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Eric Foner, Ph.D.

8 questions with Eric Foner
[09.20.2010]

Tampa, Fla. -- Famed Civil War historian, professor and curator Eric Foner, Ph.D., will be talking about one of the most turbulent eras in United States history. His lecture, "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln, Slavery and the Rights of Black Americans," will revolve around his latest publication "Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World."

Foner will be will be speaking at 6:30 p.m., on Sept. 23 at the USF Marshall Student Center in the Oval Theater as part of the USF Phi Beta Kappa Faculty Lecture Series. The lecture is free and open to the public.

The Columbia University professor is only the second person to serve as president of three major historian organizations: the Organization of American Historians, American Historical Association, and Society of American Historians.

History class with Foner could leave students rethinking the way they read and write history. As he learned from his mentor, Richard Hofstadter, the way history is written can actually rewrite history. Foner sees writing, researching and presenting history as an art.

Before Foner comes to USF, he sat down and answered a range of questions, explaining why historians should be weary on the way they write history to his influence on becoming a Civil War era historian.

Q: You have been the curator of a prize-winning exhibition "A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln." What do you believe future generations will think when they look back to the 2000-2010 decade and read about a divided country over economic, social and international issues?
A: Political divisions are hardly new in American history. I think future historians will see our deep divisions as reflecting the difficulty of adjusting to the transition from a predominantly white to a multiracial society, and from a situation of economic dominance to a globalized world where the US seems to be declining in economic influence and stability.

Q: It has been almost 150 years since slavery was made constitutionally illegal. Why do you think the progress of overcoming racism has taken so long?
A: Racism was deeply embedded in American society and culture for centuries. It is not to be expected that it would be eradicated quickly.

Q: What made you gain interest in the 19th-century issues of the Civil War and slavery?
A: The first history course I took at Columbia as an undergraduate was a year-long seminar on slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction taught by Professor James P. Shenton. He was an inspiring teacher and inspired my interest in this pivotal era.

Q: Do you see any issues with the current generation's thoughts and intake of learning history?
A: The most difficult thing to appreciate and accept is that each generation rethinks history to answer its own questions. Thus, our interpretations of history are always changing and there is nothing unusual or sinister about this.

Q: If there is only one thing you hope that your students take away from any class with you it is … ?
A: The way history is still alive in our present work -- it is not simply the dead past.

Q: What do you find more enjoyable to do, writing books or being a curator?
A: I enjoy teaching, writing and curating museum exhibits. I feel that I have the best job in the world -- I am paid to do what I enjoy doing. Not many people can say that.

Q: Is there any advice in particular that you learned from your mentor, Richard Hofstadter, that you think of often?
A: Much of my approach to history was shaped by my study under Hofstadter but what has really stuck in my mind is his admonition -- “90 percent of writing is rewriting.” In other words, writing history is an art, like writing a novel, and historians should be as attentive to their language, and the accessibility of their argument, as to the research.

Q: Is there any common myth about the Civil War that you would like to debunk?
A: The myth, still widespread, that slavery did not lie at the heart of the conflict.

-USF-



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