TPM Cafe: Opinion

A Remembrance Of Delta State History Professor Ethan Schmidt


I also fondly remember his stack of recommendations from teachers and mentors at his undergraduate institution, Emporia State University, where he also earned his master’s degree. What these letters promised – and Dr. Schmidt delivered, in spades – was a deeply thoughtful and unabashedly enthusiastic student of history. As he said in an interview on the American Historical Association site, history was, to him, at "the very core of what it is that makes us human."

What is also interesting, at least to me, is that Dr. Schmidt became an accomplished historian of how, in his words, the "use of force [came to] seem unquestioned" as a Euro-American right in pursuit of property in 17th-century Virginia. Central to his dissertation (which he revised into his first book), was an attempt by a settler named Nathaniel Bacon and an army made up of servants, slaves, and poor Virginians to "ruine and extirpate all Indians in Generall." The ensuing months of warfare that became known as Bacon's Rebellion remained a particularly terrifying and potent memory for colonists well into the era of the American Revolution. That someone who so well understood American violence in one century became a victim of it in ours is both ironic and deeply sad.

Sad because not only have we lost a particularly good man – and teacher, and colleague, and scholar – but also someone who had in his short time on the planet already thought deeply about history, and discovery, and what makes Americans tick. Here’s how he put it in that AHA interview: "I value the fact that inquiry for the sake of inquiry is honored in the profession. We never accept the conventional wisdom or current paradigm as an acceptable answer. To be a historian (and a practitioner in any other humanities field for that matter) is to grapple with the very core of what it is that makes us human. Our triumphs, our tragedies, our flaws, and our strengths are all laid bare by the scholarly study of history and without this kind of inquiry there is little hope for mankind I think."

It would be hard to improve on that.

Jonathan Earle, dean of LSU’s Roger Hadfield Ogden Honors College, taught at the University of Kansas from 1997-2014.