The Fabulous Fifties… or Were They?

American University

Leonard Steinhorn is a professor of communication and affiliate professor of history at American University, where he has twice been named Faculty Member of the Year. He currently serves as a political analyst for CBS News in Washington, D.C. He is the author of The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy, and co-author of By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race, books that have generated widespread discussion and debate. Professor Steinhorn’s writings have been featured in several publications, including the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Salon, Politico, and Huffington Post, and he has served as an on-air historian for documentaries on CNN and The History Channel.

 

 

Overview

Were the 1950s about Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best? Or were they Emmett Till and Rebel Without a Cause? Were they years of American abundance and democratic triumph? Or was it a time of atomic anxiety and Joseph McCarthy? We often think of the Fifties as a bland and placid decade: an era of conformity and suburban Levittowns, of gray flannel suits for men and domesticity for women. And to some extent, that’s exactly the way it was. But underneath the surface something else was going on. We tend to remember eras with the sepia-toned images of memory, but the Fifties was a complex decade that in many ways planted the seeds of the culture wars we are living with today. In this course, Professor Steinhorn will dive into Fifties politics, music, media, and race relations. We’ll look at the Cold War and its contradictions, and the rise of suburbia and mass consumption. We’ll discuss popular culture and the impact of television, and we’ll see how the Fifties led to the Sixties. There’s a great line from the classic 1954 film The Wild One: when Marlon Brando’s character is asked “Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” he shoots back “Whaddya got?” That, and the more conventional view of the Fifties, will be at the heart of this class.

 

Recommended Reading:

The Fifties, by David Halberstam

A Dream of Greatness: The American People 1945-1963, by Geoffrey Perrett

The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, by Stephanie Coontz

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. TV shows like Happy Days portray the Fifties as a time of innocence, which feeds into nostalgia for what many might consider the simpler days. Were the Fifties actually simpler and more innocent?
  1. In the 1950s America’s business and political leaders proclaimed ours the freest nation in the world, a land of opportunity and a bulwark against tyranny. Others disagreed. Discuss the apparent contradiction between those who saw America as a beacon of freedom and those who feared the opposite.
  1. Who is more representative of the Fifties: Pat Boone or Little Richard? What is more representative of the Fifties: suburban communities like Levittown, or the Montgomery bus boycott that Rosa Parks led? If you had to choose one person to epitomize the Fifties, who would that be?
  1. The 1950s and 1960s seem so profoundly different. Were the Sixties a radical break from the Fifties, or were there sides to the Fifties that led naturally to the Sixties?

 

 

Reviews

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Jane Touchet

As a product of the 50’s, (graduated from high school in 1954), I found this class very interesting and enlightening. How times have changed! Thank heavens! Jane in Virginia

4 months ago
Judy Polatchek

Perfect summary of a decade

A very full hour and a perfect summary of a fascinating decade.

4 months ago
Sylvia Rosas

Excellent Rendering of 50s

Thoroughly enjoyed this class. I liked the Prof’s approach of doing it in 4 acts.

4 months ago
Linnea Masson

Great !

Excellent talk. Well prepared. Good graphics. I enjoyed it.

4 months ago
Marilyn Douglas

Excellent Lecture. Looking forward to a program on each decade that followed.

3 months ago
Eric L Hoover

A QUICK VIEW OF HISTORY

This is absolutely (and I don’t use this adverb often) one of the best presentations. It is not only informative but captures your attention, even if you are ADHD.

3 months ago
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