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A Message from the Chair

July 30, 2020

This is my final Chair’s Letter for the department Newsletter and I type it amid a world changing at vertiginous speed. The new coronavirus has demonstrated with impressive efficiency that historical context matters enormously. We are never returning to the world of January 2020. I am also acutely conscious of how differently it affects people by age. Although my oldest colleagues are most vulnerable medically, I fear most for people the age of our students. They were just starting to move out into the world, escape the cramped and judgmental atmosphere of high school, differentiate themselves from their families, and broaden their sense of what is possible. Or they were just finishing up their formal education and taking steps to become fully functioning adults. Now they do so in far more challenging times—and, alas, our nation’s failure to establish a coherent response to COVID-19 will shrink their worlds permanently.

When I researched my most recent book, about the actions various Japanese people took to rebuild their society after it was destroyed by fascist repression and war, I was struck by how intensely young people desired an education in 1945 and how quickly they blossomed when offered a chance to learn about the world beyond their neighborhoods or, for many men, army barracks. They most wanted two things: a larger imaginative world and a less cruel one. And to an impressive degree, they made both things happen. At the same time, often, it was older people who had the best ideas about how to craft and protect that better society because they had been trying to do so for decades. They also lived more comfortably with political and moral ambiguity and knew not only that partial victories are still wins but also that it is easy to fritter away precious opportunities that do not come around again.

The generation I study—born at the turn of the twentieth century, grandchildren of hereditary peasants in a samurai society, fully modern individuals—would have instantly understood the dual message that John Lewis wished to convey to young people before he died. On his last days on earth, Lewis wrote that “you filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.” Then he reminded his listeners that some of the most profound acts are the least glamorous ones, such as voting in elections, “the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have.” I personally think providing a good education might nose out voting for that honor but no need to choose. Let’s do both.

John Lewis, “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of our Nation,” New York Times, July 30, 2020.

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