AMERICA 1975-1985:


Scheduling number: 448084

Class meets Tuesday evenings 6-9 pm in 415 Weaver


Philip Jenkins                                                                                      407 Weaver Building



The Course


Most Americans are familiar with the idea of the 1960s as a social earthquake, a far-reaching revolution that transformed every aspect of society, politics and morality. This change reached its height between about 1965 and 1975, the age of Vietnam and Watergate, of Woodstock and the sexual revolution. Much less attention is paid to the equally striking social counter-revolution that occurred on the following decade, roughly 1975-1985, which challenged the radical changes that emerged during the 1960s, and which succeeded in reversing many of these developments. This course considers the social counter-revolution of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the social movement that reached its culmination with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and which had dramatic effects on politics and foreign policy, on religion and family life, on attitudes towards gender and sexuality, on law enforcement and internal security. Throughout, we will make extensive use of popular culture, particularly literary and cinematic representations, to understand political and social developments.


The thought of doing a course on this period might initially seem odd, not least because in so many history departments, “American history” seems to end around 1975, with the closing phase of the Vietnam War. This is odd, since people were already offering courses on “the sixties” within a couple of years after the end of that over-hyped decade. As we will see though, a case can be made that the US of the present is far more a product of the 1975-85 era than of the better-known 1960s. The advantage of studying the later period is that the issues are so much less defined in scholarly terms, giving us a chance to undertake some pioneering work.


Course Requirements


The course will take the format of a reading and discussion seminar. I expect that each week, students will come to class having read a text or a common set of chapters. In addition, I will be allotting particular books to people, either as individuals or small groups, so that they can be responsible for leading discussion about those particular issues. Each student should come to class with open-ended questions around which the discussion of the readings should be organized.


Each student will write a major paper on a topic related to problems and controversies raised in the readings. The paper (about 20-25 typed pages, fully referenced) will analyze some issue related to the politics, culture, thought or social developments of the period under discussion. Please note that this period is quite under-worked, and there are substantial opportunities to maker an original contribution to knowledge, so choose a topic in which you can make substantial use of primary sources and popular culture materials. One extraordinarily important source is Congressional hearings and committee transactions: I will discuss these in detail, but you will be impressed how many useful incidental texts and miscellaneous materials are often attached to testimony. Choose your topic wisely, and a few such hearings should give you a well-documented account of a particular issue.


My earnest (and quite realistic) hope is that your written work will be good enough to be submitted to a journal for publication. I will be asking each participant to make a presentation based on the paper to the whole group during April. Each student will have half an hour to present his/her research and the questions raised.


One note about choice of topics. Though this is a history course, that does not mean that people have to apply strictly historical methodologies, still less political history. I am open to a wide range of themes – social, cultural, rhetorical, gender, and so on. Students from disciplines such as English, Political Science, Sociology, and Communication Arts and Sciences are all encouraged to take the course.


Besides the main research paper, I want you to write a paper of about 1,200 words on any one fictional work published in the period 1975-85, describing the content of the work, and discussing it critically as a historical source for the period in question. By this, I mean either a film or a book. You might comment, for example, on how the work reflects the mood of the society at the particular time it was written; what it reveals about attitudes towards race, class or gender; and/or what it suggests about the political attitudes of the time. Basically, I want to know what a historian studying this period might learn from this film or book. If you choose to write on a book, please note that none of these novels is on reserve, since they should all be easy to get in cheap editions from any good bookstore. If you cannot get hold of a library copy, please be sure to order a copy of your own in lots of time. Any good bookstore should be able to get a copy within a week or two at most. These are also exactly the sort of items that will be available second-hand at Webster’s Bookstore on Allen Street.


Regular class attendance and participation are of course expected as a necessary element of the final grade.


In summary, the grade will be derived as follows:


paper                                                                                       - 60%

film/book review                                                                     - 20%

attendance and participation                                                     - 10%

presentation                                                                             - 10%



Required Readings  - all should be in paperback.


Beth Bailey And David Farber, ed., America In The Seventies (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004).

ISBN: 0700613277     


Thomas Byrne Edsall with Mary D. Edsall, Chain Reaction (New York: Norton, 1991).

ISBN: 0393309037                 


William Gibson, Neuromancer (New York: Ace Books 1995)

ISBN: 0441569595                 


Craig Reinarman and Harry G. Levine, eds., Crack in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

ISBN: 0520202422                             


Peter Schweizer, Reagan's War (New York: Anchor, 2003)

ISBN: 0385722281                 


Bruce J. Schulman, The Seventies (New York: DaCapo Press, 2002)

ISBN: 030681126X                


The web-page for the course can be found at http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/j/p/jpj1/1980.html

The links here should lead you to rich documentary sources, especially through the various Presidential libraries. Through the course, I will also be distributing various other readings, mainly electronically.




Work assignments will vary week by week. Some weeks, we will all read a single text, and make that the basis for discussion. Other classes, I will be expecting people to read books drawn from a list of readings to be announced, and to present those to the class: normally, I will expect people to read one book each week of the semester.


1.January 11

Introduction: Going too far.

The Sixties and afterwards. Visions, myths and stereotypes of the 1970s.


2. January 18

Transforming popular culture.

In what senses do the seventies mark a “cultural earthquake”? How is popular culture transformed? Is this really a “Me Decade”? Why is the decade so well remembered for its fads and foolishness?

READ Schulman, The Seventies


3. January 25

Liberals and populists: the Carter presidency.

Who did Jimmy Carter represent? What constituencies support him? What do different people think they are getting when they vote for him? Was his presidency really the disaster it appeared to be?

READ Bailey And Farber, eds., America In The Seventies


4. February 1

Gender and sexuality. Love in the age of AIDS

Why is the ERA campaign fail? How do feminist issues develop following the achievement of most of their agenda in the early 1970s? What subsequent issues move to the forefront? How do gay issues develop in this era? Why do both gays and feminists suffer such a political backlash?





5. February 8

The politics of morality: the age of threatened children

One central theme of this course is the repeal of the 1960s. How did children’s issues play such a critical role in this process? How do attitudes towards children change in this era?  How do fears over children feed into concerns over social change?



6. February 15

The Politics of God

America in the 1970s and 1980s seems to have been in the throes of a major religious revival, a shift towards spirituality, and especially in fairly orthodox Christian forms. Why did this happen? How was this manifested?



7. February 22

The New Right

What motivated the new right? Was it so new? Was it a “politics of resentment”? What issues caused the greatest strain to the old New Deal coalition? Who were the “Reagan Democrats”?

READ: Edsall and Edsall, Chain Reaction




8.March 1

The Age of Reagan

Was there a Reagan revolution, or was it more of the same? What did the Reagan administration want to achieve? How far did it succeed? What forces or contradictions prevented it from achieving its goals, domestic and foreign? What constituencies was it bound to disappoint?



9. March 15

Confronting Evil

How does America reverse the seemingly limitless tolerance for drugs that prevailed in the mid-1970s? What is the social impact of the drug war? How are social problems reconfigured to emphasize individual guilt and sin? What are the consequences for public policy?

READ Reinarman and Levine, eds., Crack in America


10. March 22

Evil Empires: Neo-Cold War and military reconstruction; nuclearism and exterminism

President Reagan’s nuclear policies were bitterly criticized, especially on the grounds of his (allegedly) stark apocalyptic vision of good and evil, and charges that he failed to understand the complexities of international affairs. In retrospect, how do such charges hold up? Did Reagan take too many risks to achieve his goals? In the long run, was Reagan right?

READ Schweizer, Reagan's War


11.March 29

 Triumphs and disasters of the Reagan Doctrine: Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon, and Central America

How was “Vietnam syndrome” put to rest? What was the Reagan Doctrine? How does it stand in relation to earlier US policies towards enemy states? How does it relate to the idea of restoring masculinity? How does the Reagan Doctrine relate to the “Terror Network” debate of the early 1980s? And finally: can we see a direct line of causation (or even a not-so-direct line) from the conflicts of the 1980s through 9-11?





12.April 5

 Terrorism and the crisis of intelligence.

What do Americans want from their intelligence agencies? Is there a fundamental contradiction between the quest for security and for legality? Is there a proper place for agencies of national security? What were the policy implications of the terror network debate, with everything it suggested about state sponsorship?



13.April 12

Old and new economies: the computer revolution.

How did America shift so dramatically into the new information economy? And a final overview question: Can we say that this period, rather than the 1960s, marks the roots of modern American politics and society?

READ: Gibson, Neuromancer


14-15. April 19-26

Class presentations









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