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For AHA Panel in New York City, January 2, 1997
I now have the joy of introducing the author of The Search for Order, Robert H. Wiebe. To rehearse his vita would exhaust us all, and much of it we already know well, even depend on in our lives as historians and citizens. But a few pertinent facts are in order. Robert Wiebe received his Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in 1957, taught at Michigan State and Columbia before settling in to the Department of History at Northwestern University in 1960. Just a few months ago, he announced his resignation from that Department and although this session was not organized to mark the transition in Professor Wiebe's life, it has lately taken on that meaning at least in my own mind. He will not be retiring from scholarly work but only from the requirement of teaching and participation in university business.
Because Professor Wiebe will soon be free of those institutional obligations, I want to pay tribute to the way he fulfilled one of them. That is, I'd like to say a word about Bob Wiebe as a teacher. I was fortunate enough to study with him in the mid-1980s, at which time we shared our love of teaching. He told me then that when he graduated from Rochester, he was so excited by the prospect of teaching that he would have been happy to teach in a back-alley somewhere. And all those years later, the enthusiasm, the commitment remained. When I TAed with Wiebe, one undergraduate evaluated him with the simple statement: "Wiebe is a god." The reason that this student, one in a class of nearly 500 students, thought Wiebe was a teaching god was because he not only knew his history but also communicated it with enormous power. Whether he was reciting lewd lyrics sung in late 19th century presidential elections or was using his body to mimmick carpet bombing in Vietnam, Bob Wiebe communicated to every student in the room the emotional content of the past as well as his passion for understanding it.
As a scholar, Robert Wiebe has communicated the same passion as in his teaching. In his many books--6, I think-- he has consistently wrestled with issues that genuinely mattered to him, issues that he believed he must work out in order to operate in the world. Most consistently, he has grappled with the meaning of democracy in America and has especially tried to understand the forces that transformed the nineteenth century version into its twentieth century heir. He has worried that in the current century Americans have given up too much control to the very experts that he identified with progressive reform in The Search for Order, and has begged us in his latest work, Self-Rule, to take responsibility for doing the work of democracy--i.e. for building common commitments--rather than allowing distant authorities to make decisions for us. In one of his most memorable lines, "Democracy is a gamble we take together," Wiebe reminds us that democracy is a process not an outcome. It's a risk: bigotry and hatred could always outvote tolerance and love. Remarkably, however, he gives us reason to think that the gamble is worth taking; American democracy could, if we really wanted it to, be revivified, according to this sharpest of its students, and I would presume to say that it has been Bob Wiebe's life's project to participate in this renewal of American democracy.
It is a pleasure and honor to give you this brilliant teacher and scholar, this analyst and partisan of American democracy, Robert H. Wiebe.
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