HM - Jan. 2015 - Johnston

NEH Program Highlights
Gilded and Progressive in Chicago
Robert Johnston
University of Illinois at Chicago
Academic Director
“Rethinking the Gilded Age and Progressive Era:
Capitalism, Democracy, and Progressivisms, 1877 to 1920”

Intriguing and important debates about the fundamental nature of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century politics have recently reinvigorated the scholarship of the period. On the front end, historians such as Rebecca Edwards (author of the path-breaking textbook New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865-1905) have argued that the label “Gilded Age” is an irresponsible caricature that offers a one-dimensional perspective on an age that, despite its extremes of wealth and poverty and corrupt politics, witnessed plenty of vigorous efforts at political reform. Better, Edwards has contended, to view the late nineteenth century as part of a “long Progressive Era.”

In turn, other scholars have pushed back against Edwards’s attempt at revision, contending that the concept of “Gilded Age” not only well captures the inequalities and corruptions of the era, but also provides a useful comparison with other possible Gilded Ages (including, possibly, our own).

On the back end, Maureen Flanagan has argued in her influential text, America Reformed: Progressives and Progressivisms, 1890s to 1920s, that scholars must put to rest the idea that “progressivism” was a unitary entity. Rather, the reform impulse of the early twentieth century brought about a profusion of reform activities, many of which contended with and even contradicted each other. Again, however, scholars such as Michael McGerr in A Fierce Discontent have continued to argue for the utility of a singular, cohesive (and repressive) middle-class progressivism.

Chicago is the perfect place to explore such issues. A multitude of the central public events, dramas, and personalities of the era were inseparable from the second city: Haymarket, the Columbian Exposition, Pullman, mass immigration, corrupt politics, Jane Addams and Hull-House, John Dewey, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, The Jungle. Any serious intellectual reflections on progressivism must confront the Chicago experience, and this summer thirty K-12 teachers will do just that in a four-week institute offered by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

NCHE members are invited to apply for “Rethinking the Gilded Age and Progressive Era: Capitalism, Democracy, and Progressivisms, 1877 to 1920,” co-hosted by the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Chicago Metro History Education Center. Participants will contemplate and debate how individuals and groups defined, reformed, and contributed to a wide variety of visions of American democracy, politics, and culture.

Teachers in the seminar will also have the opportunity to explore Chicago both in books and on the ground. From institute headquarters on the UIC campus, only a few minutes away from Jane Addams’s Hull-House, teachers will have a forum to explore the most recent thinking about (which involves a profound rethinking of) the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Their historiographical reflections will take place in the context of a seminar that will be rich in the humanities generally, with significant exploration of art, architecture, music, film, and literature.

The seminar will build on the insights and debates described above in two fundamental ways. First, it will present these historiographical ideas as interpretations to be explored, argued about, challenged, reworked, and thought through. In other words, the seminar will take seriously the idea that historiographical arguments are critically important for teachers to wrestle with—and, even, to bring into their classrooms. Using this intellectual method, historiographical debate becomes not just a window into what actually happened in the past, but also a way for the participants in the seminar to see how scholars debate and how they connect the past with the present.

Second, the seminar will extend the traditional chronology and set of actors usually examined in conjunction with the Progressive Era. To be sure, teachers in this seminar will explore Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and antitrust policies. We will, however, also go well beyond these traditional middle-class and elite subjects in order to also bring minority groups, women, immigrants, and working-class people into considerations of progressivism not just as subjects, but as agents of progressive reform themselves.

Finally, this institute strives to create a collegial community where diverse, talented educators can come together for high-level professional dialogue about teaching this important time period. Teachers will have the opportunity to create materials to use in the classrooms alongside their peers and educational experts.

Chicago’s rich Progressive Era history will be highlighted through the program’s readings, discussions, lectures, inquiries, and exploration of historical and cultural resources. Participants will explore Hull-House, take bus tours featuring significant sites in the city’s labor history, investigate archival collections, and examine the impact of place through architecture. The 2015 institute will follow up on the highly successful inaugural 2013 institute. The institute offers humanities-rich content and experiences, as well as the opportunity to connect to the classroom, as 2013 participants noted:

“The institute was a perfect blend of scholarly reading, intellectually stimulating discourse with colleagues and top scholars in the field, as well as field experiences in Chicago. It's difficult to put into words the profound effect my work in this institute will have on my teaching.”
“I've been teaching for 23 years...I feel like I've found the framework for the second half of my career.”
Robert Johnston (UIC) and Rachel Allmen (CMHEC) will co-direct the grant, along with pedagogical leadership provided by Director of Teacher Support Charles Tocci (Loyola University Chicago) and Master Teacher Michael Biondo (Maine South High School).

Academic director Robert Johnston has pooled an excellent team of historians to provide intellectual guidance for the teachers’ inquiry into this important time period, including introductory keynote speaker Cecelia Tichi (Vanderbilt), Leon Fink (UIC), Jeff Sklansky (UIC), James Barrett (UIUC), Maureen Flanagan (IIT), Adriane Lentz-Smith (Duke), Chris Lamberti (independent scholar), Daniel Greene (US Holocaust Museum/Northwestern),Ben Johnson (Loyola University Chicago), Jeff Helgeson (Texas State University) and Jonathan Zimmerman (NYU). Scholars at area historical collections will also participate, including Lisa Junkin (Hull-House), Peggy Glowacki (UIC Special Collections), Diane Dillon (Newberry Library), and Annaliese Wolf (Driehaus Museum).

My colleagues and I look forward immensely to working with some of the nation's most intelligent, talented, and committed teachers in this summer institute.  We are very excited to get to explore difficult and complex issues related to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era in a setting that should inspire robust thinking about intellectual and pedagogical issues.

For more information, please explore our website, Applications for all NEH Summer Institutes and Seminars are due March 2, 2015. Feel free to contact the CMHEC program directors at or reach out to academic director Robert Johnston at