Clues from the Past, Recent American Politics

Two Cheers for Pragmatic Democracy

Originally published by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History on March 16, 2018:

With democracy pragmatic style, complete realization of ideals is always out of reach—and that means both constant self-correction and, in the words of Frederick Douglass, “agitate, agitate, agitate”

Once upon a time, marketplace thought and practice was associated with the work of accountants and the policies of cold-hearted politicians.  In 1978, Irving Kristol wrote Two Cheers for Capitalism to retrieve the reputation of free markets for their intimate role in democratic freedoms.  The rest is history, the history that is of the surge of marketplace conservatism.  From Ronald Reagan’s 1980 call to “get the government off the backs of the people,” to Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America in 1994, to the current president’s eagerness to deregulate business, marketplace thought and practices have moved from margin to mainstream.

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The Uses of History

Historians, the Columbos of Our Cultural Life

Similar versions of this essay have appeared in:

History News Network, August 27, 2017,,

The Huffington Post, August 28, 2017,,

and in Society for US Intellectual History Blog, September 16, 2017,

You don’t have to like the people you study and teach, but as with the TV private investigator Frank Columbo, get to know them.

The death of Thomas Haskell is sad news and a loss to the field of history.  James Kloppenberg, a friend of Haskell’s since their days together as fellow PhD students in History at Stanford University, offers a fine tribute to his great work by highlighting the twin peaks of historical insight that Haskell practiced, “To Understand and to Judge,”  On first reading Haskell’s Emergence of Professional Social Science and “Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility,” I found orienting understanding of modern American cultural and intellectual history, about how we think and how we feel.  These lessons are also good reminders that as historians, we don’t have to like what we learn.  Learning the worlds of our study is the mission of the historian.

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Back in the Classroom

Marketclysm at the Classroom Door

An earlier version published as “Should We Really Turn College Education Over to the Free Market?” History News Network (March 8, 2016),

Should We Really Turn College Education Over to the Free Market?

In an era when the number of words on Twitter in only two years will exceed the number of words ever published, academic scholars should pay heed to changes in writing and teaching swiftly taking place outside their offices and classrooms.  There are powerful forces calling for briefer expositions and for teaching to appeal to a market that expects and demands such brevity.  While paying attention to those calls, academics should remember that beyond appealing to their audiences, their deeper purpose is to inspire and provoke.  Read more… Continue reading

Clues from the Past

Development Biography; or the Top Six Reasons to Consider Early Life When Evaluating Thinkers and Their Thoughts

This piece was originally published on October 14, 2015 through the Society for U.S. Intellectual History, and can be viewed in its original format here:

Historians pay attention to change. Students of the past need no reminding about the evolution of societies, the relationship of ideas to their times, and the contingencies of life. But some unhistorical thought can slip into historical study with exclusive focus on the finished products of a thinker’s work without considering the evolutionary steps toward those creations.

Such a focus can be very tempting; after all, those later productions are generally the most thought out and refined; in the same spirit, who would consider submitting a first draft for publication? But in the course of a life, the equivalents to those early drafts are more than just messy versions of later productions; they can harbor clues to a thinker’s drives and goals, often presented in still more raw form than later texts and creations.

I call this “developmental biography,” the method of attention to an intellectual’s creations over time, in development; the method involves placing an idea not only in contextual history, but also in the thinker’s own history. Consider then these reasons to take a closer look at early life when evaluating the figures of intellectual history:

  1. Examining an idea in development, especially through the life path of the idea’s creator in development, brings attention to the choices made during stages of thinking, and to the contexts surrounding those choices. This focus can reveal not only the influences on thought, but also the development of commitment. The culminating theory itself remains important, generally with greater depth and nuances, but the path of development shows how the composer cared enough to create it.
  2. Awareness of multiple moments in a figure’s intellectual career reveals that each expression of ideas, even the most refined, is but one snapshot among many in a lifetime. This is a good reminder that the later work, no matter how brilliant, is not a fixed or timeless element of thought, but a culmination of earlier work—and of contexts and interests, and of steps and missteps—which shaped the thinker’s orientations leading to that later idea. Developmental biography provides a veritable research program for inquiry: What steps in prior thought would generate guiding interests and curiosities; what choices would lead to particular orientations; what opportunities and problems would provide lessons for motivations and drives toward later creations?
  3. Attention to changes in thought and thinker in development brings in factors beyond the intellectual construction of ideas, even as cognition plays an important role alongside emotional and volitional development and values commitments. In the spirit of attention to inclinations in the shaping of ideas, these non-rational factors play a role, not only in the personal development of the thinker, but also in the intellectual evolution of the thought. At earlier times, these factors may not yet be articulated explicitly, but they make particularly strong contributions to the motivations for selection of theoretical paths, to the assumptions that serve as starting points for the construction of theories, and to the establishment of commitment to those ideas.
  4. The attention that developmental biography gives to directional choices and to non-rational factors shaping thought shows that the evolution of thought is no mere change from small to big versions of ideas. Earlier ideas, even when setting the stage for later thought or serving as preparation with choices made and directions tried out, surely had a life of their own. Each figure develops, of course, with no knowledge of the future, and therefore with no comprehension of the later impacts of earlier steps; and yet each step would surely contribute in some measure to the shape of later thought.
  5. Developmental biography retains a keen awareness that the achievement of a theory once formed, for all its confidence, persuasiveness, and even fame, was never a sure thing, but subject to a host of contingencies of construction; the august mature production could have been otherwise. For good or ill, the more youthful ideas, although they served some purposes in development, were likely to be edited heavily; or even, like scaffolding in construction, they were soon taken down. So this decentering of achievement is not debunking, but it can bring an awareness of the way a theory earned its way toward its later privileged status.
  6. Contingency has importance not only for a theory’s developmental past, but also for its present and future; the theory emerged from out of contingency, and even when buttressed by reputation and status, it itself still carries shades of contingency: viewing even the most certain-seeming theory in its developmental context can also support the possibilities for challenge to the theory and change in those people and settings it has influenced. Developmental biography grows out of awareness of change, and its perspective can contribute to the possibilities for change.

Intellectual creations show the impress of a host of factors, including theoretical debates, social contexts, and the personal inclinations of the creator. Along with these and often operating as their coordinator, a theorist’s own development shows the shaping of creations over time, with the contingencies and choices of the theorist’s own evolution. Each stage of development would contribute to the best-known creations of later years. With developmental biography, that mature work retains its importance, as the culmination of a lifetime of experiences.

Values Questions

The Gritty Peace of Northern Ireland

Welcome to Belfast, the British Isles City of Broad Shoulders. This was the place where the “unsinkable” Titanic was built, so they clearly have a taste for daring experiments. This city was also a center of The Troubles, a too-polite phrase for the state of war between Protestants and Catholics from the 1960s to the 1990s.

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Values Questions

Of War and Peace: Learning From People You Disagree With

How do people with dramatically different views get so misguided? Listening to the news or to a casual conversation that gets caught up in Big Questions can feel like a trip to The Twilight Zone—different views are alien territory.

A quick return home from those alien views to familiar territory can feel comfortable, but even just a little longer stay can pay big rewards. On this Memorial Day, The Public Classroom offers stories and videos with loyal military veterans and committed peace advocates squaring off against each other, but also learning from each other over Big Questions about war and peace.

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