Kevin Mattson, 41
Connor Study Professor of Contemporary History, Ohio University
I'll admit it: I didn't always want to be a historian. In fact, I'm not sure when the idea of becoming one crossed my mind. Neither of my parents were historians or academics. I hated high school so much I thought I'd never go to college and didn't go immediately. And still to this day when college students tell me that they want to become historians, I get suspicious and uneasy (OK, part of that's because I know the realities of the job market).
In fact, I started life as a" citizen," or more accurately, as a political activist, and I still think that's a part of who I am. In high school, I helped form a student organization called the Student Union to Promote Awareness (which had the clumsy acronym, SUPA). That's where I got most of my education on a variety of political issues (we organized after-school forums) and where I learned how to write (newsletters, flyers, the usual stuff an activist writes). I continued with that work after high school, forming a city-based youth organization that worked on a variety of political issues and that eventually had other chapters across the nation. Pretty soon, though, I realized that I didn't know that much about American politics or how we became the country that we did.
Still, when I eventually attended college, I didn't major in history but in social and political thought with a minor in historical studies. But I was trending towards history. And when I had to decide on graduate school, I thought history was the freest and most open of the academic disciplines. For what is not history?
When I finally got out of college, I was still teetering between activism and graduate studies in history. I threw in my applications and got accepted at the University of Rochester. But before packing my bags, I took a job as a community organizer.
Here's where things turned really strange. The first day I worked for this organization, I was taken out for training by a young woman who seemed wired with energy. She took me into one of the worst housing projects in Brooklyn. There she proceeded to walk me through her rounds, carrying with her a clipboard and literature. At one point, she kicked in a door to the stairway of a particularly nasty building."Gotta do that," she said to me,"because sometimes there's a drug deal going on and you don't want to be shot so you have to give warning." People wouldn't open doors for her, so she had to shout into their apartments. And when we got to the highlight of the evening - a meeting organized to discuss what needed to be done to improve the elevators in the building - I looked around a big room with only four people there, including myself and this young activist, plus two residents who weren't sure why they were there. Afterwards, she told me that she thought it would be good if an act of violence was taken against her so that she could learn the realities of what it meant to be poor and a victim. I was stunned.
The weirdest part was this: This young activist had just dropped out of the same history program I had just applied to. This too: her advisor would become my advisor.
I knew at that moment my mind was made up: I was going to graduate school and study to become a historian. But I was still animated by the world of activism and politics that I left behind and that I still remained engaged in. And I think that my writing still revolves around the questions I learned to ask as an activist. I'm reminded of George Orwell's classic essay on"Why I Write." He included in his list of reasons"political purpose - using the world 'political' in the widest possible sense." I think that way too, as I think all of my work centers around broad political questions about democracy, citizenship, political philosophy, and how these themes intersect with American history.
By Kevin Mattson
These words rolled off the lips of a man who calls himself a"gut player." A man who when asked by the conservative journalist Tucker Carlson back in 1999 to name a weakness said,"Sitting down and reading a 500-page book on public policy or philosophy or something." A man who later shocked people and made headline news by reading a book by French existentialist Albert Camus. A man who toned down his prep school roots and campaigned as a Texas populist and who, in the words of one journalist,"has been quick about cracks about intellectuals and criticisms of institutions like his own alma mater, Yale University." A man whose own speechwriter called him"uncurious and as a result ill-informed." A man famous for mispronouncing words and looking flummoxed when off-script at press conferences. This president - a man who many describe as the most anti-intellectual president in postwar America - said he led a party of ideas.
Odd? Not necessarily.
The book goes on to describe why this is not so strange as it might seem - why conservative ideas are charged with a certain anti-intellectual tinge. -- Kevin Mattson in"Rebels All!: A Short History of the Conservative Mind in Postwar America"
About Kevin Mattson
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