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A great teacher.


Eric Foner.

LAST WEEK, ONE of the preeminent scholars of American history retired after a career that lasted over four decades and included the publishing of more than twenty books. But Eric Foner was more than just a great historian; he was a great teacher, beloved by undergraduates and graduate students alike. Below are excerpts from the speech I gave at the conference in his honor held at Columbia University.

IN MY JUNIOR YEAR of college, I screwed up all of my courage and wrote Professor Foner an email. I told him about my aspirations for graduate school and asked him how I should go about preparing for it. The email was long and tentative and probably very awkward; I was certain that I was intruding in an unforgivable way.

The American NoteI didn’t really think that he would respond—and I certainly didn’t think that he would set aside half an hour of his Tuesday afternoon to meet with me. By the time I reached his office that day, my heart was racing. But my panic soon proved unnecessary—Professor Foner greeted me with a handshake and a smile and proceeded to dispense wisdom. It wasn’t complicated; he offered me no secret tips for success. The basic gist of his advice was—as he later told me when I was struggling to start my senior thesis—“you just have to work really hard.”

But he offered me something much better than elaborate advice—the quiet confidence that I was capable and that professors like him would take me and my ideas seriously. That’s a remarkable gift to receive during your junior year of college from a professor you barely know—it changes the whole way you approach your studies, because it forces you to take charge of your work; suddenly you’re not studying in obedience to the faceless university administration; you’re studying because you hope and imagine that one day you might contribute something that matters and because along the way people like Professor Foner will ask you what you’re reading  and thinking about.

Professor Foner seemed ready to offer that sense to everyone who showed up at his office door. It was incredible: in 250-person classes, he’d urge everyone to come talk to him about their final papers.

To be fair, he didn’t let students off the hook easily. No matter which of his classes we were in, if we showed up unprepared, he didn’t try to save us from embarrassment. And he didn’t seem particularly tolerant of students who just wanted to curry favor with a celebrity professor.

But students who were thinking about something serious and trying to find the right books to read? Students who had twisted logical strings knotted up in their heads and were trying to sort them out? Professor Foner was invariably there, ready with questions and stories and his constant urging to get back to the library and read and think more.

AND THEN THERE was the compelling sense of urgency to his lectures. He knew that the topics we studied in his classes—abolitionism, the Civil War, reconstruction, civil rights, feminism, socialism—he knew that those topics mattered, and not in the abstract way that medieval manuscripts matter, but in a pressing, immediate way. And so it was thrilling. We understood from him that we couldn’t really make sense of our current political situation—from Occupy and Black Lives Matter to Donald Trump—without understanding the complex web of leftist political activities of the last 300 years. That alone was reason enough to attend his lectures.

We learned from him to respect and admire people whose names we don’t know today and whose lives we can barely imagine—or could barely imagine before Professor Foner helped us.

But there was more. He’d tell stories of activists that we’d never heard of, that few people had ever heard of, because few people talk about the names of the runaway slaves that came knocking on General Benjamin Butler’s door as the names of activists the way Professor Foner does. We learned from him to respect and admire people whose names we don’t know today and whose lives we can barely imagine—or could barely imagine before Professor Foner helped us.

But as much as he taught us about American history, Professor Foner was at least as inspiring in the way that he talked about politics. He showed us—never told us, and rarely advertised—how to be a thoughtful radical, how to use history to inform nuanced opinions of complicated problems. Against the sense that the only way to have a voice in public is to yell at the top of your lungs online or occasionally in the streets, Professor Foner showed us that a slightly more sober and slightly more sophisticated approach can be equally powerful. He never suggested to us that more moderate was better, that liberal was more realistic than left, that we were naïve in our hopes and goals. Instead, he showed us that our ideas had historical backing, that they were serious ideas, that serious people supported them, too.

Everyone took his classes—history majors and environmental-science majors and older “life-long learners.” I think we all came for different reasons: because he could be wickedly funny, because he seemed so sympathetic to student concerns, because he held political views that we also held, because he was a master of historical narrative.

I know I came for all of those reasons. But, more than anything else, I came to hear him think, to try to learn how to approach the world the way he does. He is so smart, so astute, so sensitive. He seemed to me to be able to make sense of a world, past and present, that completely baffles me. His lectures never suggested that the world isn’t baffling and complex; he didn’t simplify anything to a series of dates or an inevitable process. Instead, he offered us a way to grapple with the confusion, a way to ask questions; as the best critics always do, he offered us a lens through which to look at the world and analyze and wonder at it.

He’s often said that in studying history, our experiences shape, not so much the answers we get, but the questions we ask. If that’s the case, Professor Foner is going to be shaping the questions that many students of history ask for a very long time.

Associate editor Chloë Hawkey studied American History and Latin at Columbia University. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area and works as a whitewater river guide on the Rogue River in the summer months. Her ‘American note’ archive is here.

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