Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Review: "Progressive Era Politics"

This is a review of "Progressive Era Politics," a resource available on the web site ( and as an App for iPhone and Android platforms. In it I will discuss both Shmoop's larger approach to the work of bringing American history to a general audience and the resource's more specific analysis of the subject matter at hand. I would like to begin by discussing's discussion of its mission and origins. itself is the product of Ellen and David Siminoff, who describe themselves as Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors who met while students at Stanford Business School. A review of their particulars on Wikipedia (linked from the "About" section on the web site), reveals that Ellen Siminoff was a co-founder and Senior Vice-President of, "where she ran business development, corporate development, and the small business and entertainment business units between 1996 and 2002." David Siminoff describes himself as a founder of the EastNet "global syndicate barter company" who went on to work as an analyst at Capital Research, focusing his efforts on the technology, media and telecommunications sectors. presents itself as a purveyor of "Rollicking homework help, teacher resources, and online test prep. Homework help lovingly written by PhD students from Stanford, Harvard, Berkeley." (This is the text appearing with the site link on the web page produced by a Google search, in essence the brief description of itself that the company would like you to see before you even visit their web site). A little further digging on the site reveals a more specific discussion of the identities of Shmoop contributors: "A majority of our writers are Ph.D.s and Ph.D. candidates from top universities....85% of our writers are graduates or students from top Ph.D. and Masters programs.... 2/3 of our editorial team come from Ph.D. and Masters programs at Stanford, Harvard, and UC Berkeley...."

A review of the larger site prepared by Appscout. com suggests "If you really want to get into history, poetry, or classic literature but find it just too thick or intimidating, never fear.... Shmoop is revolutionizing the way readers interact with literature. The service is designed to provide students, teachers, and everyday readers with a resource to help them get engaged." 

As the name might suggest, these resources' developers apparently believe that humor is a tool that can help users to get engaged with the material at hand. Cheeky asides abound; the "About" page states "Shmoop will make you a better lover (of literature, history, life).... We want to show your brain a good time" and "Shmoop Guarantees Better Grades* (*not an actual guarantee)."

I want to begin the review portion of this post by stating that I think that a resource like is a great idea. My own work at Northern Illinois University Libraries may be described as an attempt to help non-academic web users to "get engaged" with source materials and interpretations of American history. As a stuffy academic, I don't find the use of humor to be off-putting, and can imagine that non-academics might find it endearing.

Both versions of "Progressive Era Politics" contain citations; those provided on the web version are available by hyperlink, while the App requires users to back out of individual essays in order to navigate to a "Citations" page. It remains unclear to me why the App version does not use linked footnotes as well.

Both versions of the resource also make extensive use of hyperlinks to outside web sites. Placed within the interpretive text, these links apparently serve to provide additional information on individual subjects and themes. For example, within the the "Analytic Overview" provided, a sentence reading "Meanwhile, blacks, Native Americans, and Chinese were increasingly excluded from the growing opportunities for wealth and freedom" contained a link to a racist cartoon (apparently from the period, but provided without citation), a BBC-prepared lesson plan about "The End of the Native American Way of Life" and another racist cartoon, identified as being from Puck, but again presented without citation, respectively. In another sentence reading "In the first decade of the twentieth century, national economic output increased by 85%," the words "national economic output" were linked to a Google Books version of the Cambridge Economic History of the United States.  I found these links to be quite haphazard and confusing. At the very least, the period cartoons should be fully cited and accompanied by a brief caption. While there is nothing inherently wrong with providing a link to the multi-volume Cambridge Economic History of the United States, I find it to clash with a larger approach that ostensibly seeks to provide non-specialist users with a more accessible type of resource. What are users of "Progressive Era Politics" to do with the massive Cambridge History? Is there a specific page or passage to which the author refers?

Finally, I am troubled by the fact that the interpretive materials presented in "Progressive Era Politics" are not signed or credited to a specific author or authors.'s web site goes to great lengths in an attempt to establish its author's professional credentials, but only in the very general sense of dropping the names of well-known graduate programs from which authors are often apparently drawn.  Without signed essays, these materials' credibility remains uncertain, however.

On to the resource itself.

In addressing the subject of Progressive Era politics, Shmoop's scholars have chosen a difficult subject. Nearly thirty years ago, Daniel Rodgers noted, in a review of the historiography of the field, that many scholars "attacked the whole notion of a coherent Progressive movement as a semantic and conceptual muddle." (Daniel Rodgers "In Search of Progressivism" Reviews in American History 10 (4) December, 1982, 113).  To their credit, Shmoop's authors acknowledge this fact, describing a "movement (that) was an extremely complicated endeavor involving a diverse cross-section of people" and the period's "varied legacy."

The authors provide a multi-layered analysis, providing an introductory "big picture" supported by discussions of five major themes: politics; economy; ideology; law; and labor. My immediate reaction was to wonder what had happened to the discussions of race and gender. At this point an emphasis on race, class, and gender is so central to the literature of American history as to have almost become a cliche. Yet the Shmoop authors largely overlook two pillars of the trinity.

The authors frequently note that African-Americans suffered through a period of miserable race relations, often thanks to Progressives like Woodrow Wilson. They also mention the work of women reformers at several points. Yet I must insist that more than enough scholarship exists on the relationships between race,  gender and Progressive politics to inform separate discussions of these subjects. 

Within these five categories of analysis, the authors provide a wealth of historical detail, but a true paucity of interpretive perspectives. A lengthy discussion of party politics, entitled "Populists and Progressives" sketches out the familiar links between the two reform initiatives, providing the usual discussion of the Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson administrations. A discussion of "Economy" devotes the vast majority of its words to the events of the Gilded Age, with the apparent intention of establishing the fact that Progressive reforms were a response to the preceding era's rapid economic consolidation (another staple of textbook analysis for decades). A section identified as "Ideology in Progressive Era Politics" devotes itself entirely to a discussion of the question "Who were the Progressives?" As a scholar interested in the period's intellectual history, I found this especially distressing. Major works by Rodgers, James Kloppenberg, Dorothy Ross, and Eldon Eisenach (just to name a few off the top of my head) provide a rich literature examining ideas that informed Progressive Era politics.

Wrestling with the hoary question "Who were the Progressives?"  not only overlooks an important aspect of the period's politics, it implicitly defines them as a movement and restricts the resulting discussion to considerations of "reform." At numerous points in the analysis, the author(s) of the piece return to an analysis of the period's politics as public-spirited reformers organizing to demand that the federal government step up to regulate the period's economic activities and their attendant social changes, especially the rise of big business and dangerous working conditions. For example, in an introductory essay entitled "Progressive Era Politics: In a Nutshell" the author(s) conclude that in this period "Average citizens quickly reacted against what many saw as the unjust influence of the wealthy and powerful on their lives, and they demanded government intervention on their behalf." This "people vs. the interests" approach to Progressive Era politics overlooks other varieties of Progressive experience that are by no means new additions to the literature, including declining participation in electoral politics and rise of interest-groups, and the emergence of large institutions emphasized by scholars of the organizational synthesis. Robert Wiebe and Samuel Hays, two lions of the latter approach, appear briefly in the discussion of the Progressives' true identity, but only as proponents of an approach moderating George Mowry and Richard Hofstadter's original identification of Progressives as members of threatened elites "by describing Progressivism as a broad framework of bourgeois professionals who sought to improve and reorder their society and government." This is to miss the upshot of the organizational synthesis, which emphasizes the rise and impact of a new generation of national organizations, entirely.

In the end the author(s) of "Progressive Era Politics" often seem to come down on the side of a New Left analysis concluding that, despite the efforts of reformers, the Progressive movement was "co-opted by mainstream politicians" (See "Progressive Era Politics: In a Nutshell") and/or "co-opted by businessmen seeking to enact symbolic or less radical reforms" (See "Populists and Progressives," the resource's discussion of party politics in the period).

An analysis identifying Progressive Era Politics as a reform movement, and principally concerned with determining whether that movement produced effective reforms or was in fact captured by the forces of reaction, marks this as a resource that easily could have been written thirty years ago, when Daniel Rodgers wrote his influential review of the literature, or even forty years ago, when the New Left interpretation was really new.

My disappointment in the contents of "Progressive Era Politics" perhaps stems from my initial sense that this resource might more fully reflect the existing literature in the field. I jumped to this conclusion on the basis of two facts. First, provides another resource on the general subject of Progressive politics: "Muckrakers and Reformers of the Progressive Era," also available in web and App versions. Thus I surmised that a resource identified as a review of "Progressive Era Politics" would be more in keeping with my view of subject as defined by the broad array of political dynamics taking place in this time period. Imagine my surprise, then, when this second resource returned to the theme of Progressive reform.

I believe that the founders of are to be commended for making an attempt to bring the literature of American history (and, apparently, many other fields in the humanities) to the general audience using the web and apps designed for hand-held devices. Having paid all of $1.99 for the App version of "Progressive Era Politics," I cannot recommend it for purchase. This is in part a result of the fact that all of the app's contents can be found free of charge on the web site. I can understand that the company's founders and staff would be remiss to overlook the opportunity to generate some revenue from the sale of apps, but at this point the use of the App format adds nothing to the materials. My non-recommendation is also a reflection of the bad job that the resource does of conveying the variety of the existing literature on Progressive Era politics, however.

The fact that this resource so completely overlooks such a vast portion of an important literature makes me conclude, once again, that professional historians should be organizing and doing this sort of thing themselves. While may have secured the services of Ph.D.'s and graduate students from top universities, I am left to speculate that the large scale of their operation (in the field of U.S. history alone, the company offers sixty web sites/apps for use) led the company to commission and/or accept work from individuals not specializing in, and hence not well-versed in, the field under consideration. I believe that the mass-production of such materials will very often result in oversights such as that in evidence here, which ultimately prevent the  vast public using the web and other new media from enjoying the the full scope of professional historians' accomplishments. The only viable way for historians to share their work in this very important arena is to organize an initiative identifying, recruiting, and putting top specialists in the many sub-fields of American history to work developing resources similar in concept to's "Progressive Era Politics."

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