As any college professor knows, not every undergraduate is a good student. Other enticements lead many a potentially good student down convoluted paths of self-discovery. That certainly was the case for me when I was an undergrad at the University of Notre Dame from 1962 to 1966. It was not until I realized that I wanted to study U. S. and European history that my grades began recovering from the nether world they had entered during my sophomore year.
The realization that I wanted to study history emerged from hundreds of conversations with a small group of fellow students, including Jerry Bukiewicz, Charlie Pearl, Clint Hirst, Jim Waggenbach, John Scanlan, Ed Hiss, Rich Pascal, Sam Parrott, and three good friends who have since passed away: Al Valkenaar, Al Dunn, and Malachi Kenney. Lucky for me, most if not all of them were a lot smarter than I.
But the crucial moment occurred during my final year when I had the opportunity to write a Senior Thesis under the direction of David Levering Lewis. As some of you might already know, Professor Lewis went on to become a Pulitzer Prize winning historian who is perhaps best known for his 2000 biography W. E. B. Dubois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963. With his advice and support, I discovered that I actually had the ability to research a complex topic and to write a pretty decent lengthy essay about it.
The topic I chose is given by the thesis’ title: “The Clenched Fist: A Study of the Rise and Fall of the Popular Front 1934-38,” and the introduction explains why it interested me:
“The years between the two world wars were years of great and momentous change for France: militarily, they saw her reduced from the most powerful nation of the continent to a nation weak enough to be crushed by Germany in five weeks; socially, they saw her torn apart by the violent passions created by the divergent philosophies of her citizens; economically, they saw her suffer a withering depression and her once-valued franc undergo a series of unsuccessful devaluations; politically, they saw her survive one ministerial failure after another.
“The period from 1934 to 1938 is significant in French history due to the prominence of a parliamentary coalition known as the ‘Popular Front.’ The very term is highly illustrative of the nature of the coalition, in that the word ‘front’ signifies both its negative characteristic as a defensive coalition and its popular nature as a ‘Communist front organization.’ The author of this paper was motivated to a great degree by a desire to understand better both of these characteristics and to develop a fuller awareness of French politics. Further, this was an attempt to achieve some understanding of the well-known phrase ‘Better Hitler than Blum’ and to try to determine the circumstances that would lead some Frenchmen to utter such a phrase. [Leon Blum was the leader of the Socialist Party and Premier during the first phase of the Popular Front.] To say that much is to be learned from the persons and events surrounding the Popular Front risks a cliché but contains a great deal of truth, for by their attitudes and reactions towards Communism, the Radical and Socialist parties have given us an invaluable pool of information from which to draw. Leon Blum must have been motivated by a similar vein of thought when, from a prison in Vichy France, he wrote:
“‘No one knows better than I that my generation failed in its task. Yet I do not propose to defend it, but rather to point out to the rising generation—and to those to whom we shall pass on our burdens tomorrow—what can be learned from our mistakes, our illusions, and our misfortunes.’”
I can’t claim my thesis was a brilliant piece of work, but I do know that it enabled me to discover capacities within myself that I didn’t know I had. Heretofore a rather mediocre student, I had discovered I could do more than play basketball, drink beer, and shoot the breeze.
This moment of self-discovery almost certainly would not have happened had it not been for David Levering Lewis, and I have told him how grateful I feel.
And now, at a moment in history when our economy has been fitfully recovering from the worst recession since the 1930s, when we find ourselves holding deeply entrenched and polarized positions, when our shared future seems very much at risk, we can hope that there are other Lewis’s out there who are nurturing other floundering undergraduates, and helping them turn our mistakes, illusions, and clenched fists into something like collective wisdom.