College and university professors know all about campuswide efforts to overhaul the general curriculum. Exhausting as such enterprises are, the conversations and arguments about what courses students should be required to take are illuminating. On my own campus, recent curricular debates made clear that arguments about the importance of history as a mode of thinking and inquiry were not sufficient to preserve its place in the academic program. For some of my colleagues outside the discipline—and particularly colleagues outside the humanities—history's value in the liberal arts depends on historians providing students with particular and common content about the past. That is, our role is to give students the historical narrative. Of course, my colleagues were right to suspect that we historians have not been doing this.

The distinguished University of California sociologist Claude Fischer is also unhappy with historians' failure to provide the grand narrative—in this case the grand narrative of American history. But instead of waiting for recalcitrant historians to tie up the "loose threads that comprise the study of American social history," Fischer provides his own metanarrative, neatly laid out in the introduction. Fischer is convinced that there is an American national character that makes America exceptional and that its central feature is voluntarism, defined here as something like individualistic collegiality: we are "sovereign individuals," but we love to be in groups that we can leave when we so choose.

This character, which unites us as a people, had its origins among white Prot­estants in the Northeast, and the white middle-class "lives and promulgates" this "distinctive and dominant character of the society" more than any other sector. But thanks to the "availability and expansion of material security and comfort," the mainstream has widened over time so that "more people could participate in that distinctive culture more fully and could become 'more American.'" In sum: "There is an American cultural center; its assimilative pull is powerful; and it is distinctive—or 'exceptional.' The historical record speaks."