A short version of this autobiographical essay was delivered as the keynote address at the 2008 Phi Alpha Theta Induction Ceremony, Grand Valley State University, Tuesday, March 25, 2008.
Congratulations to the 19 new inductees of Phi Alpha Theta! Your hard work has paid off. You are now members of an honor society that will be a mark of distinction for the rest of your life. Sorry, moms and dads: This special honor may not pay the bills right away, but good preparation in history can make a huge difference in the jobs and career a person pursues, and that will not only pay the bills, but much else besides.
I say this from experience, and for what it's worth, Professor [Doug] Montagna has asked that I reflect on that experience. I propose to frame my remarks in terms of twin peaks. Not the TV show, but two real mountains -- one of them Mount Elbert, the highest peak in the Rockies that I climbed during the summers of my youth; the other Mount Parnassus, the sacred summit in Greece that I try to ascend, figuratively, year round every year. What that means will become clearer in a few minutes.
When I look back on it, it surprises me that I ever became a historian. True, growing up in Houston made me alive to the past. "Remember the Alamo!" and all that -- it's a Texas thing. Then, after 13 years in the Lone Star State, I spent three years in the French Quarter and Garden District of New Orleans, among the most historically dense faubourgs in the Western hemisphere. So my mind was filled with vivid historical images from an early age.
And yet, by the time I moved to Colorado as a high school junior, the temptation was not to be engaged with our world, our nation, or our history. If you were growing up in the 1960s to the mid 1970s, you were surrounded by cynicism and disillusionment for good reasons:
- Watergate eroded idealism about American leaders. The lesson of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson before him was that politicians are not heroes; they are power mongers, self-seeking and venal.
- Vietnam faded the picture of America as a “cittie on a hill,” our sense of being an exceptional nation. From the perspective of a high-school senior who faced the draft, America seemed little better than any other nation. Like every other great power, when it reached a certain size, it threw its weight around to dominate others.
- The energy crises of the ’70s – and the famous Club of Rome report that predicted we were consuming resources at an unsustainable rate – undermined pride in the material achievements of American civilization. It seemed we were living irresponsibly on borrowed time.
- The economy was going through its worse downturn since the Great Depression. Inflation was eating away at the middle class, and industrial stagnation was beginning to transform the Midwest into a rust belt. In this period of "stagflation," lot of younger Americans began to feel materially insecure for the first time, and not very optimistic about their future. They were one of the few generations in American history that doubted they could live better than their parents.
- Then the two superpowers’ nuclear policy of mutually assured destruction – MAD (never was an acronym more apt) – had a chilling effect on our future: awareness of long-range missiles cast a shadow on our long-range plans.
- It's hard to imagine the student unrest in those days. I graduated from an easy-going campus -- Colorado State University -- and even there, our "Old Main" was burned to the ground by antiwar protesters. My brother-in-law was at Kent State in May 1970 when the Ohio National Guard opened fire and killed four students.
- I remember the tense race relations and riots in our major cities. In fact, in August 1965, my early evening flight into LAX went right over the burning streets of Watts. It was one of the scariest things I ever witnessed.
- Assassinations -- you cannot imagine the pall over our nation after John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy were gunned down in the '60s. Could the nation honestly address domestic social grievances?
- We really seemed to be on the verge of revolution, what with the Black Panthers, Symbionese Liberation Army, Weathermen Underground, American Indian Movement, and countless other revolutionaries seeking justice as they saw it.
- Oh, and don't forget the meltdown at Three Mile Island that occurred a little later in the decade. Yes, the rods actually melted and threatened a nuclear catastrophe -- on American soil!
- What kind of world was my education actually preparing me for? Comedian Bob Hope’s graduation line summed up my generation's mood: “Congratulations! You’ve learned a lot about a tough, dog-eat-dog world out there. My advice to you is, Don’t go!”
Given such a grim time, many in my graduating class were reluctant to engage the world, at least in the traditional ways. In my case, I did not go straight to college after high school. Like a lot of 18-year-olds in Colorado in the ’70s, I wanted to "check out" by living in the mountains, hiking, skiing, and climbing as many "fourteeners" as possible. At least once a year I ascended Mount Elbert, at 14,433 feet the highest peak in Colorado and all the Rockies. Let the world below go to Hell: my friends and I were living in the innocence of Arcadia, inspired by Thoreau’s Walden, and (this makes me laugh now) listening to John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High.” Working in a mountaineering store, I got inspiration from talking to a lot of professional climbers and adventurers. I dreamed of better things than politics or "civic engagement."
One afternoon in November 1974, just before closing time, a couple of professors (Paul Grogger and Bob Larkin) from the University of Colorado geography department came in to buy mountaineering equipment. They told me about the really interesting field trips their geography majors went on, and after about an hour talking with them, they invited me to sign up for a class. So in January 1975 that’s what I did. My first college class was a 300-level course on climatology, and from the first lecture I was hooked. It was exciting to set out on a new kind of adventure, learning about the world in space and time. Provocative readings and spirited discussions made me feel at home in this new environment, the college classroom. Those of you who know me won't be surprised by this revelation: After a few weeks it dawned on me I’d have to pursue a career in which I could talk.
Still, I was a long way from history in 1975. Ironically, the first history class I took in college was an intro to Western civ II, so badly taught I dropped it. The teacher just read lectures at us. Even then, I intuitively knew what presidential historian Richard Norton Smith formulated many years later: “There is no excuse for a boring history article, history book, or history lecture.”
Lesson 1: Seek Mentors
Two weeks of bad Western civ spurred me to take more responsibility for my education. I started interviewing professors before signing up for their class to learn which ones were good and which ones were unimaginative or burned out. I urge students today to do the same: Ask professors what they want you to learn; what books they assign; will they help you become a better writer? Are they passionate about what they teach? No one was helping pay for my college education – I had to work to foot the tuition bill. So I wasn’t going to waste time and money on burn-outs or ideologues. Also, these talks with the profs helped me stand out a little from the crowd from day one. Some of the friends I made during my college years were professors with whom I remained in contact long after I left Colorado.
It influenced me that several of the most engaging people I met had some professional connection with history. Their wisdom, curiosity, and sense of public responsibility were a powerful example, and I took as many courses from them as possible. Looking at these teachers, I realized my first impressions about college-level history had been misleading: Students don’t hate history; they hate the way history is taught.
So my first lesson to you is: Find passionate teachers and let them mentor you.
Lesson 2: Know thyself
Socrates and the oracle of Delphi gave the best advice ever to students. It was as good 2,400 years ago as it is today: Know thyself. This is not a license to self-absorption or narcissism – a sure path to boredom. Rather it is an invitation to discover both our common humanity with others and the important differences that exist among people.
Truth be told, what confirmed me in my decision to take history classes was awareness of a frustrating deficit in myself. The 1970s were a time of dramatically clashing ideas. As I listened to the cacophony of voices, I realized I couldn’t always sort out who had the better arguments. It frustrated me that I didn’t recognize the genealogy behind specific ideas and proposals; that I was susceptible to being wooed by good writers; that I was prone to agreeing with the last smart person I talked to. Not an admirable way to live in a free republic. A personal “Declaration of Independence” was in order.
I remember talking to Ken Rock, one of my history profs at Colorado State, and discussing not what job I wanted, but what knowledge I needed. It was important to understand where people were coming from when they argued how we should live together (the study of politics). And if certain things in our civilization were falling apart, I couldn’t help put the pieces back together since I didn’t know how things came to be in the first place (the study of history).
Professor Rock advised me to start taking courses in European and American intellectual history to understand the ideas in circulation. Then I’d better understand where people were coming from when they spoke – whether they were Platonic or Aristotelian; Marxist, Freudian, or Nietzschean; reactionary, conservative, libertarian, liberal, or radical; whether of the party of innovation or the party of conservation.
I also embarked on a parallel learning track, separate from my coursework but inseparable from my education. By my senior year I was devoting a considerable part of each day to national newspapers and opinion journals. I enjoyed reading The New Republic, Christian Science Monitor, and Atlantic Monthly, but I especially cottoned to William F. Buckley Jr.'s National Review. The parallel education provided by first-rate commentators and journalists reinforced my desire to drill down deep into the issues.
It was this drive to overcome my ignorance that prodded me toward a more serious study of the past. I eventually made a career in history because of the discovery that there was no end to my ignorance. Einstein expressed this notion of humility in an illuminating way. As light spreads it encounters more and more darkness. It’s the same with learning. The more you know, the more you confront what you don’t know.
So lesson number two is: Have the humility and courage to confront what you do not know, and that begins with a courageous examination of yourself.
Lesson 3: Publish
It has always made sense to me that you should do something with what you know. What historians do is teach and publish.
A word about publishing: My friend Bill Rice, former president of Shimer College in Chicago, set a remarkable goal for himself. Already as an undergrad at the University of Virginia and then as a grad student at the University of Michigan, he made a point of publishing every paper he wrote. Think of the audacity and hard work that took. It doesn’t occur to our students to be that bold, but more should. Not only does publishing help fulfill a person’s civic and professional duties; it makes a student work harder and strive to be more accurate and honest in light of the public scrutiny. Or at least it should. Doctors can bury their mistakes; architects can grow ivy over theirs; but a writer’s mistakes remain exposed for all to see unto the end of time.
Compared to Bill Rice, I was a late bloomer. I did not publish much until after I graduated from college. My first book, on the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, came about because I went to the Chinook Bookstore in Colorado Springs to look for a comprehensive history and geography of the region. I was told that nothing on the subject was in print. The bookseller, Dick Noyes, winked and said something I will never forget: " Since the book doesn’t exist, you will have to write it if you want to read it." So that’s what I did. As a brash twenty-something with a newly minted B.A., I dashed off a query to a Boulder, Colorado, publisher, secured a book contract, and wrote Colorado Front Range (1983). This youthful effort is cited in bibliographies to this day.
Once tasted, the sweetness of publishing spurred me to second helpings, then third, then fourth. It became an obsession. I did as much freelance writing as I could. Not many months later, when in West Germany on a Fulbright scholarship (1984-'85), I took the train from my home in Meersburg to Bonn to ask Christian Science Monitor correspondent Beth Pond if I could write some features for the newspaper. My first publication in a national newspaper was an article about the 500-year-old half-timber I lived in, and it led to more requests to speak and write.
So my third lesson is: Publish! Good things happen when you do.
Lesson 4: Be Open to Opportunity
My publications made it possible to start teaching college-level expository writing and rhetoric (1981). No doubt, they also helped me get into a first-class graduate school (1987). While at the University of Michigan, I continued to write op-eds and book reviews. A piece I wrote in 1991 would change my career and life. It was a controversial op-ed in the Detroit News about the history curriculum in the public schools. Without intending it, those 1100 words would redirect the next 12 years of my life.
Shortly after that op-ed appeared, I was called by the Michigan governor’s office and asked to come to Lansing for an interview. Would I be interested in writing speeches for John Engler, a controversial governor who had a whopping 19 percent approval rating after one year in office? I decided to accept the challenge. What a thrilling opportunity to experience history from the inside, with a history-maker – but what a dramatic turning point for me.
I stress this point: I didn’t have any political connections. I wasn't even from this state. The only reason I got such an interesting job in the governor's office was because of the writing and a recommendation. The old adage turns out to be true: Hard work pays off.
During my eleven and one-half years with Governor Engler, I authored or edited nine more books in all. I also wrote several chapters for books and honed my public speaking. Most of the volumes came about organically, an outgrowth of my needs at work. For example, I edited six volumes of speeches of Michigan governors because no complete collection existed and the governor wanted it to. My book on the farewell addresses of American presidents grew out of a memo I wrote to the governor discussing possible approaches to his exaugural. During my last years in Lansing, I also wrote a biography of John Engler, edited Russell Kirk’s The American Cause and, for fun, coauthored a children’s book about cowboys.
It turned out that the book on the presidents' farewell addresses led to another career change -- my present position as director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies. So the fourth lesson is: If you are getting a good education and having some decent success with writing, watch out. Good jobs will seek you out. This humble guy from the provinces is living proof of what a history major can do.
Lesson 5: Be wonder-filled
By way of concluding, allow me to offer one last lesson, in some ways the most important of all. It comes from a conversation I had with my Doctorvater at Michigan, Stephen Tonsor. It was Professor Tonsor’s habit to invite students to his house for lunch after his late-morning class. These 20-minute walks were a great opportunity to talk to an exceptionally learned man.
I asked Professor Tonsor what the most important quality of scholarship was. Without hesitating he said, “Imagination.” The ability to see what is real but invisible; to link what others have not connected; to formulate the thought that has not yet been articulated – that’s imagination. It was Sir Isaac Newton’s capacity to perceive that the force which kept the moon in orbit around the earth was the same as that which made an apple fall from a tree. It was Benjamin Franklin’s curiosity to test whether the static electricity of parlor games was the same force as the terrifying lightning of thunderstorms. Putting great imagination to work moves the species forward.
To this day I recall that conversation. It has been a North Star during the course of my career. Imagination is the indispensable ingredient to good historical research, writing, and teaching. I urge you: No matter how tired you get, no matter how distracted you become by the tyranny of details, cultivate the capacity to imagine. Let yourself be filled with wonder. It will be a source of delight and remind you of why you became a historian in the first place.
Mountain tops, by their nature, are places of wonder. When I moved to Ann Arbor to go to grad school, I obviously did not climb Mt. Elbert as frequently as before. I didn't get the "Rocky Mountain high" I was used to. But I discovered a different place of wonder, Mount Parnassus,* that soon towered over my imagination.
The mountaineer who used to climb Mount Elbert in the '70s discovered the rewards of ascending a greater summit still, Mount Parnassus, in the '80s. To this day, I say the view from that height can't be beat.