Comprehensive Examination -- May 1985

What the heck! -- Here are my comprehensive examination questions. I would not suggest these questions are representative of all comprehensive exams, but they are the questions with which I had to consider as part of my doctoral program.

1. United States Cultural and Intellectual History Since the 17th Century (T. J. Jackson Lears, Rutgers)
Morning Session -- Here are a series of quotations from prominent American historians. Comment on each of them, evaluating their perceptiveness, clarity, accuracy, and (if you want) wisdom. Consider both the historical and historiographical issues they raise
  1. Perry Miller on the Puritan jeremiad (1956): "Under the guise of this mounting wall of sinfulness, this incessant and never successful cry for repentance, the Puritans launched themselves upon the process of Americanization."

  2. Edmund Morgan on Virginia in the 1620s (1975): "in the treatment of labor in boom-time Virginia and in the rising hatred on Indians, we can begin to discern some of the forces that would later link slavery to freedom."

  3. Neil Harris on the artist in early American society (1966): "Before Americans made pictures they used words. This unusual sequence, one of many anomalies of colonization, is in part responsible for the extraordinary anxiety later generations experienced about national creativity."

  4. Gordon Wood on Federalist arguments for the constitution (1969): "In effect they appropriated and exploited the language that more rightfully belonged to their opponents. The result was the beginning of a hiatus in American politics between ideology and motives that was never again closed. By using the most popular and democratic rhetoric available to explain and justify their aristocratic system, the Federalists helped to foreclose the development of an American intellectual tradition in which differing ideas of politics would be intimately and genuinely related to differing social interests."

  5. David Brion Davis on antislavery thought (1975): "The antislavery movement, like [Adam] Smith's political economy, reflected the needs and values of the emerging capitalist order."

  6. Ann Douglas on literary sentimentalism (1977): "Between 1820 and 1875, in the midst of the transformation of the American economy into the most powerfully aggressive capitalist system in the world, American culture seemed bent on establishing a perpetual Mother's Day."

  7. Lawrence Levine on the meaning of slave songs (1977): "preliterate, premodern Africans, with their sacred world view, were so imperfectly acculturated into the secular American society into which they were thrust, were so completely denied access to the ideology and dreams which formed the core of the consciousness of other Americans, that they were forced to fall back on the only cultural frames of reference that made any sense to them and that gave them any feeling of security."

  8. Jane DeHart Mathews and Linda Kerber on women in American politics (1982): "A distinctive feature of women's reformist politics has been the way in which women have made their domestic experience into a political issue and, through this transformation, enhanced both their domestic and public roles."

  9. Henry Steele Commager on the 1890s (1950): "The decade of the nineties is the watershed of American history. . . . It was not only that Americans had to adjust themselves to changes in economy and society more aburp and pervasive than ever before. It was rather that for the first time in their national experience they were confronted with a challenge to their philosophical assumptions."

  10. Christopher Lasch on 20th century radical intellectuals (1965): "Just as the hardboiled radicals of the 1930s had sneered at the shallow idealism of the progressive era, so the realists of the fifties and sixties sneered at the utopian radicalism of the thirties. Each generation claimed to be tougher and more disillusioned than the last. But the central feature of the new radicalism, the assumption that cultural reform could be achieved through political action, survived each change of fashion."

Afternoon Session -- Write on two of the following: (I selected questions 2 and 3)

  1. Some intellectual historians have argued that there is a fundamental continuity of sensibility between Jonathan Edwards and Ralph Waldo Emerson, despite their obvious theological changes. Write an essay that either supports or refutes this position with reference to specific texts by both authors.

  2. In the last ten years, it has become increasingly fashionable for American historians to apply the term "Victorian" to nineteenth century American culture. Discuss the appropriateness or inappropriateness of this usage, with respect to religious beliefs, literary taste, class relationships, family patterns, work attitudes, and any other areas that seem relevant."

  3. The term "professionalization" has become a governing concept or historians seeking to understand major changes in American culture since the mid-nineteenth century. Discuss the usefulness of professionalization as a guide to understanding changes in social thought, literature and the arts, and the organization of work at all levels, from the 1860s to the 1950s.

  4. In 1935 American intellectuals were prone to dismiss American culture as bourgeois, philistine, dead; in 1955 they were just as likely to celebrate its vitality. Write an essay on the "de-radicalization of he intellectuals," keeping in mind the external force of Depression and war as well as changes in the career opportunities of the highly educated.

2. Comparative Economic History: The United States and Europe, 1870-1945 (Jonathan Sperber, University of Missouri-Columbia)

Most historians would agree that in the decades around 1900 workers and entrepreneurs of the economically advanced nations engaged in a struggle for control of the industrial workplace. Compare and contrast the origins, development, and outcome of this struggle in the United States, England, and on the European continent. How do nineteenth century developments -- including the creation of managerial techniques, the process of the formation of the working-class, the action of the state, and the organization of the broader economic environment (as well as any other factors you wish to include) -- help to explain the similarities and differences in the course of events in different countries?

3. Modern Britain, 1790-1985 (Dina Copelman, George Mason)
Section 1: choose one (I chose question 1)
  1. If E. P. Thompson's Making of the English Working Class was merely the first volume in a multi-volume series for which you were responsible, how many other volumes would there be, how would they be broken down, what historiographical debates would they take up, how would they incorporate recent concerns of social and labor history, and interweave economic, political, social and cultural analysis?

  2. Analyze the forms, extent, impact, strengths and weaknesses of craft traditions, informal work groups and shop floor relations from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries. What factors promoted or hindered such relations? What was the impact of technology? What was the organizational and political significance of such groups and relations? Try to balance general points with some specific examples, and provide both synthesis and reference to different historical interpretations.

Section 2: choose one (for some reason -- insanity? -- I answered both questions)

  1. Was there such a thing as an English radical tradition? Consider this question by analyzing a number or representative figures and movements for the period 1750-1950. What defined the tradition and how did it change over time? When, if ever, was it at its height, and what contributed to its decline? To what extent did it contribute to the development of a socialist critique of English society? To what extent was it a tradition inexorably tied to the development of the Liberal Party? Discuss at least six representative figures and provide some detail about at least four movements: below are some suggestions for both categories. You can, of course, bring in any other persons or movements, but be sure to provide a broad sweep of the period (i.e., not have clusters at one point or another), although you do not have to go all the way back to the mid 18th century or all the way up to the mid 20th. [people -- John Wilkes, Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Cobbett, Jeremy Bentham, John Bright, Richard Cobden, William Lovett, John Gast, John Stuart Mill, William Gladstone, Josephine Butler, Joseph Chamberlain, David Lloyd George, R. H. Tawney and William Beveridge
    movements -- early factory reform, Evangelicalism, Anti-Corn Law League, temperance reform, repeal of C. D. Acts, Fabianism, New Liberalism, "national efficiency" and the reforms of 1906-12. (I added guild socialism, Dissent and the French Revolution.)]

  2. Perry Anderson claimed that after the repeal of the Corn Laws the English bourgeoisie lost its courage: "Henceforth it was bent exclusively on integrating itself into the aristocracy, not collectively as a class, but by individual vertical ascent." To what extent is this an adequate assessment of the history of the middle class(es)? Consider economic and political behavior, reform movements, etc., in discussing both the origins of the middle class, and its progress through the 19th and 20th centuries.

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    Copyright 2002 Steven Kreis
    Last Revised -- May 12, 2004