Problems in American Thought: Wilderness (Hist. 302)

Fall 2013 Syllabus

In this course on intellectual history we will explore a set of problems within American thought related to the wilderness ideal, a way of thinking about wilderness that developed in the late 19th-century United States. Not only has defining and preserving wilderness been a problem that American intellectuals—orators, political leaders, preachers, theologians, teachers, novelists, poets, scientists, lawyers, and others—have wrestled with, but some critics have seen the wilderness ideal itself as problematic.

Historians define intellectual history as a history of “discourse”—discussions and debates that communities carry out through various means—rather than as a history of free-floating ideas. For ideas to gain influence, they must be created, reshaped, and shared by living, breathing people. To understand American thought, then, we must situate the ideas that we study within a rich historical context. We will thus study the emergence of the wilderness ideal within the broader context of American history, with close attention to its continuing significance in our region.

Essential Questions
1. How and why did the wilderness ideal evolve out of early modern and modern concepts of wilderness as a negative state to be conquered by civilization?
2. How did proponents of the wilderness ideal define wilderness?
3. How did the wilderness ideal shape policy decisions (at the national level and in Wisconsin) regarding land use, preservation, and conservation?
4. How has the wilderness ideal informed and shaped the environmentalist movement (both nationally and in Wisconsin)?
5. Why might the wilderness ideal be seen as problematic? How has it been criticized in recent decades? How does it differ from First Nations’ conceptions of the non-human world?
6. How might the wilderness ideal be rehabilitated in a way that is both environmentally sound and meaningful to the residents of Wisconsin?

Essential Skills
In addition to evaluating your understanding of the core issues above, I will assess your ability to:
1. think historically, with attention to context, multiple perspectives, and complex causation.
2. read and interpret primary sources (documents from the time period being studied).
3. explain and evaluate historical interpretations and arguments.
4. express and support your ideas in writing and in public discussion.
5. write and revise an argumentative historical essay that properly integrates and cites evidence from a variety of primary and secondary sources.
6. collaborate with peers to share ideas and build knowledge.