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When historians look back to 2016, how will they define this period of American thinking? With a presidential candidate like Donald Trump, historians might view this American era as a period when facts were disregarded and critical thinking was devalued — an era where intellectualism has become a dirty word. But those characterizations stray far from the founding principles of America's relationship with intellectualism and curiosity.
Caroline Winterer is a professor of history at Stanford University, and author of the new book "American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason." Her new work examines the period leading up to the Revolutionary War — a period many view as an era of "American Enlightenment."
But, as she discovered, for the politicians, artists, and scholars of the time, they did not set out to be part of some formalized period of "Enlightenment" that history would later recognize and call as such. In fact, she argues that the idea of "American Enlightenment" was first used during the Cold War in an attempt to stave off the fascist, communist and totalitarian ideals of Europe.