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Providing Perspectives in Tumultuous Times

Along with teaching students and writing books, our faculty members spend a good deal of time bringing history to the wider community. We give lectures to groups big and small, from senior centers and civic clubs to major national museums and conferences. Perhaps more than ever, many seek some historical perspective on our own tumultuous times.

Dolly Parton's TweetTo take a few examples—Dan Feller has been busy this year talking to the public about the limitations of making glib analogies between the populism of Andrew Jackson and the politics of the Trump administration. Vejas Liulevicius has given talks across the country helping people understand the long shadows cast by Europe’s Great War. Lynn Sacco has spent the spring semester fielding calls from media outlets across the world who are fascinated by her new honors course on Dolly Parton’s America.

We welcome these opportunities to serve the widest possible public, to show how a historical perspective can shed light and spark good questions, even if it does not always deliver peace of mind.

All who give public talks like these, however, notice that the audience is almost always older. Many of them come forward after the presentation to testify that when younger they had never fully appreciated history, that history once seemed like a litany of dead presidents, and that only life experience made the study of the past seem interesting and vital.

Of course, we try to combat that short-sightedness every day in our classes. We make history relevant and stress that a well-educated citizen must not only know some facts, but also learn to think historically, to appreciate the interplay of many forces shaping our world. At a time when history majors are on the decline at many universities and colleges, we are pleased to be maintaining a robust group of majors and hope to rescue many more young people from the curse of launching into their lives unaware of all that has come before.

Thanks to the efforts of Pat Rutenberg, we are also working to recruit the next generation of history students. A senior lecturer, Pat has organized our UT Bridge to AP US History project. Now heading into its fourth year, the program connects our American history faculty with students from Fulton and Austin-East High Schools who are taking Advanced Placement US History. These are classes blessed with talented and motivated teachers and students we think should join us as history majors at UT. After we visit their classes throughout the school year, the bridge program culminates in a campus visit, where students enjoy a history lecture, get advice on admissions, take a campus tour, and go home with a bag of Big Orange souvenirs.

It’s a great success, and we are grateful to Pat, and all the faculty volunteers, who are working to recruit the next class of history majors; and we don’t even need to borrow the athletic department’s plane to do it.

-Ernie Freeberg
Professor and Head
Department of History