Interview

National Treasure

An Interview With Eric Foner

Professor Eric Foner’s reputation precedes him. Aside from being an inspiring and legendary figure in Columbia’s history department, Foner has penned over twenty books, and won a Pulitzer Prize, a Lincoln Prize, and a Bancroft prize. In 2000, Foner was elected president of the American Historical Association, and today remains the foremost contemporary historian on the Reconstruction Period. LIV LANSDALE sat down with Foner for a once-in-a-lifetime conversation. 

Is history being put to any new uses?

History is a wonderful subject because it’s totally democratic. Everybody thinks that he or she can say something about history—as opposed to physics, say, or some highly technical field like that. I think that’s great, but people in Hollywood think that if you read a book of history you’re a historian, and then you can say whatever you feel like in a movie. Historical analogies are also bandied about by political leaders, often imperfectly. [Ben Carson] recently said “Obamacare” is the worst thing to happen since slavery, and some conservative politician ran with that. Or think of the Munich analogy: If we do this or that, then we’ll appease the enemy, and that’s bad because a similar thing led to World War II. These kinds of things are often very misleading when applied to the current world. I’m afraid the job of the historian often is to be a killjoy; to say “No, no, what you’re saying doesn’t make much sense.”

Speaking of Munich, I enjoyed reading your reaction to Tony Kushner’s Lincoln. What would you say is the most damaging myth in America today? What’s the one historical fact you’d want everyone in the country to accept?

I doubt very strongly if we would get everybody to agree because the essence of studying history is debate and change in interpretation. But, I would say the most pernicious idea about history that is widely shared here is the idea of American exceptionalism: That our history is so different from that of every other country that we don’t have to know anything about anybody else. With that comes, “We are better than everybody else. We have a unique mission in the world.” In a way it alerts us to issues of liberty and human rights around the world—but in a globalized, interconnected world, that notion of exceptionalism has little real validity. It leads to parochialism, self-satisfaction, and a lack of interest in the rest of the world. If I had one idea I’d like everyone to abandon, it’s American exceptionalism, that we are exempt from the processes of history that affect everybody else. That we have a superior position in the world that gives us the right to tell other countries what they ought to do without listening to an international dialogue.

In your career, have you noticed any trends in the way history is taught?

I think, unfortunately, the biggest trend right now is the decline of the teaching of history. In many schools—both high school and pre-high school—the entire emphasis of the Barack Obama administration and many others on high stakes testing, particularly of English and Math, makes history kind of a luxury. At Dalton School (The Dalton School) or Stuyvesant (Stuyvesant High School) or places like that, it is extensively taught. But at schools with more challenged groups of students, history is a luxury they can’t afford. Their budget depends on Math and English test scores. If history is not being taught, academic trends are irrelevant.

Sounds like the arts to me.

The arts are also being eliminated for the same reasons. I admire President Obama, but I think his educational policy is a disaster. This emphasis on vocational training, that you must train people for a job. They have proposed ranking colleges on the basis of the income of graduates.

I spoke to someone who works at the White House about this recently. I said, “What do you think that’s going to do to the rankings of women’s colleges? Since women earn less than men?” I’m sorry to say, but that’s a fact of our economic system. They said, “Oh, we didn’t even think of that.” They don’t think up there, unfortunately, about a lot of things when it comes to education policy.

Do you risk professional credibility, the more your writing tends toward narrative?

One would hope not. I believe in narrative. We ought to be alert to how we’re communicating our ideas, to the need to make our work accessible. Hofstadter was a brilliant stylist, and that got him a much bigger audience than he would have gotten otherwise. So when I teach graduate courses in history, I emphasize the writing of it. To go back to your point, I gave a lecture a few years ago at a conference about the historical novel. It was mostly literary types. I said, “We are not as different from you as you might think.” Historical narrative is an act of creation. What, after all, determines the choice of facts? There is an infinite array. The historian creates history by choosing what to leave in and what to leave out of a narrative. People aren’t making things up; they’re just making different choices about what to include in their historical narrative and what to omit. So it’s literary in that it’s an act of the imagination. I’ve always felt that we have history in the wrong division here at Columbia—it’s in the division of social sciences. We should be in the humanities.

How do you monitor yourself for open-mindedness?

It’s what happens when you encounter surprises. That’s what being a professional historian means, that quality of mind that allows you to take into account things you didn’t expect. It’s a product of training. Even if you don’t do that, that’s what the professional standards are for; other historians hold you to them.

Here’s an example. For at least 10 years of Abraham Lincoln’s life, he advocated what they called at that time “colonization,” encouraging black people to leave the United States for some other place. He gave speeches and made statements. Many books on Lincoln don’t talk about this at all, or they’ll just throw in a sentence. Many researchers on Lincoln are so invested in the idea of the “Great Emancipator” that they don’t want to discuss anything that may undercut that image you already had.

I thought of Ray Bradbury’s “Downwind from Gettysburg” when I read about your role in the “Meet Mr. Lincoln” display at Disneyland. Have there been any stranger-than-fiction moments in your career?

Actual history is often stranger than fiction. Certainly working with the Disney Corporation had some strange moments.

But working with them I also learned how little I know about many things. When I was down at Orlando, Fla. giving some advice, they showed me a movie about to be released. I said, “You know, I don’t think this is really going to get anywhere.” It was The Lion King. I mean, are people really going to care about a king among the lions? Why don’t they have a democratic government? I guess I didn’t really have my finger on the popular pulse that day.

The phrase “animal kingdom” must be pretty embedded in American culture.

Maybe. A sequel could show a revolution, just as we overthrew the king in 1776. Luckily, Disney didn’t listen to my advice. 

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