This is the third and final installment of the interview with Daniel Pope, long-time history professor from University of Oregon and the subject one of the most fascinating series I’ve ever done on this blog. In part one he shared his experiences as part of the “radical” generation in the 60s, and in part two he described his involvement in the Columbia University protests of 1968. Here we finish up with some final thoughts on history, from the long view.
Professor Pope in 2012.
How would you say college students have changed since you began teaching? Do they generally know more or less today when they walk into a lecture hall than they did in, say, 1973 when you started teaching?
I think the biggest change in my undergraduate students over forty years has been their attitude toward academic authority. In the seventies, my students wanted me to tell them what happened and they believed what I said was true. If I was lecturing and said something like, “I’d say there were three reasons for this…”, I’d see them pick up their pens and start writing 1, 2, 3. That was kind of unnerving, partly because of my own doubts about knowledge claims and partly because I didn’t want to play God with them. There were some students who didn’t believe what I said was gospel, but they often had a world view, political or religious, that gave them their own version of the truth.
In the last 20-25 years, perhaps because of the inroads of postmodernism, many students have moved towards a kind of subjectivism. They believe what they want to believe and question authority. That’s healthy up to a point, but it also produces an unsettling lack of interest in factual information at times.
In terms of knowledge and preparation, I’d say it’s roughly a tie between former and current students. I think students may know a little more history than their parents did when they were in college, but their familiarity with current events is weaker because of the decline of newspaper reading. I like to make analogies and comparisons between historical topics and present-day ones, but they fall flat if students don’t know anything about, say, Vladimir Putin or the Keystone XL Pipeline controversy or the Citizens United case.
More modern protest movements, like Occupy Wall Street, seem to have some of the same ideals as the movements of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, but they seem to lack both the passion and the radicalism. What’s missing from today’s protest movements (at least in the United States)?
Some of the same ideals, but social movements have shifted away from the idea of universal liberation toward identity politics. I don’t mean to use “identity politics” as a pejorative term, by the way. The decline of Marxism, at least in the version that says that capitalism creates its own gravediggers and is destined to give way to a new socialist society, has made a big difference, as has the influence of Foucault’s expansive concepts of power and resistance. I wouldn’t say passion is what’s missing so much as a vision of a radically transformed future. I’d add, too, that a bit of class consciousness would be a good thing. We’ve seen capitalism swoon and shakily revive in the last five years along with an assault on poor and working-class people in the United States and elsewhere and I find myself saying, “Where’s the outrage?”
Sort of springboarding off that last question, let’s look at the headlines—Turkey and Brazil have seen very large-scale protest movements just in the past few weeks. Combining that with the Arab Spring events of 2011, do you think the world is entering a new “era of protest” similar to what the U.S. went through in the ‘60s-‘70s? Is the rest of the world catching up to where we were in 1968?
Well, for starters, keep in mind that 1968 saw worldwide protests—in some ways more consequential, as in France or Czechoslovakia, than in the United States, so I don’t think that we can or should hold out the US as a trailblazer in mass protest. I’d also note that mass protest has been endemic over the last few decades—the Iranian revolution (and, 30 years later, the protests against the mullahs in 2009 or so), Polish Solidarity, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, Tiananmen Square, battles against dismantling welfare state features in Western Europe, anti-globalization protests like the “Battle of Seattle” in 1999, and so forth. So it’s not as if everyone did a Rip van Winkle over the decades since 1968. That said, the last couple of years do seem to mark an acceleration and expansion of mass protest movements. There’s pretty obviously a class dimension to them—poor and working class people fighting against privatization, austerity and curtailments of the welfare state—and there’s also a pretty consistent strain of opposition to neo-colonialism and capitalist forms of globalization. But there’s also an ethnic and religious dimension, not just in Arab Spring but in various African conflicts, the long-standing and fortunately now ended civil war in Sri Lanka, the former Yugoslavia, etc. that’s pretty alarming. Even in Syria, where the Assad regime has been unspeakably brutal, I’m not finding much to root for in the opposition.
Many of the readers of my blog are interested in history, but not many are academic historians. Can you recommend a particularly good book, on any historical subject, that’s accessible to non-academic readers but which is still excellent history?
Here’s one that I’ve been talking up since I read it a year or two ago: Danielle McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance—a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to Black Power. It really does recast the civil rights movement in a very fundamental way and raises important questions about race, gender and violence. It’s not a cheerful read, but there are some inspiring stories of resistance in it.
On a somewhat different note, I can’t resist putting in a plug for the historical mysteries my wife, Barbara Corrado Pope, has written about late nineteenth century France: Cezanne’s Quarry, about art, science and the position of women; The Blood of Lorraine, about anti-Semitism on the eve of the Dreyfus Affair, and The Missing Italian Girl, about anarchism, labor, women’s education and daily life in fin de siècle Paris. Speaking totally objectively, they’re great. Her website: www.BarbaraCPope.com.
Anything else you’d like to share with us?
It’s been a challenge, but an enjoyable one, to respond to your questions. I hope your readers find the dialogue engaging. If anyone has questions, corrections, challenges, etc., please don’t hesitate to contact me at email@example.com.
This has been a really amazing and interesting interview. My thanks to Professor Pope and to everyone who has been following this series. Great stuff!