Vic Henningsen

Commentator

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

For commentaries from Vic from before April 2013, visit the VPR Archive.

Historian Kenneth Clark argued that, to survive, a civilization requires one thing above all: confidence. Confidence in itself; confidence in its culture and laws; confidence in the individual and collective capacities of its citizens to shape the future.

Soon after the Pilgrims landed, Plymouth’s William Bradford described a colony beset by dangers: What could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men. . . [A]ll things stand upon them with a weatherbeaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue.

Joel Ryan / AP

Searching for perspective on today’s national climate of reckless self-interest some historians find an apt comparison in another decade of unparalleled greed and corruption, the so-called “Roaring Twenties."

When cultural historian Kenneth Clark sought to highlight the most representative example of the 18th century Enlightenment, he singled out a twenty-eight volume French reference work with the unwieldy title Encyclopedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts. It was an extraordinary accomplishment - a readily accessible summary of the range of human knowledge at the time.

When cultural historian Kenneth Clark sought to highlight the most representative example of the 18th century Enlightenment, he singled out a twenty-eight volume French reference work with the unwieldy title Encyclopedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts. It was an extraordinary accomplishment - a readily accessible summary of the range of human knowledge at the time.

Troubled times lead to grand schemes.

Recently, pundits like David Brooks of The New York Times have called for a new national history to be taught in schools as a way preserving American unity.

The so-called tax reform law reminds me of a nightmarish revision of Robin Hood, with the Sheriff of Nottingham skillfully manipulating the good citizens of Sherwood into believing his rapacious policies will actually benefit them.

“When they line up for a firing squad they form a circle.” So the late Democratic Congressman Mo Udall despaired when discussing his party’s disorganization some years ago. Today this seems to apply to both major parties, which are in a state of disarray not seen since the 1850's.

With their eighteen-hour film on Vietnam airing on PBS, filmmakers Lynn Novick and Ken Burns remind us that this was a war that never goes away – in part because it was never clear at the time how it came about in the first place.

I know I’m not the only history teacher who’s been wrestling with profound doubts about what we’ve done or, perhaps, what we haven’t. Given the erosion of civility, even of rationality, and the increasing divisiveness that characterize our national discourse, we can’t avoid wondering if our work has been so poor that we’ve contributed to today’s civic chaos.

Midsummer 1785, and the new nation was drowning in a sea of debt, disorganization, and political and social division.

If there’s anything angering liberals more than Donald Trump, it’s his loyal base of unquestioning supporters. “How can people be so blind?” they ask.

I’ve often wondered about the standards we expect political candidates to meet. Not the formal requirements of age, citizenship, or length of residence; but the intangibles – a kind of “litmus test” of qualities that candidates must pass before we entrust them with public office.

On an open summit not far from me is an inscription painstakingly carved in stone: Now I Am With You Always.

Despite calls for the president’s removal either by impeachment or invoking the 25th amendment, neither’s likely.

Richard Nixon has long been regarded as the Dracula of American politics: regularly re-appearing no matter how often his political obituary had been written. And, apparently, here he is again: this time thinly disguised as President Donald Trump, whose recent firing of FBI Director James Comey has been compared to the 1973 Watergate Saturday Night Massacre when Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox and in the process forced the resignations of his Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General.

When President Trump suggested that Andrew Jackson might have prevented the Civil War, critics quickly noted that Jackson died sixteen years before the war; calling this yet another example of Mr. Trump’s loose interpretation of American history. What’s more interesting, though, is why the president is so taken with Jackson.

At first Vermont and Mississippi don’t appear to have much in common, but a recent report notes that they’re the only two states who’ve never sent a woman to Congress. Released by South Burlington-based Change the Story last week, Vermont Women and Leadership is the fourth in a series of studies related to women’s economic status in the Green Mountain State.

When I was young, I attended one of those boarding schools that held daily chapel. I can’t say that exercise brought me any closer to God, but it did instill in me a lifelong love of singing hymns.

Earlier this month, the nation was jolted by a Tweet from President Trump, notable for a questionable historical reference. He wrote: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”

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