Q & A with Larry Lipin, Professor of History

Larry Lipin joined the College of Arts and Sciences' history department in 1992. He holds a doctorate from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). His latest book, Workers and the Wild: Nature, Labor and Consumerism in Oregon, 1910-1930, will be published this year and adds to his writings on labor, politics, and Northwest history. In 2005 he was granted a Pacific Faculty Development Award. His first book, Producers, Proletarians and Politicians: Workers and Party Politics in Evansville and New Albany, Indiana, 1850-87, was nominated for a Philip Taft Labor History Prize and a Book Award of the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association.

When did you first become interested in history?
The interest was always there. My dad attended UCLA for a year and he must have taken a Western Civ. class, as we had this thick volume of ancient history that was kept in the den on a stack of Life magazines. By the time I was 10, I had read through that book four or five times. It piqued my imagination. In high school I loved history and that continued through college. I wasn't sure I was going to be a history professor, but it always fascinated me.

Prior to coming to Pacific you taught at Lewis and Clark College. Why were you drawn to a liberal arts college?
I didn't think I would want to publish all that much when I started grad school. But the program influenced me tremendously. Taking courses with other grad students deeply interested in the subject, reading wonderful texts and discussing them - that was heaven. Graduate school confirmed for me that I wanted to teach, and it made me appreciate the small, seminar-style classroom, which I try to replicate for my students in advanced courses. But as I put together my research and wrote my dissertation, I found that I enjoyed that process too. My graduate school experience shaped me as a professor.

You teach several courses - the American Revolution, Civil War and Reconstruction, Industrialization and Labor in America, Gender and Sexuality in Victorian America, Environmental History, and Race and Culture in American History. Which courses do you most enjoy?
It all depends. I like the fields pretty equally, and have published work in most of them. It's rare even in a liberal arts college that there is only one American historian, and while it is unusual to teach this kind of breadth of subject matter, it has clearly made me better informed. In FYS (First-Year Seminar), I have used traditional western philosophical texts and I have learned from that experience. It was those texts, read when I was first engaging the work of some environmental historians, which led me to teach and research environmental history. Throughout my career, I have found that teaching and research tend to reinforce each other.

Much of your writing and research focuses on Northwest history and you also serve on the editorial advisory board of Oregon Historical Quarterly. Not having grown up here, what most fascinates you about Oregon history?
I'm particularly interested in the labor and political history of the early 20th century when William U'Ren became nationally renowned as the founding father of Oregon direct democracy. All of those ballot measures that clog our ballots are a result of his work and that of other like-minded people. His aim was to have the people vote into law the "single tax," a measure that promised to revolutionize society by taxing land at its full productive value, whether it was being used or not. I first read about this about the same time that I began teaching environmental history and it occurred to me that the single tax had certain implications for the human relationship with nature. There was a fundamental assumption there: nature needs to be put into productive use and to leave it unused is to waste it. That was a pretty strong tendency, not unique to radicals and rarely challenged, in the U.S. during the 19th century and through much of the 20th.

What do students get from learning about the single tax, for example? How do you make history pertinent to students' lives?
One of my goals is to get students to recognize that we work within changing cultural frameworks and that changing contexts matter. We might think that we are hearing the same kind of language, that the same battles are being fought over and over, but history helps us appreciate change. I have thought about how closely the rhetoric of anti-environmentalists in the Spotted Owl controversies echoed the labor activists I studied in the 19th century. In my work you see a lot of the same kind of fundamental ideas. It is fascinating to me the ways that languages and positions are capable of uniting people at one moment, while they might divide them at the next. Some of the people who were very radical in 1915 found their way to the Ku Klux Klan in 1922. Just because we have a handle on things in 1916 doesn't tell us where the same people are going to be a few years later. I tell my students that by 1971 some polls revealed that two-thirds of the American public had always opposed the Vietnam War. That in itself says a lot about the way our ideas change and the way we view ourselves changes. History gives us some distance to understand how human beings respond to evolving circumstances.

What are the historical myths that students come to class with
that you try to dispel?

There are some real hard ones to shake. For instance, the Democratic Party in the 19th century was the pro-slavery party; it constantly used the rhetoric of white supremacy. Those who opposed slavery joined the Republican Party, which grew out of the desire to stop the spread of slavery. Students have trouble with that. They can't imagine the Democratic Party not being the party of Civil Rights, but that is a relatively recent phenomenon. Even when they have read it and we have discussed it, students will remember that the Democrats were always the party of civil rights. There's another classic one, the tendency to confuse the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, which are not obscure documents. I suspect that the homogenizing of the past has some kind of reassuring quality for people; history, which is loaded with conflict and change, teaches us how much more complicated our collective lives are than we like to imagine.

What do you think will be some of the most critical American events and actions of the past five or 10 years that future historians will study in history courses?
I think the decision to invade Iraq grounded in a theory of preemptive war, and the accompanying disdain for the international community, particularly the UN, will be seen as a critical moment in foreign policy. The second Iraqi War was a decision that no other President was likely to have made, and this may well become a turning point in history. I suspect that we will also look back on the Bush administration as forcing a reckoning about the state, especially with regard to what are often called "entitlement" programs like Social Security and Medicare. I think the question of surveillance is going to be huge and that all subsequent histories of civil liberties will take this experience into account. All of these matters are related to 9/11, but I am uncertain how these will play out historically. We can't see the historical framework that will be used to understand these events. That's one of the reasons history is so satisfying. It allows us to pull together sources that no one in the present has.


Photo: Ken Schumann