Part 10: System Change: Autonomy

Review Comments and Discussions

The dominant cause of stress is loss of control over one’s own fate. Stress due to loss of autonomy is one of the prime drivers of historical change. It is nearly impossible to overstate its importance, past and future. Pick up any newspaper, and look for articles and letters about demonstrations, violence, anti-government protests, calls for organization, or complaints against “outsiders.” Feelings of lack of autonomy will motivate those speaking and taking action.

The period after the Civil War was one of rapid industrial growth, increased immigration to the United States, growing cities and expansion into the west. It was also the “Gilded Age” period of indifference of wealthy leaders to workers and working conditions, formation and growth of powerful monopolies, crowded tenements, Jim Crow laws, child labor, relegation of native Americans to reservations, and crippling unemployment during business downturns.

One common outgrowth: The autonomy of farmers, factory workers, miners, other workers, black Americans, and native Americans was degraded by the power of railroads, factory owners, and others in positions of power.

In response to these conditions, this period saw the growth of labor movements and unions, strikes, strife and violence, formation of organizations such as the Grange and the Populist Party, aggressive acts toward unfortunate scapegoats such as black people and immigrants, and growth of religious movements focusing on the “social gospel.”

Once learners have a definition of autonomy in front of them, the excerpt from Frank Norris’s The Octopus (1901) may be used as a dramatic introduction to this unit, depicting a situation where a farmer’s autonomy is lost. (One possibility is to read this selection aloud to the class). The pertinent questions: What’s happening to Dyke’s autonomy? How is he likely to react?

New technology was also a threat to autonomy. We suggest classroom use of a YouTube version of the folk song “John Henry.” This storied contest between a black man and a machine reflected the issues brought on by mechanization. Our favorite version, one with great clarity and drama, from many years ago—is the version performed by the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, at:  This version, unlike some others, is accurate with regard to the tools and techniques used in the contest.

In the type of drilling done by John Henry, steel shafts, with hardened chisel-shaped tips, were hammered into stone to make holes for explosives to blast the rock. The “shaker” held the drill shaft, and shook and rotated the driver between blows to clear the tip of broken rock fragments. 

Emphasize the economic chart and the effects of economic cycles that came to be important during this period. Prior to the Civil War, the livelihood of most Americans depended on farms, so the effects of economic cycles had little effect on their lives. “Boom” years when jobs were readily available led to more people dependent on industy for subsistence, so when panics and depressions came, more and more people suffered the consequences.


Here's an interesting sidelight: "According to a pair of new studies published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, conspiracy theorists--and there's a lot more of them than you may think--tend to have one thing in common: they feel a lack of control over their lives." (Mandy Oaklander, Time Magazine Newsletter, "Here's Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories" Aug. 14, 2015)



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