When I entered Colgate University in 1956, I arrived with the vaguest of vocational goals. In secondary school, I had picked up a love of history, in part prompted by assiduous stamp collecting, and I entered college with the nebulous aspirations (in order of preference) of being a high-school history teacher-cum-track coach, journalist, lawyer, or Protestant minister. Not long after my first term began, I set my sights on teaching on the college level, thanks in large measure to a remarkable group of professors: Rodney Mott, who could argue both sides of any Supreme Court case with equal rigor; Charles Ray Wilson, whose dynamic lectures on the Gilded Age gave me a lifelong fascination with the subject; Arnold Sio, a sociologist whose knowledge of the American past made him the peer of many in the discipline of history; and William Askew, whose excitement about Europe’s diplomatic past was contagious. (Askew loved to describe ‘secret papers’ he had found in the Italian archives).
Tag: formation essay
Many years ago, when I was giving a talk in Austin, Robert Divine introduced by commenting that I had stayed with World War I while other diplomatic historians were moving forward in the twentieth century to work on World War II and the Cold War. “I guess I’m just stuck in the same rut,” was my reply. I should have gone on to explain why that was so. One reason is that I have never considered myself to be primarily a diplomatic historian. I have enjoyed studying the interaction of nations, during World War I, for example, the duel over submarine warfare, Anglo-American relations, the House-Grey Memorandum, loans to the Allies, the Armistice, and the peace negotiations. Yet I have always been more interested in the domestic roots and influences behind foreign policy. This was part of a broader interest in political history that spanned domestic and foreign affairs.
My route to becoming an academic, and more specifically, a historian of Africa, was a circuitous one. A child of the 1960s, I was raised in a family with a strong concern for social justice in the era of the civil rights and anti–Vietnam War movements. I joined my parents (a historian and a librarian) as they worked against racism, militarism, and poverty, and my friends who were tackling environmental destruction. Seeking a liberal arts college with a tradition of social justice activism, I found myself at Oberlin College, which had been a pioneer in the nineteenth-century anti-slavery and women’s rights movements.