The Georgetown University history professor is retiring after eleven years at the helm of Dissent. Michael Walzer, Dorothy Sue Cobble, Clayborne Carson, Nelson Lichtenstein, and Matthew Sitman offer tributes.
Here is Sitman:
More than any professor I had in graduate school, Michael Kazin insisted on the importance of writing well. His syllabi included not just the typical lists of required texts, but a short book by Christopher Lasch, Plain Style: A Guide to Written English. The primer took aim at the prevailing sins of academic prose that Lasch encountered in his students’ work, such as an overreliance on the passive voice. (“Precisely its anonymity endears it to bureaucrats, who wish to avoid responsibility for their decisions,” he notes in a representative flourish.) I suspect Michael chose it for reasons that went beyond its useful list of grammatical rules and advice about sentence construction. Like Lasch, he believes that expressing yourself clearly is a democratic imperative: those who rely on jargon or obfuscation are, in a sense, pulling rank. The way you made your arguments indicated the respect, or not, you had for your fellow citizens. Fifteen years later, I vividly remember getting back a paper from him with the word “problematize” circled in red ink—and instructions to never use that word again. I haven’t.
I hope Michael doesn’t think he failed me, then, if I can’t avoid a cliché: The first time that I walked into a seminar he was teaching, I had no idea that it would alter the course of my life. I was a twenty-three-year-old conservative raised in a fundamentalist Baptist church, and I’d just graduated from a small Christian college. Just months before, I finished a summer internship at the Heritage Foundation. Implausibly, by my reckoning, I’d been accepted into Georgetown University’s doctoral program in political theory. Its course requirements allowed me to take classes related to my research interests in American politics outside the Government Department. When Michael offered a graduate seminar on the history of postwar U.S. conservatism, I had to take it. At the least, I wanted to know what a tenured radical thought of us, and of me.
Those were dark days for progressives, a fact I relished at the time. George W. Bush, who stole the 2000 election and then lied the country into a disastrous war, had won re-election that November. Michael introduced the course by saying that he was a card-carrying member of the left, and that he was teaching it, in part, to understand why they were losing. As we went around the table, the other students offered the usual first-day-of-class biographical details: where they were from, where they did their undergraduate work, what their specialization was. I did the same—and announced that I was a card-carrying member of the right.
The remembered past often is the past distorted, but in my memory, Michael gave a sly smile and said, “Good, you can let us know what we get wrong.” At least that was the impression I received. Far from the right-wing tales of indoctrination on which I’d been reared, I discovered a professor who thrived on debate and welcomed disagreement. Michael took my views seriously. More importantly, he took me seriously. He was the best teacher I’ve ever had.
I became a regular at Michael’s office hours that semester, and in the years that followed I took two more graduate seminars with him—one on twentieth-century social movements, the other a directed, one-on-one study of how historians have approached writing biographies (his own biography of William Jennings Bryan was about to be published). The latter’s sessions often began by getting lunch together, followed by further discussion in his office. Some of my questions must have struck him as amusingly naïve. I recall the day that I told Michael I’d started reading Richard Hofstadter. Could he tell me more about him? He leaned back with a laugh and said, “Buddy, I could tell you more than you would ever want to know.” It had never occurred to me that Hofstadter was a family friend. Another time, perhaps needling me a bit, Michael told me he’d been invited to give a talk on Bryan at the Christian college I’d attended. “How do you think it’d go over,” he asked, “if I began by saying that at your age, I wanted to overthrow the United States government?”
Read the rest here.
Listen to our interview with Kazin in episode 41 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast