Atlantic Empires in Arrested Development

Rachel Herrmann
Lecturer in Early Modern American History, University of Southampton

Arrested DevelopementI’m a firm believer in the idea that we need to hold our students to high standards when we teach history. I am also (perhaps somewhat paradoxically) a firm believer in the idea that to get students enthused about meeting those standards, we need to make history approachable.

And so I sometimes pander.

This semester I’m teaching what is essentially a colonial America class called “Accommodation, Violence and Networks in Colonial America.” I’ve included a week on the Atlantic World—no small feat given the fact that one of my colleagues devotes a whole semester to it—and so I had to grapple with reducing the notion of Atlantic empires into something that was easily digestible. To deal with the problem of summarizing the key identifying features of the Spanish, Dutch, French, and English empires in the early modern period, I turned to the delightfully dysfunctional Bluth family.

For the (woefully) uninformed, Arrested Development follows the trials and tribulations of the California-based Bluth family, a once-wealthy clan that’s fallen from grace, and is composed, for the most part, of terrible, selfish, egotistical people. The show aired from 2003 to 2006, garnered a cult following, and enjoyed a long-anticipated revival season on Netflix last year.

I use Arrested Development at the start of my Atlantic World lecture to paint a broad (and admittedly simplistic) picture of how the different Atlantic empires functioned on their own terms and in their interactions with each other. I should point out that this portion of the lecture takes up no more than five or ten out of our forty-five minutes, but I think it’s worth it because my caricatures provide students with a starting point from which they can challenge what I’ve told them about Atlantic history.  Continue reading “Atlantic Empires in Arrested Development”