We met with Dr. Eric Foner to discuss the forgotten figures of history, growing up during the Civil Rights movement, more diverse and accurate history textbooks, and much more. Enjoy!
Historian Eric Foner talks with student Karina Macosko about how he became one of the most influential historians of our time. He shares how growing up during the Civil Rights movement inspired him to study the history of anti-slavery, and eventually write his books about the civil war era. Foner discusses how textbooks have evolved to include a more diverse and accurate history which is largely a result of more diverse body of historians. He touches on the ongoing battle to study the forgotten figures of history and the changing view of many prominent figures. Foner explains the challenges that historians face in recovering the histories of previously forgotten groups as historical records are often limited.
Keep learning. Never stop learning, never stopped reading. Lincoln was totally self-educated, he barely went to school in his whole life. He learned by just learning all the time.” – Dr. Eric Foner
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(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Karina Macosko: Hi, my name is Karina Macosko from academicinfluence.com, and I am here with Professor Foner. And we just wanna know…
…how did you get into your field and what influenced you to go there?
Eric Foner: How did I get into my field? Well, it’s probably a long story, which I’ll try to make brief. I should say, I grew up in a family in the suburbs of New York City back in the 1950s, a family in which history was a part of my growing up. My father was a historian, my uncle Philip was a historian, we frequently talked about figures in American history over the dinner table, things like that.
So it seems inevitable I’d be a historian, but the fact is actually I was much more interested in high school in science, in math, in... I wanted to actually be an astronomer, and when I went to college, the first two years in college, I mostly took physics, math, astronomy, things like that. Somewhere in the middle though I decided to change over to history, and I think the reason... There were two reasons: One, I took a course with a very inspiring teacher on the whole Civil War era, and it shows you that a teacher can really affect your whole life.
Karina: Right, yeah.
Eric: He got me really fascinated by this piece of history. And secondly, this was the early 1960s and the civil rights movement was at its height, and I was somewhat involved in that, my brother was quite involved in it, and I and many, many people of my generation wanted to figure out where this came from. We had learned history in high school, of course, but it was... How shall I put it? It was a history that could not have produced the present that we were living in. It was a history based on the idea that all the problems were solved pretty much in American society, maybe there are a few tweaks needed here and there but it was a kind of general onward and upward, America was born perfect and then had been getting better ever since.
This could not explain why thousands of people were in the streets demanding their rights, fighting against inequality. And so many of us decided... I got interested in the history of the anti-slavery movement before the Civil War, the politics of anti-slavery, things like that. So it was a combination of personal upbringing, a teacher, and just the world I was living in that sort of all conspired to make me decide to become a historian.
Karina: And so now do you study mostly the Civil War period or do you study other periods too?
Eric: Most of my books have been about the Civil War era, broadly defined. I wrote a book about Abraham Lincoln, I’ve written several books about the Reconstruction era after the Civil War. My doctoral dissertation, which was then published as my first book, was about the Republican party before the Civil War. So yes, most of my scholarship has been on that period broadly defined, the Civil War era, which begins way before the Civil War and stretches long after it. But I have also written on other aspects of American history as well.
Karina: And I know that my history classes now are probably very different from the ones you took when you were in college or high school...
Eric: I hope so. They weren’t very good, in high school anyway. Yeah.
Karina: Yeah. So do you think that there’s kind of been a shift away from, like you were saying, "America was born great and just has been getting greater", do you think there was a shift away from it, or how do you think history classes have changed a little?
Eric: Oh, absolutely. I mean, history... Now look, it’s easy enough to say, "When I was in high school they weren’t teaching it well," but that was over 50 years ago, so I’m not trying to condemn my poor High School history teachers. But yes, the fact... I mean, if look at American history textbooks now they are much more diverse, they deal with the diversity of American society. I went back and looked at my high school textbook, there was no Black American mentioned by name in my high school textbook. Frederick Douglass was not mentioned. This was an actually very narrow vision of American history.
Today, it’s entirely different, it’s a much more diversified vision, and it’s a story of ups and downs as most countries history is, of progress and then retrogression of rights gained and sometimes rights lost. And it’s about struggles, people struggling to make this a better society, and I think that’s a much more interesting, and certainly more accurate history than the just, I think, simplistic one that was taught when I was there. But the other point is that the teachers are different today. In my entire life I never had an African-American teacher. Never, of any subject.
I never had a woman history teacher, I had women teachers in other subjects. So in other words, today the history profession is far more diversified, and that has affected... So for example, the history of women in American society was just not mentioned when I was in school, but now it’s a major sub-field. That is partly because we now have many women scholars who are active historians and active teachers. So yeah, but I think this is good, I think the way history is taught and understood now is far more sophisticated than it was when I was learning in high school. So again, I don’t want to condemn Mrs. Bertha Berryman, my high school history teacher. Although I think many of her views do seem a little antiquated nowadays. But I think the study of history has progressed enormously since then.
Karina: And do you think there’s still a lot of people who are under-represented or just not represented at all in history that might change in the future?
Eric: Well, yes. I think there’s a problem with that situation in that most of the records that historians are used to using come from a certain elite in the society. It’s the... Your ordinary man or woman in the street, of any race or background, is often not leaving letters, speeches, publications, the kinds of things that historians like to use to delve into a particular period. So there’s a problem of the archive, as we call it.
And then to complement that, or to exacerbate it, if you go to the Library of Congress or to other historical libraries, over the many, many years they have been mostly interested in collecting the records of famous prominent people. So if you wanted to study Thomas Jefferson , you’d have a gigantic array of material, but if you wanna study the lives of Jefferson’s slaves, let’s say, then it becomes a little more complicated. Although people have done it, and done it very well. So there’s always a battle to sort of uncover the history of the less-prominent figures in American history.
One group whose history has often been obscured but is now being studied by many scholars is Native Americans. When I was in school, Native Americans appeared in our history basically as just an obstacle to westward movement or things like that. In other words, they didn’t have their own history, they just sort of had to be pushed out of the way. Maybe it was not done very pleasantly, but they were there and then they were pushed out and white settlers and everything moved in. Today, I think that we have a much more complicated view of that, but also again, finding the records of Native Americans, it’s not impossible, it is done, there are good scholars doing it, but it’s a challenge, that’s all.
Karina: Right, and do you think that there are also different sides of people who you studied in your history books that are being uncovered? Like people we’ve been studying forever but now we’re kind of seeing a different side of them, and a lot of times a not-so-good side of their policies or who they were.
Eric: I’m not one of those who says we should just start tearing down the reputation of everybody. But yes, I think many prominent figures in our history have turned out to be a little more problematic than earlier historians emphasized. Even a person like Abraham Lincoln , one of our greatest Americans, let us say, for much of his life shared some of the prejudices against Black people that were very common in his era and in his state, Illinois.
That’s important, those kinds of things were not really mentioned much. Or Jefferson again, what about Jefferson’s owning of slaves and his relationship with his slave Sally Hemings , and things like that? And this is not to say, "Well, that’s all we need to know about Jefferson." Of course there were great achievements of men like Jefferson and Lincoln, but we have to sort of... Nobody is perfect in this world, I don’t care who they are. And if you set out to just have a history of heroes, it becomes inaccurate after a while. I think it’s better to see the pluses and minuses, of any human being.
Karina: Yeah. Well, kind of switching gears a little bit, a lot of people who come to this website are high schoolers like me or college students who are trying to figure out what they wanna do, and you said that in high school you thought you would go into something in science or math, and then kind of switched to history.
So could you kind of give us your advice on what somebody should do if they think they wanna go into history, or they’re not sure, or they don’t wanna go into history at all, but maybe should give it a shot?
…try to keep an open mind and don't assume that you're not interested in something.” – Dr. Eric Foner
Eric: Well, it’s hard for me to give advice to young people facing the many uncertainties that we all face in our society today. My view is to try to keep an open mind and don’t assume that you’re not interested in something. As I said, I learned to love history partly through a teacher who I happened to take his course. That was sort of accidentally, I’d heard that he was very good, etcetera.
But keep an open mind and don’t just study what you think you wanna do. I’ve retired, but when I was a college professor I had students who I advised and sometimes most of them were history majors, but they would come in, "Here’s my course choices for this year," and it was like four history courses and a sociology.
I said, "No, that’s not... You can’t do that. Take at least one course on something that you have no practical... That you don’t think has any practical value for you. Take a course on Shakespeare, take a course on Renaissance Italian art, take a course on Chinese history. I don’t care, but something that’s outside of your comfort zone." And you never know how it may influence you or inspire you or anything like that.
So I think one thing you can learn from Abraham Lincoln, if I might invoke him is... And this is not just in school, this is forever, your whole life: Keep learning, never stop learning, never stop reading. Lincoln was totally self-educated, he barely went to school in his whole life, he learned by just learning all the time. He wanted to do that. And never be just totally satisfied, always be interested in new ideas, new things, and then you’ll develop insights and skills that will serve you well no matter what line of work you end up in.
Karina: Wow, well that is incredible advice. So, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me, it was really a pleasure to hear what you had to say, so thank you so much.
Eric: You’re very welcome. Very nice to talk to you.