Spring 1998

Iconoclasm revisited

Dean's letter


The China connection

All over the map

Programs and possibilities



New faculty


New books

Bullets & bytes

Honors & awards

Hidden gems





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Soundings is a publication of the School of Humanities and Social Science at MIT

Orna Feldman

Editorial Assistance:
Sue Mannett
Elisabeth Stark

MIT Publishing Services Bureau




"Develop a sense of what you can believe, what you can't believe, how you find the valuable kernel of information in a pile of papers on your desk. That's a life skill in the modern world."

Soundings - School of Humanities and Social Science at MIT
Professor Pauline Maier wrapped in a star-spangled banner.

Professor Pauline Maier wrapped in a star-spangled banner.

Iconoclasm revisited

Pauline Maier, William R. Kenan Professor of History, has had a banner year. Her recent book, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, is a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist and one of The New York Times Book Review's top 11 books for 1997 — the only history book showcased on the list. The book has garnered much media acclaim, including coverage in the nation's premier newspaper book review sections and National Public Radio. Maier also consulted in the making of, and appeared in, "Liberty," a six-part PBS history series about the American Revolution.


In American Scripture you argue that the Declaration of Independence, and even Thomas Jefferson himself, came to be considered quasi-holy. Do you believe that people have a need to sanctify their history and evolution?

It's jarring to me to have our history imbued with so much religious symbolism. I like my religion to be about God. The realm of God and the realm of Caesar, you know, should be distinct. People have asked me, ‘Don't we need this kind of sanctification?' That's my issue. At what point do the symbols we dredge up become counterproductive? My position is [the same as] John Adams'. He saw the canonization of [George] Washington and others — as well as the early histories, many of which were written by the children of the founders — appear after the War of 1812. You had to love that cranky old guy. He didn't recognize any of these people whom he had personally known. ‘Who are you talking about?' he asked.

What's wrong with sanctifying our origins a bit?

There is a distinction between holding to a tradition and to documents and being fully cognizant that they are human creations, on the one hand, and pretending they're something superhuman. I refuse to accept a lot of the Jefferson myth . . . that all our ideals are a gift from him. The whole story is actually much more interesting and in some ways much more relevant, because it shatters the mythical aspect that Jefferson was primarily responsible for the Declaration. The Declaration was the work of many hands. Jefferson was just writing down what Americans thought at the time. The book affirms the importance and the power of collective action.

How do you account for this propensity to mythologize or deify?

It may be human. Many societies have the advantage of a king or a queen. Of course in the United States the interest in the royal family has never died. Yet at the same time, we think of ourselves as a John Wayne kind of a place — rugged, achieving individuals. And while there is a strain of truth in that, our history is much more a result of many hands and many minds working together.

Do you think the fact that you're a woman has anything to do with this emphasis on the collective and cooperative?

I never thought of that, but it could be. I've always thought women are natural managers. If you can get people to function together productively in a harmonious situation, which is what women have done traditionally, this too
has its usefulness. It could be that my emphasis on the cooperative rather than the rambunctious individual may have something to do with the fact that I'm a woman.

You've been teaching at MIT since 1978. What is your goal as a teacher?

Let me tell you what my goal is not. It is not to train people who will be professional historians. I would like to see my undergraduates think more intelligently about whatever they read. I like them to have some perspective on issues and topics that they're concerned about in their ordinary lives. History should do that. I am also teaching them how to process large amounts of paper to get the information they need. I give them a lot of revolutionary material and I tell them, ‘You're going to find these repetitive . . . discover what's new. Develop a sense of what you can believe, what you can't believe, how you find the valuable kernel of information in a pile of papers on your desk.' That's a life skill in the modern world.

Do you have any concerns about how history is taught to young people?

I do have concerns, but my biggest beef is that it's not taught.

You wrote a textbook for junior high students. Why did you do that?

It was partly a challenge . . . writing wall-to-wall history. It went from the [the Colonial era] up to the presidential election of 1984. I liked the idea of synthesizing the big story and seeing if you could put it in a way that worked with children. I've had a conviction that you could teach history to a child of practically any age.

What is your opinion of history text books for junior high and high school students?

[In my experience writing the textbook] it was pretty obvious what the failure was. They were simply anecdotal. There was too little overarching thought or point. You need some logical coherence to make these little pieces have any meaning, to have them adhere in the mind. They also were given to somebody who was a writer but didn't know the history. There is a difference. So I tried to write a book that drew on the best of contemporary scholarship, was sufficiently logical and clear, and that could tell history as a story.

What about the teaching of history at MIT? What, in your view, is the goal here?

Largely, we are a service operation. We're not training majors; most of our students are finding careers in engineering or business or medicine. So our task is to give them some acquaintance with the historical past, sometimes with different cultures. But I think I'm also teaching basic life skills: evaluating the authority of whatever writings they come across . . . and teaching writing and speaking, as well.

What do you like about teaching at MIT?

MIT students are smart and they'll argue with you. It wouldn't be fun having discussions if you couldn't get into an argument. They're willing to put their necks out more than, say, history graduate students. They can afford to take chances because they don't have anything to prove. So there's a kind of free-wheeling quality to the discussion. A lot more lively than when I was teaching graduate seminars, I'll tell you. Another thing is, we have small classrooms where I can have the students get immersed in the primary sources. They then become more like peers and I'm less like an authority. Most universities don't have that kind of luxury. MIT is a terrific place to teach history and a terrific place for undergraduates to learn.

Can you elaborate on that luxury?

Small classrooms afford feedback. The students can look at these materials and sometimes see things in them I didn't. You wait for that minute. So I'm actually learning from them, as well as they're learning from me. It keeps us alive and it keeps me awake. Also, they don't like to be talked at. They get talked at in their science and engineering courses all the time, they tell me. And when they take a humanities course they want to talk. I prefer teaching this way, so this is an absolutely perfect place for me to be.

Let's segue to the study of early American history and its ability to impact public policy today.

I do think the study of the origins of American government is extraordinarily important. I teach Colonial America and the American Revolution — the revolutionary origins of American government — so it's useful to see how the devices of self-government evolved and what they were meant to do. That doesn't mean that you should always be trying to go back to where we were. But it's useful to understand why things were set up the way they were and to understand why and how they evolved.

The interpretation of the Declaration of Independence has changed numerous times since it was written, depending on the political exigencies of the day. What does today's interpretation say about us as a society?

Every generation has the task of rethinking its ideals. There are ideals in the 18th-century that have no relevance to ours anymore. If you read the Magna Carta, for example, it's a stitch — all kinds of things from the 13th
century that mean absolutely nothing. But then there is this one provision that had to do with being tried by peers. That was relevant and gave a base for our traditional rights. Now the Declaration allows continuity and permits us to face again and again what we think of the Second Amendment, about the right to bear arms. Is it relevant anymore? It's for us to decide. Even Thomas Jefferson objected to the notion that people in the past were wiser than any currently walking the earth.

When you write, do you write for historians or for the public?

I write for me. I write as it comes to me. I often don't know exactly what I think until I see it on paper. But over time I think I have come to write for a larger audience than historians. [In the 1970's] I became a frequent reviewer for The New York Times Book Review. I took the Review as a chance to tell a little history. And it might well be that my style changed in that period.

What are you working on now?

A few things . . . I'm now writing the introduction to a book that deals with the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Then I'm going to be working on a college textbook and trade book, which is the history of the United States, that gives serious attention to the history of science and technology. I'm responsible for the 17th- and 18th-centuries.

What got you captivated in history in the first place?

I think it must be something about time . . . how the past is recalled in an instant and how that feeds into complex phenomena. We are always remembering. We don't know where we are if we don't have some idea of how we got here. We get direction from this and we function — work towards understanding — by narrative. And, indeed, by stories. People like to get their lessons in the form of stories.

What does the success of your book and your participation in the PBS "Liberty" series mean for you?

The book obviously has been a bigger success than anything I wrote previously. It has a broader readership and also got on The New York Times top 11 list. My 15 minutes of fame has stretched to 20. But life was OK before and will be OK after because I just love to read history. I love being able to find a passage and learn something I didn't know. It gives me a professional license to snoop into virtually anything I want. And then I can write about it . . . I can make my own stories.



Copyright © 2000 Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Spring 1998