Timothy Snyder discusses tyranny and democracy

Gabby Kepnes and Samuel Singer

At Tuesday’s assembly, the Alexander Capelluto ‘04 Foundation funded an assembly in which the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University Timothy Snyder addressed democracy and his bestselling book, “On Tyranny”.

Director of Student Activities Caroline Bartels played a tremendous role in the organization and preparation for Snyder’s visit, even as far as a year in advance, she said. “It seemed like such a prescient assembly in light of the current state,” she said.

Preparations prior to the assembly included analyzing the book in classes such as AP United StaRace and Ethnicity (CRAE), and Contemporary United States History (CUSH). Each class spent time discussing the ways through which On Tyranny could be connected to current politics as well as the specific curriculums of each class, Chair of the History Department Dr. Daniel Link said.

The book was studied because it was “readily accessible to all and related to the curriculum,” history teacher Dr. Elisa Milkes said.

Claire Yoo (12) “examined [Snyder’s] research and related it to the instances of racial and ethnic discrimination that [she] had studied” in her CRAE class, she said.

In Link’s APUSH class, the book was studied in the context of how democracy can be taken away and strategies to avoid this, Roey Nornberg (11) said.

“This discussion allows us to have good civil discourse about what is happening in the world,” Bartels said. “Offering a book that challenges people while at the same time allowing students to converse with one another when they disagree becomes important,” she said.

While some students and faculty members had positive reactions to Professor Snyder’s words, Joshua Benson (12) expressed a contrasting viewpoint.

“Snyder’s implications were deeply concerning, as he was reckless in his portrayal of twentieth century fascism, mischaracterization of the actions of the Soviet Union, and hostile portrayal of the far-left,” Benson said.

History teacher Dr. Ellen Bales shared a similar perspective to both Bender and Bartels, believing that the assembly was critical to political and historical conversations at the school, she said.

“In line with what Professor Snyder said, we are in a moment where it’s worth thinking about what kind of government we want to live under in the future,” Bales said. “As Americans, we have obstacles to active democratic citizenship.”

“On Tyranny” consists of 20 short lessons regarding limiting progression into a tyrannical state, and regarding the protection of governmental institutions, Snyder said during the assembly.

The book’s central focus is on “thinking critically about what it takes to preserve a democracy,” Link said. His goal was to teach his students about how to maintain the integrity of democratic institutions, Link said.

“We can learn from past countries that have been democratic and descended into dictatorships, and hopefully avoid those mistakes,” Link said.

Similarly, Alexa J. Mark (11) believes that the book “did a good job of drawing parallels between seemingly different dictatorships in twentieth century Europe,” she said.

“It’s important to talk to Professor Snyder, as we are all responsible for our government,” Milkes said. “What we can take away from Professor Snyder’s talk is that we are all responsible for our government…If we live in a democracy, then we are responsible for maintaining it, as empowered citizens and historians.”