History Department Wins Mellon Foundation Grant for Sawyer Seminar on “Reinterpreting Twentieth Century”

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June 11th, 2013

Led by Professors Brooke Blower, Jonathan Zatlin, Andrew Bacevich, and Bruce Schulman, the History Department has won a prestigious grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support a John E. Sawyer Seminar during academic year 2014-15.  The grant will support a year-long program, “Reinterpreting the Twentieth Century,” that will convene a series of eight guest lectures, followed by a series of intensive lunch-time workshops, as well as a postdoctoral fellowship, a graduate fellowship and an associated course.

Following the collapse of communism, and the earlier defeat of fascism, Americans have begun to take the triumph of liberal democracy for granted.  Since 1991, alternatives to free markets and representative democracy increasingly appear oddly misguided or inevitably doomed.  Because Americans “know” that democracy and capitalism work best, once urgent ideological questions now appear “settled.”  The bitter debates and divides of the twentieth century are starting to seem almost quaint, especially to young people.  As World War II becomes more myth than memory, as the Cold War begins to seem a curious artifact, and as the styles and technologies of previous decades command interest chiefly as subjects of nostalgia, persuading students and the public that the recent past possesses more than antiquarian interest presents a growing challenge.

The time is ripe for taking stock of the twentieth century and shoring up its relevance to contemporary political culture.  The central task of the Sawyer Seminar is to create usable narratives that engage with our current hopes and struggles, drawing upon recent scholarship in a way that deliberately fosters connections between disparate subfields whose connection to a larger whole has become increasingly tenuous.

The seminar will take on big questions, including what the historical content of the twentieth century was and how scholars might redefine its relevance for the larger public. By coupling public lectures with scholarly dialogue, the seminar will give rise to a series of innovative narratives that will invigorate our research, recast our curriculum, and convey the importance of history as an indispensible source of meaning in the twenty-first century.