Journalist visits campus, discusses US history

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In partnership with Case Western Reserve University ThinkForum and the F. Joseph Callahan Distinguished Lecture, Harvard Professor of History and The New Yorker writer Jill Lepore spoke about American history at the Milton and Tamar Maltz Performing Arts Center. The talk was presented on Wednesday, March 7.

A tribute to F. Joseph Callahan opened the lecture, followed by a university welcome and introduction from President Barbara Snyder.

Quoting an interview response given by Lepore, Snyder said that “all politics is really an argument about the relationship between the past and the future, and the more polarized our politics become, the more polarized our past.”

In her lecture, Lepore explored the “problem of writing an American history at this present political moment.” Americans, she believes, do not share a common understanding of their own history.

Lepore first introduced an artist’s piece—Glenn Ligon’s “Double America”—that was indicative of America’s polarized political climate. Ligon’s piece was composed of neon signage spelling “AMERICA,” with the word’s inverted mirror image appearing below in the same signage.

Lepore focused on one source of inspiration for Ligon’s piece: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” from Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities.”

Lepore used the quote to illustrate how American society has been infused with this polarization. In her talk, she analyzed several graphical representations of America from different points throughout history. She also discussed a “double vision” she saw in Ligon’s piece, which she said she saw when writing her own works of American history. The work, “These Truths: A History of the United States,” is to be released September 2018.

CWRU Shirley Wormser Professor of Journalism and Media Writing Jim Sheeler moderated a question and answer session following Lepore’s lecture. One attendee asked Lepore why she chose to end her work on a hopeful note.

“Intellectually, the absence of hope is a political problem and is a manifestation of certain poisonous politics,” Lepore said. “It’s not fierce and great to lack hope. I really think it is unconscionable the way that it is fashionable to be hopeless.”

Another attendee, third-year student Tarun Jella, felt it was easy for students to go through higher education with a very uncritical eye and to enter the workforce confused about the state of the world.

Jella asked Lepore, “How do you get students, in your experience, to think critically, to question things and to realize ways they are possibly being indoctrinated?”

To do this, Lepore thought it was important to think of what “worked” at other points in history that educators may have abandoned. In her own classes, Lepore has found that “it’s very difficult to get students to disagree with each other and with [her].”

She continued, stating that “you need not to be disagreeable, but you need to be able to disagree very effectively, and very generously.”

Lepore identified debate as a crucial tool to empower people to be good citizens, and think critically about where their knowledge comes from.

The next and final installment of the 2017-18 ThinkForum series is Thursday, March 29, and will feature Marlon James, the first Jamaican author to win the Man Booker Prize.