UNC-Chapel Hill, May 16, 2021
I’m honored to represent the UNC history department faculty as we celebrate the achievements of the department’s talented students who are graduating today. I know that your families and friends are also celebrating, but I can assure you that your professors take a special pride in all of you who chose to major in History and then completed the hard work that has brought you to this milestone in your lives.
It’s a privilege for the faculty to teach the students who come into our UNC classes with knowledge, curiosity, and experiences that constantly enrich our own historical work. We understand that historical education is an ongoing exchange in which knowledge and insights move in two directions at the same time. Good history professors provide students with new knowledge and analytical perspectives for understanding the past and present, but students raise questions and bring new ideas that help the faculty reexamine historical knowledge that we thought we already understood. One of the great pleasures of teaching comes from the interactions with students who push their professors to keep learning during every semester—even in the age of Zoom and on-line classrooms.
The last three semesters of your UNC experience have differed from the work and social experiences of all the earlier students who have passed through our department. We’ve had a History Department in this University since 1891, and 20th-century teachers and students had to cope with the disruptions of a global flu pandemic, two world wars, the Great Depression, and the transformative social movements of the 1960s. But no previous generation of faculty or students had to transform their academic work into Zoomland, and few have ever been forced to adapt as quickly as you have adjusted to the strange world of the COVID pandemic. The upheavals of your UNC experience, however, have also shown precisely why historical studies offer such a valuable foundation for responding to the unexpected events and endless changes that affect every generation and every place in the world. When people ask why you majored in history, you can assure them that you were looking for a pathway to the richest possible life—no matter what work or profession you may pursue over the next fifty years.
As a longtime member of our community of UNC historians, I’ve come to appreciate how the “wealth” of historical education carries an enduring value that you’ll be able to draw upon as a permanent intellectual resource for all that you do, but I want to note three spheres in which historical knowledge offers especially important support. The wide-ranging skills and perspectives that you’ve developed by studying history provide at least three empowering advantages that will enhance your personal and public life long after your UNC years have become a distant memory of youth. These history-based advantages include (1) a preparation for success in all kinds of professional work, (2) an intellectual foundation for dealing with unexpected personal opportunities, failures or emotional pains, and (3) an expertise in the analytical methods, communication skills and historical information that are essential for participating in democratic public cultures. Like a historian discussing the “three consequences” of a major historical event, I want to briefly note how your historical education contributes to each of these spheres of life, but the present challenges in our public culture will lead me to particularly stress that historical knowledge is essential for the survival of American democracy.
The professional benefits of your historical studies may not be immediately apparent to people who doubt the value of a humanities-centered education, so you have surely been asked lots of hard questions about how you will find a good job or flourish in the global economy. You can of course respond by noting that history majors have long succeeded in medicine, law, business, journalism, international diplomacy, entertainment, education, and many other professions. As thoughtful, historically-minded people, you will bring much-needed skills to all kinds of work because you know how to read documents, analyze evidence, examine the causes of complex events, write good prose, and think critically about whatever problem you set out to solve. A good historical education also teaches you to recognize the realities of global diversity because you understand how everyone you meet and every significant problem you encounter has a complex history. Using such knowledge and skills gives you a pathway to success in any professional community, economic enterprise or social organization you will join.
But a historical education prepares you for much more than the first good job that you and your family hope you will find. Even more important, perhaps, historical perspectives also prepare you for that year after you lose your first good job or for that year in which you mourn the painful loss of a special relationship or for that year in which you learn that you are seriously ill or for that year in which every candidate you supported loses in the elections. Historical education, in short, gives you perspectives that help you move forward during the most difficult years of your life. Everyone goes through times in which they feel vulnerable or isolated or deeply disappointed by a devastating event, but when you hit the wall of despair you’ll have advantages that are not so available to your non-historian friends.
As history majors, you will know that other human beings have survived comparable setbacks or much worse challenges than any problem you’re facing. People have somehow lived through great economic depressions, endured horrible plagues and pandemics, survived brutal enslavements, huddled in trenches on terrifying battlefields, lost their families in genocidal violence, seen their cities reduced to ruins, and suffered the tragic loss of friends they love. But past people have lived through all such crises and then pushed on to rebuild their lives. They have survived; and knowing this historical fact will help you regain your balance as you emerge from a pandemic, a lost relationship, or a lost job.
History helps you overcome isolation because it connects you with the experiences of other people. Happiness may come mostly from your engaging relationships with family and good friends, and history leads you constantly into new relationships with people whom you could never otherwise know. As the great writer James Baldwin once explained, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” Historians know that thoughtful “dialogues” with people who lived in other times and cultures help you understand your own beliefs, goals, and fears. A lifelong engagement with history can make you laugh and cry, but historical “conversations” can also generate perspectives that enable you to take purposeful, self-aware actions in both your personal and public life.
Historical skills and knowledge are thus essential for your public participation in a democratic society. I have devoted much of my academic career to understanding the history of democratic aspirations and movements that grew out of eighteenth-century revolutions in America and France, so I’ve tried to understand how and why the struggle to expand democratic rights and improve public institutions never ends. I believe we’re currently passing through one of the recurring eras of crisis in the long history of democratic cultures and institutions, because numerous political groups and political leaders in countries throughout the world and in the United States are unwilling to accept the outcomes of democratic elections. This political crisis has also emerged from global economic transitions that have created vast gaps in wealth as well as a deep sense of personal isolation; and the crisis has grown because internet communications and new social media have created a fast-flowing stream of misinformation and outright lies. Historical examples in many other times and places—from antiquity to twentieth-century Europe—show that democracies have often given way to autocrats and intolerant ideologues. In such perilous times, truthful historical knowledge becomes more important than ever, as you know from your own experiences while you’ve been a student at UNC.
You could not possibly understand what has happened during these last four years without historical knowledge. The struggle to remove Silent Sam from UNC and the broader conflict over Confederate monuments, for example, could only develop because people studied the history of slavery, the racism of Jim Crow laws, and the past historical narratives that bolstered the political system of white supremacy. Historical knowledge has also been essential for understanding the Black Lives Matter movement, the political conflicts of the 2020 elections, and the social-cultural responses to the COVID pandemic. None of these events can be accurately explained unless you know the history of how racism has been used to construct social hierarchies or the history of struggles to secure voting rights or the long history of human reactions to plagues and deadly diseases.
It’s therefore not surprising that profound disagreements about historical education are now driving some of the most important public conflicts throughout the United States and in North Carolina. Legislative leaders have denounced curricular reforms that seek to give students more historical knowledge about the history of racial exclusions and displacements in North Carolina; and recent legislative actions require history teachers to avoid all references to the historical themes of Critical Race Theory—which examines the role of systemic racism in American history. Yes, my fellow historians, you are moving from UNC into a wider society where historical education has become one of the most disputed issues in public life. Accurate historical information and careful historical analysis is thus essential for anyone who enters into current political conflicts, defends full participation in democratic elections, or seeks to protect democratic institutions.
I want to close my affirmation of historical education by quoting three perspectives from past and present writers. The first is David Walker, the nineteenth-century African American abolitionist and political activist who was born in Wilmington, NC to a free mother and enslaved father– and who eventually settled as a free man in Boston. In 1829, he published the important abolitionist text Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, which firmly asserted that historical knowledge was a powerful weapon in the struggle for freedom. “I pray that the Lord may undeceive my ignorant brethren, and permit them to… seek after the substance of learning,” he wrote. If oppressed people gained such knowledge, it could never be destroyed by tyrannical oppressors. “For colored people to acquire learning in this country,” he went on to explain, “makes tyrants quake and tremble on their sandy foundation.” After Walker published his book, the North Carolina legislature passed a law that banned the circulation of all abolitionist publications in our state. Historians know that such bans on free speech or on the distribution of specific theories, texts, and historical arguments in our schools have often reappeared at transitional moments in our state’s history; and the imposition of such bans from David Walker’s era to our own time suggests that the struggles for truthful historical education and strong democratic institutions are always connected.
The links between democracy and a vibrant humanistic and historical education have also been described by the contemporary American philosopher Martha Nussbaum in her book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (first published in 2010). “The humanities and arts provide skills that are essential to keep democracy healthy,” Nussbaum writes, but we’re now facing a crisis because “systems of education are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive. If this trend continues, nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements. The future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance.” Nussbaum’s warnings from 2010 may well be even more relevant for you who are graduating in the class of 2021.
Finally, I want to note the wise perspectives of the poet Amanda Gorman, whose poem “The Hill We Climb” reaffirmed the historical value of democracy at the presidential inauguration ceremony as you began your final semester at UNC. Gorman described a great historical arc of democracy and democratic aspirations when she wrote:
“It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit.
It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation, rather than
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy….
But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth, in this faith we trust, for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.”
So I conclude my celebration of your historical knowledge and your academic achievements by emphasizing the importance of your future work as well as the significance of the historical studies you’ve completed. You’re leaving UNC as history majors who are exceptionally well prepared to advance in your professional work and to find wise perspectives amid the inevitable ups and downs that will create your own life history in the years to come.
But you’re also historically minded participants in American democracy, and you’ll need to take on essential historical tasks as you carry the democratic spirit of past generations and struggles into the public life and institutions of the twenty-first century. It’s a big historical job, but your UNC history professors believe in your talents, respect your knowledge, and admire your ability to shape a better, more democratic society. We’re cheering for you as you leave our department for a wider world, and we hope that your historical understanding will sustain you as you confront and change the challenging situations that lie ahead. Congratulations and best wishes to all of you and to the families who support you!