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Focus on Faculty: Jonathan Rose

The William R. Kenan Professor of History discusses the importance of history and its role on the future

January 2023 – Drew University’s Jonathan Rose, William R. Kenan Professor of History, joined us for our Focus on Faculty series, where we highlight the accomplishments, research, and scholarship of Drew’s faculty members.

Rose is an accomplished author, having published dozens of books, chapters, and articles on his research. His groundbreaking and award-winning book, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, first published in 2001, is selling in its third edition and has been translated into multiple languages.

We sat down with Rose to discuss his publications, inspirations, and the importance of history when navigating current events. 

What can you attribute to the success of The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes and where do you see it heading in the future?
My book enjoyed an enormous boost in Britain largely because, at least in 2001, popular newspapers still reviewed serious works of history. And I seem to have struck a chord with three constituencies. The Left liked the book because it was, after all, working-class history at a moment when that subject was somewhat out of fashion. But it was also published in the midst of the “canon wars,” and the Right welcomed it because I demonstrated that classic literature was read by coal miners, cooks, and chambermaids, not just elite critics. And ever since it was published, I’ve received appreciative letters from readers whose grandparents were self-educated mill girls or dockworkers. I quoted at length from the memoirs of working-class autodidacts, and their grandchildren wrote to me and told me, “Yes, that’s what the old man was like, I could hear his voice in your book.” It still sells about a thousand copies each year.

Who inspires you?
I do admire educators from the twentieth century who set out to reach a mass audience. Will and Ariel Durant were a husband and wife team who wrote The Story of Civilization, a vast but very readable 11-volume world history. Mortimer Adler developed the Great Books program at the University of Chicago. The longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote The True Believer 70 years ago and it still offers penetrating insights into the minds of the “woke.” All of them were trying to build bridges between intellectuals and working people. Today, those bridges have been burned by (on the one hand) academics spouting opaque jargon and (on the other) populist loudmouths.

Why is history important, especially in today’s climate?
William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Today, we have been profoundly shaped by everyone who came before us, and we can’t escape that, no matter how many statues we topple. But we can and must understand how the past made us what we are. Last semester, I assigned Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine, the story of how Stalin starved millions of Ukrainians by stealing their food supplies. It was written before the current war, but when you read it you understand all too well why the Russians and Ukrainians are fighting today. 

What are you currently working on?
I’m researching a book with the working title Girls Liked It Too: Why Women Read Playboy. I’m fascinated by the history of reading because it leads you to surprising counterintuitive conclusions: Lancashire mill workers read Shelley and Darwin and about a third of Playboys readers were female. Some women subscribed to the magazine, but more often they snatched it out of the hands of their husbands, brothers, and boyfriends. They enjoyed the hard-hitting journalism, the in-depth interviews, quality fiction by writers ranging from Ray Bradbury to Joyce Carol Oates, the naughty-but-clever cartoons, and the kind of sex advice you wouldn’t find in Ladies’ Home Journal

What advice can you give your students studying history?
Remember what Lord Acton said: studying history can liberate us from “the tyranny of the present,” the assumption that there are no alternatives to the way we now live and think. This can be a depressing time to grow up in, what with a contracting economy and the total breakdown of civilized political discourse. And history makes you realize it doesn’t have to be this way. Watch the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates on YouTube, and compare them with the 2020 Biden-Trump debates. You’ll make the stunning discovery that intelligent politics is possible, and you will probably never settle for cable news stupidity again.

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