Drew Gilpin Faust on Growing-Up in Virginia


In a piece in the latest issue of The Atlantic, Faust, the recently retired president of Harvard and an American historian, reflects on what it was like to growing-up in the racist South.  Her piece is a wonderful example of how to blend personal memoir and American history.

Here is a taste:

I was 9 years old when the news reports about “massive resistance” and battles over segregation made me suddenly realize that it was not a matter of accident that my school was all-white. I wrote an outraged letter to President Eisenhower—outraged because this wasn’t just, but also outraged that I only now understood, that I had been somehow implicated in this without my awareness. I have wondered whether I was motivated in part by my growing recognition of my own disadvantage as a girl whose mother insisted I learn to accept that I lived in a “man’s world.” I resented that my three brothers were not expected to wear itchy organdy dresses and white gloves, or learn to curtsy, or sit decorously, or accept innumerable other constraints on their freedom. I was becoming acutely attuned to what was and wasn’t fair. And because my parents seemed to take for granted that this was both a white world and a man’s world, I took it upon myself to appeal—without telling them—to a higher power: “Please Mr. Eisenhower please try and have schools and other things accept colored people,” I wrote. “Colored people aren’t given a chance … So what if their skin is black. They still have feelings but most of all are God’s people.” And I acknowledged the accident of my own privilege: “If I painted my face black I wouldn’t be let in any public schools etc.” I seem to have figured out “etc.” before I recognized the realities of the racial arrangements that surrounded me. And, curiously, I framed what I had recognized as the contingency of race and the arbitrariness of my own entitlement by invoking blackface.

Read the entire piece here.

Drew Gilpin Faust


She is the outgoing president of Harvard and one of the best Civil War historians working today.  Here is Colleen Walsh’s Harvard Gazette interview with Drew Gilpin Faust:

Q: You wrote a letter to President Eisenhower when you were 9 urging him to support integration. Does it strike you now, looking back, that you had such a strong opinion about right and wrong at such an early age?

A: I would explain it as a product of being a pretty intellectual, rational kid and being told one set of values in Sunday school and at school about what America was, and then seeing just enormous contradictions with what was going on in the world around me.  There’s a way in which the clear-eyed sight of a child doesn’t have the nuance to erase contradictions. It seems very stark. And I think it just seemed stark and contradictory to me. I was pretty outspoken on stuff. And I think maybe having to struggle for my own rights as a little girl made me think, “Who else is being excluded or treated unfairly?”

Q: You talk about being intellectual from a young age. Did that come from one parent or the other, or both?

A: My father graduated from Princeton and was, I think, really smart. And my grandmother, his mother, who lived near us, was really smart and read a lot. Daddy was not intellectual. He read trashy books, but he was always very amusing and verbal and smart. My mother never graduated from high school. I think she was dyslexic. Two of my brothers are dyslexic. One’s a lawyer and the other has a Ph.D. in geology, so they’ve overcome it. But they had to have a lot of attention in school.

My mother was led by emotion, not reason. That’s why I fought with her all the time, because I’d come up with these syllogisms of this is true, that’s true, therefore it is true that I should be allowed to do X. And she’d look at me and blow up and say, “I don’t care. Argue away. You’re going to do it because I said you are.”

Read the entire interview here.

Slavery at Harvard

Faust and Coates

Drew Gilpin Faust and Ta-Nehisi Coates

I just came across this article Lydialyle Gibson’s essay in Harvard Magazine titled “A Vast Slave Society.”  It is a report on a one-day conference at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute on slavery at America’s first institution of higher education and other colleges and universities.  Speakers included Drew Gilpin Faust, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Lizabeth Cohen, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Adam Rothman, James T. Campbell, Craig Steven Wilder, Vincent Brown, Natasha Trethewey, Annette Gordon-Reed, Sven Beckert, Julian Bonder, Daniel Coquillette, Alexandra Rahman, Alejandro de le Fuente, Hilary Beckles, Max Price, Christiane Taubira, and Daniel Carpenter.

Here is a taste:

OTHER SPEAKERS, including Faust, echoed that same sentiment, though with less specificity. “We cannot successfully move forward as a university, as a nation, or as citizens, without acknowledging this history and making it important to the understanding of our present,” said Harvard’s Beckert. “And to be meaningful, that acknowledgement will have to have economic and political consequences; it cannot be purely symbolic or rhetorical.” Stanford historian James T. Campbell, who a decade and a half ago led Brown’s effort to research its own past, said, “There has to be some response in the present to what you know about the history.” Conceding the impossibility of any full remedy, he added, “Nothing you do in the present even approaches the significance and scale and scope of the crime. That doesn’t mean you can’t do anything.” Adam Rothman, a Georgetown historian involved in that university’s archival effort, asked how many in the audience thought his university ought to help subsidize the education of people descended from slaves that it had owned in the early 1800s. Most hands went up.

As schools move forward in their efforts to reckon with centuries-old questions that have suddenly become urgent, Coates offered a few bits of advice. For one thing, he said, “Do not limit the study of enslavement to slavery.…Recognize that the plunder of enslavement does not end with enslavement.”  He also counseled them to “listen, and don’t be self-congratulatory, and don’t get too mad.” People will be angry with them, he warned, and with good reason. “The worst thing you can do is retreat into your shell.…You’ve got to listen. You’ve got to listen, and you’ve got to hear that anger. It comes from a deep, deep place.”

Read the entire article here.


Drew Gilpin Faust Defends the National Endowment for the Humanities


Drew Gilpin Faust, a Civil War historian and president of Harvard University, has taken to the op-ed page of The New York Times today to defend the National Endowment for the Humanities.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Sept. 17, 1862, was the bloodiest battle day in United States history. More Americans — some 3,600 — died as Northern and Southern armies clashed at the Battle of Antietam, in western Maryland, than on any other single day before or since, even more than on Sept. 11.

One hundred and fifty years later, as the National Park Service commemorated the terrible loss at Antietam, I stood on the stage in a large tent on the battlefield before several hundred eager tourists, curious locals and enthusiastic Civil War buffs of every age and origin.

We had gathered to discuss a documentary made by Ric Burns based on a book I had written about death and the Civil War, a chronicle of the experiences of more than 700,000 Americans who died between 1861 and 1865, leaving a nation of mourners in a world profoundly altered by the scale of such human tragedy. The audience posed questions to Ric and me about history, about war, about patriotic sacrifice, about American identity, about the meanings of life and death and human mortality — and about how all those things were both different and the same across the century and a half that separated us from our Civil War ancestors.

Ric’s film, and the moving discussion it generated, were made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Reports suggest that the Trump administration’s coming budget will defund the endowment.

I would wager that few readers of this newspaper, and probably few Americans anywhere, are untouched by an N.E.H.-sponsored project or program. In 1990, for example, Ric Burns and his brother Ken produced an 11-and-a-half-hour documentary on the Civil War that was broadcast over five consecutive nights and seen by more than 40 million viewers. For much of the nation, it was an early form of binge-watching. The humanities endowment made that film possible.

Like its sibling the National Endowment for the Arts, the endowment brings the humanities into parts of the country that might otherwise never get to see a world-class museum exhibition or hear a lecture by a Pulitzer-Prize winner.

Read the rest here. In case you haven’t seen it, here is my Congressman’s take on this issue.

Drew Gilpin Faust on John Hope Franklin

Drew Gilpin Faust, the President of Harvard University and historian of the American South, recently spoke at Duke University as part of a series of lectures honoring the late American historian John Hope Franklin.

Franklin is a scholar that younger historians should know about.

Here’s a taste of a piece at the Harvard Gazette on Faust’s talk:

DURHAM, N.C. — John Hope Franklin, a scholar who helped create the field of African-American history, was instrumental both in documenting America’s long and long-ignored legacy of slavery and racism and in reaffirming the continuing importance of that history, Harvard President Drew Faust said during an event Thursday evening commemorating his life and scholarship.
“John Hope Franklin wrote history — discovering neglected and forgotten dimensions of the past, mining archives with creativity and care, building in the course of his career a changed narrative of the American experience and the meaning of race within it,” she said. “But John Hope also meditated about history and its place in the world, on its role as action as well as description, on history itself as causal agent, and on the writing of history as mission as well as profession.”
Franklin was born in 1915 and raised in segregated Oklahoma. Graduating from Fisk University in 1935, he earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1941. Over the course of his career, he held faculty posts at a number of institutions, including Howard University and the University of Chicago, before being appointed in 1983 the James B. Duke Professor of History at Duke University. “From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans,” published in 1947, is still considered a definitive account of the black experience in America. A lecture series later published as a book, “Racial Equality in America,” became another of his most iconic works. Franklin died in 2009.
An American historian herself, Faust gave the keynote address in the last of a yearlong series of events as part of the John Hope Franklin Centenary, sponsored by Duke University to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Reflecting on both the raging debate about the state of race relations in America after violent incidents in such locations as Ferguson, Mo., as well as on the glimpses of progress that came in their wake — including the removal of the Confederate flag from near the South Carolina capitol — Faust argued that Americans must remember our “shameful legacy” as we take stock of where we stand today.

Drew Gilpin Faust Responds to the Obama College Scorecard

Drew Gilpin Faust

By this point you have already heard about Barack Obama’s College Scorecard.  In a nutshell, Obama wants to evaluate colleges based on how well they train students for the job market.  When combined with his decision to provide federal funding for the so-called STEM disciplines, Obama seems to be operating under the assumption that the primary (and maybe the only) purpose of college is utilitarian, to provide students with a first job, preferably in a technical field.  See my coverage of this whole issue here and here and here and here.

Drew Gilpin Faust, the President of Harvard, disagrees with the POTUS.  She recently responded with a letter to the New York Times.  Here it is:

The focus in federal policy making and rhetoric on earnings data as the indicator of the value of higher education will further the growing perception that a college degree should be simply a ticket to a first job, rather than a passport to a lifetime of citizenship, opportunity, growth and change.

I graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1968, and my first job was working for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. My starting salary was low, but I was inspired by the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty to regard public service as an important calling. I went on to graduate school, joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania and ultimately became the president of Harvard University. Should Bryn Mawr have been judged based on what I was paid in my first year at HUD?

When I speak with students today, I encourage them to pursue those interests that enable them to make their particular contribution to the world. A graduate working to begin a start-up or one pursuing a career in the creative arts would likely not score high on the proposed federal scale of educational worth. Nor would the nearly 20 percent of our graduates who each year apply to Teach for America and numerous other teacher-residency programs.

Making college more affordable for students and families is a fundamental goal that we in higher education are dedicated to support. When we decide what to measure, we signal what counts. Equating the value of education with the size of a first paycheck badly distorts broader principles and commitments essential to our society and our future.


President, Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass., Feb. 15, 2013