Goodbye, Class of 2017! Hello, Class of 2021!

For most people (especially in the Northern hemisphere), “Happy New Year” conjures up lacy snowflakes and winter wonderlands. For academics, it means the end of summer and the start of a new school year. One Thing After Another is back from its summer hiatus and ready to start another year. But before we move forward, we should look back for a moment and catch up on some highlights of the Saint Anselm College History Department Class of 2017. In late April, senior Whitney Hammond ’17 helped Professor Sean Perrone induct new members of Phi Alpha Theta, the History Honor Society. Michael Schmidt ’17 was inducted a year late, since he had been in Germany during the previous year’s induction. The other inductees were juniors and as of this week, they officially began their senior courses. We hope one or two might attend a Phi Alpha Theta conference in the spring as Kristen Van Uden ’16 did last May.

From left: Professor Sean Perrone, Whitney Hammond ’17, Ted Boivin ’18, Colleen Gaughan ’18, Jonathan Burkhart ’18, Michael Schmidt ’17, Lily-Gre Hitchen ’18, Professor Pajakowski; Emily Rice ’17 is not pictured.

In May we had a second chance to enjoy the Class of 2017 at the History Department Senior Dinner. This annual gathering of history department seniors and faculty is a great chance to remember past escapades and hear about future plans. With seniors off to law school, to Fidelity’s leadership training program, to graduate school in Education, and to the workforce, we look forward to hearing about future success.

Front row, from left: Professor Beth Salerno, Eric Soucy ’17, Michael Schmidt ’17, Whitney Hammond ’17, Professor Sarah Hardin, Professor Silvia Shannon, and Brendan Megan ’17. Back row, from left: Professor Sean Perrone, Matthew Horton ’17, Michael Ryan ’17, Ginger Gates ’17, Professor Hugh Dubrulle, Professor Phil Pajakowski, Professor Matthew Masur.

The Class of 2017 had the distinction of being the smallest history class in departmental memory. The Class of 2021 may be one of our largest in six or seven years. We are excited to welcome two American Studies majors and about 15 history majors with interests ranging across America, Europe, and the world. We have a student scouted professionally for bowling, a student with Irish/Filipino heritage, an avid camper, and a student whose high school history teacher was a former SAC history major! Keep an eye on One Thing After Another for more stories about members of this incoming class over their next four years. They are less than a week into their “happy new year,” but clearly already excited.

History and American Studies majors (and a few undeclareds) at First-Year Orientation, August 2017

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

Advertisements

Professor Moore on the Catholic Church’s Response to Charlottesville and Racism

When white supremacists and counter-protesters clashed in Charlottesville, Virginia, recently over the removal of Confederate statues, they forced into national headlines a conversation over the meaning of historical symbols.  They also reminded some observers of civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s, when activists successfully convinced Americans that they were fighting for a moral cause.  Recently, Professor Moore spoke with a correspondent for the magazine America: The Jesuit Review and helped to place the Charlottesville protests into historical context.  The correspondent, by the way, is Michael O’Loughlin, a 2007 Saint Anselm alum.  The link for the article can be found here.

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

Sigman Does Summer Research in African History

Over the summer, Professor Sarah Hardin took on Becky Sigman ’19 as a research assistant. We asked Sigman, who majors in Peace and Justice while minoring in French, to tell One Thing after Another something about her experience. Starting this fall, the History Department will be making much greater use of research assistants than in the past, so you might want to read about what Sigman thought of her summer work.


Last year, I took Professor Hardin’s course, History 391: History of Southern Africa. After speaking with her several times about her area of expertise—the role of agriculture in the lives of West Africans—I decided that I wanted to learn more. The idea of doing research with a professor appealed to me because I thought it would be a great way to learn about academic research, increase my knowledge about an issue that I was interested in, and develop a closer relationship with a great mentor in the field. Professor Hardin needed a research assistant, so together we identified our plan of action. Lucky for me, I learned that one of my research responsibilities would consist of translating documents from French into English, which allowed me to expand my French vocabulary and increase my fluency. We started applying for funding, and through the generosity of the Dean’s Office, I was able to assist Professor Hardin in her research for four weeks over the summer.

Throughout those four weeks, I was responsible for translating, summarizing, and analyzing reports from France and francophone African countries. For years, Professor Hardin has been collecting documents to investigate the repercussions of pesticides and herbicides used for cotton production in West Africa between the 1950s and 1980s. She wants to learn what agricultural agents knew about the dangers of the chemicals they used (and when they knew it). She gave me reports and transcripts of meetings in which agents discussed the issues they encountered. Below is an advertisement from the trade journal Coton et Fibres Tropicales which is dated 1970:


Translation:
Gésaten: yields are assured with this cotton herbicide
A Geigy treatment is appropriate for all of your problems
Widespread applicability: Gesaten eliminates the first sprouting of grass and dicotyledons
Easy to use: Gesaten can be applied through simple spraying techniques or through a spraying with sand without burying the product
Safety: Used in prescribed conditions, Geasaten will not harm your cotton crop and does not present any toxic risk for humans
Geigy société anonyme, 43 rue Vineuse, 75-Paris 16e

Professor Hardin was extremely insightful and patient throughout the process, meeting with me a few times each week to give me feedback on the work I’d completed and helping me through confusing vocabulary or concepts. What I found the most helpful is that she would continuously draw connections between specific documents and the larger goal of her thesis, which made me feel like the work I was doing was valuable. In the transcripts, we found that in the 1950s some chemicals accidentally killed goats, birds, dogs, and fish, and harmed humans, but that the agents seemed to take human labor for granted and only advised that people follow instructions carefully. In the 1970s, however, the agents began to express more concern about environmental damages and human health over the long term. Professor Hardin proposes that economic and political factors contributed to this change.

I would highly recommend doing research with a professor whose area of interest lines up with yours if you are interested in improving your writing and analysis skills, gaining a better understanding of how the academic research process works, or generally expanding your knowledge about a specific topic.

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

Why are There No Indians in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk?

With respect to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, there is a fair amount of “What about-ism” these days. What about Churchill? What about the French? As One Thing after Another has pointed out in a previous post, some critics are unhappy that Nolan did not include the stories of various figures or groups in his film. Now it is the turn of those who complain that Nolan has left Indians out of his tale.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/01/indian-african-dunkirk-history-whitewash-attitudes

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/opinion/dunkirk-indians-world-war.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0

One Thing after Another has a two-part response to these criticism. First, Nolan’s ambition consisted of presenting the experience of Dunkirk, not relating the story of a battle in the round like, say, The Longest Day, or other such films associated with “blockbuster history.” In doing so, Nolan took British memories of Dunkirk as a plucky evacuation and recast them into a harrowing survival story (military historian Robert Citino claims this movie presents the best rendition of what helpless infantry must have felt like when attacked by Stukas). As this blog has argued earlier, many of Nolan’s critics appear to desire a semi-documentary that details the doings of everybody on the beach when that was never his ambition. In large part, they desire this treatment because they want his film to bear the large and unwieldy load of rectifying British amnesia about the contributions of others during the evacuation (and the entire war for that matter).

And that brings us to the second part of this blog’s response. In the New York Times, Yasmin Khan complains that Dunkirk allows Britons to continue ignoring the imperial dimension of World War II. Why, then, did Nolan not show Indian troops at Dunkirk or present the narrative through Indian eyes? The answer is that there were probably very few Indians at Dunkirk. When World War II broke out in September 1939, the Indian Army had just over 200,000 men on the rolls. According to Khan’s India at War: The Subcontinent and the Second World War, 53,000 Indians enlisted in the army during the first eight months of the war. In other words, when the Dunkirk evacuation occurred, the Indian Army still numbered under a quarter million men, not enough to spare many soldiers abroad, guard the volatile North-West Frontier, and maintain domestic order. Not surprisingly, then, the British Expeditionary Force’s (BEF) order of battle for 1940 reveals that there were no Indian combat units in France. Khan and others have pointed out that elements of the Royal India Army Service Corps (see photo above) were present in France and made it to the beaches for evacuation. But the RIASC only ever sent four companies to Franceabout 1,000 men. This unit would have constituted a drop in the bucket compared to the 225,000-odd British troops stranded on the beach. As for the lascars, those Indian sailors who constituted around a quarter of the British Merchant Navy’s strength, the evidence seems to indicate that they were not as numerous at Dunkirk as Sunny Singh believes. A large majority of British troops rescued from the beach were picked up by the Royal Navy’s smaller warships (destroyers, minesweepers, and so on) or vessels pressed into service by the Royal Navy (mainly ferry boats or those involved in Britain’s coastal trade). The latter, to judge from W. J. R. Gardner’s The Evacuation from Dunkirk: “Operation Dynamo”, 26 May-4 June 1940, the standard reference work on the subject, were captained by officers from the Royal Navy Reserve, and they generally appear to have been manned by British crews.

India’s enormous contribution to the British Empire’s war effort (as chronicled recently by both Khan’s excellent book and Srinath Raghavan’s India’s War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia) came later and elsewhere in the form of men, resources, and production. The Indian Army, which grew to just under 2.5 million men, played a very significant role in the Middle East, a commitment that spilled over into North Africa and thence to Italy and Greece. This force also proved particularly important in driving the Japanese out of Burma (now Myanmar). These missions were generally in keeping with the traditions of the Indian Army which consisted of safeguarding nearby imperial interests, including the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and southeast Asia (the one big exception came during World War I in the fall of 1914 when about one-fifth of the BEF in France consisted of Indian troops). And that is part of the reason why India’s contribution to the war has often been overlooked by both Britons and Indians; each has their reasons for ignoring the British Empire during World War II. British memories of the conflict stress how Britons heroically fought “alone” against the Germans for 18 months after France collapsed. This memory also tends to emphasize the action in Europe; there is less interest in the imperial dimension of the war because the empire is now dead and gone. At the same time, as Khan explains in her book, Indians also do not seem particularly interested in the role they played during World War II, largely because that role is difficult to incorporate in the nationalist narrative about India’s movement to independence in the 1940s. How does one tell the story of the almost 2.5 million Indian soldiers who faithfully did the British Empire’s bidding just a few short years before India’s “tryst with destiny”?

There is a movie yet to be made about Indians’ contribution to World War II that deals with the complexity of their relationship to the conflict and the British Empire. Dunkirk is not the setting for that movie. Such a film should be set in the Middle East or North Africa. Better yet, it it should take place in Burma, where eight of the thirteen infantry division that served in Bill Slim’s 14th Army were Indian. Their victories at Imphal and Kohima in the spring of 1944, which dealt Japan its greatest defeats on land during World War II, led to the recovery of Burma. It’s pretty clear that a British audience would not show much interest in such a film. But would Indians be in the mood to watch a movie that showed them in the service of an empire that they believe they are well rid of?

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

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Its Critics

If you pay attention to movies, you know that Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which was released in the United States on Friday (and on July 13 in Britain), has been a tremendous hit with film critics, winning a fresh score of 92% at Rotten Tomatoes. Media outlets across the political spectrum appear to agree in conferring high honors on Dunkirk. For example, The Guardian acclaims it as “Nolan’s best film so far,” describes it as a “visceral piece of film-making,” and compares Nolan to Stanley Kubrick. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal, which usually doesn’t find itself on the same side of most issues as The Guardian, praises Nolan for having “created something new in the annals of war films—an intimate epic.”

The world, of course, would not be what it is if somebody wasn’t critical of Nolan’s choices. A handful of critics have complained that the film does not have much of an emotional core because there is little character development, and One Thing after Another can understand where they are coming from; Dunkirk is an inspired piece of filmmaking, but it is not perfect. One Thing after Another, however, is less forgiving of more political criticisms of the movie. In a mixed review that admires Dunkirk’s ability to immerse the audience in the experiences of the protagonists but criticizes the lack of character development, Jacques Mandelbaum in Le Monde (one of France’s pre-eminent newspapers) takes Nolan to task for turning his movie into “a purely English history.” “In this film, where are the 120,000 French soldiers also evacuated from Dunkirk?” Mandelbaum asks. “Where are the other 40,000 who sacrificed themselves to defend the city against an enemy superior in arms and in numbers?” Mandelbaum would like to rescue the story of Dunkirk from its status as an exclusively British epic; the narrative he desires to see is a Franco-British one. This narrative would stress the courageous efforts of French troops at Lille and Dunkirk who bought time for the men on the beach—both French and British—to be rescued in a joint Allied operation. It would also express the pathos of the relations between allies who were now fated to go their separate ways—the British saving themselves to fight another day and liberate the Continent, the French succumbing to defeat and the tender mercies of Petain and German occupation. This type of criticism of is intelligible. France has its own story to tell about a battle that took place on French soil and involved hundreds of thousands of French troops who generally acquitted themselves in a courageous fashion. One can understand how tiresome it must feel to have this tale usurped or appropriated by the British. Yet there is more than one way of looking at Dunkirk, and many of these ways do not involve surveying the battle in its totality. Nolan is clearly interested in using Dunkirk as the setting for a timeless survival story. In so doing, he recasts the traditional British memory of Dunkirk which stresses the virtues of pluckiness, improvisation, courage, and the stiff upper lip. Instead, Nolan’s Dunkirk is a grim, austere, and often terrifying story where men must face terrible choices as they run a gauntlet of nightmares. As The Guardian puts it, Dunkirk is not so much a war movie as a disaster film; the characters, often with limited means, try to evade or, at most, mitigate the great harm of war. Indeed, Dunkirk reminds One Thing after Another of Samuel Hynes’ The Soldiers’ Tale (1998) with its evocation of the soldier as helpless victim before the often indiscriminate and sweeping reach of modern war (see Slate‘s comments to this point). At the end of the film, one of the characters, now safely in Britain, gets hold of a newspaper, and in a sometimes faltering voice, reads aloud Winston Churchill’s famous June 4, 1940 oration in the House of Commons (commonly referred to as the “We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches” speech). How strange and incongruous these words sound in the mouth of an exhausted British soldier who has done everything he could to escape a French beach, surviving rifle fire, artillery bombardment, strafing, bombing, and the sinking of several vessels. This moment makes us aware of the degree to which Nolan seeks to overturn the story that has dominated British memories of the evacuation.

At bottom, Dorothy Rabinowitz’s opinion piece in the Wall Street Review (as opposed to the positive film review by Joe Morgenstern which is cited above) suffers from the same kind of problem as Mandelbaum’s criticism. Rabinowitz accuses Nolan of “dumbing down” the story of Dunkirk because he did not supply the full historical context for the evacuation. Churchill, she complains, never makes an appearance in the film and, as she points out, it’s almost impossible, unless one already knows the story of Dunkirk, to see that the British characters in the film are pitted against Nazi Germany. Rabinowitz attributes the worst motives to Nolan by dwelling on his desire to make a “universal” and “relevant” story that neither gets bogged down in “politics” nor seems “old-fashioned.” She concludes that these aims show how little Nolan thinks of his audience; he does not wish, she argues, to tax their intellect too much. Like Mandelbaum, she wants a more complete story, but her version would involve Churchill, the discussions of the British cabinet, the conferences of generals and admirals, a full accounting of what occurred on the beach, and so on. In graduate school, One Thing after Another learned that a book reviewer should generally criticize a work on the basis of its arguments, not for neglecting to cover the topic that the reviewer wished the author had tackled. That piece of advice seems particularly apposite in this case. Rabinowitz appears incensed that Nolan did not depict Dunkirk the way she would have done it. As we have already seen, Nolan’s goals are far different from hers. She is interested in presenting what amounts to a history lesson in semi-documentary form. He is more concerned with the experience of individuals who try, each in his own way, to deal with the disaster at Dunkirk. Again, there is more than one way to portray this story.

One Thing after Another will go further, though, and argue that in other cases, Rabinowitz’s preferred approach to telling a World War II story has already been tried and found wanting. From the early 1960s, starting with The Longest Day (1962), and continuing until A Bridge Too Far (1977), Hollywood was plagued by “blockbuster history” films about World War II (to use Stephen Ambrose’s phrase). These movies, which also included The Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Battle of Britain (1969), and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), were huge productions that involved enormous casts and long running times. They interlaced the big picture with the little one, attempting to integrate the stories of politicians and generals with common soldiers. They could be entertaining and compelling in spots, but they generally faltered under the weight of their own ambitions. Film critics do not consider them great films, and historians do not think of them as great history. This sub-genre, then, has already been done before and, by most accounts, has failed. Why would Nolan want to give Dunkirk the blockbuster history treatment which is what Rabinowtiz seems to demand of him? Perhaps this is what Nolan meant when he said he did not want to make an “old-fashioned” war film.

Mandelbaum and Rabinowitz ought to understand that one can see the story of Dunkirk from a variety of perspectives. In recognizing that fact, they should ask themselves, first, if Nolan has seized upon an interesting and worthwhile perspective and, second, if he has related his tale well. Most critics, it appears, have answered “yes” to both questions.

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

Harvard versus “Unrecognized Single-Gender Organizations”

Those of you who pay attention to academia have surely heard about the uproar surrounding the recommendations recently issued by the Committee on the Unrecognized Single-Gender Social Organizations (USGSO) at Harvard University. (For a link to the committee’s report, see this article in The Atlantic—for some reason, One Thing after Another has experienced difficulty installing the link in this post.) Although some media outlets have claimed the report recommends banning fraternities, sororities, and final clubs (which are the so-called “unrecognized single-gender social organizations” in question), that is not precisely the case. Harvard has not recognized male final clubs for over 30 years. These private organizations have no relationship to the university (hence the adjective “unrecognized”); it could not ban them if it wanted to. Rather, what the report endorses is prohibiting students from joining USGSO on pain of disciplinary action. The exact wording of the recommendation is as follows:

Harvard students may neither join nor participate in final clubs, fraternities or sororities, or other similar private, exclusionary social organizations that are exclusively or predominantly made up of Harvard students, whether they have any local or national affiliation, during their time in the College. The College will take disciplinary action against students who are found to be participating in such organizations. Violations will be adjudicated by the Administrative Board.

Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard, is now considering the report’s proposals.

There appear to be two distinct but related reasons that Harvard has contemplated this course. First, the report argues that USGSOs are discriminatory and exclusionary; something needs to be done to “bring them into greater accord with the forward-looking aspirations of the University.” The principles that govern these bodies, so the argument goes, run counter to the spirit that ought to infuse Harvard. Interestingly enough, the report dwells on the damage done to those who feel excluded by USGSOs. This position has been ridiculed by critics who point out that Harvard is one of the most exclusive universities in the world, and its students are among the most economically privileged. Under these circumstances, complaints about exclusion appears to show at best a lack of self-awareness and, at worst, a sensational level of chutzpah. Harvard’s administration could argue that the exclusion practiced by the university in admissions is based on merit rather than, say, something so arbitrary as gender. Yet some critics have argued that admissions are indeed arbitrary and open mainly to those who enjoy a wide range of social and economic privileges. Moreover, as the dissenting opinion of one member (Professor David Haig) of the Committee on the Unrecognized Single-Gender Social Organizations points out, it is not at all clear that students at Harvard feel so terribly excluded that they favor the actions contemplated by the administration.

One Thing after Another is somewhat more interested in the second reason, partly because it is associated with a more universal problem and partly because a number of observers have neglected it: Harvard’s administration has clearly been concerned for some time about the connection between USGSOs and sexual assault. A Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault issued a report in March 2016 making this connection, pointing out that whereas 31% of Harvard’s female undergraduates reported experiencing “non-consensual sexual contact” in their four years at the school, 47% of female seniors participating in final clubs had experienced such contact since entering the university. The task force argued that the male final clubs encouraged “a strong sense of sexual entitlement,” reinforced misogynistic behavior, and promoted “the marginalization of women.” In May of that year, Faust made a series of important changes that were based on this report (e.g. members of USGSOs would no longer be eligible for team captaincies, student leadership positions, and certain fellowships). Then as now, the administration did not dwell on USGSOs’ association with sexual assault. Rather, it claimed (to use the words of Rakesh Khurana, Harvard’s Dean), that “all of these unrecognized single-gender social organizations are at odds with Harvard College’s educational philosophy and its commitment to a diverse living and learning experience.”

Reducing the question to a matter of educational philosophy, as the administration seems determined to do, may allow the university to avoid the bad publicity associated with what appears to be the prevalence of sexual assault at Harvard, but it hardly seems to justify the dramatic action the university is contemplating: punishing students who belong to certain organizations that have no connection to the school. Unlike the mafia, the Hasty Pudding Club is not a criminal enterprise. Where would this kind of proscription end? What exactly would be the boundaries of the “forward-looking aspirations of the University”?

Moreover, by de-emphasizing the issue of sexual assault, the administration has allowed its critics to avoid dealing with the problem as well. Steven Pinker, the prominent professor of psychology at Harvard, has rightfully argued that the university has no right to impose values on it students and that the proposed policy is not “effective, rationally justified, evidence-based.” When they do these kind of things, he asserts, universities like Harvard do not look like “dispassionate forums” for “analyzing problems”; rather, they appear to be “institutions determined to impose their ideology and values on a diverse population by brute force.” In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has portrayed the issue as a matter of student autonomy. He sees two tendencies at work on college campuses today: a desire to treat students as adults who are capable of making “autonomous judgments about their social lives” (or at least as people who should be allowed to make mistakes within the safe confines of an undergraduate campus) versus a belief that “administrators of residential life can enlighten students morally by way of imposing bureaucratic rules and structures, resulting in more inclusive, equal campuses.” Pinker and Friedersdorf’s arguments carry a great deal of weight with One Thing after Another (which, by the by, shares the same undergraduate alma mater with Friedersdorf).

The difficulty with these arguments, though, is that some groups of students at Harvard appear to be using their autonomy, freedom, privilege, or whatever you want to call it to injure others through sexual assault. One thinks here of John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” which amounts to the idea that the only limit to one’s liberty should be that he or she cannot harm others. His articulation of this idea in the first chapter of On Liberty is instructive:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.

In other words, the promotion of an “educational philosophy” and “forward-looking aspirations” are insufficient reasons for curtailing a community’s freedom. Preventing something like sexual assault, however, does warrant the imposition of limits on individuals’ autonomy.

But are the recommendations proposed by the Committee on the Unrecognized Single-Gender Social Organizations the best means of attaining this end? Would striking a blow against USGSOs (including those that have recently turned coed or have begun to do so) really solve the problem? Are there other means of dealing with the problem that do not resemble an indiscriminate “sledgehammer,” to employ Pinker’s term? Some critics of Harvard have argued that individual transgressors should be punished rather than entire groups of students or organizations. This argument seems to make sense. Unfortunately, it is often fiendishly difficult to get to the bottom of a sexual assault case. Moreover, both the criminal justice system and Title IX proceedings have shown themselves to be flawed means of obtaining justice (in related news, Columbia University just settled out of court with Paul Nungesser, the student whom Emma Sulkowicz—she of the famous Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)—accused of rape). One Thing after Another would suggest that Harvard is considering the desperate expedients proposed by the committee because the existing means of dealing with sexual assault have proven themselves insufficient.

One Thing after Another realizes that it has produced more questions and criticisms than answers in this post. But it would like to leave its gentle readers with two  thoughts. First, Harvard needs to be more honest and forthright about the problem of sexual assault. If the statistics produced by the Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault are legitimate and the university believes it has an important role to play in the lives of its students, then it needs to display the courage of its convictions and attack the issue head-on instead of emphasizing culture and values. Yes, promoting different culture and values may affect sexual behavior in the long run (although universities might overestimate the significance of their impact on student attitudes and conduct). But how exactly does the school plan to stop sexual assault right now? Second, Harvard, like other residential colleges that increasingly betray nanny-ish tendencies, ought to step back and reflect on what role institutions realistically can and ought to play in students’ lives. For a wide variety of reasons, colleges have sought to exert control over the most intimate parts of their students’ lives. That exertion has been attended by all manner of complications as the authority and competence of schools have been stretched to the breaking point. Is it time to develop a new relationship between the university and its students?

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

From Biotech to the Belmont PD: Siracusa Tells His Story

Only a few weeks ago, while strolling the streets of the Belmont/Watertown area in Massachusetts, One Thing after Another encountered James Sicracusa ’08. Having graduated from St. Anselm College with a BA in History, Siracusa went to work for Cambridge-based Genzyme, then the third-largest biotechnology firm in the world. After having been employed at Genzyme for almost five years, Siracusa decided to switch careers and became a police officer for his hometown of Belmont. What One Thing after Another found striking about Siracusa’s story is the extent to which his degree in History gave him a flexibility and versatility that served him well in the job market. But why don’t we let Siracusa tell his own story?

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

A: I looked at several schools in the New England area before visiting St. Anselm College. I wanted to attend a small college where I could develop one-on-one relationships with staff and students. I know it sounds like a cliché, but I remember the moment when I first drove on to campus from St. Anselm Drive, and I knew I was going to go to school there.

I majored in History for several reasons. I always had a fascination with history. I would watch the History Channel all the time when I was younger (back when it actually had programs about history). In middle and high school, my Social Studies/History classes were the only ones that I really enjoyed going to. I actually liked reading my history textbooks and listening to my teachers lecture. During the first semester of my freshman year, I changed my major several times. Most people feel like they need to major in business because they think it’s the only way to make money. It’s not. I realized that if I was going to study a field for four years, it had to be something that I actually enjoyed. I told my brother, Timothy, the same thing. He’s entering his junior year at St. Anselm as a History major as well.  My friend and roommate of 3 years, Michael LaBrie (now at Recommind), had already declared History as his major, and he enjoyed it too.

Q: You worked in two very distinct professional fields after graduating from St. A’s in 2008 – five years as an office worker at the biotech firm Genzyme and a now as a police officer in Belmont, MA. How did your liberal arts education and particularly your history major prepare you for these jobs?

A: Believe it or not, my background in History and the liberal arts is what got me hired at Genzyme. Generally speaking, most Genzyme job applicants have degrees in science or business. I had neither. My educational background made me stand out as a job applicant because I was different.

The critical thinking, reading, and writing skills I learned as a History major were invaluable. Being 22 and working with people who were more than twice my age, in a field I had no background in, was initially intimidating. I feel that my education gave me the necessary foundation to succeed in both the private and public sectors.

Q: When did you decide that you wanted to be a police officer? How did you go about placing yourself on a career path that led to policing your hometown?

A: Growing up, I had FBI agents and state troopers on both sides of my family. It was always a career that I had thought of, but I wanted to try my own thing out first. After about three years at Genzyme I realized that 40 years of sitting behind a desk, answering emails, and going to meetings was not for me. I wanted to have the opportunity to make a difference. Just as when I chose History as my major, I wanted to get into a career that I actually enjoyed. I signed up for the police exam and took that in the spring of 2011. Two years after taking the exam, I was fortunate enough to be offered a job in my hometown of Belmont, MA.

Q: What are your responsibilities as a police officer in Belmont, MA? Which of your tasks do you enjoy the most?

A: Right now I am on a temporary assignment working on our computer and IT systems. We are in the process of eliminating our old paper systems and making everything more efficient by replacing them with electronic databases. Before that, I worked the night shift on patrol. I would respond primarily to calls and initiate motor vehicle stops. I really enjoy working out in the streets on patrol. Helping the community is something that I find rewarding.

Q: Some students might think you need a Criminal Justice degree for your type of job. How did a History major prepare you?

A: Honestly, on a day-to-day basis, I use my BA in History more than my MA in Criminal Justice. History is basically the study of people and civilizations and why they did the things they did. This translates to police work quite nicely. Speaking with people on a call, understanding and listening to both sides of an issue, conflict resolution, and the ability to communicate and write effectively are all skills that I use daily. My History degree prepared me to do all these things.

Q: Tell me something memorable about one of your classes at St. A’s (doesn’t have to be history!).

A: During the second semester of my freshman year, I had to pick an elective, and I chose Origins of European Civilization with Professor Pajakowski. At the time, I was an International Relations major, and one of the major requirements was to take a History class. I was in that class with another friend, Kevin Golen (formerly of Fox News and now a manager at Dataminr, Inc.). We both always enjoyed History and really enjoyed that class. About halfway through the semester we changed our majors to History. I remember discussing it with Kevin one day after class, and we both decided to make the change! He and I both walked over to Bradley House and spoke with Professor Shannon about changing majors.

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