Steven Hahn: Why Historians Make Good College Presidents

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Steven Hahn is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of A Nation Under our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South From Slavery to the Great Migration. ]

Anyone familiar with academic culture might have guessed that Lawrence Summers's tenure as president of Harvard University would be rocky. It was not that he came to the university from the power centers of the federal government and was unaccustomed to the expectations and sensitivities of faculty members. It was that he was trained as an economist and spent his formative years in the Harvard Economics Department. And, as most academics will tell you, economists tend to think that they're smarter than everybody else, can find the answer to any important question, and don't need to listen carefully to other opinions. Pity the poor fellow who must present research to an economics department seminar: He can hardly get a word in edgewise.

In selecting Drew Gilpin Faust to succeed Summers as the university's president, the Harvard Corporation and Board of Overseers have moved in a different direction. Faust is a distinguished historian of the American South and the Civil War era. What, if anything, might that mean for Harvard and her presidency?

Historians can be as arrogant and tone-deaf as any people who claim intellectual authority, but the nature of their work disposes them to be otherwise. Although historians pose large questions, they are skeptical of easy answers. Although they like to bring order out of apparent chaos, they quickly recognize the complexity of human undertakings. Although they seek to recover something of the past, they soon discover how much digging that requires. They come to learn that historical writing and historical experience involve conflicting perspectives and that they need to confront viewpoints different than their own. Historians have to be prepared to follow unexpected leads and uncharted paths. And they must develop skills (and patience) to hear and understand what their subjects are trying to tell them. It is all a very humbling process.

Faust has been one of America's most productive and influential historians (despite directing the Radcliffe Institute and participating in a months-long presidential search, she has just sent a new book off to press), yet two characteristics of her scholarship seem particularly relevant to her new position as Harvard's president. One is her ability to engage, with depth and sensitivity, people and problems that can be distasteful. The other is her intellectual curiosity and growth.

Faust was born in Virginia during the waning years of Jim Crow, and she grew up in Harry Byrd's Clark County--one of the centers of "massive resistance" to desegregation. But, even as a young girl, she wondered why black people weren't "given a chance" and began to "confront the paradox of being both a southerner and an American." That is to say, she was something of a rebel and eventually involved herself in civil rights and antiwar activism. By the time she enrolled in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and commenced a doctoral dissertation, she was looking for new ways to come to terms with her past. Rather than focus upon those who resisted the regimes of slavery and white supremacy, she chose to study those who were central to their creation and sustenance.

Throughout her scholarly career, Faust has written chiefly about men and women who owned slaves, defended slavery, and offered the slave South and the Confederacy cultural and intellectual support. They included writers, ministers, politicians, pro-slavery theorists, Confederate nationalists, and elite women who took charge of the homefront when their husbands and sons went off to war. They were not exactly an admirable lot, and Faust is not especially admiring. But she takes their thought and activities very seriously and tries to understand how they simultaneously reflected and shaped the world in which they lived--and how they attempted to make "sense out of a world that seems to us ... to make very little sense at all." She was drawn to their projects and dilemmas and to their efforts--amid increasingly tragic circumstances--to explain themselves. Her ear, as a consequence, has become finely tuned....

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