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Harvard's Drew Gilpin Faust says history should make us uncomfortable

Drew Gilpin Faust served as president of Harvard from 2007 until 2018. She is currently the Arthur Kingsley Porter University Professor.
Stephanie Mitchell
Drew Gilpin Faust served as president of Harvard from 2007 until 2018. She is currently the Arthur Kingsley Porter University Professor.

Drew Gilpin Faust is known as a historian, a civil rights activist and the first woman president of Harvard — but she was groomed to become a proper Southern lady.

Growing up in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley in the 1950s and '60s, Faust's mother insisted that she wear skirts to dinner. Her grandmother sang Confederate rebel songs, and the family would frequently visit Civil War battlefields, where Faust remembers hearing about the "glorious triumphs" of the Confederate spirit.

"We grew up with the view of the war as a lost cause that was noble, and Robert E. Lee as the embodiment of an American hero," Faust says. "[The Civil War] was everywhere, as if history was very much a part of our present."

But the message didn't sit right with Faust. When she was 9 years old, she remembers hearing a radio report about Sen. Harry Byrd's resistance to school desegregation in Virginia.

"And I suddenly recognized that my school was all white, not by accident, but by law and by explicit decisions," Faust says. "I realized what it meant to be white, and I saw much more clearly the foundation of the inequities that surrounded me."

Faust points to that moment as her "first awakening to the possibility of activism." She wrote a letter to President Dwight D. Eisenhower to urge that schools be integrated, and later, as an adult, found that letter in the Eisenhower library.

"I am proud of that letter," she says. "In some ways, I feel that I need to continually try to live up to that idealistic little girl. ... I can continue to see that as an inspiration and a model and continue to bear out what she represented."

Faust attended boarding school in New England, followed by Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where she became a student activist. In the 1960s and '70s, she fought for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. Later, as president of Harvard from 2007 until 2018, Faust championed diversity in college admissions. Now she's speaking out against the recent Supreme Court decisionbanning race-conscious admissions.

"I believe that affirmative action has changed the shape of and the landscape of higher education in a way that we need to continue," she says. "The past is with us. We can't pretend that it's not, even as we misrepresent it or try to erase it."

Faust's new memoir, Necessary Trouble, takes its name from a quote by the late Rep. John Lewis, who Faust knew and approved of using his words. The book is about growing up in Virginia and coming of age during a period of rapid social transformation.

Interview highlights

/ MacMillan

On the Supreme Court's decision banning affirmative action in college admissions

If you look at the places where affirmative action has been prohibited, at states where it's been prohibited — Michigan, California-- you'll see a sharp decline in the numbers of African American students present in the public university system. So I worry a great deal about the future of higher education. I think it's telling that the Supreme Court, listening to the pleas from the solicitor general of the United States, did not overturn affirmative action in the military academies, West Point, Annapolis and so forth. The solicitor general argued that affirmative action was essential to establishing a diverse officer corps and that a diverse officer corps is essential to the safety of the nation — as we learned when it was not diverse in Vietnam. So if affirmative action is necessary for an effective military, why isn't it necessary for an effective medical establishment or legal establishment or business community? That, to me, said a lot that they made that decision.

On the mischaracterization of slavery included in Florida's new standards of Black history education, proposed under Gov. Ron DeSantis

It's preposterous and it's extremely distressing. It's a complete distortion of the past, which is undertaken in service of the present, of minimizing racial issues in the present by saying everything's been "just great" for four centuries. Slavery was not "just great." It was oppressive. It was cruel. It involved exploitation of every sort, physical violence, sexual exploitation. We know that we have pieces of paper where slave owners wrote it down. I did a biography of a South Carolina planter who recorded in detail what his mastery of slaves entailed. And there are dozens and dozens and dozens of studies that show this.

It is so distressing because it is so politically motivated and it is going to undermine the education of the entire state. It's going to undermine the legitimacy of institutions of higher education that are going to be limited in what they can teach. And it's dishonest. During my years as a historian, we've seen a revolution in our understanding of the past of the South, which is an area of my expertise, and of race, and it's based in rigorous research that is being turned back here. ... Not only are we going back with Roe, not only are we going back by challengingthe Voting Rights Act, we're going to go back by pretending that the history that we have learned is also going to be rejected. This is a tragedy.

On the notion that students shouldn't be made to feel uncomfortable about history

How do we have history that's not uncomfortable? How do we have any kind of education that doesn't make you in some way uncomfortable? Education asks you to change.

It's a betrayal of the commitment to truth and to fact. And it so undermines the ability of people in the present to understand who they are. How do we have history that's not uncomfortable? How do we have any kind of education that doesn't make you in some way uncomfortable? Education asks you to change. The headmistress of my girls school many years ago said to us, "Have the courage to be disturbed, to learn about the Holocaust and see what evil can mean, to learn about slavery and think about exploitation that is empowered by an ideology of race that we haven't entirely dismantled. Understand what people did in the past so that you can, in the present, better critique your own assumptions, your own blindnesses, and make a world that's a better world." If we don't acknowledge those realities, we are disempowered as human beings.

On growing up in the South with the legacy of the Confederacy

My grandmother was born in the 1890s in Knoxville, Tenn., and that was the time when there were a lot of people alive who had experienced the Civil War and remembered it. And I think she was imbued with many of those attitudes. She spoke of Sherman as a very unattractive man, as if he were someone she'd met on the street. And so her views about the Civil War were very much a product of her time and place. And they also included a set of views about race, which were kind of romanticizations of race relations in the South, a kind of Gone with the Wind rendition of faithful servants and benevolent masters. A portrait of slavery that's completely at odds with what we know it to have been — an exploitative and cruel system in which Blacks and whites were set apart and offered very different expectations and circumstances in their lives.

On her Mother's attitude about gender roles in the '50s

She always hated the South, I believe, and wanted us to get out of there when we went away to school. And she, I think, chafed at a lot of the restrictions and kind of rules of Southern society. And one thing that she certainly disagreed with was the notion of any kind of frailty or helplessness on the part of women. And she would object to people holding doors or carrying packages or grocery packages. She would do it herself. And yet this was side by side with a view of women as second-class human beings. And she often said to me, "It's a man's world, sweetie. And the sooner you figure that out, the happier you'll be." So she had a view of womanhood as subordinate. But I think the Southern lady ideology went a step too far for her. And she was also uncomfortable with race. She'd not grown up around Black people. She didn't understand the implicit rules, and I think objected to having to live in a society that was structured and in such a rigid way.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Ciera Crawford adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.

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