The Author’s Corner with Adam Smith

41xrlTvJ9rL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Adam Smith is professor of history at the University College of London. This interview is based on his new book, The Stormy Present: Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics, 1846–1865 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write The Stormy Present?

AS: Politics in the free states in the mid-nineteenth century was characterised both by an underlying presumption that slavery was wrong and by an underlying, and self-conscious “conservative” sensibility. Consequently, war and emancipation came about when they appeared, for sufficient numbers of Northerners, to be the conservative options.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Stormy Present?

AS: Politics in the free states in the mid-nineteenth century was characterized both by an underlying presumption that slavery was wrong and by an underlying, and self-conscious “conservative” sensibility. Consequently, war and emancipation came about when they appeared, for sufficient numbers of Northerners, to be the conservative options.

JF: Why do we need to read The Stormy Present?

AS: Because it might remind us that political change happens as much through accident as design, with people coming to support potentially radical transformation for reasons far removed from what we might imagine. It will remind us, also, that for its vaunted modernity and fascination with progress, the United States has always been in many respects a profoundly conservative society, preoccupied with a decisive founding moment and anxious about threats to the prevailing order. And finally because the book offers a new interpretation of the coming of the Civil War in which the mass of white northerners—the men and women who were not abolitionists or radicals or even necessarily Republicans, but whose reactions and judgements mattered so much—are placed centre-stage.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

AS: When I was an undergraduate I was lucky to be taught by Eric Foner, who provided such a compelling account of the Civil War era that I was totally gripped. I don’t know if that was when I decided to become a historian of the United States, but it’s certainly when I began to imagine it as a possibility.

JF: What is your next project?

AS: A study of compromise as a practice and an idea in American politics. 

JF: Thanks, Adam!

How to Talk to People About the Causes of the Civil War

RebelsAaron Astor teaches history at Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee.  He is the author of Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri, 1860-1872 (LSU Press, 2017).  Over at his Facebook page, Astor reflects on how he begins conversations with people about the causes of the Civil War.  It’s a great post (especially in light of this) and I appreciate Astor’s willingness to let me post it here.  (And thanks to John Craig Hammond for bringing it to my attention).  Enjoy! –JF

I speak and write regularly about the causes of the American Civil War, to both academic and popular audiences. Engaging with different people who hold different assumptions about the Civil War and its legacies today has forced me to develop a set of priming points that I use to begin the conversation. Here are some of the key ones. If you find them useful, feel free to share them.

1. People in the 19th century thought about the world differently than we do today. This is especially true for matters of race, slavery, labor, freedom, economic class, gender and citizenship. We need to understand what people back then thought and avoid the temptation to impose our 21st century values upon 19th century people.

2. People in the past did not know how their stories would end. They made choices they did based on what they valued, what they knew at the time, what they were able to do, and what they hoped or feared would happen. We should respect the drama of their uncertainty as we evaluate their actions.

3. Just as we cannot impose 21st century values back into the 19th century, we cannot and should not teleport our ancestors of the 19th century into our own time. Our ancestors certainly passed down cultural baggage to the following generations and thenceforward through the decades on to us. But that does not mean we should be defined today by plucking people out of the past and using them to make us good or bad people today.

4. If we wish to honor our ancestors, the best way to do so is to learn about them and their lives, their worlds, their hopes and fears, and in their own historical contexts. If we wish to draw inspiration from them, we should look at how they confronted or transcended their own times.

5. Getting to the causes of the Civil War now, we need to think about HOW 19th century white Americans argued about slavery and how those arguments came to dominate politics. That means looking beyond the purely moral arguments advanced by abolitionists, white and black, most of which were bitterly rejected across the North. Those arguments were certainly critical to advancing the anti-slavery cause, but we must be careful not to assume that those who opposed slavery in 1860 agreed with Frederick Douglass or William Lloyd Garrison that slavery should be immediately abolished.

6. There is what I like to call the “Northern myth” of the Civil War: that ordinary white Northerners opposed slavery because they believed in racial equality. (And as evidence, every Northern town has a station stop on the Underground Railroad supposedly run by some important white family). The reality is that this view was held by a tiny, though vocal and active minority. Far more important to antislavery as a political position was the view held by men like David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, who said, “I have no squeamish sensitiveness upon the subject of slavery, nor morbid sympathy for the slave. I plead the cause of the rights of white freemen.” He, and the majority of white Northerners who came to oppose slavery and consequently voted for the Republican Party in 1860 did so because they thought slavery was bad for whites. Yes, they thought slavery was bad in the abstract too – Lincoln spoke of the right of a man to the “bread he has earned with the sweat of his brow.” But what animated white antislavery thought was the damage slavery did to white Northerners, not what it did to black Southerners (or black Northerners).

7. White Northerners developed an ideological opposition to slavery as a social and economic system that they felt encouraged laziness, inefficiency, aristocracy, haughty arrogance and entitlement. The presence of slavery meant that labor was to be viewed as a curse. Two direct consequences came from this: slaveholders would occupy the best lands in Kansas and crowd out good white Northern farmers who wanted free soil to labor upon freely. Thus the slavery extension question was critical. Another problem white Northerners identified was the tendency of slaveholders to violate the rights of free speech, freedom of conscience and religion, and freedom to petition in the North. No matter how much ordinary white Northerners disliked abolitionists in their midst, they bitterly resented Southerners’ insistence that Northerners become slave catchers under the 1850 Federal Fugitive Slave Act, or abstain from peacefully agitating on matters of conscience. They felt that the “Slave Power Conspiracy” was violating the rights of free white Northerners.

8. Turning to what I call the great “Southern myth,” we need to think about what the majority of white Southerners who did not own slaves thought about slavery. While there were free soil-style objections (and occasional outright abolitionist) sentiments among white Southerners in the early 19th century, by the 1840s and 1850s very few white Southerners expressed anything like opposition to slavery as a whole. They might bitterly resent the planter class. But if they publicly rejected the slave system, on either moral (like John Fee of Kentucky) or economic (like Hinton Rowan Helper of North Carolina) grounds, they were hounded out as dangerous traitors. Non-slaveholding whites supported slavery because it shielded them from falling into the true bottom of the social order (Herrenvolk Democracy), buttressed the entire economic order (slaves as labor and as valuable chattel property), provided employment as overseers, and prevented the prospect of a Haiti-style violent insurrection. Slaveholders absolutely dominated the political system, both regionally and nationally in the 1850s, and non-slaveholders looked to them for assistance in bad harvests, or aspired to join them and become slaveholders. While not every white person objectively benefited from or defended slavery equally, the vast, vast majority of non-slaveholding white Southerners viewed the prospect of abolition with horror. Note here that even in East Tennessee, future Unionists like Andrew Johnson and William Parson Brownlow vigorously defended slavery right up through 1860.

9. Turning now to the Civil War itself, the immediate turn to war in April 1861 had to do with preserving the Union. Remember that seven Deep South states (SC, MS, AL, LA, FL, GA and TX) seceded after Lincoln’s election. Eight other slave states rejected secession at that time. Only after Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s troop call-up did four Upper South states (VA, NC, AR and TN) join the Confederacy. Four remaining border slave states (MO, KY, MD and DE) remained in the Union. Preserving the Union militarily helped convinced the second tier states to secede. But as Lincoln pointed out in his First Inaugural, to fail to keep the Union intact at that point would have meant the death of the experiment of self-government (something European autocrats celebrated) and the likely disintegration of what remained of the Union. Lincoln termed secession a kind of breach of contract, wherein both sides never agreed together to allow for secession. National self-preservation is always the first task of any government. One can argue against these claims today and may did so back then. But the logic of the war-for-Union argument was compelling and obvious. Just as the American colonies did not expect to be allowed to break from Great Britain peacefully, neither did the secessionists believe the Union would really let the Southern states go peacefully. The secessionists figured a war would come. They just thought they would win that war.

10. Secessionists were clear about why they seceded upon Lincoln’s election. They felt the Republican Party would not defend slavery in the territories, would not crack down future John Browns, would create an anti-slavery party within the less-enslaved parts of the South, and would turn foreign policy toward anti-slavery. Slavery was stronger than ever in 1860. Secession was an act of overconfidence. And secession, as the multiple ordinances and declarations of causes showed, was designed explicitly to protect slavery and white supremacy.

11. Finally, individuals who joined the Confederate (or Union) army had multiple reasons for doing so. But if we are talking about the causes of the Civil War, we must look to the causes of secession and the reason the antislavery Republican Party emerged victorious in the 1860 election.

The Problem of the 1780s

ArticlesOver at The Nation, historian Richard Kreitner interviews Seattle University Law Professor George William Van Cleave about his new book We Have Not a Government: The Articles of Confederation and the Road to the Constitution.   I hope to read Van Cleave’s book at some point since I don’t think I have ever read a book-length treatment of the Articles of Confederation.

Here is a taste of the interview:

RK: The overarching problem of the 1780s, as you write, was “stalemate government.” Why were things so blocked up?

GWVC: There are two basic reasons. First, the structure of the Confederation itself. The government designed by the Articles of Confederation made it easy for relatively small groups of people—especially individual states or sections of the country—to block any change. There was a requirement for every single state to agree to alter the powers of the Confederation. At least nine states needed to support any significant fiscal or military legislation. Any section could say, “We’re opposed to this, so it’s not gonna happen.” This happened repeatedly throughout the period I’m writing about.

The other significant reason is that from the beginning the Union had been a pretty loose alliance, so people felt relatively free about saying they just didn’t feel like going along with a particular policy. New York is a great example. New York City had one of the major ports in the United States, and the import taxes were very profitable for the state, which didn’t have to raise other kinds of taxes. But the rest of the states wanted to pass a federal import tax, which would have forced New York to give up its own. That was anathema for New York’s political leaders, who thought about how they could block such a tax every time they got out of bed. But, under the Articles of Confederation, there was no way for Congress to impose sanctions on New York for holding out, even if all the other states wanted to go forward. The result was stalemate.

Read the rest here.

 

The Author’s Corner with John Hayes

51eS3fj0YsL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_John Hayes is associate professor of History at Augusta University. This interview is based on his new book, Hard, Hard Religion: Interracial Faith in the Poor South (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Hard, Hard Religion?

JH: The original idea was to see if, as a Southern historian, I could find real-world evidence for the imaginative landscape of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction—if I could demonstrate that O’Connor, with her literary insight, had evoked something real but perhaps opaque to historians. As I moved into the project, I realized that the type of Christianity embodied in her middle-class characters was well analyzed in the historiography; it was the Christianity of her poor characters (her primary characters) that had little presence in the scholarship beyond a few hints and fragments. The book is my attempt to excavate this distinct Christianity of the poor and to interpret it in its context.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Hard, Hard Religion?

JH: In the circumscribed world of the New South, poor whites and poor blacks exchanged songs, stories, lore, visual displays, and other cultural forms with each other, crafting a distinct folk Christianity that spoke from the underside of regional capitalism. Their folk Christianity was a fragile but real space of interracial exchange and a fervent attempt to grasp the sacred in earthy, this-worldly ways.

JF: Why do we need to read Hard, Hard Religion?

JH: 

* It’s the first historical monograph on folk Christianity in the American South.

* In the face of a culture that continues the well-established tradition of denigrating and dismissing the poor, it shows the inner complexity, cultural creativity, and rich interiority of the poor of a certain time and place.

* It complicates what we think we know about religious life in the American South, especially by debunking the abiding trope of religious homogeneity on either side of the color line.

* In the face of scholarship that insists that Jim Crow was the culture of the New South, it argues for the fragile but real presence of interracial religious exchange among the poor.

* Where else, in the pages of a single volume, can you read about haunting songs of personified Death, anti-Mammon odes to the Titanic, and praying spots deep in the woods; about cows kneeling in reverence on Old Christmas night, graves decorated with bedsteads and grandfather clocks, and initiates emerging from imminent death to the sights and sounds of bright green trees and birds chirping away?

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JH: I had an a-ha moment a few years after college: I realized that history was a way to take the abstract philosophical/theological questions that obsessed me and pursue them in concrete, tangible form—to explore the “big questions” not in open potentiality but in flesh-and-blood actuality. That was the initial impulse, but as I’ve worked as a historian I’ve also come to see another impulse that was there at the outset, but subconsciously: history is crucial for understanding identity. Nothing falls from the sky; everything has a story behind it. I’ve driven to seek the stories behind our society so that I can make sense of it. To know the past is to get a handle on the present.

JF: What is your next project?

JH: It’s very much in the coalescing stage, but I want to look at religion in “moments of possibility” before and after the circumscribed world of Hard, Hard Religion: in Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. In both moments, sacralized social structures were being destabilized, and new religious conceptions had to emerge—though what exactly they would look like was very much an open question. That’s a very different context from my book, where poor people carve out meaning within stable, confining social structures.

JF: Thanks, John!

The Author’s Corner with Richard Carwardine

61d4we2M85L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Richard Carwardine is Professor Emeritus at Oxford University. This interview is based on his new book, Lincoln’s Sense of Humor (Southern Illinois University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Lincoln’s Sense of Humor?

RC: It began when I asked myself: why did Abraham Lincoln hold the satirist David Ross Locke, creator of a fictional Copperhead bigot – Petroleum V. Nasby – in so high esteem that he told the author, “For the genius to write these things I would gladly give up my office.” I addressed this question, and Lincoln’s humor more generally, in a conference talk that prompted an invitation to write a book on the subject – an idea I welcomed, given the paucity of work taking Lincoln’s humor seriously.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Lincoln’s Sense of Humor?

RC: Since his death, Lincoln’s stories and jokes have become detached from the context that gave them their political and cultural bite, in the process losing their immediate ironic and satiric purpose. The book aims to locate Lincoln’s rich sense of humor in time and place, arguing that how and why he deployed it should be taken seriously: as a source of personal well-being, as a risky but largely profitable means of securing political advantage, and in some respects as an expression of ethical principle.

JF: Why do we need to read Lincoln’s Sense of Humor?

RC: Lincoln’s humor was not peripheral: it was a reflexive outgrowth of his personality and expressed his essential humanity. It co-existed with self-absorbed contemplation and melancholy. He told an Iowa Congressman that his recourse to humor was an indispensable relief from his “hours of depression.” Using a bow and arrow as a boy, he said, he had learnt that “one must let up on the bow if the arrow is to have force.” He added, “You flaxen men with broad faces are born with cheer, and don’t know a cloud from a star. I am of another temperament.”

Throughout his life he worked to develop the humorist’s craft and hone the art of story-telling. The book explores the versatility, range of expressions, and multiple sources of his humor: western tall tales, morality stories, bawdy jokes, linguistic tricks, absurdities, political satire, and sharp wit. Nothing gave him greater pleasure than satirical work that lampooned hypocrisy and ethical double standards.

It would be wrong to think of Lincoln’s jocularity and story-telling as a frivolous appendix to his politics. He used humor as a political tool throughout his life; he was the first president consistently to make story-telling and laughter tools of office. No occupant of the White House has since exceeded his talent in this respect. He used stories to secure political or personal advantage, sometimes by frontal assault on opponents, but more commonly by exposition through parable, refusal through wit, and diversion through hilarity. The book analyses popular reactions to Lincoln’s jocularity and the waves of criticism it elicited during his presidency. It was a risky business, retailing jokes while the nation was engaged in an existential struggle costing some three-quarters of a million lives. At the same time, however, his reputation for wit and story-telling colored his image as a man of the people, a president who remained accessible to, and in touch with, the plain folk amongst whom he had moved throughout his life.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RC: The USA fascinated many of those growing up, as I did, in the Welsh mining valleys, where there was a strong sense of transatlantic connection, through emigration and politics. One of my ancestors was the president of the United Mine Workers of America and chief founder of the CIO, John L. Lewis. As an undergraduate student at Oxford University in the 1960s, I felt the particular tug of American history. Don E. Fehrenbacher was the visiting Harmsworth Professor at the time, and he lectured on ‘Slavery and Secession’, the celebrated course designed by Allan Nevins that ran for over twenty successive years in Oxford. That introduced me to some of the great works of American history, including Fehrenbacher’s Prelude to Greatness, Kenneth Stampp’s Peculiar Institution, and David Potter’s Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis. I was hooked. I secured an Oxford graduate scholarship in American History, one that took me to Berkeley for the year 1969-70. There I not only studied American history but lived through its making.

JF: What is your next project?

RC: A study of American religious nationalism from the founding of the Republic to Reconstruction.

JF: Thanks, Richard!

Jane Kamensky Talks John Singleton Copley

KamenskyCheck out Mark Cheathem‘s interview with Harvard historian Jane Kamensky.  She talks about her award-winning book A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley.

Here is a taste:

For those who haven’t read your book, would you please provide a synopsis?

Jane Kamensky (JK): A Revolution in Color tells an off-kilter story of British America in the age of the American Revolution through the biography of the New England-born painter John Singleton Copley. Born on the eve of King George’s War, Copley came of age in a thoroughly British Boston, with streets named Queen and King, and book stores and coffee houses touting the latest news from London. He identified thoroughly with an imperial imaginary, dreaming of a world in color an ocean away. When Boston grew heated over taxes in the 1760s, he identified as a Son of British Liberty, and hoped for a return of the status quo ante. He painted men and women on all sides of the conflict–Paul Revere and Thomas Gage, Samuel Adams and Francis Bernard–who doubtless gave him an earful while they sat for their portraits. But when shouting turned to shooting, he, like Melville’s Bartleby, simply preferred not to. Copley’s life and work make visible, literally visible, the viewpoints of that large group of early Americans whose preferred side in Britain’s American War was neither. As Yeats would say of another revolutionary conflict more than a century later, he thought “the worst [were] full of passionate intensity.” He himself lacked political conviction, focusing his own intensity on art and family strategy rather than matters of nation or party. His rise and fall show both the terrors of revolutionary fervor, and the costs of passivity in an age where people insisted on forging their own destinies. Like the Revolution itself, it’s a very ambivalent story.

I would venture to say that many Americans have never heard of John Singleton Copley. What led you to choose him as the subject for this book?

JK: If they haven’t heard of Copley, they’ve seen his work. His Paul Revere is surely the second most famous face of revolutionary America, and we see a version of it every time we hoist a bottle of Sam Adams lager. And of course, Bostonians know Copley as written into the very landscape of the city: Copley Square, the Fairmont Copley Hotel, Copley T station. But the irony is, Copley’s life doesn’t support his use in contemporary culture, which follows a kind of New England nationalism. That gap was interesting to me. Plus, the evidence is very rich: in addition to his dazzling painted work, Copley and his kin left hundreds of letters, which is true for very few artists. Those letters allowed a muddled, middling character to emerge from the swirl of events in the age of revolution. Like a Copley portrait, he’s a well mottled character. We have too few of those in the literature of revolutionary heroes and villains.

Read the rest at The Republic Blog

 

Wendell Berry: “What I stand for is what I stand on”

Berry BrushWendell Berry has a new book out.  It is a collection of essays, short stories, and poetry titled The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings.  Brian Barth reviews it at Modern Farmer.

Here is a taste:

In his latest book, The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings (available in November from Counterpoint), Berry continues to rage against machines: the laptops and high-tech tractors he believes are causing us to lose touch with each other and our environments. He laments the “dispersed lives of dispersed individuals, commuting and consuming, scattering in every direction every morning, returning at night only to their screens and carryout meals.”

Yes, Berry’s a bit of a curmudgeon, who likens our smartphone obsession to drug addiction and prefers horse-drawn plows to simulated horsepower. He writes longhand before his wife, Tanya, converts the manuscripts on a Royal Standard typewriter. Such anachronistic tendencies, however, point to more than mere nostalgia—namely, a clear-eyed view of the ways in which modern society is wrecking the Earth under the guise of progress. As the journalist David Skinner noted in 2012, “Instead of being at odds with his conscience, he is at odds with his times.”

God willing, the times may have finally swung back around to meet the man. Though Berry would no doubt heap scorn upon today’s $8 heirloom tomatoes and $200 farm-to-table dinners, he did participate in the new documentary Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, produced by Robert Redford and Nick Offerman. The reluctant subject never shows his face in the film; rather, he shares selections from his work in powerful low-pitched voiceovers. (Visit lookandseefilm.com for information on how to host a screening.) Not coincidentally, the rare photographs on these pages were captured by his intimates: former students and dear friends.

Read the rest here, including a new Berry poem.

 

The Author’s Corner with David Hollinger

51BOYw8IuNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgDavid Hollinger is Preston Hotchkis Professor Emeritus at the University of California-Berkley. This interview is based on his new book, Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America (Princeton University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Protestants Abroad?

DH: In the 1990s while writing books about multiculturalism (Postethnic America, 1995) and about Jewish intellectuals (Science, Jews, and Secular Culture, 1996), it struck me that many missionaries were precursors of the most defensible aspects of multiculturalism and were indeed the Anglo-Protestant equivalents of the cosmopolitan Jewish intellectuals who were famous for having expanded the horizons of American culture. I became annoyed at the patronizing and negative pictures of missionaries that were dominant among scholars and in popular culture. I also remembered, having long since forgotten it, what a powerful, charismatic figure was cut in my church-centered childhood by missionaries on furlough from China and India. As a little boy in Idaho and Washington, these people in their Sunday night lectures made me aware of a world much wider than my own surroundings.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Protestants Abroad?

DH: Deep immersion in foreign cultures led many missionaries to adopt relatively generous attitudes toward the varieties of humankind, causing these missionaries to question as provincial a great variety of Home Truths accepted by most of the folks at home. Between about 1920 and 1970, ecumenically inclined, anti-racist missionaries and their children advocated foreign policies friendly to the self-declared interests of non-white, decolonizing peoples, and promoted domestic initiatives that would later be called “multicultural.”

JF: Why do we need to read Protestants Abroad?

DH: To call attention to an egalitarian theme in the Christian tradition that is much less visible in the current era than it was fifty, seventy-five, and one hundred years ago. To make clear that Americans who have benefited from “white privilege” have done very different things with their color-produced opportunities, and have sometimes fought against the very racism of which they were the beneficiaries. To remind ourselves that contact with people very different from ourselves can liberate us from narrow understandings of what the possibilities for human life actually are.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? 

DH: I wrote an entire essay (“Church People and Others”) answering exactly this question, posed by the editors of Becoming Historians (edited by James Banner and John Gillis, 2009), which I reprinted as Chapter 8 of my own book, After Cloven Tongues of Fire (2013). The short answer is that I did this because I did not know what I was doing! I thought it would be easier than philosophy and theology, the other fields that most interested me. I was mistaken. It proved to be very demanding, or so it has seemed to me. But what made me stay with it is probably more important than the naïve conceptions of the calling that led me to it. What made me stay with it was the ever-growing awareness that the study of history was a virtually boundless opportunity to explore an infinity of questions about what it meant to be human. The title of the “Church People and Others” piece refers to how I found my way from the society of my youth into the overwhelmingly secular circles of academia.

JF: What is your next project?

DH: Two things are in the works. First, I have been writing a family memoir that I may or may not publish, organized around my father’s difficult path to the ministry and his even more difficult departure from it. It is an account of a “Pennsylvania Dutch” family’s migration from Gettysburg to Saskatchewan, and how my father and his siblings were almost destroyed by the blizzards and by the unwise decisions of my grandfather, who was a leader of the Church of the Brethren and a Brethren in Christ bishop when the two denominations worked together in Canada in the 1920s and 1930s. Second, I am making notes for what might be a short, essayistic book (modelled on Postethnic America) about religion and politics in modern America. This book would address some of the problems that follow from the sort of thinking authorized by 2nd Corinthians 10:5 (every thought captive to Christ, etc.), and would attempt to bring some clarity to the widespread discourse about the function of religious ideas and affiliations in contemporary American public life.

JF: Thanks, David!  I can’t wait to read both of those books!

Hire a Humanities Major

StrossCheck out Scott Jaschik’s interview at Inside Higher Ed with Randall Stross, author of A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees.  Stross has a Ph.D in Chinese history from Stanford and currently teaches business at San Jose State University.  (Yes, you read that last sentence correctly).

Here is a taste of the interview:

Q: Many admissions leaders at liberal arts colleges report increasing difficulty in making the case for the liberal arts. What is your advice for them?

A: If it seems difficult to make the case now, imagine how difficult it would have been in the depths of the Great Depression, when the unemployment rate was 16 percent and headed for 24 percent and market demand for liberal arts majors had evaporated. The talk in the air was of the need for more vocational education. Yet William Tolley, in his inaugural address as the president of Allegheny College, did not falter. He made the case for a broad liberal education in 1931 whose contemporary relevance should hearten all of us who advocate for liberal education. “Specialists are needed in all vocations, but only as long as their vocations last, and vocations have a tendency now to disappear almost overnight,” he observed. He reasoned that in an ever-changing world the broad knowledge covered at a liberal arts college is “the finest vocational training any school can offer.” The argument is no less powerful today. But to make it seem well grounded, admissions leaders should have at their fingertips stories to share of graduates who left their schools with liberal arts majors and have gone on to interesting professional careers.

Q: Politicians seem to love to bash the liberal arts, asking why various majors are needed. How should educators respond?

A: Many politicians — perhaps most politicians — view the labor marketplace in terms defined entirely by “skills”: employers need workers equipped with specific skills; students either arrive with those skills or lack those skills. This is new, historically speaking. In a bygone era, 60 years ago, many large corporations hired college graduates in bulk, paying little heed to their majors, and spent the first years training the new hires themselves. So the defense of the liberal arts today must be delivered using the vocabulary of “skills.” Fortunately, conscientious students in the liberal arts can demonstrate great skill in many things: learning quickly, reading deeply, melding information from diverse sources smoothly, collaborating with others effectively, reasoning logically, writing clearly. I will resist the temptation to point out the apparent absence of these skills among those who are doing the bashing.

Read the rest here.

Alan Jacobs Teaches Us How To Think

ThinkBaylor University humanities professor Alan Jacobs‘s latest book is How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds.  Over at Religion News Service, Jacobs talks with journalist Jonathan Merritt about the book and the state of Christian thinking.

Here is a taste:

RNS: What do you see is the core problem with many “thinkers?”

AJ: It’s hard to name just one thing — there are so many problems! So much bad thinking! But if I were forced to name one universal one it would be a lack of awareness of our own motives and incentives. A failure to realize that there are forces at work on and in all of us to discourage thought or even prevent it altogether.

RNS: What about American Christians, generally speaking? Are they good thinkers?

AJ: Ummm … not so much.

RNS: How can followers of Jesus become better critical thinkers? Give us one or two points that come to mind.

AJ: Christians of all people ought to be attentive to our own shortcomings, and the ways our dispositions of mind and heart and spirit can get in the way of knowing what’s true. After all, we’e the people who are supposed to believe that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and “the heart is deceitfully wicked above all things” and that sort of stuff. If we want to think better, then the first step should be to take those beliefs as seriously as many of us say we do, and to turn a ruthlessly skeptical eye on ourselves — before we turn it on our neighbors. There’s a line about specks in our neighbors’ eyes and logs in our own that applies here.

There’s a lot more to say, obviously, but I think self-skepticism is the place to begin.

Read the entire interview here and find out why Jacobs think it is impossible to
“think for yourself.”

The Civil Rights Movement and the Search for a Usable Past

TheoharisOver at The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill interviews Brooklyn College political scientist Jeanne Theoharis about the various ways the Civil Rights Movement has been used in present-day politics.  Some of you may recall that this issue of the Civil Rights Movement and “usable pasts” was on the forefront of my mind this summer when I took a Civil Rights-era bus tour.

Theoharis is the author of the forthcoming A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.  Here is a taste of the interview:

JS: Before we get into some of these specific examples, I’m just wondering about your overall view of how key historical figures or moments in the civil rights movement are kind of used or inaccurately portrayed in our current discourse, either by politicians or by ordinary people having arguments online.

JT: I mean I think what we’ve seen, and this has happened over the past number of decades and I would argue since really Reagan changes his position and signs the King holiday, is the kind of creation of a national fable of the civil rights movement.

And so now the civil rights movement is used to make Americans feel good about themselves. You know, from 50th anniversary commemorations of the March on Washington, to the Selma to Montgomery march, from the dedication of King’s statue on the Mall, from the statue of Rosa Parks in Statuary Hall. All of these events have become places where we now celebrate the United States, where we feel so good about the progress we’ve made.

And I think in the process, these kind of dangerous ideas about what the civil rights movement was, what it entailed, how it went forth have become cemented. And so, as you’re implying politicians, citizens, constantly invoke the civil rights movement in the present to justify certain kinds of positions, to chastise contemporary movements; whether it’s Black Lives Matter, whether it’s Colin Kaepernick’s stand that has now turned into a much broader stand by athletes. We’re constantly being bombarded with, “This is not what King would do.” You know, “Be like King, be like Parks,” that strip and utterly distort what the civil rights movement was and what people like King and Parks actually did and stood for.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Robert Cook

51BmfDCLdAL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Robert Cook is professor of American History at the University of Sussex. This interview is based on his new book, Civil War Memories: Contesting the Past in the United since 1865  (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Civil War Memories?

RC: I’ve been working at the intersection of race, politics, and historical memory in the United States for more than two decades. This book grows directly out of a previous research project on the Civil War Centennial of the 1960s and a conviction that a deeper awareness of how and why particular strands of Civil War memory have been constructed over time can enhance our understanding of the war’s impact on contemporary culture wars.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Civil War Memories?

RC: I argue that four principal strands of Civil War memory – Unionist, southern, emancipationist and reconciliatory – were constructed during the late nineteenth century by the men and women who lived through the turmoil of the 1860s and 1870s. Social and political change in the United States enabled the Lost Cause and reconciliatory narratives to dominate the field of Civil War memory until the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century raised the profile in public memory of the previously marginalized and predominantly African American story of black liberation and martial service to the United States.

JF: Why do we need to read Civil War Memories?

RC: The lethal violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 highlighted the continuing resonance of the Civil War in contemporary debates over race and historical commemoration. This book provides the essential backstory to the current controversy and will contribute positively to an informed and constructive debate over removal of Confederate symbols and statues.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Or if you are not an American history, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)

RC: As a teenager growing up in the English midlands I enjoyed reading the Civil War histories of Bruce Catton. However, I didn’t decide to become an American historian until I was a student at the University of Warwick where I enrolled in Bill Dusinberre’s classes on the African American experience and the antislavery movement. Bill was an inspirational teacher. He encouraged me to pursue a PhD in American history at the University of Oxford in the early 1980s. I researched the early history of the Republican party in Iowa, focusing particularly on the party’s remarkably strong support for black rights in the Civil War era.

JF: What is your next project?

RC: I’m currently in the early stages of a project that investigates African American responses to different manifestations of the Lost Cause since 1880.

JF: Thanks, Robert!

 

The Author’s Corner with Donald Mathews

Altar Cover.jpgDonald Mathews is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  This interview is based on his new book At the Altar of Lynching: Burning Sam Hose in the American South (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write At the Altar of Lynching?

DM: In preparing to write a sequel to Religion in the Old South, I realized that lynching and religious participation in institutions, collective action, and media were increasing at the same time. I discovered an article by a former minister’s wife, Corra Harris, defending the lynching of a laborer called Sam Hose in 1899. At about the same time I was asked to write an essay on why I [born in Idaho] wrote about religion in the South. The short answer was, I realized: “Because my grandfather was lynched for defending a black family from being lynched.” He wasn’t exactly “lynched,” to be sure, because he survived a beating that damaged his brain, soul, and wealth. My father, however, remembered the event as a “lynching” and his family lived with the psychological fallout from my grandfather’s encounter with American populism and violence. Christians had seized him at prayer and destroyed his life. I thought I should think about Harris’s defense of violence within the context of her religious life and that of people like her.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of At the Altar of Lynching?

DM: Religion enveloped the burning of Tom Wilkes: participants lived it, they shouted it, they enacted it in a grotesque carnival of violence and celebration. Tom Wilkes was not Christ, but his burning as Sam Hose was supposed to resolve matters far beyond and above homicide and rape: black equality, black autonomy, black defiance: His burning was thus a sacrifice to the savage god of White Supremacy.

JF: Why do we need to read At the Altar of Lynching?

DM: “Need” is subjective and I find it difficult to tell anyone what they need. I do invite them

* To understand the historical background of violence against African Americans;

* To understand the religious character of segregation as Lillian Smith understood it;

* To understand how the culture of White Supremacy criminalized black people, used sex and gender to create lies about American society and blacks, and how popular white religion was caught up in those lies;

* To think about how people of African descent condemned the lies told about them, how they were so alienated from the white-controlled “criminal justice system” built on those lies that they could see the execution even of those who were actually guilty of capital crimes as “crucifixions”;

* To understand why W E B Du Bois and concerned white clerics thought of lynching as “crucifixion”;

* To understand how the human compulsion to make signal acts as meaningful as possible even when they are illegal reveals the human capacity for making religious even the most heinous acts imaginable.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DM: In college I was always interested in American history; I can’t explain the why of that. In seminary, I was transfixed by the implications of two things Helmut Richard Niebuhr said in class: 1) The first question to be asked when addressing ethical issues, he noted, was “What is/was happening?” 2) When we think of the meaning of the Cross and crucifixion, he once said, we have to sift that meaning through the “Gas ovens. . .” That second comment is one of the most penetrating observations I have ever heard. The first one was prelude. I have to add, I suppose as confession, that I fully understand the homiletic style of my writing. Gene Genovese in a passing conversation once asked me partially in jest, partially in criticism, “Are you ever going to stop preaching?” I answered as I laughed, “No. I guess not.” He replied, “I didn’t think so.” And we went off to a seminar at the National Humanities Center.

JF: What is your next project?

DM: I hope to think about how the memory of violence against a loved one or family member affects those who struggle with its effects. There is a growing number of important books or articles on the memory of lynching, and I need to read as many as I can and come to terms with them. I suspect this is an article, but it could be a small book. I had thought to follow up on an article I wrote about the suicide of a Methodist minister in 1910 as a way to get inside the traumas of “modernity” and I may still do that.

JF: Thanks, Donald!

“Consuming Religion”

LoftonThis is the title of Religious Studies scholar Kathryn Lofton‘s new book.  Over at Religion Dispatches, she answers a ten questions about it.  Here is a taste:

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

First, nobody evades being organized by something; second, if you’re being organized by something, it is worth learning the terms for that organization; third, if you learn one and two, you will be a part of the study of religion.

Every Goldman Sachs employee with whom I met was absolutely comfortable with the word religion applied to their community. Indeed, when I pressed them, saying how many scholars of religion found the term problematic for the following x or y reason, they got it, but they still didn’t care. They didn’t mind the word because they liked how it demonstrated the seriousness, the proud intensity, of their collectivity.

And this is what I want to emphasize in my study of consumer culture and religion: religion is a word for how people consciously organize themselves in the world and unconsciously are organized by the world. Insofar as ours is a world built by material and immaterial networks and grids, I think we’re missing out if we think of those networks and grids as secular or irreligious.

We are missing out insofar as we are missing what I have found as the archival intention of designers. Namely, to organize themselves (and us) into a world they get thereby to organize. The problem of collectivity is the danger of assimilating into any grid. The possibility of collectivity is the strength we have to rewrite our frames, together, to design different societies.

Read the entire interview here.

The Author’s Corner with Max Mueller

C7ntXjAUwAAmfNwMax Mueller is Assistant Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This interview is based on his new book, Race and the Making of the Mormon People (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Race and the Making of the Mormon People?

MM: I’ve always been fascinated with Mormons as a people who have become the “stand in”—a synecdoche, if you will—for “American”—family oriented, patriotic, conservative in comportment, dress, speech, and often in politics, industrious, white, and often wealthy. But the church as an institution (as J. B. Haws has argued) is still seen as an outsider—even suspect—organization. I wanted to explore this paradox.

But I also wanted to explore how non-white Mormons—and yes, there have always been some (including Mormons of African and Native American descent)—have grappled with Mormon conceptions of whiteness, and whiteness as close to “godliness,” or better put, whiteness as signifying humanity in accord with God’s plan. Such an exploration must begin with the Book of Mormon, Mormonism’s foundational text. At its heart, the Book of Mormon is about how sin within the human family leads to schism, and schism manifested as curses of blackness/darkness. In 1830 when the Book of Mormon was first published, this view of race was (and, alas in some corners, still is) the dominate view of how the “black” and “white” races came to be, based on the standard interpretations of biblical curses (see Cain and Abel; Noah and Ham), which arose to justify the enslavement of people of African descent. (It’s key to note here, that the Book of Mormon, however, contains neither “white” Europeans, nor “black” Africans in its narrative, though it’s often been read as such. Instead, at least according to its “translator, Joseph Smith Jr., and earliest adopters, the origin story of America’s pre-Columbian Native peoples). But where Mormonism parts with the standard biblical hermeneutic, is that the movement’s earliest leaders taught that since race was not of God’s design—but the result of human family—race could be overcome and nonwhites could restore themselves to the original white (as in raceless) human family.

That’s the start of Mormon story with race—a story of (relatively) radical racial universalism, at least for the 1830s, which most people don’t know about. Due to internal and external pressures, within a few decades of the church’s history, what began as “white universalism” quickly became the sole purview of “white” Mormons. But fundamentally, my purpose was to move beyond the history of this “declension narrative” by focusing on how non-white Mormons participated in—fought against, accepted, acquiesced to—the evolving Mormon theology of race. So I try to highlight the histories—and as best as possible, the words of—the few African and Native American Mormons for whom we have records, to show how they negotiated living within—and also helped shape intentionally or not—this highly racialized community.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Race and the Making of the Mormon People?

MM: That the history of “race” in America begins first from the written word—notably written scriptures—and then gets read onto flesh and bone bodies. Race requires narration, an origin story of how different races came to be.

 JF: Why do we need to read Race and the Making of the Mormon People?

MM: There has been a lot of great scholarship on race and Mormonism as of late. But my book, I hope, makes two key contributions:

First, instead of looking at how “white” Mormons responded to outside pressures—especially non-Mormons’ racialization of Mormons as something less than white (the legacy of the fight over polygamy), and did so to assert their superior whiteness—my book examines how race emerges internally from Mormon theology and history. And, again, that begins with a careful reading of how the Book of Mormon shaped early Mormon conceptions of race.

And second, my book centers non-white Mormons’ stories to show that they aren’t peripheral to this history, but central to it (and often so in ways that are tragic). 

 JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MM: Frankly, I cannot remember when I wasn’t going not to be one (save when I was in second grade and was going to be the first left-handed second baseman for the Cubs, save and a summer—not too long ago—when I was without an academic job and sending applications out to consulting firms…). I love American history, in large measure because I believe in this country’s exceptionalism—but (a version of) the exceptionalism that John Winthrop first articulated on the Arabella, in which the success of America’s experiment was conditional on its people’s the pursuit of justice. I’ve always been fascinated with how outsiders to the American mainstream (from Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Jarena Lee, William Apess, and Frederick Douglass, to Malcolm X, Caesar Chavez, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ta-Nehisi Coates) have been the most cogent articulators of this American exceptionalism and the fiercest critics (in the Jeremiad tradition) to how much America is failing to live up to it.

 JF: What is your next project?

MM: My next project is Wakara’s World, a material-culture biography of Wakara (1808-1855), who was a central figure in my first book as he was ordained a Mormon elder in the early 1850s, but then later went to war against his Mormon brethren when they began to destroy his people’s sacred lands and disrupt his most profitable endeavor: trafficking in Indian slaves. During the mid-nineteenth century, when he and his pan-tribal cavalry of horse thieves and slave traders dominated the Old Spanish Trail, Wakara became one of the U.S. Southwest’s most influential settler colonialists, capitalists, and statesmen. Yet in most historical narratives, Wakara has been reduced to the epitome of the incorrigible savage “Indian” in what Richard White calls the theater of “inverted conquest.” Wakara’s World is an attempt to recover the environmental, cultural, and political worlds of Wakara and his people by exploring material archives along with written ones. Each chapter of the biography focuses on one material object—from “Wakara’s Fish,” the sacred foodstuff of the chief’s tribe that was decimated by the arrival of the Mormons’ irrigation ditches, to “Wakara’s Skull,” which late nineteenth-century ethnologists from the U.S. Army Medical Museum dug up from the chief’s elaborate burial site in order to compare its cranial volume with other races.

JF: Thanks, Max!

The Pietist Option

Pietist Option 1

I was going to title this post, “Forget the Benedict Option, Embrace the Pietist Option!” But then I realized that by exhorting you to ignore Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” I was not acting in a manner befitting a Pietist. (Sorry, I am a work in progress!)

Yesterday I got two books in the mail: Joanna Bourke’s 2006 tome Fear: A Cultural History and Chris Gehrz’s and Mark Pattie’s The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity.  One book is (as the title suggests) about fear. The other book is about hope. I have been reading Bourke today, but have had Gehrz and Pattie nearby so I have something to turn to if I get overly depressed.

I read The Pietist Option in manuscript and was encouraged by it.  When InterVarsity Press asked me to endorse it, I immediately said yes!  Here is what appears on the back cover:

Pietist Option 2

Not all the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will be interested in this new book.  I know many of you are not religious or people of faith.  If you fall into this category, I want to encourage you to read The Pietist Option anyway.  Gehrz (a Yale-trained historian) and Pattie (a Christian pastor) offer a way of thinking about Christianity that you might find appealing. Other readers of this blog come from Christian traditions that do not give primary attention to Pietism.  Fair enough.  But I still think you should read the book.  All Christian traditions could use a dose of something akin to Pietism.

I was reading some of The Pietist Option to my sixteen-year-old daughter last night.  (I managed to get her attention between Snapchats, texts, and AP U.S. history homework). Here are a few of the snippets I read to her:

“If we’re seeking after renewal, it’s got to start with you and me confessing how we’ve failed to love God and to love our neighbors.”

“The Pietist option calls Christians back to the motivations and actions of the Servant who stooped to wash his disciples feet.”

“Our world needs a new narrative to unite us in spirit and mission, to provide us a hopeful pathway to pursue together.”

She did not tell me to stop, so I guess that is a good sign. 🙂

 

Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Abolitionist

laySalon is running an excerpt from Marcus Rediker‘s new book The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist.  Here is a taste:

Lay is little known among historians. He appears occasionally in histories of abolition, usually as a minor, colorful figure of suspect sanity. By the nineteenth century he was regarded as “diseased” in his intellect and later as “cracked in the head.” To a large extent this image has persisted in modern histories. Indeed David Brion Davis, a leading historian of abolitionism, condescendingly called Lay a mentally deranged, obsessive “little hunchback.” Lay gets better treatment by amateur Quaker historians, who include him in their pantheon of antislavery saints, and by the many excellent professional historians of Quakerism. He is almost totally unknown to the general public.

Lay was better known among abolitionists than among their later historians. The French revolutionary Jacques Pierre Brissot de Warville gathered stories about him almost three decades after his death, during a visit to the United States in 1788. Brissot wrote that Lay was “simple in his dress and animated in his speech; he was all on fire when he spoke on slavery.” In this respect Lay anticipated by a century the abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison, who was also “all on fire” about human bondage. When Thomas Clarkson penned the history of the movement that abolished the slave trade in Britain, in 1808, a moment of triumph for that country, he credited Lay, who had “awakened the attention of many to the cause.” Lay possessed “strong understanding and great integrity,” but was “singular” and “eccentric.” He had, in Clarkson’s view, been “unhinged” by cruelties he observed in Barbados between 1718 and 1720. When Clarkson drew his famous graphic genealogy of the movement, a riverine map of abolition, he named a significant tributary “Benjamin Lay.” On the other side of the Atlantic, in the 1830s and 1840s, more than seventy years after Lay’s death, the American abolitionists Benjamin Lundy and Lydia Maria Child rediscovered him, republished his biography, reprinted an engraving of him, and renewed his memory within the movement.

Lay is not the usual elite subject of biography. He came from a humble background and was poor most of his life, by occupation and by choice. He lived, he explained, by “the Labour of my Hands.” He was also considered a philosopher in his own day, much like the ancient Greek Diogenes, the former slave known for speaking truth to power. (He refused Greek nationality and insisted that he was, rather, “a citizen of the world.”) Lay lived a mobile, far-flung life, in England, Barbados, Pennsylvania, and on the high seas in-between, all of which shaped his cosmopolitan thinking. Unlike most poor people, he left an unmediated record of his ideas, most significantly in his own book, “All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates,” a rich and remarkable body of evidence by any measure.

Read the entire excerpt here.

 

 

 

A Young Confederate is Transformed by the Study of History

DewOver at History News Network, Robin Lindley interviews noted Civil War historian Charles Dew.  (On a personal note, I am using Dew’s Apostle of Disunion in my Civil War America course this semester).

The interview centers on Dew’s 2016 book The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade.

Here is a taste of Lindley’s introduction to the interview:

Professor Dew illustrates how he and generations of white southerners were poisoned by racism as if by osmosis, a word he uses advisedly to describe his own experience growing up with demeaning images of African Americans and rules that penalized and dehumanized them at every turn. He explores the vexing issue of how otherwise seemingly admirable people, including members of his own family, could embrace the odious tenets of white supremacy and the oppression of others.

But Professor Dew also describes his evolution from a “young Confederate” to an outspoken critic of racism, thanks in large part to his education at Williams College, and particularly his study of history. He details how he became a scholar of the South and its deeply conflicted past, and how that study revealed the noxious, insidious influence of white supremacist ideas that has poisoned whites there since the dawn of slavery.

Here is a taste of the interview:

Robin Lindley: I was surprised that your father, with his Jim Crow ideas, encouraged you to go to college at Williams in the far North.

Professor Charles Dew: Looking back on it, it does seem strange, but on the other hand I think he thought, as I say in the book, that the armor in which we were clad as Southerners was impenetrable and we could come to a New England college and, as he would say, we’d learn to speak well and write well and get a good liberal arts education. Then we would come back south with our cultural norms intact. It didn’t work that way. I think he anticipated that what he called “our Southern roots” were so firmly implanted that they weren’t going to be uprooted by four years of college in New England.

Robin Lindley: But your racist beliefs were uprooted, and your evolution—the unmaking of your racism–is a marvelous part of your story. What were a couple of incidents or moments that were particularly eye opening for you?

Professor Charles Dew: The experience of having an African American classmate and having someone I went to the dining halls with. We were in the same freshman vertical entry in the dormitory. You did a lot of things together with the kids in your entry. There were two senior advisors who lived in the entry with us and they planned activities for us together.

I was reacting as a social equal for the first time in my life with a person of color. I mention telling that dialect joke as my classmate walked down the stairs outside the dorm room in which I was telling this. I was so humiliated; I stopped and never told another joke like that in my life. I made a point of introducing myself to him a day or two later. I had to find out if he heard me. I was so upset. As I said, my mother had taught us not to humiliate anybody, and never to humiliate ourselves, and I thought I had done both. He didn’t let on that he had heard. We shook hands. That was the first time I’d shaken hands across the color line. I was 17 years old.

That was a profound experience for me. I started seeing things I hadn’t noticed before about Jim Crow customs in the South. I mention the curtain being pulled across the dining car on the train as it was going south. I had never noticed that before.

Just being in an educational institution in the North where I had classmates who were African American was life altering. I didn’t come out of that culture all that fast. It was a step or two forward, a step or two back. I still am puzzled by how blind I was to a lot.

I evolved with some tardiness, but I did evolve, and by my senior year, I was fully out from under. And that’s where those conversations with Illinois were so important. That’s the final thing that led me to break free from the racism that I had been raised under.

Robin Lindley: How did you come to study history and then to specialize in the history of the South and slavery?

Professor Charles Dew: I was fascinated by the South. Most boys who grew up in the South dream of Civil War battles, but I had some great teachers at Williams—historians who got me hooked on history, first as a major and then as something to study to understand Southern history.

I was fascinated by the region and I also began to ask questions about the South that I had never asked before. How did we come to embrace slavery? What caused the Civil War? How did the Jim Crow South evolve in the period after Reconstruction? I read a lot of C. Vann Woodward as an undergraduate and that made me want to go to Johns Hopkins and study with him, which I did.

So I think it was being fascinated with the South and its culture and history and absorbing that Confederate mythology and having that pretty well smashed to bits when I was studying it in college. So, instead of going to law school like everyone else in the family, I decided I wanted to go to grad school. It was a question of my growing up there and being fascinated by the South and then being educated about it in college in ways that were brand new to me. And just wanting to understand the region, which I still find fascinating and still find challenging.

Read the entire interview here.

Author’s Corner with Johann Neem

9781421423210-2
Johann Neem
is a Professor of History at Western Washington University. This interview is based on his new book, Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (John Hopkins University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Democracy’s Schools?

JN: I decided to write this book for two reasons. First, and foremost, I worried that citizens and policy makers did not have a “go to” book for the formative era of American public education. The leading books in that field were influenced by the culture wars—and thus they were highly critical of the potential of public education. Scholars on the right and left agreed that schools promoted “social control” and served elites, not ordinary people. At a time when our public discourse of education is increasingly vocational and instrumental, I wanted to clear the space to remind Americans today why we had public schools in the first place: to develop the capabilities of citizens; to promote human flourishing for each individual; and to bring together a diverse society.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Democracy’s Schools?

JN: Democracy’s Schools argues that there exists a longstanding and productive tension between the demands of “democratic education” and of “education in a democracy.” Democratic education emphasizes civic goals and the liberal arts and was often promoted by elite reformers such as Horace Mann, whereas education in a democracy depends on local control and schools tied culturally and politically to citizens themselves.

JF: Why do we need to read Democracy’s Schools?

JN: We need Democracy’s Schools because we’re adrift today. At a time when we tend to focus on narrow skills and economic training (“college and career readiness,” in the words of the Common Core—see my essay on the subject), it is worth looking back to an era when public schools served democracy’s needs and represented democratic values. It is worth remembering why reformers sought to increase access to the liberal arts. And it’s worth recognizing that the public schools have a responsibility not just to reflect our differences but also to bring a diverse people together. In short, we need Democracy’s Schools to remember that in the dirty bathwater of our education history there is still a baby worth caring for.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JN: I was a history major in college, but had intended to go into education policy. I wrote my senior thesis on civic education in a democracy, so in some ways I have returned to my roots in this new book. I decided to become an American historian after taking Gordon Wood’s class on the early American republic and realizing that the questions that most intrigued me were being asked by all Americans– whether rich or poor, white or black, male or female– in the decades following the American Revolution.

JF: What is your next project?

JN: I’m not sure. I am continuing to write about education, democracy, and higher education reform. I have started doing some work on the historic relationship between the humanities and American democracy, not just in schools but in society more broadly. We’ll see where it goes!

JF: Thanks, Johann!

Mark Lilla Returns With a More Sustained Treatment of Identity Politics

LillaLast November, Columbia University humanities professor Mark Lilla released a bombshell in the form of a New York Times article entitled “The End of Identity Liberalism.”  We spent some time here discussing it.  I found Lilla’s argument pretty compelling.

Lilla decided to capitalize on the popularity and controversy of his Times piece with a 143-page book titled The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.  I have not read the book yet, but just came across a review from Yale historian Beverly Gage.

Here is a taste:

…he identifies some truly important questions that liberals and leftists of all stripes will have to face together: How should the Democratic Party balance diversity with a common vision of citizenship? How and where should concerned Americans focus their energies — on social-movement activism, on “resistance,” on electoral politics? How should universities preserve free speech in an age of impassioned conflict? How, for that matter, can Democrats start winning a few more local races? Lilla acts as if there are easy answers to these questions. “We need no more marchers,” he writes. “We need more mayors.” But isn’t it possible that we need both?

Lilla concedes that many Americans think of themselves at once as members of identity groups and as citizens of a national polity. “Both ideas can be — indeed, are — true.” He argues nonetheless that our particular crisis calls for prioritizing one over the other. “What’s crucial at this juncture in our history is to concentrate on this shared political status, not on our other manifest differences.”

Unwittingly, however, “The Once and Future Liberal” provides a case study in just how challenging that may be. Despite his lofty calls for solidarity, Lilla can’t seem to get out of his own way — or even to take his own advice. He urges fellow liberals to focus on “the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort,” then proceeds to insult his own audience. He denounces the modern university for churning out students “incurious about the world outside their heads,” yet fails, in the end, to get much outside of his own. He decries identity types for “delivering sermons to the unwashed from a raised pulpit” while offering up his own elaborate jeremiad. He reminds liberals that “nothing will turn voters off more surely than being hectored,” and then — on the very same page — scolds the “identity conscious” for treating political meetings as “therapy sessions.”

As it turns out, Lilla himself could have used more rather than less introspection, a healthy dose of examining his own contradictions and biases. He laments that “American liberals have a reputation, as the saying goes, of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” If so, he has proved his bona fides as a member of the tribe. “The Once and Future Liberal” is a missed opportunity of the highest order, trolling disguised as erudition.

Ouch.

Read the entire review here.  I’ll reserve judgement until I get a chance to read the book. You can also listen to an interview with Lilla at “All Things Considered.”