The Professor’s Last Stand

Columbia historian Eric Foner is giving his lectures to the public -- and to posterity.

by David J. Craig Published Fall 2014
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Eric Foner delivers one of his final Civil War lectures, May 2014. / Photography by Ashok Sinha

“Most academics were critics of the Iraq War. There’s no question about that. Most saw it as a needless war, a war brought about by blundering politicians, a war clothed in the language of freedom but completely crass and reprehensible in every way. And now there’s a whole spate of books that view the Civil War through this lens.”

Eric Foner ’63CC, ’69GSAS looks up, his soft eyes peering over the top of his tinted glasses at the nearly 250 undergraduates crammed into an auditorium of the International Affairs Building on a rainy Wednesday afternoon. The seventy-one-year-old Columbia professor, widely regarded as the most important Civil War historian of his generation, is nearing the end of one of his favorite lectures for the final time. A dozen or so graduate students, alumni, and local retirees are standing at the back of the auditorium; many chose to audit the course upon learning that Foner will soon retire.

“What do we make of this?” he asks.

For the past hour, Foner, speaking in a folksy tone with a hint of a Long Island accent, has been discussing how historical interpretations of the Civil War have evolved over the past 150 years. He has focused specifically on moments when historians have challenged the idea that the Civil War was morally justified and necessary because it led to the emancipation of four million slaves. These challenges were particularly pronounced in the 1930s and ’40s, he says, when many historians, shocked by the apparent pointlessness of World War I, projected their disgust back onto the Civil War, seeing not a principled fight over slavery but merely a clash between industrial and agrarian economic interests.

“World War I discredited the idea of linking war with high, noble rhetoric,” says Foner. “Historians came to feel that explaining war in large abstract terms tended to dignify it.” Similarly, the work of many young Civil War historians today gives the impression that greed, hatred, and vengeance were the main drivers of the conflict, and that if only cooler heads had prevailed, politicians might have resolved their differences at the negotiation table. This strikes Foner as naive. Few seasoned scholars, he says, believe that Southerners would have given up their slaves anytime soon without a fight.

“I think if you’re going to say the war was unnecessary, you have to have an alternative scenario that would have led to abolition,” he says. “And I have never seen it. I have never once seen a plausible scenario for the peaceable end of slavery.”

He looks down at his notes, and paraphrases W. E. B. Du Bois: “War is murder, force, and anarchy. Yet sometimes it produces good.”

Another pause. “Somehow we have to find a historical stance that can take into account all these things.”

The moment is quintessential Foner. Reading history, his lecture would suggest, requires us to look at the past from all angles, yet to not lose sight of clear moral truths. To test our assumptions without sliding into relativism or intellectual gamesmanship.

It’s a moment soon to be relived thousands of times over, on computer screens around the world.

Call in the Cavalry

“Like any theatrical production, a lecture is not forever. You perform, and it’s gone. At some point I realized that I wanted to preserve a little bit of this.”

That’s how Foner describes his decision to turn his Civil War lectures into an online course that is now available to anyone with an Internet connection, for free, on the distance-learning site edX. After thirty years at Columbia, Foner decided a couple of years ago that he would wind down his teaching and retire in 2016. And as he prepared to teach his signature course for the final time last spring, he realized that he wasn’t ready to consign his lectures to history.

“Teaching is actually what I spend more time on than writing,” says Foner, the author or editor of twenty-four books, including The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for history. “When you do it well, I think you can reach people in a very direct and powerful way.”

Columbia videographers shot hours of footage of Foner working on the Morningside campus for inclusion in his massive open online course.

In the summer of 2013, Foner approached a team of Columbia multimedia specialists about the prospect of documenting his lectures. His request was simple: record them and post them online for anyone to watch. The specialists, based at the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL), had a more ambitious idea. They had recently begun working with a handful of Columbia professors to create the University’s first massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which are free Web-based courses that enroll enormous numbers of people, sometimes tens of thousands or more. MOOCs had become popular rather suddenly the year before and represented a radical experiment in higher education. Whereas online courses offered by colleges and universities previously had enrolled no more than a few hundred students at a time, thus allowing students to have personal contact with their instructors, albeit over e-mail or video-conference, MOOCs were too big for that: students in a MOOC could expect to communicate with an instructor only in chatrooms open to thousands of people and to be evaluated by computerized multiple-choice tests. Few colleges give academic credit for taking MOOCs. The upside is that huge numbers of students get access to a top-notch professor, typically from an elite university, who leads them on a semester-long intellectual journey that in many ways mirrors the experience of taking a traditional college course.

“If you can’t afford college, or if you’re simply curious what it’s like to enter an Ivy League classroom, now you can do it,” says Maurice Matiz, the director of CCNMTL. “There is a profound democratizing effect here.”

To Foner, the prospect of getting involved in a high-tech teaching experiment in the twilight of his career held no small amount of irony. Although a dynamic teacher — engaging, sharp-tongued, and at times wickedly funny — he’s not technologically savvy. His idea of a multimedia presentation is taking a newspaper article out of his jacket pocket, uncrumpling it, and reading it aloud.

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