how artful or manipulative their creator.  They take root because they resonate powerfully” (94).  Discuss the accuracy of this assessment of “cultural icons” by identifying and analyzing someone from any realm of public life (i.e., politics, sports, entertainment, education, military, etc.) who you think “resonates powerfully” as a “cultural icon” within the current historical moment.

11.  Chapter 6 of Transforming America regards “postmodernism” as one of “several large themes” that together coalesced to “produce a rough but distinctive spirit of the times, a Zeitgeist that colored high culture, popular culture, and the actual behavior of the American people” (147).  While “postmodernism” is certainly a complicated (some have said “unstable”) concept that resists a singular definition, its prominence throughout the 1980s (and over the course of the past three or more decades) demands at least a modicum of understanding.  So, what is “postmodernism”?  Articulate a definition of the term including salient features of the movement/condition as well as (where appropriate) specific examples that illustrate those features.

12.  In a discussion of MTV specifically and music videos in general, cultural critic Jon Parles contends that “[m]usic video is quintessentially post-modern” (qtd. in Collins 167).  In what ways do music videos in general and/or MTV in particular reflect the postmodern moment that Collins argues defined the 1980s?  You can discuss postmodernism as an ideology, as an intellectual current, as an aesthetic, and/or as a historic/economic institution. 

13.  In 1991, James Davison Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, characterize the culture wars as “a clash over national life itself [. . .] a struggle over national identity--over the meaning of America, who we have been in the past, who we are now, and perhaps most important, who we, as a nation, will aspire to become” (qtd. in Collins 173).  Based on your understanding of the culture wars, what did they reveal about “the meaning of America”?  How would you characterize American-ness, or American national identity, in the 1980s?  Explain your responses to these questions.

14.  During the 1980s, institutions of higher education (specifically, though not exclusively, in the United States) were plagued by debates over “canonicity”—that is, the teaching of texts written largely by Dead White European Males to the exclusion of texts by and/or about authors of varying racial/ethnic, gender, socioeconomic, cultural, religious, and other backgrounds (as well as the teaching of subjects that are at their core Eurocentric, heterosexist, misogynist, and racist).  In defense of the canon, U. S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett argued, “The point for contemporary higher education is this:  the classics of Western philosophy and literature amount to a great debate on the perennial questions.  To deprive students of this debate is to condemn them to improvise their ways of living in ignorance of their real options and the best arguments for each” (qtd. in Collins 180).  Respond to Bennett’s argument regarding the “point for contemporary higher education.” 

15.  A number of cultural critics and historians, including Collins, would argue that the 1980s marked a shift in the culture of higher education—with the “center of gravity” in institutions of higher education moving “discernibly to the left” (politically-speaking).  Other, more recent assessments of the politics of higher education would concur that American colleges and universities generally are bastions of liberal thought, if not indoctrination.  Based on your (arguably limited) knowledge of and experience with higher education, do you agree that the “center of gravity” in American institutions of higher education is positioned “discernibly to the left”?  Whether you agree or not, explain why you take the stance that you do and identify and discuss specific examples that support your stance.

16.  Collins frames the culture wars as a “clash of fundamentally different conceptions of moral authority” (189).  Do you agree with this assessment of the culture wars?  If so, then identify and discuss specific examples that support your position.  If not, then explain why and, again, identify and discuss specific examples that support your position.

17.  On pages 236 ff., Collins outlines four “achievements” of the Reagan Administration that in hindsight “stand out” to him as “significant” accomplishments of the Reagan Administration.  These “significant achievements” include: 1) “engineer[ing] an economic recovery that would . . . continue for nearly two decades” (236);  2) “bringing the Cold War to a successful conclusion on Western terms” (236);  3) initiating the “recovery of our morale” (237);  and 4) “slowing the growth of the federal government” (238).  Based on your understanding of the Reagan years, what do you think are the most “significant achievements” of Reagan’s presidency and why?

18.  In his assessment of Presidential Power, Harvard’s Richard Neustadt suggests that “Reagan restored the public image of the presidency to a ‘fair (if perhaps rickety) approximation of its Rooseveltian mold:  a place of popularity, influence, and initiative, a source of programmatic and symbolic leadership, both pacesetter and tonesetter, the nation’s voice to both the world and us, and—like or hate the policies—a presence many of us loved to see as Chief of State’” (qtd. in Collins 238).  Do you agree with Neustadt’s assessment of the impact that Reagan had on the institution of the Presidency?  If so, then provide examples from Reagan’s presidency that support your assessment.  If not, then explain why and, again, provide examples from Reagan’s presidency that support your assessment.

19.  Reagan has sometimes been referred to as a “reconstructive president,” which Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek describes as a leader who “appear[s] on the scene when the previous political regime has been thoroughly discredited by an inability to respond relevantly and successfully to the pressing problems of the day and appears, in a word, exhausted” (242).  The “litmus test” for determining whether a leader fits the bill of a reconstructive president is that such figures seek “to remake the government wholesale” and “reset the very terms and conditions of constitutional government.”  Such figures “reformulate the nation’s political agenda altogether, to galvanize support for the release of governmental power on new terms, and to move the nation past the old problems, eyeing a different set of possibilities altogether” (qtd. in Collins 242).  Do you agree with Collins’ assessment of Reagan as a “reconstructive president” based on the criteria suggested by Skowronek?  Provide examples from Reagan’s presidency to support your assessment. 

20.  On page 243, Collins offers the following assessment of Reagan’s Presidency:  “[Reagan] ushered in the longest period of prosperity in U.S. history, lead the West to victory in the Cold War while reestablishing an international preeminence that many feared had been permanently lost, and changed significantly the way Americans thought about themselves, their government, and their country.”  Do you agree with Collins’ assessment of the Reagan years and their impact on American life?  If so, then identify some of the most significant ways in which the Reagan Administration altered “the way Americans thought about themselves, their government, and their country.”  If you do not agree with Collins’ assessment, then explain why.

21.  Collins suggests that it was “Reagan who defined the contours and direction of the new political mainstream in the 1980s” (244).  What were the salient features of this “new political mainstream” and in what ways was (Was?) Reagan responsible for the implementation of that political order?