HNN founder Rick Shenkman to speak on ‘Why is Democracy so @#$&! Hard?’

Eastern Mennonite University’s Albert N. Keim Lecture Series brings scholars to campus each year in honor of the well-loved history professor, who was a teacher and administrator for 35 years.

The upcoming lecture features historian, author, and investigative reporter Rick Shenkman on the topic, “Why is Democracy so @#$&! Hard?” at 4:15 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 28.

The event is free and open to the public on EMU’s Facebook page. (You do not need a Facebook account to view.) Members of the EMU community can access a Zoom link through logging into MyEMU and visiting the events calendar.

History department chair Mary Sprunger believes Keim – “ a voracious consumer of political news” – would have appreciated this timely appearance, so close to an important election, of a historian-provacateur. 

Sprunger says she’s hoped to invite Shenkman to campus for many years: “He first came to my attention as the founder and editor (recently retired) of History News Network (HNN), an online platform that brings history to bear on the news. When I saw his book, Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets In the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, 2016), I was even more intrigued. His work brings together history and politics in the best kind of way and, with the election just around the corner, he was the perfect speaker for this fall.”

This event is part of the EMU University Colloquium Series, and is co-sponsored by the Keim Lectureship. 

More on Shenkman’s Lecture

In the 1940s, six in ten Americans hadn’t gone past the eighth grade. Today a majority have attended college. But surveys show that Americans today are no better educated about politics. A majority don’t even know that we have three branches of government. What’s gone wrong? The answer to the question would seem to be that we have a voter problem.  But Shenkman argues what we actually have is a human being problem. In his talk he draws on research in history and science to explain why modern humans fail so often at tasks they should be good at (like deciding which politicians we can trust with power). He also asks why, despite obvious improvements in our democracy — such as the extension of voting rights to African Americans in 1965 — the system seems to be so frustratingly unequal to the challenges we face.  He ends his talk on an optimistic note. Science shows that for all their faults human beings share one gift that saves them time and again:  our adaptability to change and our willingness in the end to face reality.  

More on Shenkman

Shenkman is the founder of George Washington University’s History News Network, a website that features leading historians’ perspectives on current events. He can regularly be seen on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. He is a New York Times best-selling author of seven history books and an Emmy award-winning investigative reporter and the former managing editor of KIRO-TV, the CBS affiliate in Seattle. In 1997, he was the host, writer and producer of a prime time series for The Learning Channel inspired by his books on myths. In 2008, he was elected a Fellow of the Society of American Historians. He gives lectures at colleges around the country on several topics, including American myths and presidential politics.

More on the Keim Lecture Series

The Albert N. Keim Lecture Series honors the memory of Professor Albert N. Keim who has served as a history professor here for 35 years and was the academic dean from 1977 to 1984.

Learn more about past presenters, in this sampling:

2020: Professor Ernesto Verdeja, of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at University of Notre Dame, discusses early warning and risk assessment projects to anticipate, and thus prepare for, possible outbreaks of mass political violence. 

2019: Federal public defender, immigrant rights attorney and playwright Kara Hartzler ’94 spoke on “Borders, Jails, and Long Drives in the Desert: 25 Years of Immigration Law in the Southwest.”

2017: Dr. Dongping Han, professor at Warren-Wilson College and a native of rural China, addressed “The Cultural Revolution: A Reinterpretation from Today’s China.”

2016: Artist/activist Mark Strandquist provided a lecture titled Performing Statistics: Connecting incarcerated youth, artists, and leading policy experts to challenge Virginia’s juvenile justice system.”

2015: Charles R. Epp, political scientist in the University of Kansas’s School of Public Affairs and Administration, presented “The Police and Racial Discrimination in America.”

2014: Vincent Harding, a pastor, activist and history professor who helped EMC professors initiate social change in Harrisonburg during the early 1960s, presented “Is America Possible?”

First date of publication 10/17/2020

Discussion on “HNN founder Rick Shenkman to speak on ‘Why is Democracy so @#$&! Hard?’

  1. Thank you for the lecture. However, I want to challenge a couple of things.
    Dr. Shenkman said that things would be better if everyone had a college education, that those without a college education can’t adequately understand complex political issues. He also used the terms terrorists and vigilantes to describe those who are in militia groups.

    1. My grandparents and great grandparents did not have college educations. They were sophisticated, intelligent participants in political discussions and political life. They understood labor organizing and my great grandfather could quote Gramsci at you (in Italian). I have also spoken with an Old Order farmer in our area who understood US agriculture policy and trade agreements better than most college-educated people I know. Perhaps the problem is with our educational system. Perhaps our K-12 system has been dumbed down and our culture has demeaned the working class in ways that didn’t happen before. Maybe we in higher education need to do a little soul searching about elitist attitudes that make others feel dismissed and diminished. Maybe we need to revamp our K-12 educational system.

    2. By his own accounts, people might join militia groups because they feel threatened and fearful. In reality, militia groups are not all alike and the individuals in them are not all there for the same reason. Yes, there is a serious problem with white supremacist groups and they have formed their own militia organizations and are making a concerted effort to infiltrate other militia organizations that did not form around white identity grievance. But if we want to build a bridge for dialogue in order to defuse potential violence, using the term terrorist or vigilante will be no more effective with these groups than it was with the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups expressing legitimate grievances about policies in the Middle East. I recommend we use strictly descriptive language. Self-organized armed groups. If we start with that, we might be able to have conversations. And, with conversations, perhaps we can encourage folks who are feeling threatened to not express their fears through violence.

    1. Hi Jayne,

      Thank you for your comments.

      First, I should clarify that I dropped out of Harvard and never got my PhD. The job market for historians was terrible in the late 1970s so I decided to begin a career in journalism. So I am a little less elitist than I may have come across.


      Your story about your grandparents is worth noting. It’s quite clear that a lot of smart people don’t go to college. One of my closest friends is a handyman who never attended college and he’s whip smart. All I tried to say is that people with a college education are less likely to be taken in by demagogues and I think the research shows this. Is this causal or correlation? I suspect it’s causal. Education teaches us critical thinking skills – or should. And these help us see through charlatans.

      As for your second point: I admit to not having given this any thought and will now do so.

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