Visiting historians lead political discussions

Gabby Kepnes, Staff Writer

Professors Julian Zelizer P’19 ‘20 ‘22 and John Lawrence visited history classes last Thursday to discuss the book the Class of ‘74 written by Lawrence.

Zelizer is the Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University and a CNN Political Analyst. In 2010, Lawrence was elected to represent the 13th district in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Zelizer and Lawrence have both written books on aspects of politics.

Both the Political Philosophy (PolPhil) and Contemporary U.S. History classes read parts of the Class of ‘74, a book about the 1974 election and how newly elected representatives changed America’s norms following the Watergate Scandal of 1972.

“My book talks about how in the past, Congress has worked past partisanship and in doing that, I give ideas about how congress in the future may find it’s way back to a more productive status,” Lawrence said.

Zelizer, who thought that the school’s history department would be interested in Lawrence’s book, brought it to the school’s attention, History Department Chair Dr. Daniel Link, who organized the visit, said.

“Since my career involves bringing interesting people from the world of politics to students, I thought it would be a great opportunity for them to understand the roots of what’s going on today,” Zelizer said.

“Because Professor Lawrence worked for 38 years on Capitol Hill, I thought it was really important to bring his perspective to our school,” Link said. “Knowing that our students are curious about government, I thought it would be good to hear an insider’s perspective.”

Lawrence thinks that it’s really helpful to have both students and broader groups of people familiar with the inner workings of Congress, he said.

Zelizer and Lawrence mainly spoke about how leadership is needed today just as it was needed back in 1974 because of the polarization that current politics creates, history teacher Andrew Newcombe said.

They discussed three topics during the day: how to teach students about politics, Lawrence’s book in relation to congress in the 1970s, and about current politics as well as the upcoming elections, Zelizer said.

Both Zelizer and Lawrence were truly impressed with the quality of the questions asked, Zelizer said.

“As students, we were able to ask a lot of questions to Zelizer and Lawrence both pertaining to the topic at hand and the book we were reading in class,” JJ Ryu (11) said.

During the conversation, students brought up issues that sparked more discussion.

“We talked about how if certain ideas like gun laws do reach the senate, they would be passed,” Ryu said. “The laws don’t get there because of organizations stopping it before it gets to the senate.”

“We brought to the students the idea that it’s difficult to expect them to have confidence in a political system that is always incapable of performing in a civil fashion or addressing issues that are cared about,” Lawrence said.

Coming out of the discussion, the positive side was learning and understanding the causes and roots behind the situation in our country, Ari Moscona-Skolnik (12), a student in PolPhil said.

“It was a breath of fresh air in terms how of a lot of political conversations are a little redundant and don’t offer a lot of new opinions,” Zachary Brooks (11) said.

In the future, students need to start thinking more critically about politics, even ones they are supportive of, Link said.

Zelizer thinks “students need to think a bit more about where all change comes from and how it relates to things that happened 40 years ago as opposed to yesterday,” he said.

Both historians walked away feeling good not just about what they said but about the constructive conversations we heard from the students, Zelizer said.