History

Rush to Judgment: Preliminary Thoughts on Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War

Rush to Judgment: Preliminary Thoughts on PBS’ “The Vietnam War”

Like many Americans with an interest in history, One Thing after Another sat down to watch the premiere of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s much-anticipated documentary The Vietnam War. While only a fool would judge an eighteen-hour series on the first episode, we at One Thing after Another have never shied away from a challenge. So what follows are some very preliminary observations about a program that is bound to shape the way Americans—and others—understand the Vietnam War.

First it is worth noting the many strengths that jump out in the first episode. The filmmakers have employed a diverse set of contributors to share their thoughts on the Vietnam War. Careful viewers might notice some familiar names: Bao Ninh (NVA veteran and author of The Sorrow of War), Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried), Leslie Gelb (former official in the State Department), Rufus Phillips (CIA officer), Bui Diem (South Vietnamese ambassador to the U.S), and Duong Van Mai Elliott (scholar and author of the memoir Sacred Willow). But many of the interviewees are not necessarily prominent figures who played an exceptional role in Vietnam. Rather, the filmmakers rely on people whose experiences were “ordinary,” in the sense that they experienced Vietnam in ways that were familiar to many participants.

The filmmakers have also done a nice job in capturing some of the key historical developments in the years leading up to the “Americanization” of the war. Many viewers will be surprised to learn of the brutality of French colonialism and Ho Chi Minh’s efforts to appeal to the United States as early as World War I. The episode effectively (and accurately) depicts the French War to be both a colonial struggle but also a civil conflict between Vietnamese, with Duong Van Mai noting that the fighting split many Vietnamese families. The section on Dien Bien Phu is illuminating, as it captures the against-all-odds victory of General Vo Nguyen Giap over a garrison of French troops. And viewers will likely watch with a sense of foreboding as the French war unravels, knowing that the United States is about to jump in and suffer a similar fate.

But the nagging feeling that the events of the 1940s and 1950s serve as a prelude or backdrop to the “real” war of the 1960s is also one of the limitations of the documentary—or at least of the first episode. One of the first things that viewers may notice about the series is the war does not unfold chronologically. The first episode covers the period from French colonization in the 1860s up to the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. At various points throughout the episode, though, it jumps forward to recollections of later moments in the war—soldiers talking about going on patrol in 1966 or the domestic upheaval that erupted in Chicago in 1968. The purpose of these interruptions seems to be to shrink the distance between the events that preceded American involvement and the American war itself. The message, it seems, is that events and experiences in the 1940s or 1950s bear a certain resemblance to–or even connection to–events in the mid- to late-1960s.

The importance of understanding the historical roots of America’s conflict in Vietnam is reinforced by the opening segment. The first episode begins with footage of the fighting in Vietnam that appears to be taken from the 1960s. Eventually, though, the images begin moving backwards, as the viewer is transported from the late 1960s back to the beginning of the decade, and then further still to the 1950s and eventually to World War II. Meanwhile, viewers hear the words of American presidents, but moving from later presidents like Johnson and Kennedy backwards to Eisenhower and then Truman. With these techniques, the first episode lays out a sort of “roadmap” to America’s involvement in Vietnam—first the French came, but they found that they could not defeat the forces of Vietnamese nationalism. The United States, blinded by its Cold War assumptions, was inexorably drawn into the conflict when the French left.

There is obviously some truth to this narrative. Frankly, if The Vietnam War is able to teach Americans this simple account of the Vietnam War it will probably be a real accomplishment. But this narrative also has some flaws or holes, and it is only one way that historians might approach the topic. For example, by characterizing America’s intervention as a long, slow slide into Vietnam the documentary may reinforce the idea that the U.S. had limited opportunities to avoid involvement in the conflict. More and more, historians are emphasizing that American officials had numerous opportunities to choose de-escalation rather than escalation. This theme will likely become more apparent in later episodes, as Fredrik Logevall, one of the leading proponents of the theory that the U.S. “chose” war, is one of the historical advisors for the documentary.

If the first episode shades toward a bit of determinism in describing America’s role in Vietnam, it may do the same in its account of the rise of Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh. Viewers of the first part of the documentary may be left thinking that Ho Chi Minh and his followers represented the sole—or at least the primary—movement challenging French colonialism (and, by extension, Japanese control). But such a portrayal ignores the fact that many different groups jockeyed for position in Vietnam, often offering wildly divergent visions for Vietnamese independence and development. In the 1940s, for example, non-communist nationalists allied with the Guomindang attracted a small following. After 1954, Ngo Dinh Diem tried to establish an independent government below the 17th parallel. And throughout this period various religious groups, including different Buddhist sects and the indigenous Hoa Hao, offered their own visions for an independent Vietnam.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick had to make hard choices when deciding what to include in their documentary. While the length of the series may seem excessive to some viewers, it is impossible to provide a comprehensive account of the Vietnam conflict(s) in eighteen hours. You can be certain that historians would quibble with omissions in a series that was twice as long. It’s also fair to expect a documentary written, produced, and broadcast in the United States to emphasize the stories that interest an American audience. At the same time, a documentary that is bound to shape Americans’ understanding of Vietnam will face a fair amount of scrutiny and second-guessing. Fortunately, the dialogue spurred by the series will provide ample opportunity to think about how best to understand the Vietnam War.

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David Brooks is Wrong about the “Crisis of Western Civ”

David Brooks, one of the regular op-ed columnists at The New York Times, is very upset with university professors, especially those who teach history. According to Brooks, they are responsible for the “crisis of Western Civ.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/21/opinion/the-crisis-of-western-civ.html?_r=0

According to Brooks, there once was a time when people in Europe and North America believed in a “Western civilization narrative” that was “confidently progressive” and helped “explain their place in the world and in time.” This narrative promoted certain values, including the “importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, and the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated.” According to Brooks, this view of history provided “diverse people” with a “sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary” which in turn promoted “a framework within which political argument could happen” and “common goals” could be attained. This narrative was best articulated by Will and Ariel Durant’s eleven-volume series, The Story of Civilization (1935-1975) which focused on a number of key figures and described Western history as an “an accumulation of great ideas and innovations.”

At some point, for reasons that Brooks never really explains, “many people,” but especially those teaching in universities, “lost faith in the Western civilization narrative.” It stopped being taught. If it was mentioned at all, it was described as a “history of oppression.” Brooks claims that terrible consequences have flowed from this change in the intellectual wind: the rise of illiberal and authoritarian figures “who don’t even pretend to believe” in the narrative; the collapse of the political center that once had faith in the democratic capitalism that was upheld by the narrative; and the undermining of liberal values in America. Brooks closes by arguing that:

These days, the whole idea of Western civ is assumed to be reactionary and oppressive. All I can say is, if you think that was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it.

One Thing after Another has enjoyed much time to reflect on the utility of Western Civ; while in graduate school, this blog served as a teaching assistant in Western Civ courses for three years (nine quarters in a row!) before spending another three years teaching Western Civ as a visiting assistant professor at two different institutions. These experiences lead One Thing after Another to think (although it pains this blog to be so blunt) that Brooks has ventured into territory he does not understand.

For one thing, who believed in the kind of Western Civ narrative that Brooks summarizes, and when did they believe it? Brooks’ assertions are rather vague. At one point “people” believed this narrative. Then “many people . . . lost faith” in it. These claims resemble those C essays One Thing after Another used to read in Western Civ classes where that indistinct and monolithic entity, “the people,” did this and that for no discernible reason (e.g. “the French Revolution began because the people rose up to fight for their rights”). In an attempt to prove the power of the Durants’ narrative, Brooks does mention that The Story of Civilization sold two million copies (many through the Book of the Month Club), but One Thing after Another has seen enough mint copies of this eleven-volume work in used bookstores to wonder how many readers actually stumbled through its 10,000 pages. What this blog does know is that historians at the time did not think much of the Durants’ efforts. Will Durant was not a historian (he had earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy which is not exactly the same thing as History), and he did not always engage with the complexity of the past. As Crane Brinton pointed out in his review of The Age of Voltaire (Volume 9 of The Story of Civilization):

It is difficult for a professor of history to say good things about their work without seeming to unbend, if not to patronize. Clearly they are readable. They can produce the telling anecdote, the picturesque detail, [and] the sense of movement in events and ideas. . . . Above all, though, they are often mildly epigramatic. Though they can be comfortably realistic about human nature, the Durants are never uncomfortably realistic, never daring, never surprising. Theirs is the enlightenment that still enlightens, basically kindly, hopeful, progressive, reasonable, democratic.

In other words, it was history that was neither taxing nor challenging to mainstream liberal opinion in mid-1960s America. This verdict is especially telling, appearing as it does in the obituary of Will Durant produced by Brooks’ own newspaper, The New York Times.

One Thing after Another will try to leave to one side the conceptual problems associated with the whole Western Civ project (e.g. where and when was the “West,” and on what basis are certain people and places included in this “West”?). Instead, this blog is interested in Brooks’ description of the Western Civ narrative as a collection of great ideas, people, and values whose sole purpose seems to consist of upholding a liberal consensus that seeks to bind our fragile body politic.

It is not clear if Brooks believes that this narrative is an accurate representation of the past of if it is a convenient and useful myth. If the former, he is wrong; if the latter, he must realize that, like most myths, it is bound to be exposed. Whatever the case, Brooks’ essay does not seem to recognize that “history” as a discipline does not “tell” us this thing or that about the past (in much the same way that “science” does not “say” this thing or that about the natural world). Rather, historians marshal documentary evidence on behalf of arguments that seek to represent the past. Some of these arguments are more persuasive than others, and they may become dominant in their subfield for some time. But in their bridging of the gap between the present and the past, none could be said to be “the truth.” At best, they are credible inasmuch as they seem to jibe with extant documents of the past.

The point to remember is that history is constantly contested. The discipline does not set forth a series of immutable truths about Western Civ or anything else. Instead, historians present rival interpretations of past events. These rival interpretations stem, in part, from the fact that documentary evidence is often unclear and contradictory. But these conflicting readings of the past are also a product of historians’ own concerns and world views. As Benedetto Croce argued, “All history is contemporary history.” These are the reasons why, for instance, various scholars argue over whether class, culture, or politics was the main driving force behind the French Revolution.

History, then, is often messy and paradoxical. Brooks’ vision of Western Civilization (and the Durants’, from which he takes inspiration) does not seem to recognize this messiness and paradox, and that goes a long way toward explaining why historians no longer find that vision compelling. Western Civilization is no greater and no worse than the common run of humanity. It has done great good, great evil, and very much in between. Its unfolding has been unpredictable and full of surprises. It does not point in any particular direction. Take Rousseau (to name one of the “great figures” of Western Civilization to whom Brooks refers). His legacy is conflicted. This ambivalence is reflected by the fact that the two greatest near-contemporaries who felt Rousseau’s intellectual influence most forcefully were Kant and Robespierre. Not surprisingly, then, there are those who see Rousseau as absolutely indispensable to the development of modern liberalism and democracy, while others consider him the intellectual forebear of modern authoritarianism. Freedom and tyranny—these are the twin faces of the Western tradition, and any narrative that purports to describe this tradition must come to grips with both.

The main problem with Brooks’ argument is that it identifies or conflates a particular narrative of Western Civilization with liberal democratic ideals. It is his anguish about the decline of the latter that provides the driving force for his essay. But there is no need to make historians the focus of his ire. One can love liberal democracy without clinging to a fairy-tale version of Western history. The much-perceived decline of liberal democracy in the West probably has many origins; it seems disproportionate to point to so inconsequential a force as history professors as the main culprits. Defenders of liberal democracy should fight for what they think is right, but they should not criticize historians for refusing to embrace a narrative that does not do justice to the complexity of the Western tradition.

Brooks’ conclusion puts One Thing after Another in mind of a line from George Orwell’s classic, semi-autobiographical short story, “Shooting an Elephant” (1936). In the introduction, the narrator describes himself in terms that would have fit Orwell himself:

I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it.

The problem was, of course, that even if one believed the British Empire was a “good deal better” than its successors, there was no point in wishing for its survival; its position was untenable. The same goes for the Durants’ narrative of Western Civ. Even if one believes it was a good deal better, its position, too, is untenable.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Martin Luther King, Jr., the Comics, and Biography

curtis

This past Martin Luther King Day, in the comic strip Curtis, the title character asks at the dinner table—“Makes me wonder how history would have played out if Dr. King was never born, or never assassinated?” His family’s response is dumbstruck silence. Many historians might have been hard pressed to respond cogently to the fictional eleven-year-old’s question as well.

We have long debated whether great people shape history through their actions or if broader impersonal forces shape historical events and the participants. Martin Luther King, for example, was not the only civil rights leader, and undoubtedly other leaders would have pushed the civil rights agenda forward in the 1950s and 1960s without him. Yet, through his soaring rhetoric, King put his indelible mark on the movement. The story of King’s life has consequently become for many Americans the story of the Civil Rights movement in the mid-twentieth century.

Though many academic historians have shied away from biography recently, the lives of great men and women are still the primary way that most people learn about the past. People like biography because it enables readers to form mental pictures of the events or actions described and thereby allows readers in a sense to walk in another’s shoes. Biography essentially makes history more accessible and real for readers than jargon-laden academic texts do. In the process, biography provides a good introduction to the politics, economics, social hierarchies, and morality of various times and places that facilitates more mature historical analysis. Biography effectively opens the door to greater historical awareness.

Biography does not need to be just a parade of great men and women either. Many projects are underway today to write biographies or biographical sketches of regular people. Such projects open the door to innovative pedagogical collaboration between teachers, students, and public history organizations. For instance, Saint Anselm students in Professor Salerno’s American Women’s History (HI 359) recently prepared biographical sketches for a national database on militant suffragists arrested in demonstrations during World War I.

Renewed interest in biography might not quell historians’ ambivalence with the genre or put to rest long-standing debates regarding causation (that is, the relative weight of individual action vs. impersonal forces). Still, more appreciation of biography by professional historians will allow us to participate more fully in public debates—even with fictional characters in the funnies.

Curtis’s creator, Ray Billingsley, of course, was not really interested in historians’ debates when he penned his strip. Rather, he rightly wanted to highlight how different American history would have been without Martin Luther King—or how the world would have changed had he lived longer.

Trump’s Election, the Way History Works, and the Arc of the Moral Universe

theodore-parker

One Thing after Another recently read Rebecca Onion’s piece in Slate where she responds to those who, in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election, have tried to console themselves by referring to history.

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/history/2016/11/don_t_look_to_history_for_an_analog_to_trump_s_victory.html

Onion responds first to the “school” of thought (if we may dignify it with that name) that claims the United States has survived disasters in the past and can therefore survive future disasters. Yet as Onion points out, such an argument forms a very weak syllogism: America experienced disasters in the past; these disasters did not destroy America; therefore, the disaster of Trump’s election will not destroy America. The problem is that America today is not the America of the past, and the dangers presented by a Trump presidency are not the same as those that confronted the United States on previous occasions. Onion’s argument calls to mind the phrase that the Securities and Exchange Commission compels all mutual funds to include in their brochures: past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Second, Onion takes on the notion that “history” is against Trump. This idea amounts to the claim that events move in a particular direction, and that a Trump presidency is some sort of doomed anachronism that will soon be inundated by an unstoppable progressive tide. Most commonly, this position is expressed with a simple, “It’s 2016!” as if to say that Trump, discrimination, inequality or some other undesirable development is, at the very least, out of joint with our times or, at most, plainly impossible. Others make essentially the same case when they refer to Theodore Parker’s claim (made famous when Martin Luther King, Jr. paraphrased it in an article and later at a baccalaureate sermon at Wesleyan University): “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Yes, so the argument goes, Trump has won for now, but the future, which becomes more just as time goes on, is against him. Onion points out, however (and quite rightly), that history has no trajectory of its own that is free from our choices or actions. In other words, following David Sessions, she writes, “we have control over any moral arc that exists,” and “the shape and flavor of the future is in our hands.”

One Thing after Another likes Onion’s essays very much because she relates history to current events in ways that anybody can understand. In this particular case, she is correct so far as she goes. However, she and Sessions make the same mistake that everybody else on Facebook has made when quoting Parker; they have removed his observation about the moral arc of the universe from the context of the sermon in which it was delivered and thus distorted the meaning of his words. Leaving out as they do how and why the arc of the universe bends toward justice, they make Parker’s famous sentence seem, to use Onion’s words, “a big theory of how history happens.” Understood this way, Parker’s statement seems to imply that if we wait long enough, justice will somehow arrive of its own accord. Such was not at all Parker’s message when he wrote “Of Justice and Conscience” in 1852 (which is where his famous statement about the arc of the moral universe appears). As we try to convey his meaning precisely, it makes sense that we use his own words (and refer to  “The Function and Place of Conscience in Relation to the Laws” where he developed his ideas about justice and conscience).

A prominent Unitarian minister who was heavily influenced by the Transcendentalists, Parker (1810-1860) (whose portrait is above) preached in Boston for most of his career. Parker argued there was a natural law that expressed itself, among other ways, as the law of Morals. This law of Morals was immutable, universal, and absolutely right. When one acted according to this law, one fulfilled the moral purpose of his existence and carried out justice. According to Parker, God gave all of us a “Conscience” by which to apprehend this law. The conscience, of course, was imperfect, but it was “adequate to the purpose God meant for it.” If one cultivated one’s conscience, he or she could come to internalize the law and love it. Parker set a high store on the conscience, for it showed the way to “Duty” which was nothing more than obedience to God’s will. Parker stressed that duty trumped everything, including “Business,” which consisted of the obligations laid upon us in our roles as citizens or workers. In making this argument, Parker took especial pains to show how notions of duty then pointed in an abolitionist direction—people ought to follow their duty as dictated by their conscience, disobey man-made laws like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and free their fellow humans from slavery.

Because of their consciences, Parker asserted, people naturally inclined toward justice. Unfortunately, the world did not always reflect this inclination. In the pursuit of their own self-interest, the wealthy and powerful, whether they be “crafty aristocracies” or “monopolists,” had shunned “moral culture” and “scorned justice.” Partially for this reason, government had become “an organization of selfishness” that seemed “to foster the strong at the expense of the week” and “protect the capitalist and tax the laborer.” In such a world, it should come as no surprise that the unjust did not always appear to receive their due punishment.

It is in this context of a world that only poorly reflected divine justice that Parker argued:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged for long.

Why? Because human nature, which yearned for justice as conceived by the conscience, would not tolerate evil forever. The important point is that people would have to take action to bend that arc toward justice. As Parker put it, “In human affairs the justice of God must work by human means.” “You and I can help forward that work,” he told his audience, to “prepare the way for the republic of righteousness.”

And so, in his way, Parker did agree with Onion and Sessions. We are responsible for the arc. We determine how, when, and whether it approaches, asymptotically, the law of Morals. This vision of the world is liberating—we are in charge—but it lays a great obligation upon us as well. Of course, this view of matters raises the question of whether we possess a conscience that truly can recognize justice. The next several years might give us an opportunity to find out.

NOTE: One Thing after Another is indebted to the following post on David Weinberger’s blog: “Does the moral universe arc?”

History Students Rock the NEHA Fall Conference

History 359 Class Celebrating

On a recent fall Saturday, eight Saint Anselm College History majors and minors, one Saint Anselm College alum, and Professor Beth Salerno headed down to the New England Historical Association Conference held at Rivier University in Nashua, NH. The New England Historical Association (NEHA) is the regional branch of the American Historical Association (the largest professional organization for historians in America) and offers a conference twice a year. Professor Sean Perrone currently serves as its Treasurer.

Professor Salerno, Lily-Gre Hitchen ’18, and Sarah Hummel ’19 presented research they did in History 359 American Women’s History (see our related post). Other history majors and minors came along to experience their first history conference and explore areas of particular interest. One Thing after Another caught up with the attendees to find out what they learned at the conference.

Q: What made you decide to propose a faculty/student panel for this conference?

Professor Salerno: During the American Women’s History course, I collaborated with Professor Laura Prieto at Simmons College, sharing assignments and research materials. She suggested that we put together a panel for NEHA so our students could experience a professional history conference. I agreed and we wrote up a proposal for a Roundtable on “Teaching and Learning Historical Skills through a Crowdsourced Women’s History Project.” It included the two of us as Chair and Commentator, plus two Saint Anselm undergraduate students, one Simmons College undergraduate, and two Simmons College graduate students.

Q: What motivated the students to participate on the panel?

Sarah Hummel ’19 (History): I agreed to present my research experience because I was eager to share with other students and educators the lessons that the project taught me. The NEHA Conference seemed like the perfect place to network and share my experience as a historian with like-minded history students and professors.

Lily-Gre Hitchen ’18 (History) It was an opportunity in itself to be able to reflect on work in front of an interested audience. There are many times I have completed a research paper for class that I am very proud of, but the paper is never seen by anyone besides my professor. I was also excited to be able to express my enthusiasm about the assignment, because the crowdsourcing project was a memorable process for me.

Q: It must have been a bit intimidating to give a presentation in front of professional historians.

Lily-Gre Hitchen ’18 (History): I learned that it is important to relax. When I was preparing my talk, I was continuously second-guessing the language of my presentation. I wanted to use complicated diction to express my experiences, but I learned that simplifying the language is necessary for clarity. When giving the presentation, I realized that taking a few breaths to calm down really made a difference. Being too serious or too nervous can sometimes hurt a presentation, and calming down before speaking really makes a difference. It took a certain amount of confidence to be able to relax before the presentation, and this confidence came from trusting myself and my abilities.

Sarah Hummel ’19 (History): Presenting in a conference setting forced me to focus not just on paring down my ideas, but also expressions. I also learned that if you are enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the information you are going to present, those two factors make presenting much less nerve-racking – but it’s okay to be a little nervous too!

Q: Did all the student attendees come to your session?

Professor Salerno: Whitney Hammond ’18, Alexis LaBrie ’18, and Chris Griebel (’16, now a fourth-grade teacher at St. Pius School, Lynn, MA) all attended our session. They had been part of the American Women’s History class and done the project as well. They contributed their observations about the impact and value of the project during the audience discussion. The rest of the students attended other sessions during the same time block. They had five choices during each block, giving them a wide variety of options.

Q: For those of you who were not presenting, what drew you to the conference?

Caitlin Williamson ’19 (History): I signed up for this conference because I had never done anything like this before and wanted to see what it was like. Before the event, I was a little nervous (despite not having to present anything) just because I wasn’t sure what to expect out of something like this!

Whitney Hammond ’18 (History): I signed up for the conference because as a senior history major I want to experience as much as I can before I graduate. I think attending this conference was a great opportunity for history majors because we were able to listen to historians and connect what they study to what we studied in our own history classes. It was also nice to be a part of a community of historians and listen to the work they dedicate themselves to.

Q: Can you describe your favorite session?

Cody Face ’20 (History): One panel I went to was War and Order. I found the presentation by Nathan Marzoli (Historian, US Army Center of Military History) rather intriguing. He discussed the 12th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry, a Union regiment during the Civil War that fought at Chancellorsville. This battle happened to be one of the bloodiest of the Civil War, and a major Union defeat (It is often seen as one of Robert E. Lee’s greatest victories). Instead of focusing on the battle itself, Mr. Marzoli focused on the view of the soldiers. We heard about two brothers lying next to each other amidst the chaos of gunfire, shrapnel, and screams of agony when all of a sudden one of the brothers was shot and killed instantly. Such an incident was eye-opening in that it gave us a sense of what these soldiers faced. It added a sense of gravity to the Civil War, as if I myself was affected by it. His presentation was engaging, and his use of technology made it easy to imagine the battle being fought (he provided pictures of the battleground). All in all, it was a very effective performance on his part.

Lisette Labbè ’19 (Psychology Major and History Minor):  I went to one of the panels that discussed new and different historical approaches—which made me realize that although history is the study of the past, the discipline is still very much alive and adaptive. I think it’s fascinating to see historians find different ways to approach history, because it seems like there are many different approaches that have yet to be discovered.

Caitlin Williamson ’19 (History): My favorite panel of the day was focused on the 1860s and 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement. I immediately chose this panel because I’m in Professor [Andy] Moore’s Civil Rights Movement class this semester and was excited to see what different perspectives the papers on the panel would give me. My favorite paper out of the whole day was from this panel. It was on modern civil rights action and how college campuses are confronting their various histories, especially with notable alumni of many prominent institutions being slaveholders or having otherwise done something in the past that is unacceptable today. The professor had many examples at universities like Harvard and Yale, and her paper got me thinking more about how the Civil Rights Movement that is thought to be a thing of the 1950s and 60s is not over just yet.

Q: Did attending the conference change your sense of the past or the profession?

Alexis LaBrie ’18 (History and Criminal Justice Major): I gained a better sense that much of the historical profession is devoted to research. A person picks a topic that she find interesting and then she spend her whole life analyzing it. The other side of that is historians are constantly reevaluating moments in the past to incorporate new findings and perspectives. The questions that most commonly came up were, “What was the impact on the community/state/country?” I was struck by historians’ curiosity concerning the effect of the event and its lasting impact.

Sarah Hummel ’19 (History): Up until now, I thought the bulk of what historians did was researching and writing. This conference, both in presenting and in attending other panels, taught me that while writing and researching are important, the process of sharing this knowledge is just as important – and just as thrilling! It is comforting for me to have a better idea of how people can make a living and enjoy their career in a major that is often overlooked or underappreciated. Now, I am even more excited to be a history major – there are so many ways to share knowledge which are just as exciting as acquiring it.

Q: Would you recommend this opportunity to other history majors?

Whitney Hammond ’18 (History): I think it is a great opportunity for those interested in History, and I would definitely try to attend at least one conference before you graduate. I was even thinking of attending the next one because of how much I enjoyed it. It was really great to be surrounded by a community of people who all care about and appreciate history.

Lisette Labbè ’19 (Psychology Major and History Minor): I think more students should go to these conferences to really experience the culture of historians and learn about new topics that you may never have thought about. I think it is also a great opportunity to listen and learn about topics you are truly passionate about and to be able to talk to those scholars who specialize in it.

Caitlin Williamson ’19 (History): I learned from this conference how specific research such as this gets. Many papers looked at one specific individual, or a specific time period, rather than an entire group of people or a trend throughout decades. This was especially helpful as I look forward to possibly writing a thesis in the coming years. This conference presented me with examples of what historical research really looks like.

Gladwell’s Revisionist History is Neither Revisionist Nor History

gladwell-revisionist-history

It is difficult to describe to people who have never heard of Malcolm Gladwell what he does for a living. He is a journalist, author, and public speaker who writes about the kinds of things calculated to appeal to the movers and shakers of the new tech world: tipping points, intuitive thinking, innovation, the secrets to success, and so on. A staff writer at The New Yorker, he has produced a number of influential books, including, most recently, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (2013). Gladwell has recently launched a podcast entitled “Revisionist History” which studies the same types of questions in the same Gladwellian way.

http://revisionisthistory.com/

An essay by Allison Miller, “History and You: Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Revisionist History’ Podcast Cleanses History of the Past,” which recently appeared in The Baffler, has taken Gladwell to task for masquerading as a historian:

http://thebaffler.com/blog/gladwell-podcast-miller

Miller points out that crafting history is an act of empathy. As she puts it, “Analyzing the past requires you to see a particular set of circumstances from someone else’s point of view—knowing full well that the gulf between then and now will prevent you from truly understanding them and what they faced.” To analyze people from the past, though, Gladwell relentlessly employs the latest concepts garnered from the social sciences. These concepts generally do not recognize that people from the past were fundamentally different. Miller chooses the example of Episode 1, “The Lady Vanishes” to explain the faults of Gladwell’s modus operandi. A concept that he borrows from the social sciences (in this case, “moral licensing,” which comes from social psychology), she argues, is an inappropriate tool for explaining why Victorian artist Elizabeth Thompson did not obtain admittance to the Royal Academy for her widely acclaimed painting, The Roll Call (1874).

thompson-roll-call

Having listened to a number of episodes on “Revisionist History,” One Thing after Another couldn’t agree more with Miller. Gladwell’s podcast disregards one of the most fundamental truths established by the discipline of history: everything—including people’s behaviors and world views—changes over time. Miller does neglect, however, to mention another important way in which “Revisionist History” fails to live up to its title. The way in which Gladwell applies his various concepts from the social sciences indicates that he does not understand what the word “revisionist” signifies when associated with history. Over time, for a wide variety of reasons, historians constantly revise their understandings of the past—they employ different methods to interrogate it, they use different sources, they bring different world views to the task, or they use their imagination in different ways. History is an ongoing conversation in which many interpretations are provisional; no matter how well they explain the past, they are usually superseded by subsequent understandings. This process of revision is what revisionist history is all about. For Gladwell, though, revisionist history appears to consist simply  of revisiting certain past incidents and solving their mysteries definitively. There is no sense that his findings are part of a larger exchange or that they are in any way tentative. Gladwell provides clarity and closure. One obtains the impression that for Gladwell, the past is merely a scene where he can demonstrate the utility of his latest interesting theory in cracking various paradoxes.

This attitude on Gladwell’s part may be the product of sloppy thinking (surprising in someone who was a history major as an undergraduate). One cannot help noting, however, that Gladwell himself benefits from peddling this point of view. Using the social sciences to solve many puzzles from the past, Gladwell dramatically expands their jurisdiction and gives the impression that they produce immutable, universal laws that transcend time and space. Who should benefit from this impression but the popular purveyor of social scientific explanations, Gladwell himself?

One Thing after Another is not merely attempting to defend history’s turf for turf’s sake. The questions Miller raises about how to do history have important implications. As Miller points out, those who wrestle with the past can develop the judgment to provide a variety of feasible alternatives for the future. Gladwell’s vision is very attractive; he provides easily grasped certainties. History is less attractive; it asks us to wrestle with an alien past for the sake of sharpening our judgment. At the end of the day, as we confront the future, Gladwell supplies answers. History, on the other hand, compels us to struggle, but in so doing, it gives us the opportunity to develop wisdom.

Kane Lands Job with Brown Brothers Harriman

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Lili Kane ’16 (Lynn, MA) had scarcely graduated last May before she obtained a real plum of a job (involving history no less!) with Brown Brothers Harriman in Boston, MA. One Thing after Another contacted Kane to ask her about her experiences at Saint. Anselm College and her new position.

On November 1, at 7 PM, Kane will appear with other alums at the Living Learning Commons (new dorm) to discuss career opportunities for History majors. Appearing with her will be:

  • Lisa Palone ’95, Editorial Research Manager, WGBH (where she is the content manager for the Emmy-winning public affairs program, Frontline)
  • Dan Puopolo ’98, Managing Director, NextShares Solutions LLC
  • Stephen Shorey ’11, Staff Attorney, Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Public Records Division

Q: What brought you to Saint Anselm College, and why did you major in History?

A: I came to Saint Anselm College not only because of the fantastic food and gorgeous campus, but also because of the sense of opportunity. I knew I wanted to attend a college that was academically challenging and offered small class sizes so I could easily engage in class conversations and get to know my professors personally. I also valued how invested the school was in setting up volunteer opportunities around Manchester. Saint Anselm College immediately created a sense of community for me, and I never for a second regretted my choice.

When I started my freshman year, I had yet to declare a major, but I knew I was interested in history. I’ve always loved to read, so I decided to take a couple of history courses. The introductory course I took with Professor Masur (History 100: Introduction to the Study of History) was challenging, intriguing, and super fun. At the time (and even at graduation) I had no idea what I was going to be doing with a history degree, but that didn’t matter because I knew I was receiving a strong education and that was all the confidence I needed.

Q: Back in July, you landed a job as an Enterprise Services Senior Specialist at Brown Brothers Harriman in Boston, MA. Tell us a little bit about the firm and what you do there.

A: Established in 1818, Brown Brothers Harriman is the largest private bank in North America and by far the oldest. A linen merchant by the name of Alexander Brown emigrated from Ireland to Baltimore where he created a private, family-owned merchant bank with his four sons. Strategic investments and innovative business decisions have transformed Brown Brothers Harriman from leaders in merchant banking and transatlantic trade to an integrated worldwide financial services firm. My role as an Enterprise Services Senior Specialist has given me a unique perspective on the firm. I work in General Administration where I help the team with any administrative support, but my main focus is on managing the firm’s historical archives and research.

With the firm’s bicentennial (in 2018) quickly approaching, my knowledge of the firm’s past will prove helpful to any department looking for historical information. Also, since Brown Brothers Harriman is very proud of its history and longevity, it is publishing a book that will tell the story of their last 200 years—and I will be assisting the author in his research!

Q: In what ways do you think your history background might have helped you obtain the job and prepare you to undertake the tasks associated with your position?

A: If it had not been for my history background, I am certain I would not have this role at Brown Brothers Harriman. I had applied for an entry-level operations position, and a woman from HR contacted me about this role because my major at Saint Anselm caught her eye. Brown Brothers Harriman was looking for someone who could do research, enjoyed history, and was able to multitask while doing additional administrative work. When I went for the interview, I told my future boss that this role had my name written all over it. I still have a lot of researching ahead of me, but with the skills I learned at Saint Anselm—how to actively read, critically think, and look at the bigger picture—I have no doubt that I will succeed in this role.

Q: While you were at Saint Anselm College, you also minored in Communication and got an internship with the Office of College Communications and Marketing (CCM). What were the tasks associated with this internship? What did you learn that helped you at Brown Brothers Harriman?

A: My internship with the Office of Communications and Marketing really helped me develop my writing skills. In my history classes, I was always a decent writer, but I frequently struggled with getting all my thoughts effectively on paper. As an intern at CCM, my daily tasks were to draft news stories for the college website. I never realized how challenging journalistic writing was. My experience as an intern at CCM strengthened my ability to write in a simpler manner, which is valuable in my role at Brown Brothers Harriman since what I write there tends to be shorter (e.g. informative news blurbs) than, say, a history research paper.

I truly cannot emphasize enough how important internships are. I felt so confident in myself when this job began because I knew I had the education and a significant amount of experience that could all be tied into this role.

Q: You’re from Lynn, MA. What’s the best thing about your hometown besides Marshmallow Fluff?

A: Well, fluff is pretty awesome, BUT what I think the best thing about Lynn is that we’re called the City of Firsts. Lynn had the first baseball game under artificial light, the first iron works, first fire engine, and a bunch of other stuff. But I bet you’ll never guess that Lynn had the FIRST roast beef sandwich. Marshmallow Fluff and roast beef—Lynn, Lynn, the city of sin likes classy food.