Director of the history of education program &Professor of Education and History,
Steinhardt School of Education and Professor of history in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences,
New York University.
I'm not a religious person, in the usual sense of the term, but I've come to believe in epiphanies. I had my first one about 15 years ago, when I was doing my doctoral research. As a former Peace Corps volunteer and public school teacher, I entered graduate school with the vague idea of writing a dissertation about education. Drug and alcohol instruction seemed like a good topic, because I knew-from my own experience-that it was mostly a failure. So I resolved to uncover the roots of this evil phenomenon, as historians are wont to do, and to explain How We Went So Very Wrong. Along the way, of course, I would also demonstrate How I Was So Very Right. Historians like to do that, too.
As I soon discovered, public school alcohol education was the brainchild of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. So I buried myself in WCTU journals and archives, exploring how these dedicated but misguided ladies (as I saw them) spread the good word about Demon Rum. Then, a few months into my research, I unearthed a letter from F. C. Atwell. Like me, Atwell was a career educator; even more, he was also a bitter critic of the WCTU."If my child had scarlet fever, it would be the height of folly for me to call in a physician and demand that he cure him by the use of cod liver oil," Atwell wrote, in an attack on"meddling" temperance women."Those who have studied neither pedagogy nor psychology should be content to leave the details and the method of achieving the desired result to those who have."
I squinted into the microfilm reader, struggling to decipher Atwell's unwieldy handwriting. More than that, though, I struggled against myself. Denouncing the WCTU put me in league with F. C. Atwell, who simply did not believe that laypeople-and, especially, laywomen-should have any say in public school curricula. And that was not a place where I wanted to be. So I rethought the entire project and-eventually-my entire philosophy, about education and everything else.
That was my first epiphany. I've experienced others, too, in every book that I've written. The epiphany comes on suddenly, shocking you out of your smug self-assuredness. It humbles you with its force and its logic. And, most of all, it makes you surprised. In my second book, about debates over history and religion in the school curriculum, I was surprised to find that most advocates for"prayer in the public schools" before the 1960s were liberal or even radical Christians, not conservative or fundamentalist ones. In my third book, I was surprised to find that the" cultural sensitivity" of overseas American missionaries and teachers-including, at one time, myself-masked a profoundly arrogant set of assumptions about culture itself. And I was surprised, throughout my career, at how many of my questions and answers concerned matters of faith and God. Like I said, I'm not a religious person. But I've come to understand the immense role of luck and grace in my own life, especially in the history that I write. And that might be my biggest epiphany of all.
By Jonathan Zimmerman
About Jonathan Zimmerman
Associate Professor of History, Director, Alan B. Larkin Symposium on the American Presidency,
Florida Atlantic University
I know why Stanley Kubrick made Dr. Strangelove a comedy. Sometimes it is just plain difficult to take the Cold War seriously. Having spent the past ten years studying Cold War propaganda, I have embarrassed myself in more than one archive by disturbing the silence with unexpected bursts of laughter.
There was, for example, the time I found a civil defense poster giving Americans straightforward advice for protecting themselves from a nuclear attack:"Don't be there!" And then there was the national security investigation into the birthplace of"Ham," the chimpanzee sent into outer space as part of the U.S. effort to catch up with the Soviet Union's lead in the space race. The classified memorandum confirmed that, yes indeed, Ham was an American-born monkey. And then there were the ideas for demonstrating American scientific prowess. Why not drop a hydrogen bomb into a typhoon to reverse its direction? Maybe dig a harbor in Alaska by exploding a thermonuclear device? Or perhaps use a rocket - i.e. a ballistic missile - to deliver the mail?
And of course there was Atoms for Peace, the program designed to make Americans less fearful of the atomic bomb by highlighting all the wonderful benefits of atomic energy. Inspired by Atoms for Peace propaganda, National Geographic comforted its readers with the knowledge that golf balls had been made radioactive so they could be more easily located when lost in the rough. And dogs benefited from atomic energy's healing power too, the magazine revealed in a caption of a photograph of a boy holding his puppy as it received radiation therapy for a cancerous tumor. Perhaps, I thought as I kept encountering references to dogs in the course of my research, I should write my next book on the"Canine Cold War."
But I'm not a satirist. I'm a historian. My task and my challenge is to take all this seriously - to understand, to explain, and to find meaning in a world that sometimes seems very different from the one I am living in now. In this endeavor I am reminded of a personal experience that was both unsettling and inspiring. I was a junior at Notre Dame looking into graduate programs in history. I arranged a meeting with Otis Graham, the eminent political historian who was then teaching at U.C. Santa Barbara. I think I expected him to be so dazzled by my brilliance that he would accept me into the program on the spot and shower me with cash. Instead he told me not even to apply to graduate school - or at least not yet.
He said I should follow"Graham's Rule." He explained that historians write about life, and that to be good historians we needed to be grounded in the real world; we needed to have many rich and varied experiences."So take a year off," he advised me."See the world, do the kind of things you can only do now, while you are young. And then, when you are ready, go to graduate school."
At first I was crushed. This was not the advice I expected. But an hour later I was inspired, and I soon was spending my time following Graham's rule. I worked as a chef at a ski resort and a golf club in Utah; I spent six months studying Russian in Monterey, California and St. Petersburg, Russia; I worked as an intern at the State Department in Washington, D.C., and I drove my pickup truck from California, to Florida, to Maine, to Alaska, and back. A year and a half later, I started graduate school at U.C. Santa Barbara.
I learned Graham was right. These experiences made me a better historian. They changed the way I view and interpret my study of the past. Conversely, so too has my study of history changed the way I look at the world. Even the seemingly narrow subject of my research -- the Cold War's propaganda battles -- offers broader lessons and bigger insights. It clarifies the way humans communicate and interact -- the way they represent themselves, the way they spin unpleasantness, the way they deceive others, and the way they are willingly deceived by others. It is also a subject that became strangely relevant after September 11th, 2001 and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Will today's Stanley Kubrick make a film about the war on terror? Will it be as much of a cultural landmark as Strangelove was? And will it be a comedy, a tragedy, or a little of both? I know enough to know that only time will tell.
By Kenneth A. Osgood
About Kenneth A. Osgood
Assistant Professor of History, Yale University
Now, I say it casually."Oh, I was writing about this before 9-11," I tell students and reporters who ask how I happened upon the subject of my first book."This" is the history of terrorism in the U.S.-specifically, the story of what occurred on Wall Street on September 16, 1920. At 12:01 that afternoon, a bomb exploded into the lunchtime crowd at the corner of Wall and Broad streets in New York, killing 39 people and wounding hundreds more. In 2001, I had just started writing my dissertation about this event and its role in prolonging the postwar Red Scare.
I was living in New York at the time. A graduate student at Columbia, I had recently moved to Brooklyn. As a result, I had a near-perfect view of the World Trade Center's collapse. I heard the second plane crash while walking my dog in Prospect Park (I thought it was a blown transformer), learned that"a plane hit the World Trade Center" on my way home (I pictured a small Cessna, nothing too serious), and watched the rest of the day's now- familiar tragedy play out from atop my roof.
What this would mean for writing history was hardly the first thing on my mind that day. As my neighbors and I sealed up our windows and gathered downstairs to await further news from across the river, it seemed entirely possible that nothing would be worth writing again.
Then the political battles began. Within days of 9-11, newspapers and television started to inform us quite authoritatively that terrorism in the U.S. was an entirely new phenomenon, a burst of evil with a dark future but no real past. In response, I launched a frenzied round of article- and editorial-writing (including--full disclosure--a short piece for HNN) pointing out that terrorism, in fact, had its own long and messy history.
In those early days, I found myself seized as well by a perverse urge to share my storehouse of uncanny historical detail with friends and family. I silenced many a dinner party that autumn pointing out how the stock exchange reopened on the same day in 2001 that it reopened after the bombing in 1920.
That impulse mercifully faded, along with the sense that everything, from the price of grapefruits to the daily weather report, had to somehow reference 9-11. But as"normalcy" (to borrow Warren Harding's famous 1920 coinage) set in, I found myself confronted with a more insistent set of questions about how to write about the history of terrorism in this altered world. Were comparisons between past and present worth making? Had the present now irretrievably distorted the past? Was it possible to write decent history on a subject so heavily politicized? Most of all, did the entire subject now seem too ghoulish and opportunistic? It was in this context that I began to issue my first disclaimers--"Oh, I was writing about this before 9-11..."-as if to show that my motives and analysis remained uncorrupted.
Today, I have not arrived at definitive answers to all of these questions. But I no longer feel quite so much urgency to compare the present and past, or to justify my subject in relation to the present day. This is in part because new issues, especially domestic debates over civil liberties, have made the relevance of past experience far more self-evident. Mostly, though, it's because the passage of time has made it possible, once again, to look at history on its own terms.
The latest draft of my book (The Day Wall Street Exploded, Oxford University Press, forthcoming in 2008) hardly mentions 9-11 at all. In that sense, I've now come full circle from where I began more than six years ago. What first drew me to the Wall Street explosion was not its connection with the present, but my genuine surprise that such an event had been so thoroughly excised from our memories of the past. If recovering that story helps to lend a bit of insight into the dispiriting and often terrifying politics of the world around us today, so much the better.
By Beverly Gage
Nobody knew, precisely, that it would erupt just after noon on September 16, 1920, shattering windows throughout New York's financial district, scattering metal slugs into the lunchtime crowd, injuring hundreds of men and women, claiming 39 lives.
Nobody knew-except, perhaps, the person who abandoned a horse-drawn cart, loaded with dynamite, at the corner of Wall and Broad streets that morning. And except, some thought, for a man named Ed Fisher, who in the weeks before the explosion sent frantic notes to his friends on Wall Street, warning them to"keep away" and"get out" in mid- September. When the police arrested Fisher in Canada on the evening of September 16, he denied any responsibility for the bombing. He explained that he had learned of the Wall Street plot through “messages out of the air,” and that God had reinforced his fears with a terrible headache. The detectives doubted that Fisher had a special relationship with God, but they ultimately accepted his claim that something “in the air” had foretold the disaster. Fisher had merely gotten lucky on the specifics, they concluded; given the politics of recent years, anyone might have predicted that, sooner or later, a bomb would explode on Wall Street.
This sense of inevitability, of predictability, was one of the most pronounced aspects of the public response to the event that came to be known as the"Wall Street explosion." By some measures, the blast that tore through Wall Street on September 16 was unprecedented—the deadliest act of terrorism to that point in U.S. history. Even more stunning to many contemporaries than the sheer number of deaths was what the World called the"hopeless futility of the slaughter." The explosion came at an unremarkable moment: lunchtime on a Thursday. Until noon, there had been nothing to distinguish September 16 from any other day on Wall Street: no parades, no demonstrations, no strikes or particular spats."If the explosion was designed it was an act of diabolism almost unparalleled in the annals of terrorism," wrote the St. Louis Post-Dispatch."There was no objective except general terrorism. The bomb was not directed against any particular person or property. It was directed against the public, anyone who happened to be near or any property in the neighborhood."
But for all of the grief and shock at the blast, there was also a sense that, like Ed Fisher, the country should have seen it coming."It is not surprising that the bomb massacre was accomplished in New York," mourned the Washington Post."Rather it would have been surprising if this festering sore had not come to its horrid head." To the Post and many others, the explosion seemed to be the awful culmination of a half century's worth of bitter political conflicts: over the growing power of Wall Street, over the rights of political radicals in the U.S., over the problems of political violence and terrorism, over the nature of industrial capitalism itself.
When it finally came, on September 16, 1920, the Wall Street explosion seemed to capture all of these conflicts and send them hurling forth in a hail of metal and flesh and fire. It took a popular political metaphor—the idea of an"attack on Wall Street"—and made it terribly real. -- Beverly Gage in the introduction to the forthcoming"The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror" (May 2008)
About Beverly Gage
"Prof. Gage is an incredible lecturer: well organized, entertaining, and provocative. Lectures were definitely something I wanted to go to. Also, I think Prof. Gage asked all the right questions, making the class come alive and worth studying. I especially liked how she decided to present all these different topics and tried to unify them."...
"Professor Gage is an amazing lecturer. She's interesting and extremely knowledgeable and approachable. Her lectures were great supplements to the reading, so most of the studying that I did for midterms and finals came directly from my notes. I thoroughly enjoyed every class."...
"Great lecturer who really knows her stuff and understands how to convey it in an interesting and thought- provoking manner. I especially appreciated her very objective and non-judgmental approach as well as her focus on the broad themes and questions raised by the historical narrative."...
"Professor Gage's lectures were, in one short word, excellent. They were well planned, methodical, and interesting. Like clockwork, every lecture began with her outlining where we headed for that day - the theme, the overarching question, and its relation to others - so that we were never once caught off guard. He lectures were amazingly clear - I knew exactly what she meant and what she was talking about and what she wanted to convey at that moment. At the same time they were interesting and extremely engaging. Very rarely did I want to miss this class.Also, her use of films and slide show presentations was very efficient and very effective. Neither were too often or too limited within the course of the semester. When it was needed it was done and it helped greatly." -- Students from Lecture Courses
"Prof. Gage is highly knowledgeable and very en"gage"d in the material. She is approachable and willing to help. She manages to teach a politically charged topic in a completely unbiased manner."...
"Professor Gage was great. She was really wonderful at leading a full class discussion. A subject like contemporary American politcs can get emotional and silly if a class does not stay in the text and she did a great job keeping everyone in the reading during class. She didn't let on her own beliefs at all and really encouraged conversation. She was also really accesible outside of class."...
"Prof. Gage was the best seminar leader I have ever had - she clearly put a lot of time and effort into leading a good seminar. Discussion was always excellent."...
"I pretty much love her. Her enthusiasm for the subject is infectious, and she did a fantastic job of guiding class discussion so that it was incisive, well-considered, and edifying." -- Students from Seminar courses
This seminar was probably the best that I've taken at Yale, including my time here as an undergraduate. Partly that was a matter of luck--we had a lively, thoughtful mix of students--but it was largely due to Beverly, who is a natural seminar leader. Very few teachers are even competent at leading a discussion with the right blend of authority and informality, and those few who are have usually been in the business for 20 years. Beverly would be shockingly good even if she were old and gray--her classroom sense is all the more astounding because she is so young." -- Graduate Students