A Deep Dive into American History

On a Friday afternoon, when Dr. Wes Alcenat said to his Upper School History class, “So what?,” he wasn’t acting indifferent or disinterested. In fact, the opposite was true.

“Asking ‘So what?’ is meant to bring attention to the penultimate purpose of this seminar,” explained Dr. Alcenat, one of Chapin’s three Scholars in Residence for the 2021-2022 school year (Dr. Kahdeidra Monét ’99 Martin and Dr. Naomi Extra are the other current Scholars.) “The most basic application of this class is to furnish students with an opportunity for advanced discussions about past, present and future challenges facing the United States and the world in which it exists.”

Thus, as the students – a mix of Class 11 and 12 – complete rigorous readings and engage in thought-provoking dialogue during the afterschool elective, this question gets asked with dizzying frequency.

Designed to resemble an intimate college seminar, with the chairs arranged in a circle and a focus on in-depth conversations around central themes, “Philosophy, Politics and Economics” explores the philosophical, political and socioeconomic foundations of the United States through the lens of history.

The goal of the course, which was offered in two, four-week sessions this spring (seven, 75-minutes classes per session), is to spark wide-ranging, interdisciplinary conversations, Dr. Alcenat noted. Students learn to unpack critical concepts, build their knowledge base and think deeply about what it means to be a citizen, a contributing worker and a community leader.

During a visit to the May 20 class, which took place in the Berendsen Room, a small group of students was considering the implications of being an American.

Dr. Alcenat revealed that, while he holds an American passport, he is Haitian, bringing another perspective to this animated exchange. “The moment you start partaking in the rituals of Americanness, you also take on the responsibilities of the country,” he said.

“What are the many forces of nationalism?” prompted Dr. Alcenat, who is also an Assistant Professor of History, Urban Studies and American Studies at Fordham University and a Postdoctoral Research Associate and a Visiting Assistant Professor of African-American Studies at Princeton.

As a group, they came up with five key components to nationalism: cultural, racial/ethnic, religious, linguistic and economic. To give them more food for thought, the students had read the article, “Who Is an American? The Imagined Community in American History?” by the prominent historian Eric Foner and came prepared to share fresh insights.

Earlier, they’d read and analyzed parts of “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983),” a book by Benedict Anderson, a political scientist and historian, as well as other provocative pieces by a host of distinguished scholars.

Each student had ample space to contribute to the sophisticated conversation that touched on a range of topics in American history and society, including colonialism, white supremacy, Japanese internment camps, slavery, reparations, the Civil Rights Movement and national identity.

“Everyone has a different family history,” one student offered. “I was born here, but I didn’t elect to be here.”

Another chimed in, “It’s still my history even if I’m not a Founding Father.”

“As an American, I would not have had the power to inflict pain on Japanese people, for example,” stated Dr. Alcenat, adding, “Crimes belong to a nation, so they equally belong to me, but there are degrees of culpability, and in the final analysis, the nation is responsible.”

The class also looks at the U.S. from a global viewpoint, particularly around law, justice and equality. Studying these multifaceted themes, they strengthen their creative and critical thinking skills and grow their confidence. Further, they learn to deftly interpret and reflect upon American history, society’s role in it, and their own place in this intricate, ever-evolving narrative.

While the topics the students grappled with in Dr. Alecenat’s recent class were serious and complex, the mood in the Berendsen Room was decidedly upbeat, collaborative and warm. They all seemed to relish the chance to learn from this accomplished and generous scholar and to push the limits of their scholarship to new levels.