Matthew Connelly, 39
Associate Professor of History, Columbia University.
Once, frustrated with a grant application, I turned to my roommate to complain that I could not possibly narrate in a thousand words how my"intellectual development" led me to my dissertation topic. I was living in France, in genteel poverty, convinced that I had just discovered that the Fifth Republic was the unintended consequence of a long-secret diplomatic crisis. But there had been a lot of false starts, digressions, and dead ends along the way. My friend sagely counseled that I should not be so literal-minded. After all, the night was young, and Paris beckoned. The readers did not expect introspection, even if their question appeared to demand it. The grant essay, he explained, was a"necessary fiction."
I've described my work many times since then, and I've often recalled that phrase. As historians, we are not supposed to traffic in fiction. And yet we can scarcely survive if our stories do not seem compelling, especially the stories we tell about ourselves. The topics we take up are often a matter of happenstance - in my case, the fact that my first graduate research seminar was on the end of empires, and I had just seen a film called The Battle of Algiers. But over the years, after countless grant applications, I learned to call my decision to study national liberation movements in North Africa"strategic." And rather than admit that I was as surprised as anyone at the way they foreshadowed contemporary" clashes of civilizations," I decided that, all along, I had been exploring the origins of the post-Cold War era.
Of course, many explorers discover things by accident, whether or not they admit it. When they return people want them to provide maps, and not send them on the same misadventures. But I wonder whether, as professors, we lead our students astray when we present our life's work as a series of"projects," as if our lives depended on them. Is it not our life stories that often lead us to a particular subject, and personal idiosyncrasies that make us feel passionate about it? Why then have we come to expect that even those applying to start a graduate program in history should already have a"project" of their own?
In my own case, I was almost finished with my book about the Algerian War for Independence before I realized why, all along, I had an abiding affinity for the rebels. I was interviewing one of them when he started to tell me about how he and his compatriots had learned from the history of Ireland's struggle against Britain. I recalled how, like many children of Irish immigrants, I had grown up listening to rebel songs and developed a romantic kind of nationalism, one that was uncomplicated by a deeper knowledge of the country and its history. If a student now came to me with a similar realization, I would be worried for them. But I have no doubt that my own inchoate and unacknowledged feelings helped me remain committed to pursuing my work wherever it led me - to Tunis, to Cairo, to Algiers - and making my readers care about it as much as I did.
These realizations seem self-evident in retrospect. But writing too many"necessary fictions" can make us forget our own life stories. When I set out to research my second book, a history of the population control movement, I was sure it was because it would help show how and why people divide the world between"us" and"them." By the time I was done with it, I could argue that international and nongovernmental organizations had taken up the unfinished work of empires and created new forms of unaccountable power - in this case, controlling populations rather than territory. But when I presented this conclusion to audiences people would ask me, unbelieving, why I was so passionate about population control. As the youngest of eight children, part of a generation Paul Ehrlich called The Population Bomb, it was obvious why I might feel a personal stake in this history, even if it took me years to realize it.
Perhaps there is already too much navel-gazing among the professoriate. Self-important professors sometimes forget that, if we have an audience beyond academia, it is not for our life stories - everybody's got one - it is because we claim to have something new and important to say. But for most of us, that is only because we have spent our lives thinking about it, driven in ways even we do not always understand. That is why those who would think to follow us really had better pursue their own passions.
By Matthew Connelly
(Reprinted electronically by permission of the publisher from the forthcoming title FATAL MISCONCEPTION: THE STRUGGLE TO CONTROL WORLD POPULATION by Matthew Connelly, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 2008 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.) Matthew Connelly in"Fatal Misconception The Struggle to Control World Population"
About Matthew Connelly
comments powered by Disqus
vaughn davis bornet - 4/15/2008
What a brilliant career this historian has been enjoying! Published widely; honored; privileged to think deep thoughts about clearly important matters--here is an object lesson in choosing an occupation wisely, and living it well.
After reading, and reflecting for a time, I gravitated to a theme apparently furthered by the author in his population pages: that there may be an arrogance involved when large powers steer, bribe, or try to force small ones to do their bidding about population building or constricting.
I thought back a few days to something I read about population declines in highly civilized states, chiefly in Europe (but also Japan), and trends from various causes in Russia that frighten those who are dedicated to augmented greatness radiating from Moscow--or vice versa.
Are any States working to help population Growth in such places? Should there be guilt feelings if one works on That Side of the equation? If birth control propaganda and equipment are inheritors of yesterday's colonialism, what are we to term meddling to counteract the fact of shrinking birth figures? Given the wonderful locales of such efforts, "civilized, of course!" is it all right to support increases in this polluted and crowded and edgy planet, but evil to try to implement the Other Side?
Maybe my whole idea is silly. But it is not silly that I have been committed in informal conversation to speaking badly of the Catholic Church for some years because their leaders think it perfectly OK for benighted females in remote regions to create huge families who will have deprived Futures. I have quietly cheered on American officials who conspired against official anti-birth control policies, and I have thought our Foundations correct when helping planning in parenthood. (I doubt that I have a colonialist bone in ye body, if anybody is concerned.)
When I founded a pioneering Environment course in Oregon in the early 1960s, I duly noted the rising fame of Paul Ehrlich. Yet some were saying that he was "alarmist" and that urbanization would be a countervailing force against "the Bomb."
Anyway, I think those responsible for the biography that started me in my rethinking and wondering. HNN does have infinite Merit for this casual reader.!
Vaughn Davis Bornet Ashland, Oregon
- 159 scholars at Harvard sign petition reprimanding the school for rejections of Chelsea Manning and Michelle Jones
- Fact Check: Steve Bannon’s Bad History
- The Story Behind the Truman Quote in President Trump's U.N. Speech
- As Trump Declares Missing in Action Recognition Day, How Many Service Members Are Missing?
- The ‘nation’s report card’ says it assesses critical thinking in history
- Eric Foner discusses the manipulation of history
- Male historian tapped to lead Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Kansas
- Decline in History Majors Continues, Departments Respond
- He’s 75 now. When he started teaching at the University of New Orleans students walked out on his class.
- ‘Fake news’ from 1738 offers lessons for modern historians, says Missouri scholar