The Fabulous Fifties… or Were They?

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Duration 01:09:19

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.




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?





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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

2 years ago
Judy Polatchek

Perfect summary of a decade

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

2 years ago
Sylvia Rosas

Excellent Rendering of 50s

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

2 years ago
Linnea Masson

Great !

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

2 years ago
Marilyn Douglas

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

2 years ago
Eric L Hoover


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.

2 years ago

Oh, this is why my mom is like that.

The connections between the past and present are fantastic. One of the best classes on here.

2 years ago
Marc Tanenbaum

Born in the USA in 1947

This is a fantastic talk starting with a “pleasantville” calm pictorial America then building in complexity and energy, setting the stage for the 1960’s that follow. The Five Act presentation really breaks history down and is very relatable. This talk is worthy of revisiting multiple times. Enjoyed it greatly. Thank you.

1 year ago

Absolutely terrific!

Captivating presentation, beautifully communicated, and powerful. As disturbing as some of this journey down the historical memory lane is, the honesty with which it’s presented is invaluable — and much appreciated by this 1950’s baby boomer.

12 months ago

A very good discussion, I agree, but Dr. Steinhorn gives the Cold War and its negative impact on the nation’s self-confidence and sense of wellbeing far too little attention. As an elementary and junior high school student, I literally lived in fear that an atomic war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R would at any moment end civilization. We had regular drills in school that taught us how to hide under our desks, or proceed in an orderly march to the basement. Teachers displayed wall maps showing the “Iron Curtain” dividing Europe. And then came Sputnik…. beep beep beep. A threatening sound, indeed…. and the beginning of the Space Age. David Elliott, age 79

5 months ago
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