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May 27, 1999

History professor looks beyond kings, statesmen to teach about

the people who built the world

History professor looks beyond kings, statesmen to teach about the people who built the world

Who built the Seven Gate of Thebes?

The books are filled with names of kings.

But was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?

From "A Worker Reads History"

by Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)

Marcus Rediker, Pitt associate professor of history, often refers to Brecht's poem to make a point. "I try to teach history 'from the bottom up.' What I call 'the people's history.' We have a history full of kings and statesmen and philosophers, but we don't have a history of people who literally built the world."

A combination historian and activist, Rediker seeks scholarly meaning in the neglected voices of the historical past and personal meaning in fighting for contemporary social causes.

His 1987 book, "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" (Cambridge University Press), is a testament to previously unreported lives of Atlantic seafarers in the first half of the 18th century, garnered from legal depositions, eyewitness accounts and othe r long-forgotten documents. The book focuses on the efforts of average sailors "to free themselves from harsh conditions and exploitation [through] various tactics of resistance and forms of self-organization."

These days, Rediker organizes rallies and forums against racism and for prison reform, against the death penalty and for fairer distribution of wealth in society, among other causes.

The Kentucky native, who spent most of his youth in Nashville, attributes several factors to his personal and scholarly development: his working class background, which includes three years in a textile factory between stints of formal academic studies; t he social movements of the 1960s and '70s; the rise of social history as an academic discipline in the 1970s and '80s, and his self-taught inclination to "de-mythologize" history as it's traditionally taught.

Rediker went to Vanderbilt on a basketball scholarship but dropped out in the early 1970s because "the place seemed to me to be a breeding ground for the Southern wealthy. I felt really out of place at Vanderbilt."

Not that he did much studying. "I wanted to major in political science, but my first poli sci class met Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 8 a.m. I promptly failed it. I played around a lot, and I was involved in the anti-[Vietnam] war movement."

After dropping out, he worked in a Dupont textile factory in Tennessee for three years. "That's where my real education began," Rediker says. "It's where I began to read for myself and think for myself, something I try to challenge my students to do."

While at the factory, Rediker became interested in writing the history of the people he worked with. "I wanted to try to close the gap between these worlds of Southern elitists and the working class, and I realized that only one of those groups had a voic e."

During that time, he also took two night courses that spurred his interest in returning to academia, one on the American revolution, the other on the French revolution — two subjects he teaches today.

When he was laid off by the factory, he enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University, earning a bachelor's degree in history in 1976. "I was 25 before it even occurred to me I could make a career in academics, when a teacher of mine put the idea in my hea d."

He entered the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned his M.A. and Ph.D. He then taught at Georgetown University from 1982 until 1994, when he came to Pitt.

It was part accident, part fate, part discontentment, Rediker says. "My wife Wendy Goldman, a history scholar in her own right, was hired at Carnegie Mellon in 1987. For a while I was commuting from Washington, which was horrible. I also much prefer Pitt to Georgetown. I'm very happy here. It's more of an urban university, has a wider variety of students, and I like it that about 30 percent of Pitt undergrads are the first in their families to attend college. I am, too."

Teaching at Pitt is a treat, Rediker says. "I find that students just love to have a teacher who cares about something. They love the experience of engagement with a teacher who is passionate about something. I tell my students: 'My goal is to help you be come a self-educating person, so that you'll want to learn. My purpose is to show you what pleasure can be had in thinking for yourself, challenging yourself.'"

But there's a underlying ethical message in his teaching, as well. "I tell my classes: 'If you don't like the history you've got so far, go out and make some of your own.' We can't study politics and history as disembodied intellectual concepts.

"All politics is a struggle for new ideas, more humane ideas, and these ideas have always, always come out of struggles for a better life."

Rediker maintains, for example, there can be no true understanding of America's racial problems without an understanding of slavery, and no understanding of slavery without an understanding of the resistance by blacks to slavery.

"People have to make sacrifices for change, but I think the level of sacrifice one is willing to undertake is an important part of living life to the fullest. Struggle for justice is one of the most powerful ways of living life. We have to live in the tim es we're in. But I believe we have to live for the times, too."

Rediker has never been content simply to be at a university, studying and teaching. "I know many good people who are, and that's okay. But I think activism is one thing that can make people feel alive. It's not only about the future or about change, thoug h it is about those, too. It's about forming new kinds of relationships with people who care about issues. It's about engaging in political dialogue. Bringing people together to do that is important in and of itself.

"But I will say, my colleagues here in the department are very tolerant of my activism. There is a high level of scholarship here, which I think is not as appreciated as it by right ought to be. And there are good values of human decency and genuine respe ct for each other, which is not true everywhere. Some colleagues take an interest in my activism and even join in sometimes. I don't feel out of place at all. This is a very sympathetic environment."

–Peter Hart

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