We believe that when people think historically, they are engaging in a disciplined way of thinking about the world and its past. We believe it gives thinkers a knack for recognizing nonsense; and that it cultivates not only intellectual curiosity and rigor, but also intellectual humility. Join Al Zambone, author of Daniel Morgan: A Revolutionary Life, as he talks with historians and other professionals who cultivate the craft of historical thinking.
Episode 224: Disruption
Historians are always interested in how things change over time, and it helps for the survival of the profession that most things do. But there are certain moments in history when things don't just change, they change so radically that it feels like going over a waterfall in a kayak.
How do these moments of change come about? How can an entire social order change in a decade or two? And how does radical change in the social order not only occur, but succeed?
My guest David Potter untangles these questions in his new book Disruption: Why Things Change. David Potter is Francis W. Kelsey Collegiate Professor of Greek and Roman History and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Greek and Latin at the University of Michigan, making him a man with at least two chairs in his office. Previously he has written on prophecy and history, the origins of the Roman Empire, on sport in the Greco-Roman world—and many other books.
Episode 223: Climbing Denali
Denali, the mountain formerly sometimes known (but not by Alaskans) as Mt. McKinley, is one of the most impressive mountains in the entire world. It is not only the highest mountain in North America, it is the highest northern-most mountain. That means that the weather at its summit is ferocious and ever-changing. It's height is so great that when that weather clears away, it can be seen across an enormous swathe of Alaska.
It is the kind of mountain that challenged Victorians to climb it. By 1913 several attempts had already been made to summit Alaska’s Denali, the highest mountain in North America. That year its peak was finally reached by four men: Harry Karstens, a prospector, hunter, and guide; Walter Harper, a native Alaskan; Robert Tatum, an Episcopalian seminary student; and the Right Reverend Hudson Stuck, missionary archdeacon of the Episcopal Church in Alaska.
What that curious group was doing at such an altitude is the story of Patrick Dean's book A Window to Heaven: The Daring First Ascent of Denali: America's Wildest Peak. It’s by turn a biography of Hudson Stuck, a history of religious life in late 19th century America, a history of Alaska at the moment of immense social change, and a story seemingly co-written by Jack London.
For Further Investigation
Hudson Stuck's books are all open domain and available through archive.org
The Alaska Native Reader: History, Culture, Politics, edited by Maria Sháa Tláa Williams
Denali: Deception, Defeat, & Triumph–a history of early attempts to summit
Episode 222: The Chemistry of Fear
The wrong food can kill you. The right kind of food can help you live longer. Additives are unnatural. Unnatural food is unhealthy food. These are assumptions that many or most of us have today about the things we eat. That we believe eating to be a matter of life or death is in part due to a man most of us have never heard of, Harvey Wiley. Head of the Division of Chemistry at the Department of Agriculture, and later employed by the magazine Good Housekeeping, Wiley became an advocate of "pure food", and got his ideas out through masterly use of newspapers eager for copy. "You don't understand, sir," said President Theodore Roosevelt to one businessman complaining about Wiley, "that Dr. Wiley has the grandest political machine in the country."
Jonathan Rees's new biography of Wiley, The Chemistry of Fear: Harvey Wiley's Fight for Pure Food, is not only about Wiley, but about scientific progress, the meaning of food and health, progressivism, the bureaucratic state, and that place where science and publicity meet. It's a great read.
Professor of History at Colorado State University, Jonathan Rees was previously on the podcast in Episode 96 talking about the curious history of keeping things cold.
Episode 221: Prohibition Wasn’t American
Carrie Nation was, of course, a prohibitionist. But so was Leo Tolstoy, Czar Nicholas II, and Vladimir Lenin; in fact, the first nation to prohibit the sale of alcohol was Russia. The first Socialist Prime Minister of Sweden was an advocate for temperance, and so was Tomas Masaryk, liberal founding-father of Czechoslovakia. As Mark Schrad writes in his new book Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition, around the globe the “temperance-cum-prohibition movement harnessed the forces of organized religions into a broad-based progressive movement to capture the instruments of legislation and statecraft against powerful, established political actors.” We can only understand American prohibition by realizing that it was just one part of a worldwide movement, advocated by people who often had little in common other than their interest in limiting alcoholism in their society.
Moreover, as we discuss in the podcast, "prohibition" is a simple word that conceals much. While some advocates did press for the prohibition of the sale of liquor, others advocated temperance, which might take the form of advocating drinking beer instead of schnapps, or wine instead of brandy. There was never just one approach to dealing with the problems of alcoholism.
Mark Schrad is Associate Professor of Political Science at Villanova University. This is his third book touching on some aspect of governmental policies towards alchohol, or networks promoting prohibition or temperance. He also restores old typewriters; that didn't come up in the conversation but, man, he has a very, very impressive collection.
Episode 220: From the Archive, The First Three Weeks of College
For many colleges, this is the first week of class. And that means for both new teachers and new students, it's the beginning of one of three weeks that will influence the rest of their year, and their time in college. Believe us, it's science, as you'll hear in this conversation from long ago with our old friend Mark Salisbury.
This is one of the many conversations about college that Historically Thinking has done that we think of as Higher Ed: A Guide for the Perplexed. You can find numerous conversations there which will hopefully illuminate areas that for many people are very obscure indeed. (But why the University of Chicago has bagpipes amongst its traditions...this will forever remain a mystery locked in a closet. We just don't want to know.)
Episode 219: The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome
Edward Gibbon tells us that it was in the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter while listening to the singing of the barefooted friars that he first began to meditate on a history of the decline and fall of the city of Rome. He was far from the first English visitor to Rome to be deeply and profoundly moved by the ruins of the ancient empire; an early medieval English visitor in the 8th or 9th century wrote a poem describing the “works of giants decaying.” Nor was Gibbon the first to speak of the decline of Rome. As Edward Watts makes abundantly clear in his new book, The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome: The History of a Dangerous Idea, no one was ever more preoccupied by the decline of Rome than the Romans themselves.
Edward J. Watts is Professor & Alkiviadis Vassiliadis Endowed Chair in Byzantine Greek History at the University of California San Diego. The author of numerous books, he was last on the podcast in Episode 93 discussing his book Mortal Republic.
Thoughtful and Interesting
This is a really interesting podcast. Hosted by a historian, it is a great resource for anyone wanting to engage in history on a deeper level. As a high school history teacher, I have learned a great deal not just about particular topics but about how to think and ask questions like a historian. Highly recommended.
Great for history lovers
Great guests, a well-prepared interviewer, good topics. Home run.
These conversations about academic history are examples of what constructive criticism is.