Al Smith: Loss of activist historians at UK threatens civic life

Journalist Al Smith recounted his story of recovery in his memoir Wordsmith.
Journalist Al Smith recounted his story of recovery in his memoir Wordsmith.

While stories about sports and buildings at the University of Kentucky grab the usual headlines, two of the school's acclaimed professors of American history are retiring from classroom teaching.

Ronald Formisano and Ronald Eller have written notable books, earned praise from students and faculty colleagues and won attention for service beyond the campus.

The benefit of knowing history, it is said, is so we can better understand the challenges of today and tomorrow. But in the downsizing of liberal arts and the budgetary restructuring of the university, it is doubtful the positions of Formisano and Eller will be replaced.

In the rise of the corporate university, which UK is becoming because of cuts in state support, what sells for less takes priority. Important to the bottom line are courses that "put butts in seats," in the current jargon. Financially strapped students who chose history as a major do so while prospects for future employment shrink.

In the secondary schools, history is often unpopular, except where taught with innovation, discovery and drama. However taught, history is often controversial because of content or the issue of "teaching to the test." One national foundation, Fordham, gives Kentucky a "D" in teaching history to elementary and high school students.

But this is disputed by a respected historian of education, UK's Linda Livstek, whose arguments for inquiry-based history, for kids "doing history" as they learn to ask "so what?" and "then what?" deserve attention, especially as she charges bias in the rankings.

Students who enrolled at UK and were curious about the past found in Formisano a crusty specialist in 19th-century populism who taught about the struggle for rights of the powerless against the power of the privileged elite. No effete nerd, but a scholar who lettered in football as a walk-on player at Brown University, he was recruited to UK from the University of Florida 12 years ago for an endowed chair. Off campus, he wrote op-ed pieces from a liberal viewpoint; on campus, his books, focusing on topics from integration to the Tea Party, have established him, says one critic, "as a preeminent historian of American politics."

Eller, the first of his West Virginia family to go to college, has spent 40 years writing and teaching about Appalachia. For 15 years the director of UK's Appalachian Center, his prize-winning books, research and lectures have made him perhaps the foremost authority on a region of 25 million people, many of whom see themselves as a powerless amd dominated by absentee land owners who control the power.

What distinguishes each of these men, says Karen Petrone, chair of UK's Department of History, "is his passion for justice and deep-seated sense of fairness. ... Ron Eller has dedicated his career to the improvement of the Appalachian region that he so loves. His revision of Appalachian history to show the perils of development and his public stance against mountaintop-removal mining demonstrate his willingness to seek historical truths even if they are not what everyone wants to hear. Ron Formisano's exploration of populism seeks to invigorate American democracy by examining how to promote economic equality."

UK's Tracy Campbell, biographer of political activist Edward Prichard, and Georgetown College's James Klotter, who co-wrote A New History of Kentucky, say Formisano and Eller have followed in the footsteps of the late Thomas D. Clark, for whom the Kentucky History Center is named, as public intellectuals, taking stands on controversial policy issues.

The decline of this kind of academic activism, they say, should cause us to reflect on what the humanistic vision of Formisano and Eller means for our future, for which Kentucky leaders focus almost obsessively on creating a STEM-trained workforce competing with robots.

STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — is the priority at UK today. If no longer aspiring to be a Top 20 research university, it is questionable whether UK means to retain the status history had when the late Lance Banning won a Pulitzer Prize nomination for a study of James Madison, and George Herring, now retired, wrote a major history of the Vietnam war and a thousand-page history of American foreign policy since 1776.

Without voices like those, and now Formisano's and Eller's, who will sound the trumpet against our forgetting what our country is really all about?